The Bad Wizard Lady Controversy, Explained

JK Rowling's Transphobia And Why You Need To Care

Who is The Bad Wizard Lady?

JK Rowling. You know her as the author of the Harry Potter books; the most successful literary franchise of the past fifty years, and probably the most successful literary franchise of all time. In recent years, she’s written the screenplays for the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them films, and (under a pseudonym) she is the author of the Cormoran Strike series of detective novels.

Rowling is also one of the richest people in the UK, and one of the two or three most famous authors alive. She’s been an inspiration to struggling authors and women of all stripes for years as well. Her rags-to-riches story is legend, and who among us hasn’t dreamed that our coffee shop manuscript might have a shot at becoming the next Harry Potter?

Rowling is also incredibly transphobic, and she is currently using her massive platform to make life worse for trans people.

Why is Rowling Talking About Trans People In The First Place?

In order to understand Rowling’s weird obsession with transgender people, we’re going to need to talk a little bit about what the transphobes are up to these days.

Over the past decade, trans visibility has significantly increased. Rising awareness of how gender dysphoria differs from the pop culture depiction of what being trans is like has allowed more trans people to discover their true selves, leading to an increased number of visibly trans people, especially in the younger generations. In addition, social and political gains have allowed many previously stealth and closeted trans people to live more comfortably and openly as themselves.

The backlash to this visibility has been strong, and it is uncannily similar to the backlash that gay people had to suffer through in the latter half of the 20th century. There is a lot of religious moralizing, a lot of “think of the children!” hand-wringing, and a lot of ill-informed talk about “basic biology.” None of it is based in reality, and all of it is aimed at shoving trans people back out of the public sphere.

While most garden-variety bigots are at least somewhat anti-trans, the most specific and targeted backlash that trans people are currently facing is from so-called “gender critical” people. They’re also known as Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs.

Despite their name, TERFs have very little in common with the radical feminist movement of the mid-nineties. In fact, most of them aren’t really feminists at all. Most TERFs are middle-aged, middle-to-upper-class white women (though there are also plenty of TERF men!) who have somehow managed to make being anti-trans such a core part of their identity and social life that they’ve essentially turned their bigotry into a club. They participate in letter-writing campaigns, commit targeted online abuse, and engage in the constant proliferation of vile misinformation.

As with most other forms of bigotry, TERF ideology is able to spread because it paints a picture of the world where the TERFs see themselves as the oppressed party. When looking at the world through a TERF lens, trans women are seen as dangerous men who like to dress up as women in order to invade women’s spaces, commit violence, and prevent “actual” women from feeling safe . Trans men are viewed as lost lesbians who must be saved by righteous women before they fall prey to the patriarchy. Trans children are told that their identities aren’t valid, and that they only think they’re trans because “it’s trendy these days.” TERFs see womanhood as being under attack by trans people, and they believe it’s their duty to rise up and defeat the evil trans people before…I don’t even know what. Before they have to share a bathroom with me or something.

Anyway, TERF ideology has caught on a lot more in the UK than it has anywhere else, so it’s quite likely that many people in Rowling’s elite circle have held these beliefs for quite some time. She has long been rumored to be at least TERF-adjacent, but in recent months the mask has come fully off.

Are We Sure That Rowling is Transphobic?

There’s a lot of proof at this point.

For years, people insisted that Rowling was transphobic because of her Twitter followers. She only follows a small handful of people, and a large number of them are massive and outspoken transphobes. She never said anything about gender herself, but people were right to be suspicious.

Then she had a series of social media mistakes, “liking” really gross bigoted tweets about transphobia and accidentally posting part of a transphobic article into a social media field instead of the copy she’d been meaning to post about her latest children’s project.

People on Twitter started raising the alarm that she was transphobic, and her response was to post a really long open letter that basically reads as a TERF manifesto. If you want to read it, I did a fully annotated takedown back when it came out. If you’d rather hear the same points being delivered by a smart Canadian woman in a video essay, you can check out Sarah Z’s video here.

Things have gotten worse in recent days. Rowling’s latest book, Troubled Blood, spends a good chunk of its 900(!) pages playing up TERF stereotypes. She has also started to promote an online merch store that sells some really disgusting anti-trans products. Rowling may have tried to defend her early transphobic Twitter-likes as being the result of a “middle aged moment,” but she’s made her feelings incredibly clear in recent months.

Why Does it Matter That One Rich Lady is Transphobic? Don’t We Have Bigger Problems Right Now?

In the grand scheme of things, one person’s bigotry rarely matters much. That’s not really true here, though. Rowling’s actions matter a lot.

The problem is two-fold. First, Rowling’s influence is massive. She has nearly complete creative control over everything she does, and all the biggest media companies in the world are happy to line up and distribute her products all over the world. Heck, Warner Brothers is willing to make THREE MORE(!) Fantastic Beasts films despite the fact that the last one was a massive flop. Why? Because they’re holding out hope that if they do what Rowling wants for now, she’ll do another Harry Potter thing at some point in the future and they’ll be able to cash in.

The second problem is that Rowling isn’t just casually transphobic. TERFery isn’t for weekend warriors, it’s a full-time job, and Rowling is devoting more and more of her time to anti-trans actions. She’s done a lot of harm in the past several months alone, and it doesn’t seem like she’s anywhere close to running out of steam. We could be in for decades of her assaulting trans rights, and it’s not like the trans community has a lot of other high profile allies elsewhere. It’s not an exaggeration to say that JK Rowling personally has more power and influence than every trans person on the planet put together.

Rowling’s influence is also strongest among the younger generations, who have been (up until now) generally more progressive and open about gender diversity. If we’re going to make any further strides in trans rights, we’re going to need Gen Z and millennials to continue pushing for our freedoms. Unfortunately, Rowling’s words have already seemed to have an influence in some communities that could set us back for generations.

To put it more bluntly, TERF ideology is “radical” in the classical definition of the word—it’s extreme, and it’s currently far outside the mainstream. But since Rowling is a very popular mainstream voice, it’s not hard to imagine her helping to normalize trans bigotry in ways that very few other people have the power to even attempt. And every time Stephen King praises her new book or Eddie Redmayne stands up for her right to spew hatred all over the internet, Rowling’s perspective gains a little more ground in the mind of the general public.

Rowling’s New Book Isn’t About A Trans Woman. Why Are So Many People Still Mad About it?

Troubled Blood isn’t about a trans woman—it’s about a male serial killer who dresses up as a woman in order to commit murder. It’s impossible to divorce this concept from TERF ideology, which claims that all trans women are secretly men who dress up as women in order to prey upon unsuspecting women. So from a TERF perspective, Rowling’s book is actually about trans women. There’s not really any other way to read it.

By the way, the whole “trans bathroom predator” thing? It’s a myth. There has never been a recorded instance of a man dressing up as a woman in order to sneak into women’s bathrooms and terrorize them. It doesn’t happen. People get scared about it because it seems like it might be true, but it’s not.

Also, if a man did dress up as a woman and sneak into the women’s room, the problem wouldn’t be with trans women—it would be with a cis male predator. This “panic” only makes sense if you don’t think of trans women as women, which TERFs do not.

Also, even if this problem did exist, which (again) it does not, anti-trans bathroom laws wouldn’t actually do anything to help. It’s already illegal to assault, harass, or peep on other people in the bathroom. If a guy is going to go to all the trouble to dress up as a woman and sneak into the women’s room with ill intentions, do you think he’s going to care if there’s a law on the books about trans people? No! Literally none of the push against trans people using the bathroom makes sense unless your real goal is to exclude trans people from the public sphere, which is what happens when you can’t use public restrooms.

But I digress. The point of Rowling’s book is to make her (mostly female) readers scared of “a man dressed up as a woman.” And if you can’t see a link between that an her transphobic manifesto, I don’t know what to tell you.

How Do We Know That Rowling is Really Transphobic? Maybe She Was Just Saying All That Stuff To Help Sell Her New Book.

Rowling’s transphobic manifesto seemed pretty genuine to me, but I guess the entire thing could be an elaborate marketing gimmick. If so, who cares? Intent doesn’t matter here. Whether Rowling’s heart is full of bigotry or she’s cynically stoking the flames of said bigotry in order to sell books, the end result is the same: Rowling doesn’t care about trans people, and she’s actively working against trans rights.

What about all the online harassment that Rowling has received during all of this?

JK Rowling is being a bigot on Twitter. If she wants to stop receiving online harassment, all she needs to do is stop being a bigot. That’s it. It’s very simple. She could end this at literally any time, but she chooses not to.

I can’t stop being trans. None of my trans friends can, either. The harassment we receive from Rowling’s supporters is far worse, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The fact that the media has turned this into a “both sides” situation is disgusting.

Also, the reason why Rowling is getting hate on Twitter is because literally nobody with any sort of institutional power will hold her accountable for being transphobic. There’s no other recourse for these trans kids and teens who are under attack by Rowling’s hateful rhetoric—no adult in the room to solve this through proper channels. They can either shut up and swallow Rowling’s lies, or they can yell at her on Twitter. Do you really blame them for choosing the latter?

I’ve Loved Harry Potter For A Long Time. What The Heck Do I Do Now?

In recent months, as a response to Rowling’s growing bigotry, there have been a lot of “Harry Potter was always trash!” takes going around on social media. They (correctly) point out that Harry Potter has always been problematic. From the banking goblins to the way it handles house elves, the world of Harry Potter is tainted by the bigotry of its creator. I know it’s hard for lifelong fans of the franchise to admit this to themselves, but it’s true. It has always been true.

On the other hand, Harry Potter is a fandom that has been queered, abstracted, and remixed several million times at this point. Most obsessive Harry Potter fans have moved far beyond Rowling’s text, and they have instead built their own little corner of the wizarding world. They’ve picked and chosen the parts of the world that resonated with them, tossed away the rest, and used what they kept as a massive LEGO set. Most people who are active in the Harry Potter fandom have accepted the problematic aspects of the franchise a long time ago, and their fan works usually have nothing to do with banking goblins, house elves, or (ugh) Rita Skeeter.

I’m also skeptical of anyone who is doing a self-righteous “read another book!!” victory lap on Harry Potter fans right now. A lot of them are using Rowling’s fall from grace as a convenient excuse to dunk on a fandom that has skewed primarily female for years. Geeky properties that are geared toward women are almost always seen as frivolous nonsense (compared to “serious” properties like DC Comics), and some people will take any excuse to be low-key sexist. I’m not here for that.

It’s also really hard to ask people to give up their love of a property that has become core to their identity, especially when that property isn’t all that harmful itself. I don’t love the fact that a billion-dollar corporate franchise is at the heart of anyone’s identity, but we live in a consumer culture and such things are unavoidable. If you ask people to give up parts of their identity, some of them are going to lash out and agree with Rowling simply because they don’t want to give up a part of themselves.

From a purely practical standpoint, I don’t think trans people can win a war against Harry Potter. If you ask every Harry Potter fan in the world to give up their favorite franchise in order to support trans rights, I worry that a lot of them just…won’t be willing to do that. If the choice becomes binary—Harry Potter OR trans rights—I think I’m going to lose my rights.

All of this is to say, I think it’s important that we embrace and accept how messy this whole situation is. To me, the following things can all be true:

  • JK Rowling is a transphobic bigot, and we should strive to actively oppose her agenda of bigotry.

  • The Harry Potter franchise contains elements of bigotry that should be interrogated and called out whenever possible.

  • You aren’t a bad person for having unapologetically enjoyed Harry Potter in the past.

  • You aren’t a bad person for choosing to read Harry Potter again, or reading it to your kid, or even engaging in Harry Potter fandom—provided you understand what is at stake here, and you’re working to fight against Rowling’s toxic agenda whenever possible.

As for me…I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read the books again, which is really hard to accept. I was one of those kids who went to the midnight releases and stayed up half the night reading the latest installment. Those books meant a lot to me, and the fact that I can’t look at them without seeing the face of a woman who hates me is a really gross feeling. And every time I see another celebrity or author I used to admire stand up for her feels like another punch in the gut.

What Can I Do To Help?

First, you can help by trying to avoid financially supporting any of Rowling’s future projects. No more Fantastic Beasts movies, no Cormoran Strike novels, no Harry Potter tie-in products or games. This probably won’t make much of a difference in Rowling’s bottom line, but companies do respond to capitalist incentives. If we can prove to Rowling’s marketing team or Warner Bros. that her transphobia is costing them lots of money, they might tell her to knock it off. She might be forced to either listen to reason or give up some of her platforms.

If you choose to financially engage with these products anyway, I recommend donating an equal amount of money to a trans charity. Think of it like a carbon offset. It’s not as good as not polluting, but it’s way better than nothing. Mermaids is a great resource in the UK that is actively working to help the sorts of trans kids that are suffering from Rowling’s rhetoric, and you can donate to them no matter where in the world you are. If you’re going to spend $60 on the new Harry Potter video game, ship them $60 as well.

I would also suggest supporting literature by trans writers, most of whom are never going to have the sort of platform that Rowling enjoys. If you like YA stories like Harry Potter, here’s a great list of books to get you started.

Lastly, please take the time to learn more about the struggle for trans rights so that you can better educate your friends and family members, especially those of whom seem to be taking Rowling’s bigotry at face value. People will take cues from a favorite creator like Rowling, but at the end of the day they’re a lot more likely to listen to someone they personally know than some rich lady from the UK. If we’re going to make transphobia a thing of the past, it’s going to have to be a project that we all work on together.