Did J.K. Rowling ‘Confirm Her Stance Against Transgender Women’?

A thought-provoking, widely shared blog post made a series of allegations against the "Harry Potter" creator in June 2019.

  • Published 27 June 2019

Claim

In June 2019, J.K. Rowling definitively confirmed her antipathy towards trans women and/or opposition to trans inclusion.

Rating

Origin

In late June 2019, a blog post went viral on social media after it claimed that the English writer and author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, had “confirmed [her] stance against transgender women.”

The author of the piece, Phaylen Fairchild, wrote: “It’s been a long time coming, but finally we have a definitive answer. J.K. Rowling is a TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist].” The post listed what Fairchild presented as several pieces of evidence she believed amounted to proof of Rowling’s personal views on trans issues, especially in the context of an ongoing, and at times bitter, debate about such issues in the United Kingdom.

The most recent piece of evidence according to Fairchild, and the one that purportedly allowed for “confirmation” of Rowling’s personal views, was Rowling’s having followed the Twitter account of Magdalen Berns, a YouTuber whom Fairchild characterized as having transphobic views: “Finally, we have some confirmation of Rowling’s stance against the transgender community. She has followed one of the most hateful and aggressive anti-trans radical feminists on Twitter, Magdalen Berns.”

The headline of a June 25 article from the website The Mary Sue proclaimed “J.K. Rowling Leaves Little Doubt About Her Terfdom,” and Rowling’s following the Twitter account of Berns prompted ample criticism of Rowling similar to that expressed by Fairchild, as reported by the website Pink News.

Analysis

Rowling’s personal views on trans issues remain unclear. In support of the claim that the author had “confirmed [her] stance against transgender women” and against “the transgender community,” Fairchild did not cite a single utterance produced by Rowling.

Rather, she cited Rowling’s having liked certain tweets and having followed the account of Magdalen Berns as sufficient evidence to allow for a “definitive” conclusion about the author’s personal views on trans issues, and as amounting to “confirmation” that Rowling had taken a “stance against transgender women.” However, the tweets that an individual likes or the Twitter accounts that they follow do not provide definitive proof of that individual’s personal views on any subject.

In many cases, likes, follows, and retweets can actually provide a rather unreliable guide to an individual’s personal opinions, since Twitter users like and retweet content, as well as follow other accounts, for a variety of reasons. Twitter users may interact with content and accounts in these ways because they admire another person or agree with their views, but also because they find a particular tweet interesting, egregious, or even outrageous.

Some Twitter users follow accounts towards which they feel antipathy but which they view as being significant or prominent, or which they wish to monitor, precisely because of that antipathy or disagreement. Similarly, Twitter users sometimes like tweets as a way of bookmarking them for later reference, even if they find them objectionable, and they sometimes retweet content that they find objectionable as a way of alerting their own followers to that content.

It’s not clear what Rowling’s motivations or reasons were for the follows and likes highlighted by Fairchild and others, and it’s not clear what Rowling’s views are on trans issues. As such, the claim that she had “confirmed [her] stance against transgender women” was false on two grounds. First, Rowling had not herself made substantive public utterances about trans issues, so there was no clear “stance” to be confirmed, and second, even if there had been, Rowling’s following of Berns’ account in June 2019 would not constitute relevant reliable evidence, since it had several possible explanations.

Ambiguity and uncertainty

In her blog post, Fairchild argued that the absence of an explicit comment from Rowling on trans issues indicated not that Rowling’s views were unclear, but rather that she was, in short, creating plausible deniability around her views, which she was signalling in other ways (that is, through the tweets she likes and accounts she follows):

While the LGBT community and our allies have stood back and watched a rather ominous narrative form around J.K. Rowling, it has been without any direct confirmation or statement from the author herself. It’s as if she is conditioning the world to accept it rather than rebuke it. First she stuck her toe in the water, was caught, claimed it was a misunderstanding and we accepted that. Then, she persisted to do the same things … again and again.

(The “misunderstanding” in question came in 2018, when Rowling liked a tweet that appeared to describe trans women as “men in dresses,” an action her representative attributed to an accident.)

This is a reasonable point. Rowling may indeed have antipathy towards trans women, or she may be against the inclusion of trans women in female-only spaces and is allowing the impression to be created that these are her views without explicitly stating them. However, it is also eminently possible that she does not hold such views, or that her views are more complicated, or even that her views are closer to those of Fairchild, and that Rowling has been interacting with certain content and accounts on Twitter for other reasons.

Nonetheless, certain facts make the latter explanation less plausible. First, Rowling is relatively outspoken in her political views, and generally promotes left-leaning causes and opinions. She has been an avowed and vocal supporter and funder of the centre-left Labour Party in the U.K. but also a critic of its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and she was a vocal supporter and funder of the “No” side in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign. She has been outspoken in her opposition to Brexit, and at times scathing in her criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump and his policies. Rowling has also repeatedly expressed support for gay rights.

Despite frequently offering her views on a wide range of political subjects, including ones closely associated with trans issues (e.g., feminism and gay rights), Rowling has never articulated solidarity for trans people or support for trans rights or trans inclusion. A search of Rowling’s Twitter feed showed that she had never once used any of the following terms: “trans,” “transgender,” “LGBT,” “LGBTQ,” “transphobia,” “transphobe,” “transphobic,” “TERF,” “inclusion,” or “exclusion.” Though they are not necessarily indicative of her views, and certainly not definitive proof, these absences are certainly worth noting.

Second, just as Rowling has never publicly expressed antipathy towards trans people, or articulated trans-exclusionary opinions, she has also never explicitly corrected or refuted such characterizations of her, despite having done so in other contexts.

For example, Rowling has in the past made a point of rejecting allegations that her criticism of the current Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn meant she was a “tory” (a supporter of the U.K. Conservative party). However, despite also repeatedly being directly accused of holding transphobic or trans-exclusionary views, Rowling has never made similar efforts to refute such allegations. (Although Rowling’s representative said the 2018 “men in dresses” episode had been an accident, neither Rowling nor the representative said she did not agree with that characterization.) This failure to refute allegations of transphobia might not be indicative of Rowling’s personal opinions (she might, for example, see such claims as being too absurd to warrant a response), but it is noteworthy.

In an attempt to clear up the striking ambiguity in relation to Rowling’s views on trans issues, we contacted her representatives, posing several detailed questions about her general views on trans issues, her response to being labelled a radical feminist, whether she supported or agreed with the views of Magdalen Berns and Janice Turner (as highlighted by Fairchild in her blog post), and so on. Unfortunately, we did not receive a response.

As a result, the uncertainty and ambiguity over Rowling’s views on trans issues and trans inclusion are likely to continue. However, for that very reason, Phaylen Fairchild’s claim that the writer had in June 2019 “confirmed [her] stance against transgender women” was false.

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