It is probable that you wouldn’t know the names Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint if you didn’t first know the name JK Rowling. The former child stars, who owe their careers to the Harry Potter creator, recently spoke out against a blog post published by the author on 10 June that many have decried as transphobic. In the 3,600-word post, which she shared on Twitter with the words “TERF wars”, Rowling lists five reasons why she is “deeply concerned” about “trans activism”.
Some see it as hypocritical that those who owe so much to Rowling would condemn her so publicly, but these actors aren’t alone. They represent an entire generation of people who broadly support trans rights – a 2019 survey by a Washington polling group found 68 per cent of young Americans have become more supportive of transgender rights in the past five years – many of whom owe much of their world view to Rowling, but no longer feel able to stand by the author.
I first wrote about this phenomenon in this magazine in February 2018, under the headline “JK Rowling created an army of liberals – now they are turning against her”. At the time, Rowling was being criticised after the director of her film franchise Fantastic Beasts revealed that the character Albus Dumbledore would not be “explicitly” gay in the latest instalment of the series, despite Rowling first revealing the sexuality of the Hogwarts headmaster in 2007. Many felt (and I agreed) that Rowling had used the announcement to score political points but was too cowardly to commit to it within any of her Harry Potter books, films or plays. The fans I spoke to at the time said Rowling’s work had taught them about standing up for the oppressed – they no longer felt the author herself embodied these values.
Today Rowling has made her stance on trans issues clear. While explaining her opposition to the trans rights movement, she outlines her support for a woman who was described by a judge at an employment tribunal as holding views “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”. Publications have already debunked some of the claims made in Rowling’s post, with Insider noting that a study she cited to claim social contagion drives gender dysphoria has been revised and labelled “flawed” by other researchers. In the blog post, Rowling also reveals that she is a survivor of domestic violence “out of solidarity with the huge numbers of women who have histories like mine, who’ve been slurred as bigots for having concerns around single-sex spaces”. But trans charity Mermaids warns against “associating trans identities with male abusers”.
In response to the blog post, an entire generation of young people are turning against the author who defined their childhoods. An artist who tweeted an offer to cover up Harry Potter tattoos gained 3,600 retweets and 16,000 likes in just three days, while Harry Potter himself Daniel Radcliffe wrote a post for LGBTQ non-profit The Trevor Project. (Radcliffe penned his post before Rowling’s essay, but after the author sent a series of tweets many activists denounced as transphobic.) “Transgender women are women,” Radcliffe wrote. “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.” Watson and Grint expressed similar sentiments.
Many fans consider Rowling’s statements a complete betrayal of her own books. “The Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance,” Rowling herself said in 2006. They are an anti-racism allegory: one 2014 study from the University of Greenwich found that children who read Potter passages about prejudice showed more positive attitudes towards immigrants.
Trans Harry Potter fans have been particularly affected by her post. On 10 June, LGBTQ online publication PinkNews ran an interview with a fan who now feels Rowling has, “aligned herself with a dangerous ideology… She wrote a series that taught an entire generation about unconditional love, acceptance and fighting supremacy,” the fan, Jackson Bird, said. “Maybe she should try reading the books again?”
Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint owe their fortunes to the Potter franchise, and many others continue to make money from Rowling’s work today. The Fantastic Beasts lead actor Eddie Redmayne told reporters he disagrees with Rowling’s comments, adding, “Trans women are women, trans men are men and nonbinary identities are valid.” It may surprise you to learn there’s also such a thing as “Harry Potter influencers” – online stars who make money collecting Potter merchandise, talking about the books and wearing costumes. One British influencer, Cherry Wallis, who has half a million YouTube subscribers, responded to Rowling’s comments by writing that Harry Potter “shaped and defined who I am as a human being” and spoke of “disappointment” with the author.
Many Harry Potter fans are simply divorcing the art from the artist – an approach Radcliffe encouraged. “To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished…” he wrote, “if you found anything in these stories that resonated with you… then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred. And in my opinion nobody can touch that.”
Personally, while I’ve always loved Harry Potter, I don’t feel I owe my politics to Rowling. I learned more from little-known bloggers and YouTubers who spoke out about their very real experiences of discrimination than I did from tales of house elves and werewolves. It’s likely I’ll read Harry Potter again, though I will avoid financially supporting Rowling’s new endeavours (be they movies or tacky Primark tie-in ranges). I am not betrayed by Rowling, merely disgusted. Her views are not an insult to fans: they are an insult to anyone who believes in treating others with dignity and respect.