Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 27, 2020

Reevaluating J.K. Rowling’s legacy during Transgender Awareness Week

By ARIELLA SHUA | November 14, 2020

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RHODODENDRITES / CC-SA-4.0

Transgender Awareness Week brings attention to J.K. Rowling’s disappointing statements against the queer community. 

There’s a reason that they say to never meet your heroes — they’re sure to disappoint you.

But perhaps we didn’t expect it from J.K. Rowling.

The esteemed author of the Harry Potter series, Rowling has not fared well in the public eye over the last year. Controversy first rose in December 2019 when Rowling tweeted her support of a woman who had been fired for making bigoted statements regarding transgender women. There was a brief flurry of anti-Rowling commentary immediately following her remarks.

However, in the summer of 2020, Rowling could no longer hold back. On June 6, she tweeted her criticism of the phrase “people who menstruate” in an op-ed headline, stating, “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” 

When faced once again with backlash, Rowling doubled down. She tweeted that she supports trans women but wants to defend the truth of being female. She later published an essay detailing her reasons for speaking out, which was poorly received.

As a result, Rowling’s legacy has been irreparably tarnished (for good reason). During Transgender Awareness Week, it is worth reconsidering exactly why she has fallen so far.

Senior Jillian Hesler, co-president of the University’s Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance, is not a huge fan of Harry Potter themself. However, they felt that a fantasy author should be aware of who her stories influence.

“Fantasy, in particular, can act as a bastion for a lot of kids who don’t align with social norms or don’t feel like they fit in,” they wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “It’s just such a slap in the face to people who used those books as an escape at any point in their lives.”

Rowling’s statements met blowback from longtime Harry Potter fans. The fandom is generally regarded as extremely progressive and supportive of LGBTQ identities.

Sophomore Ruthie Wood grew up adoring the Harry Potter series. Her opinion of Rowling, however, was irreparably damaged by the author’s comments.

“It’s incredibly disheartening and saddening now to think that the creator of all that magic does not believe in her own strongest spell: love,” she wrote to The News-Letter.

During October’s annual Harry Potter Conference, two days of academic presentations hosted by Chestnut Hill College on Zoom, Rowling’s comments were given center treatment. A featured speaker was Widener University professor Brent Satterly who gave the presentation, “I Take Umbridge With J.K. Rowling — LGBTQ Betrayal.”

Dressed in drag to look like infamous Harry Potter demagogue Dolores Umbridge, Satterly described how Rowling’s statements have not only let down her trans fans but also the entire fandom. In an interview with The News-Letter, Satterly further expanded upon these thoughts. A social worker with a PhD in Human Sexuality Education, he found that the series he loves fits well with his classes. The novels frequently address themes of racism, sexism, classism and ableism.

This, he explained, was part of the reason that Rowling’s comments were disappointing enough to turn fans away.

“As a gay person, I feel very betrayed by someone who projected a fortress of even more than tolerance — a fortress of acceptance, and the creation of a magical world and castle that was just meant for us,” he said. “That is very painful.”

The more comments Rowling made, the less credible her argument became for Satterly. In her essay, Rowling engaged in classic tropes against trans women, explaining that it is a threat for “any man who believes or feels he’s a woman” to use a women’s restroom. In the same essay, she stated her support for trans women and that she knows trans individuals as friends.

Satterly was horrified by this supposed defense.

“That just really smacks of a lot of projection but also classic fear mongering,” he said. 

For Rowling, however, the criticism wasn’t limited to only her comments from the summer. The tweets reflect Pandora’s box — or, to use a Harry Potter metaphor, “the Vanishing Cabinet” — whose opening leads to the demise of her reputation just as the Cabinet leads to Hogwarts’ headmaster, Albus Dumbledore’s, death.

The Harry Potter community has decided to reevaluate Rowling’s legacy as an author entirely. The TikTok trend, “If J.K. Rowling made a ___ character,” has gained traction, as fans speculate how the seemingly close-minded author would write ethnic, religious and racial minorities. Some now state that actor Daniel Radcliffe is the “true” author of the series.

Satterly explained that fans feel such anger and loss because they thought that they had understood the author.

“I remember reading some of the tweets and thinking, ‘This doesn’t sound like her. This isn’t the J.K. I know,’” he said. “The reality is, I don’t personally know J.K.”

He noted that the fandom is not likely to forgive Rowling quickly, if at all. Her latest book, which stars a cisgender man who dresses like a woman before killing victims, does not help the matter.

“When you’ve got young people who [face] such trouble and find an escape and solace in a magical world like Hogwarts, to have the creator of Hogwarts turn and be the person who is spouting Unforgivable Curses — it’s demonic for people who are trans,” Satterly said. “She would need to do some serious corrective behavior. Even then, I think there will be some queer folks who will never forgive her.”

Wood maintains a separation between the author and her series. She currently serves as the coach of the Hopkins Quidditch Club, playing a sport inspired by Rowling’s novels. U.S. Quidditch, the sport’s governing league, explicitly condemned Rowling’s comments.

“My love for the Harry Potter franchise will never change because they are really good books and at this point, a part of my personality,” Wood wrote. “However, the way I view Rowling has over the years become disenchanted.”

Hesler noted the disconnect between Rowling’s recent statements and the imaginative world she created.

“If you don’t even have enough imagination and consideration to not be a bigot, then you definitely shouldn’t be writing a fantasy novel,” they wrote.

As for now, Satterly notes that fans who continue to embrace the story must show their support for trans individuals even more strongly. During Transgender Awareness Week, we can all focus on how to further respect diverse identities — a concept Rowling seemingly refuses to engage with.

“Educate yourself. Advocate. Be respectful. Use affirming pronouns. Connect with human dignity and worth of each person,” Satterly said. “To me, those are the great makings of a fantastic potion.”

If that requires leaving Rowling behind, so be it.

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