A Rebuttal to J. K. Rowling’s Views on Trans Rights—and a Plea for Kindness

By Kaden Pradhan

London, United Kingdom

J. K. Rowling has attracted criticism and ignited a vitriolic debate over her views on transgender rights. (Business Insider Australia / Insider, Inc.)

Let me start by simply stating my opinion, to avoid any confusion. J. K. Rowling is wrong about trans people. Wholly and completely wrong. In my mind, there is no doubt about this. I have chosen to adopt this opinion, to disagree with her, after careful consideration of the facts of the issue.

Unfortunately, however, the unkindness and hate that her entirely false remarks have generated is also inexcusable. This article, then, will serve as a refutation of Rowling’s ideas, but an appeal for gentleness, intelligent debate, and constructive critical thinking as well. Rowling’s views astonish me personally, but I am just as astonished by the intense and ad-hominem hostility of the social media response.

Sometimes, I wonder why, in the online world, people just can’t get along. For every harsh post on social media, someone gets hurt. For every mean, bitter, or vitriolic comment, someone has to open Twitter or Facebook and see those words in their feed. Every time an anonymous, faceless user, or indeed a named one, chooses to attack someone for their beliefs, rights, or self-expression, that person suffers as a result. There is no longer any question that social media is one of the most, if not the most, toxic space humanity has ever created. Nor is there any doubt that people, real people, are subjected to online hate and abuse whilst the perpetrators nearly always get away without blame, guilt, or accountability. It is one of the greatest issues of our times, and no-one seems willing to solve it.

For me, one of two new Editors-in-Chief of The Iris, this first-class global youth newspaper has always been very much a reaction to, and rejection of, these hateful and nasty principles of social media debate. Here, we prioritize thoughtful intellectual discourse, perceptive and stimulating arguments, and a balanced consideration of the nuances of every issue. For that is the truth of the world—no complex question can be accurately answered by a 280-character tweet. No societal problem can be addressed by a hastily and angrily written post in a subreddit. This applies just as much to the ‘culture wars’, the current feud in values and thinking between different world-views that is manifesting on social media, as it has done to any other debate in the past. What we need, in this time of strife and abuse, is rationality—and that is exactly what I aim to employ in this article.

Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, first openly expressed her views in 2019 by showing support for Maya Forstater, a former employee of the Center for Global Development, whose employment contract was not renewed after she commented that “men cannot change into women” and made other remarks since deemed to be transphobic, including calling a gender-fluid Credit Suisse director Pips Bunce “a man who likes to express himself part of the week by wearing a dress,” despite Bunce’s preference for she/her pronouns.

Upon the strict word of the law, an appeals tribunal found that Forstater’s words were ‘protected’, meaning discrimination against her by an employer would be illegal under the Equality Act (2010). At the time of writing, they have not yet determined whether the CGD’s decision not to essentially rehire her constitutes such discrimination.

The tribunal’s reasoning has been called into question in the academic community. Professor of Sociology P. Johnson stated that granting protection to Forstater’s words would “not conform to the principle that a belief cannot qualify for protection if it is incompatible with human dignity and in conflict with the fundamental rights of others” and hence would contravene the “settled jurisprudence” of the European Court of Human Rights. C. Devlin and A. Benn argued that Forstater’s view “seeks to entrench the disadvantage that trans people suffer” which disqualifies it from Equality Act protections. With that said, R. Wintemute and A. Faz-Puchs both criticized the initial judgment and would therefore likely agree with the outcome of the appeal.

Whatever the law holds, there is evidence to suggest that Forstater encouraged an unfriendly or prejudicial workplace. Indeed, the first employment judge found that she was content with creating a “hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” at the CGD. I respect a person’s right to hold whatever views they wish internally, but allowing them to manifest and harm others, especially in an employment setting which one has to return to every day, is completely over the line. People will get hurt if you abase them continuously. That is how humans function.

Forstater isn’t even participating in the debate as to what rights a trans person should have. She just categorically denies their existence and identity, stating: “I believe that it is impossible to change sex or to lose your sex. Girls grow up to be women. Boys grow up to be men. No change of clothes or hairstyle, no plastic surgery, no accident or illness, no course of hormones, no force of will or social conditioning, no declaration can turn a female person into a male, or a male person into a female.”

Rowling’s support for someone who holds these kinds of views internally may be acceptable, but implied in her support for Forstater is her agreeing that people can take those views and weaponize them into the “hostile, degrading, humiliating” atmosphere that the employment judge decided she had generated. Such debasement has no place in our world in the 21st Century. I am saddened and surprised that Rowling was unable to see the matter from that angle.

The response to Rowling’s comments, however, was well out of order. “I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called [c**t] and [b**ch] and, of course, for my books to be burned, although one particularly abusive man told me he’d composted them,” she states in her personal testimony. Even if a proportion of this declaration is exaggerated or fabricated, as some claim, no person deserves to be subjected to “threats of violence”. No person deserves to be referred to by those vitriolic and expletive terms of hate, c**t and b**ch. As for the assertion that Rowling is responsible for trans people’s death … well, without valid evidence, that’s a rather broad claim to make.

I understand the anger of the people who made these comments. We are humans, and most of us are subject to volatile and fluctuating emotions, especially if we vehemently disagree with someone. But using those internal views and externalizing them in the toxic and self-perpetuating space that is social media is, in some ways, parallel to Forstater’s own abhorrent actions.

Ask yourself: ‘Can I really justify these spiteful things that I am saying? Could I phrase my opinion in a more generalized and non-malicious way?’. I am not asking people to be non-accusatory; by all means, direct your remarks to Rowling—but do it in a pleasant and agreeable manner. That way, we can foster some actual constructive discourse, rather than the currently destructive and harmful character of social media debates.

Rowling’s next controversial moment was in June 2020, where she deplored the use of the phrase “people who menstruate” in the title of an article in the publication Devex. “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased,” she tweeted.

Let’s break this down a little. In the first instance, there is nothing in the phrase ‘people who menstruate’ that is designed to suggest that “sex isn’t real”. What it is is an inclusive and holistic denomination for those people affected by periods. This can include women, as well as trans men and some non-binary folks. Some older women do not menstruate at all. Using the title of that Devex article, which is actually about the health effects of going through a period, and how menstruation safety and resources was impacted by COVID-19, as a route to enable you to espouse your views on trans rights is, frankly, logically invalid in this instance. The article uses the words ‘people who menstruate’ because the article is about menstruation, not because they’re trying to be ‘woke’.

Moreover, I see little truth in the assertions she makes in her tweet, primarily because no-one is suggesting that sex be “isn’t real”. ‘Can be changed’, perhaps, but not that it “isn’t real”. The phrase itself, combined with her subsequent use of “erased”, seems to connote a destructive tendency in transgender people, as they are trying to eradicate or nullify something fundamental to the human condition. That’s not what they’re trying to do at all.

Sex exists. We are assigned one, correctly or incorrectly, at birth. It is a biological fact. It is an objective truth. Some argue that sex can be changed, and this is a perfectly valid assertion in my opinion. Others argue that sex is steadfast, and only gender identity can be decided. If that’s the view you hold, OK. But no one on either side of the trans debate is suggesting that sex doesn’t exist.

Our society is still patriarchal and women have traditionally always been oppressed, ignored, or discriminated against. That is completely and unequivocally true, and the ramifications of sexism and misogyny have impacted women for millennia. Women deserve equality, and it is upsetting that society has not reached that point yet. But affirming the identity of trans women is not in tension with this idea. Feminism and trans activism can coexist perfectly well, and even collaborate in many areas. Both movements are necessary for the improvement of society. We must, however, avoid using them as justifications for malevolent and vicious social media comments made to the detriment of others.

Rowling’s tweet generated significant backlash, from organizations like GLAAD, as well as members of the Harry Potter cast. Daniel Radcliffe stated: “Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either Jo or I.” Quite right.

One of the most significant arguments for trans rights is the assertion that every person has the right to choose to express themselves in any way they wish—be it sexual or romantic orientation, gender identity, or indeed sex—as long as they are harming no-one else, without the fear that that right will be compromised. Denying a trans person’s right to choose to identify as another sex or gender is an affront to their “identity and dignity” as Radcliffe notes.

Rowling then consolidated her viewpoint in an op-ed on her personal site. She raised numerous points, one of which was the fact that “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.”

Firstly, the claim that “gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones” is just not true in the U.K. (which she is referring to) and in many American states. The government was contemplating changing the law to this end, but eventually scrapped the proposal. And besides, access to bathrooms is not controlled by legal sex anyway. Very few people are going to question a trans man walking into a male restroom. So no-one is “throw[ing] open the doors” to these spaces by allowing self-identifying trans people to use the spaces. In fact, the usage of these spaces would be unlikely to change much.

Strenuous medical processes exist in many countries to determine whether someone is eligible for sex reassignment surgery or the like. Only if they pass these internationally-accredited tests are they granted access to, for instance, a change in sex. That, at least, is the current state of affairs; some people argue that self-identifying trans people should also be allowed to legally change sex, while their critics argue this will cause violence, especially of a sexual nature, particularly by trans women towards cisgender women, in private spaces like female toilets and changing rooms.

Let me be clear: men who pretend to be trans in order to commit sexual violence against women are not trans women. This applies both to self-identification and to medical reassignment, but there are practically none of these imposters in the latter category due to the strength, thoroughness, and rigor of the tests.

Research suggests most women are perfectly fine with trans women using female bathrooms. R. J. Stones performed a study to determine opinions towards this matter and concludes that “observations in this paper do not support the belief that most women are against transgender females using female bathrooms: we find that, in the sampled population, about 70% of cisgender female users post non-negative comments, and about a half of the negative comments by cisgender females are incidental.” In other words, 70% of women are at the very least “non-negative” towards the matter.

In North Carolina, concerns about self-identification and toilet usage led to a law being implemented that restricted people to only using restrooms that corresponded to their birth-assigned sex. According to Mermaids, this “not only caused a rise in transphobia, it also opened up the possibility of increased harassment of women in public restrooms who weren’t transgender but who didn’t dress or present in a ‘feminine’ way.” The statute was pierced by the federal judiciary in 2019.

Yes, there are issues with men who pretend to be trans in order to gain access to women’s bodies. But, as I have stated, these are not trans women and should not be treated as such. As I mentioned, the government decided not to go ahead with the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (2004) that would allow for self-identifying trans women to use female private spaces. As such, us lay-people don’t need to be holding that discussion with urgency right now. It’s a far more complex topic that requires a careful and intelligent investigation, one that I certainly am not equipped to perform. Frankly, neither is J. K. Rowling or practically anyone who spews vitriol on Twitter, including Rowling critics, without the evidence and qualifications to substantiate their claims.

One arguably reliable U.S. study, by A. Hasenbush, A. R. Flores, and J. L. Herman, argued that those who argue against trans rights “often cite fear of safety and privacy violations in public restrooms if such laws are passed. … [but] No empirical evidence has been gathered to test such laws’ effects. … This study finds that the passage of such laws is not related to the number or frequency of criminal incidents in these spaces. Additionally, the study finds that reports of privacy and safety violations in public restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms are exceedingly rare. This study provides evidence that fears of increased safety and privacy violations as a result of nondiscrimination laws are not empirically grounded.” In other words, there is no evidenced correlation that has been discovered between allowing self-identifying trans women to use these spaces and an increase in “criminal incidents” like privacy infractions or sexual violence. Granted, all such studies have their own limitations and evaluations, and more work needs to be done, but at this stage the evidence is not sufficient to make the broad statements that Rowling does.

Indeed, in relation to Rowling’s claims, Prof J. Butler has said: “This is a rich fantasy, and one that comes from powerful fears, but it does not describe a social reality. Trans women are often discriminated against in men’s bathrooms, and their modes of self-identification are ways of describing a lived reality, one that cannot be captured or regulated by the fantasies brought to bear upon them. The fact that such fantasies pass as public argument is itself cause for worry.”

The prison system is another area frequently cited by critics of trans rights. According to some, there is a danger that men masquerade as trans women, once again to gain access to women’s bodies. However, the proportion of trans women in female prisons in Britain is just 0.15%, below the general population rate. The media also tends to inflate the one or two cases where such terrible events do occur—including, for example, Karen White, who sexually assaulted two women at New Hall jail. But, I believe this particular incident was a result of structural failures in the Wakefield bail-remand system and its safeguarding policies rather than some kind of ‘trend’ that will rise in the future. There is no evidence to suggest that trans women are categorically predatory or violent, including in the prison setting. Male imposters can be discovered through the medical processes that exist already, after all. A study from Sweden (Dhejne et al., 2011) holds that trans women are no more of a menace to other females than cisgender women.

The final area of Rowling’s op-ed is the matter of children, and suspicious behaviors occurring whereby groups of them apply for sex reassignment. Rowling argues that this is a pattern of our time, that young girls especially are being increasingly encouraged to become men to avoid sexism and misogyny in the future.

Her testimony reads: “I’m concerned about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition and also about the increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning (returning to their original sex), because they regret taking steps that have, in some cases, altered their bodies irrevocably, and taken away their fertility. Some say they decided to transition after realising they were same-sex attracted, and that transitioning was partly driven by homophobia, either in society or in their families.”

She also adds: “If I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge. I struggled with severe OCD as a teenager. If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.”

It is indeed true that societal favorability for masculine traits has existed since humanity settled into civilizations, and sadly, I can understand that the “allure of escaping womanhood” may be strong in many young girls today. It is an unfortunate truth of our society and a consequence of heavily entrenched gender inequality that women feel as if they’ve been put into a certain box, forced into a certain set of traits and characteristics that define stereotypical ‘femininity’.

I also sympathize strongly with detransitioners. These are people who have had a very lived experience that differs greatly from the mainstream trans community. For varying reasons, they feel that they no longer identify with their reassigned sex and choose to assign to their birth-assigned identity. Detransitioning can be both temporary and permanent.

Precise statistics around detransitioning are hard to come by, partly because the area is saturated with disinformation, particularly from actors like the Russian state, which siphons $186 million into anti-gender campaigns in Europe. My attempt to source reliable data has uncovered the following findings.

In the U.S., a major study performed by James et al. found that only 8% of the 28,000 trans people assessed reported any kind of detransition, and almost ⅔ (62%) of this 8% constituted temporary detransitioning due to financial, familial or social pressure.

In the U.K., just 0.47% of trans people attending a gender identity clinic reported regret related to their decision, and a still smaller proportion chose to detransition, according to Davies et al.

A holistic study by Cornell University finds that “Regrets following gender transition are extremely rare and have become even rarer as both surgical techniques and social support have improved. Polling data from numerous studies demonstrates a regret rate ranging from .3 percent to 3.8 percent. Regrets are most likely to result from a lack of social support after transition or poor surgical outcomes using older techniques.” In other words, more than 96.8% of trans people have no regrets with their transition.

Finally, a study by Turban et al. has determined that “Of all respondents [to the study] who reported a history of detransition, 82.5% cited at least one external factor [such as pressure] … Older age cohorts were more likely to report a history of detransition due to caregiving responsibilities, or pressure from a spouse or partner. Younger age cohorts were more likely to report a history of detransition due to pressure from a parent, pressure from the community or societal stigma, and pressure from friends or roommates.” Essentially, external pressures, especially social ones, are the principal cause of detransition.

The conclusion I draw from this research is very different from Rowling’s. Comprehensive, sound, and anonymous studies from a variety of rigorous scholarly sources indicate that the rate of detransition is exceptionally small, and mostly driven by external duress, including familial and social pressure. Unlike what Rowling claims, it is not social pressures that cause trans people to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the first place, but rather to reverse it.

Of course, some make the argument that detransitioners are being pressured not to speak up. But the anonymity of all the studies makes it highly unlikely that this is a prevalent occurrence, even if it exists.

Her claim regarding fertility is also flawed here. An eight-year study by Boston IVF shows that “trans men who utilize egg freezing for fertility preservation have similarly successful clinical outcomes to those of cisgender patients” according to PR Newswire. There is a medical argument to be made that long-term hormone treatment reduces fertility, but no clinical trial has affirmed this. Many people report being fertile after coming off hormone treatments. Whilst some permanent surgeries obviously remove the womb and therefore render the subject infertile, these are not available to under-18s in the U.K., and can only be received by informed, consenting adults who have gone through those rigorous medical and psychological tests. Minors who want to receive puberty blockers have to undergo a Gillick competency evaluation amongst other things. So her worries are focused around trans teens, but her fertility claim doesn’t apply to them at all.

Rowling goes on to state: “I’ve read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive.”

Of course women have “common experiences”, but excluding trans women and other genderqueer people from that group is treading a dangerous line. We are not just biologically made up of either a ‘penis’ or a ‘vagina’. Humanity is not defined by our genitalia, but our brains—the most complex and beautiful organ that evolution has ever produced. Our minds are hugely perplexing, and we have little understanding of how they function. Classing all experiences into binary boxes according to the cis male experience and the cis female experience is a reductionist approach. Human psychology transcends the boundaries of our birth-assigned sex. ‘Femaleness’, as you yourself call it, certainly does not reside in our genitals. It resides in our consciousness, our minds, and each mind is unique and different. Some will conform to this ‘femaleness’ and others won’t. Denying those people who identify with ‘femaleness’—again, a term that you use and that I usually would not—in the mind, but do not have a vagina, the right to do so publicly reduces the wonder and beauty of human consciousness to our physical form. That is, in my opinion at least, a very unsound approach.

She recounts the backlash to her claims: “I was transphobic, I was a [c**t], a [b**ch], a TERF, I deserved cancelling, punching and death. You are Voldemort said one person [sic], clearly feeling this was the only language I’d understand.”

I have already stated in abundant terms why one shouldn’t respond like this. Stoking the fire, being mean and vitriolic, undermines your own position rather than strengthening it, and has a tangible negative impact on other people. Rowling may well be ‘transphobic’ or a ‘TERF’ but that is not a determination I am equipped to make, and neither are the unqualified and rude Twitter respondents.

Rowling ends her testimony with what comes across as a sincere and heartfelt plea. “All I’m asking – all I want – is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.”

This sentiment I am more than happy to echo. No matter another’s views, denigrating their intellect and humanity with false and nasty responses is unkind and immoral. What I have performed in this article is a systematic and carefully researched rebuttal to her views—and if that is what you wish to perform, then more power to you! I will support you all the way. Don’t, however, fall into the trap that social media creates. You will only end up damaging others and dehumanizing yourself.