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Trans rights, Twitter storms, and the prevailing charm of Harry Potter

When I was seven or eight, I wrote a letter to JK Rowling and told her in my best joined-up handwriting how much I loved her books. More than a decade later, and my joined-up handwriting has come a long way. The world, it seems, has not. I’m wishing I could adore her like my eight-year-old self did but instead of writing magical worlds into existence, she’s writing trans and non-binary people out of existence.

For anyone who has been hiding from the news for the last few months like me, at the start of June she responded to an article entitled “Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate” by tweeting “‘People who menstruate’. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”. This was followed by a further flurry of tweets and an essay in which she expanded on her “gender critical” stance. In response to the backlash, she then signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine decrying “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism” alongside famous cosignatories like Noam Chomsky and Margaret Atwood.

A hundred points from Gryffindor for painting trans women as male predators threatening the safety and rights of “natal girls” Rowling, and a hundred more for following the well-trodden celebrity path of using backlash as a springboard for a decrial of ‘cancel culture’ rather than for reasoned debate. Rowling and her cosignatories claim to be censored. Yet their words, that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument and persuasion”, are being more actively upheld by their opponents than by themselves. Opponents who, incidentally, they wish to censor.

Arguably, she’s more a misguided Malfoy than an irredeemable Voldemort. Her defence of the importance of biological sex was based on preserving a framework for women and the LGBTQ+ community to discuss gender-based experiences, in particular domestic violence which she herself has experienced. But this feminism comes from a place of privilege as a wealthy  straight white cis woman. She fails to acknowledge that her categoryis not the most vulnerable or marginalised group, with recent polls showing that one in five Brits would be uncomfortable with having a transgender friend or relative, and only half would be comfortable with their GP being transgender (the same amount that agree that gender identity cannot be distinct from biological sex). The last thing the world needs is another TERF swish-and-flicking onto the scene, then endlessly protesting the label of TERF. If we equate menstruating to female identity, we are erasing the lived experience of around 600,000 trans and non-binary people in the UK alone, not to mention the problems caused by essentialising women to their anatomy. The narrative that trans rights and women’s rights are incompatible must end.

Before ever standing with Maya Forstater, she received some more light-hearted criticism on her attempts to retroactively make the Harry Potter franchise more ‘woke’ with announcements confirming that Dumbledore is gay, Hermione might be black, the stigmatisation of werewolves is a metaphor for HIV, Hogwarts has Jewish students and Hagrid is a practicing Sikh. Ok, maybe one of those isn’t true. It goes to show how ridiculous her retroactive diversification of her novels is, as well as how the act problematises the question of separating the art from the artist. If an author’s ideology of diversity and tolerance can retroactively enrich their work, what does that mean for their intolerance?

I received the same reply as all the other kids in my class who wrote to her, thanking us for our letters, apologising that she didn’t have time to handwrite a reply and hoping that we would enjoy The Deathly Hallows when it came out later that year. It’s fair to say that her tales beguiled generations of children and adults alike. My parents loved them because the audiobooks were the only thing that could keep the three kids in their backseat from squabbling on long car journeys. The three kids in the backseat loved them for their exquisitely constructed world of magic, excitement and adventure.

The charm of the books surely lies in their essential ‘goodness’. In their world, those without a family will always find their own tribe and love will always defeat hate (spoiler alert). Those who seek to categorise others in the name of natural order, whether it’s muggle-borns’ inferiority to purebloods or magical creatures’ inferiority to humans, are undoubtedly the bad guys. The Sorting Hat doesn’t categorise students based on biology; it looks into their thoughts to understand who they are. Enemies turn out to be allies and allies turn out to be enemies, and you really can’t judge based on appearances, no matter how greasy the hair or hooked the nose.

Reality may not be as magical as the world JK Rowling has created, but art is for the viewer to interpret and connect with as they may. The trans community have every right to find their stories in Hogwarts, in a mistreated young boy finding acceptance, friendship and love, no matter what Twitter rampage the author decides to go on next.  You don’t even need to read between the lines for the most important message of the books – the message that “every human life is worth the same, and worth saving”. Maybe JK Rowling could do with re-reading the Harry Potter books.