Harry Potter and the Constant Controversy

It happened again.

This time Stephen King responded to something of Rowling’s not realising people saw a transphobic tone, Rowling responded with high praise, someone else asked King for clarification about his trans views, King responded that trans women are women, Rowling deleted her praise and then blocked King.

This is only partially about Rowling – a vehicle for discussing the topic of trans rights.

The LGBTQ community largely identifies Rowling now as a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), which as someone still educating himself about rights appears to sum up this way (yes, I know the acronym itself should about sum it up): someone who is trans is born to one sex but identifies with the other (there are only two in this perspective); in the context of feminism, the conversation must exclude trans women because they were born male and society would therefore treat them in accordance with male privilege.

This also seems to be the heart of their notion that they “do not hate trans individuals” – they simply are not allowed to be part of the women class because that contributes to the erasure of women’s experiences.

The perspective focuses on specific definitions that relate sex and gender, which is itself problematic as many who share this perspective reduce sex to a binary: male or female. A definition of gender establishes that “woman” is an adult (here relating to a state of sexual maturity rather than a legal definition) of the female class. Trans women are not women because they were born male (in addition to the aforementioned concern about male privilege).

Among the principle issues with this are the reduction of sex and gender to binary concepts (they are not – biology tells us unequivocally that sex is a spectrum whose extreme ends are male and female with most people grouped according to the end they most conspicuously belong) and that the concepts are married.

That in and of itself begins to complicate the matter of gender. Even if one ties the definition of gender directly to a biological definition of sex, the biological definition of sex is more complicated than humans can manage. Even with the wealth of knowledge now available, many continue to treat sex as a matter of XX or XY, and I suspect a not insignificant number even know which of those pairs corresponds to which sex.

I find this the most philosophically compelling aspect of the discussion. The heart of any civil rights discussion is equal, equitable, and ultimately just treatment and that requires overcoming prejudices.

Women face a tremendous amount of prejudice to this day. So do men, but the prejudices men face have the side effects of 1) benefitting them in society and 2) endangering women. Yes, it causes incredible pressure on men to behave a certain way (toxic masculinity). No, we’re not getting into that whole discussion right now.

In that sense, we are talking about the same thing. We have a society that sees someone born and identified as male who is a woman. Accordingly, accurately, to the “TERF” perspective, they enjoy male privilege because society sees them as male and tries to treat them as such. For women to treat trans women as women is antithetical to the feminist cause because that would mean accommodating the very group oppressing them: males.

However, they are not men and society is going to mistreat them for failing to fall in line with notions of masculinity. In this sense, trans women become women without a country, unwelcome on either side of an imagined binary debate.

I believe this is where much of the miscommunication resides with people like J.K. Rowling who feel they have no fear or hatred in their heart. In her statements trans women are free to be themselves, but they are not women. She’s simply abiding by the rules of science and language.

But prejudice unrecognised or done without malice is still prejudice, and we all possess it. We all see others and make immediate, subconscious decisions about that person based on what we see and that includes things like sex/gender, economic class, race, ethnicity, education, and so forth.

We. All. Do It. Everyone. Yes, you. I do it, too. You may not even realise you did it, but you did it. And it will manifest in what you say and do in ways that will be conscious to the person on whom you are projecting your prejudice. When part of your identity is a characteristic frequently targeted, disenfranchised, and bullied by prejudice, even the unintentional, well-intentioned, and “innocent” moments (such as microaggressions) will hurt.

Part of what makes Rowling so infuriating to me personally is that she seems unable or unwilling to accept this piece. I am more than willing to take her at her word that she means no ill will to trans people. Her words and actions commit ill will towards trans people though.

This is still about forming an opinion about someone based on what someone else sees and then holding the other person to that opinion.

If this were a Venn diagram, sure, we can separate trans women from cis women (based on sex), but they both exist within the sphere of woman.

If the trans experience different? Of course. I think the idea that we have a group born and identified as male, and therefore men and therefore with male privilege, does have merit. That’s one of the things that men seem not to understand in discussions of male privilege. Like prejudice, it’s not something one chooses. Men do not cash in a male privilege card. Society sees man and automatically bequeaths those benefits.

BUT…just because their experience differs from that of a cis woman does not negate the womanhood. Such a distinction is no different than filtering out white women because they experienced white privilege and therefore do not have no place with black, Hispanic, Asian, or any other women.

The specific experience differs, the general experience, the one of being feminine in a masculine world, is not.

I know it’s tricky but with civil rights the idea cannot be to compartmentalise – it has to be intersectionality. The same is true with feminism. Trans women might have had a different experience because of the trans part of their character, but the woman part of their character shares the experience. Excluding trans women from the conversation is the same prejudice against which feminism and civil rights fight: the inequality, lack of equitability, and injustice that one group faces because others have prejudiced expectations of what being in that group means.

Trans women are women.



Post Script:

Okay – now that I’ve set forth my thoughts without qualification I feel like I can pause and reiterate that I am not an expert. This is a sensitive subject for all involved and I guarantee that in my blindspots and prejudice the above piece is imperfect; those who support and oppose the “trans women are women” position will likely have issues with it, but this is also how we learn.

Just wanted to clarify awareness of my cognitive biases here.


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s