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My Response to 'Terf Wars'

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

Why Rowling’s Essay Isn’t the Ground-breaking Truth It’s Considered to Be

By Olivia Mackenzie Smith

Trigger warning: mild reference of bullying, suicide and gender-based violence.

Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan

Since the BBC has awarded JK Rowling's “Terf Wars” their Russell Award, I feel the need to get something off my chest about this essay and why it’s completely undeserving of this award.

Before I dive into the details of what I found wrong with Rowling’s essay, I am not an expert on trans and non-binary issues. I’ve done as much research as I can but, considering that I myself am cisgender, my perspective is limited. But what is evident to everyone, is the lack of sources provided by Rowling. You can search all over her website and not find a single link anywhere. How can it qualify as “excellent journalism” when it lacks the basics of journalism?

Two 2017 studies conducted by Stonewall found that large numbers of trans people had experienced violence and bullying. This, combined with the fact that 19% have been denied medical care and high statistics of suicide attempts, and earlier this year Trump removed the rights of transgender individuals to healthcare, shows that the transgender community is still one of the most marginalised groups in our society. Rowling seems to lack awareness of this and exhibits no sensitivity in her treatment of this vital issue.

Her depiction of trans issues is problematic throughout. The Maya Forstater case was deeply misleading. According to Rowling, the case was solely about Forstater’s "philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology". But that was not the only issue on the table. Forstater weaponised this belief by repeatedly misgendering Pippa Bunce and referred to her as a "crossdresser." When challenged on Twitter, Forstater said that “I don’t think being a woman/female is a matter of identity or womanly feelings. It is biology."

This shows, clear as day, that her philosophical belief is not merely that sex is determined by biology, but that biology is the only deciding factor. Rowling failed to mention this in her blog post and painted Maya Forstater as an innocent victim. This belief – though to me, it is a prejudice – invalidates the rights of trans folk and motivates her appalling behaviour towards Pippa Bunce.

Rowling fails to acknowledge that science has agreed that biological sex is not binary. She has tweeted about how the supposed erasure of biology erases the experience of cisgender women. Of course, no sensible person wants to erase biology. The rudimentary understanding of biological sex is that people born with two x chromosomes and a vagina are biologically female and people born with an x and a y chromosome and a penis are biologically male. What’s not commonly taught is that new-borns can have an x and a y chromosome yet still appear biologically female; children can be born with ambiguous genitalia, or can be born with both a womb and testes and people with other biologically female components can develop high testosterone levels. People born intersex can live how they want, identifying how they want, but one conclusion that can definitely be drawn is that biological sex is not as binary as is commonly believed.

Rowling referenced a study conducted by Doctor Lisa Littman on what she called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria”. Again, Rowling failed to include vital information: a fellow researcher at Littman’s own university stated that Dr Littman’s study provided “only indirect evidence of the role of the influence of social and media contagion on young people’s gender identity” and failed to enrol any actual young people. An updated version of the study was published, but the fact that these issues existed in the first place could indicate either Littman’s lack of understanding of the scientific method, or a pre-existing prejudice interfering with her work.

A large part of Rowling’s argument revolves around the perception of transitioning being an easy to access procedure. In truth, children under eighteen go through months of assessment, analysis and therapy before they’re prescribed hormones, and no one under the age of 17 will undergo permanent treatment. The existence of detransitioners does show that sometimes this doesn’t work. Although, it’s worth knowing that the rate of detransitioners is in fact really low – 0.5%. The fact that they are a small group doesn't invalidate their experiences, but treatment for transitioning and the supposed risks that come with it are exaggerated in Rowling's essay.

Finally, we come to Rowling's fears over trans activism interfering with women's rights. Changing rooms and bathrooms have privacy so nobody has to expose themselves if they don’t want to. Even if a predator was to sneak into a bathroom, they can already do that without pretending to be trans. And if – god forbid – a new law was passed explicitly forbidding trans women from using women’s bathrooms, how would that law be enforced? Should every woman submit to a full body check every time they want to go to the loo? Surely that’s endangering women – cis and trans – more? Opening up gendered spaces to trans women doesn’t put cisgender women in danger, but turning trans women away definitely puts them in danger.

Rowling even goes as far to claim that women who disagree with her have never “come up against male violence or sexual assault, and [have] never troubled to educated themselves on how prevalent it is”. This is nothing short of offensive. I’ve experienced sexual assault and public street harassment and those experiences affect the way I interact with others, but I don't use my trauma to justify denying other people their rights, and I am not the exception to the rule. Before I continue on this subject, I want to say that the abuse she suffered in her relationship was awful and she has my respect for having made it out and gone on to lead a happy life, but I still beg her not to be overcome by fear. Many other women who disagree with Rowling have also been the victim of many different forms of gender-based discrimination. I can't name them for obvious reasons but given how common sexual harassment/assault and discrimination are, it shouldn't be too difficult to believe their existence.

"Terf Wars" is a mess that actively undermines the fight for trans rights. We are already seeing evidence of it being weaponised against the LGBT community, from Maya Forstater using it to contest the ruling on her case to Republican senator, James Lankford, arguing against a bill protecting LGBT+ people from religious discrimination. While I doubt Rowling is actively trying to contribute to anyone’s suffering, her article is dangerous in its support of anti-trans pseudoscience and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. It would barely scrape by as a high school essay, so why should it receive an award?


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