On The J.K. Rowling Controversy
Updated: Jul 15, 2020
What of the controversy? I would be with JK Rowling—at least in the qualified sense that I would be with anyone who had the courage to speak up for what they believed in and backed up their conclusions with empirical evidence and reasoned argument. This last qualification is a crucial one, and it is here where I have a problem. The problem is that Rowling’s qualifying comments are undoubtedly transphobic, not because she ‘hates’ trans-gender men or women, but because the fears she articulates have little or no basis in fact. For instance, when she states that she is “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”, it becomes clear that her ‘concern’ is not based on extensive interviews or research documenting the lived experience of those who transition or detransition, but is the product of her transphobic conclusion that individuals making the decision to identify with a different gender are confused, misinformed or have been propagandized into a false belief about themselves by a dangerously permissive 'woke' culture. Even worse, she concludes that throwing “open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman” is opening the door to voyeuristic men who gain sexual pleasure from watching women undressing or relieving themselves.
This kind of spurious argument has its homophobic corollary in the claim that male homosexuals’ prey on children and should therefore be prevented from holding any sort of teaching position. Rowling’s ‘concern’ here is not just factually suspect but in bad faith—less an expression of empathy, and more an attempt to conceal prejudice. Her claim that ‘increasing numbers are detransitioning’ because they are confused, naïve or regret what they did, is not a conclusion based on careful weighing of fact or evidence. It is, simply, factually false. Less than 1% of those who transition regret their decision and often this has more to do with social, familial and peer pressures—in a word, with precisely having to put up with the sort of transphobia underscored in Rowling’s tweets and further rationalizations. For many others, detransitioning is temporary for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with regret but more to do with pressure exerted on them by friends and family. The point is not that detransitioning occurs, but that people like J.K. Rowling would be better off allowing transgender people, and researchers who spend time with them to draw conclusions about why it sometimes occurs that trans people detransition, and stop worrying if a trans woman is 'confused' or really just a cis man ogling naked women.
Now, if you or I made these sorts of claims it is unlikely the issue would have come to the world’s attention. However, by virtue of her wealth and fame Rowling has a wider online platform, and therefore a much louder and more influential voice. Moreover, as Glenn Greenwald has rightly stated anyone with this sort of outsize platform should not be at all surprised when they are taken to the virtual woodshed and roundly spanked for expressing opinions that appear to many to be prejudiced or intolerant. Indeed, we rightly assume that the larger the platform, the more followers you have, the greater your responsibility to get things ‘right’. We would also like it to be the case that those who have great influence also have a greater capacity for empathy towards the powerless, those who are discriminated against or who struggle for recognition. Unfortunately, in an anonymous cyber-world where truth and fact are often disposed of in order to make room for ‘opinions’ based on neither, the above-mentioned assumptions simply do not hold much water. Donald Trump is, of course, the paradigmatic case of someone for whom ‘the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, has never really existed’. But he is by no means alone. In a culture that has gradually become more and more indifferent to facts and truth, where there is often a wholesale substitution of fiction for factual truth, the problem, as Hannah Arendt warns us, is not that “the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world — and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end — is being destroyed.” Losing one’s bearings in the midst of a global pandemic or impending climate change catastrophe has today taken the form of a mind-boggling denial of reality and the desperate embrace of lies and fictions that promise things will soon get back to ‘normal’.
However, I do have some sympathy—or better, a certain worry with the Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) claim that all a man needs to do in order to ‘become a woman’ is to say he is one—not because I don’t believe that everyone has the right to explore who they are when they simply do not feel that the gender they have been assigned by ‘nature’ or society does not comport with how they feel and experience the world. Nor is it because I think that inclusiveness regarding trans people invalidates traditional social roles--if it does that is actually fine with me. But from a feminist perspective speaking out of a history of oppression, deciding one is going to live out life as a woman is not the same thing as ‘being a woman’. The former is a choice made by a man based on an individual self-understanding; the latter is not something chosen but rather something to be overcome precisely because it is not chosen. What I am questioning here is whether feeling compelled to assign to oneself a preordained gender identity, is really an expression of human freedom or just another gender strait-jacket that ends up reinforcing gender stereotypes. Feminists like Shulamith Firestone and Mary Anne Warren have persuasively argued that biological partitioning between the sexes is precisely the foundation of patriarchy and indeed male domination and exploitation of women. For the socialist feminist Firestone, the objective of the feminist revolution, is “not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself”. Simply put, genital differences should not have cultural significance—whether at a philosophical, economic, political or religious level. Unfortunately, this bifurcation between the sexes stubbornly persists at a cultural level: women continue to be underpaid, underrepresented, excluded, bullied and sexually assaulted, not because they are trans women, but because they are ‘women’ in the reductive biological sense discussed above.
Additionally, there is a class-conscious history of women’s oppression that is easily elided in the TERF enthusiasm to embrace the needs of men who today feel oppressed by their biology—woman in Western society have 'lived' this oppression for thousands of years. It is precisely this history that should make us question rather than embrace conventional gender categories. Historically, ‘cis women’ are those beings who have been, since the beginning of human life on earth, considered to be of ‘lesser moral worth’ than men, not because in the present generation they are men who ‘say they are women’, but because they actually were considered to be women in virtue of certain biological realities: they have a vulva, two X chromosomes, menstruate for a certain time in life, and can become pregnant and give birth. For a few thousand years these latter biological characteristics have (in Western society) been considered sufficient reason to demote, disenfranchise and disempower women: to see them as weaker, less intellectually gifted, and, on the whole, to be of lesser social, moral, political, economic and religious standing when compared to their ‘cis male’ betters—you know, that portion of the human species who have a penis, an X and Y chromosome, do not menstruate and cannot become pregnant or give birth.
What has this biological differentiation meant in cultural terms? Well, it has been fairly significant for the group who didn’t ‘self-identify’ as a woman but who were defined as women (and ergo as ‘inferior’) owing to their biological reality. Thus, it is ‘cis women’ who were not allowed to vote, not because they were trans-women, but because they were ‘cis women’, biologically distinct from men who had economic and political power over them; it is ‘cis women’ who were not allowed to have property, (and were considered as the property of a man) not because they were trans-women but because they were ‘cis women’, biologically distinct from men, who had economic and political power over them; it is ‘cis women’ who underwent (and continue to be forced to undergo) genital mutilation, not because they are trans-women but because they are ‘cis women’ biologically distinct from men who have economic and political power over them; it is a ‘cis woman’ who is not paid as much as a ‘cis man’ in the same job not because she is trans-woman but because she is a ‘cis woman’, biologically distinct from men, who happen to have economic and political power over her; it is ‘cis women’ who for thousands of years have been physically and psychologically abused by ‘cis men’, not because they were trans-women but because they were ‘cis women’, biologically distinct from men who had economic and political power over them; it is ‘cis women’ not trans-women who are considered to be ‘ritually unclean’ in the Torah’ because they are biologically distinct from ‘cis men’ who have power over them; it was not because they were trans-women, but because they were ‘cis women’ biologically distinct from ‘men’ who had power over them, that Pope Paul VI could exclude ‘women’ from the priesthood.
To accede to the Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) claim that all a man needs to do in order to ‘become a woman’ is to say he is one, can be read as a misogynistic perspective that completely erases this crucial history, and trivializes the last 250 years of women’s political, social, and economic struggle for equality. To be a woman who is also a feminist and concerned about bringing to modern consciousness a history of oppression, repression and violence against women, will never be adequately represented in a man who personally identifies as a ‘woman’. By contrast, a woman who identifies as a man will immediately grasp the perks and privileges of being a male in a society that values men over women. Does that fact in itself not disclose something very significant about the reality of identity politics? That, indeed, what matters greatly depends on what identity you ‘choose to be’ in a modern capitalist world that continues to discriminate against women? That, at any rate, is what the history of men discriminating against women discloses. It is precisely against the idea that reductive biological distinctions should be grounds for discrimination against women at a social, political cultural or economic level which has defined the feminist project.
The history of the present is one of women’s struggle for recognition as ‘persons’ not as men or trans-men or trans-women. That struggle continues, and the oppressive conditions that it fights against simply cannot be erased or forgotten by the present needs of a group of men who ‘identify as a woman’ but have no inkling of the historical or lived experience of discrimination based on biology, that women have been subject to for thousands of years. The feminists I speak to on a daily basis spend their lives fighting against the restrictions their culture imposed upon them because of their sex. They would say, ‘you will not help our emancipatory struggle by identifying as a woman, but rather by fighting for equality for all persons as human beings. In short, to say this is primarily an argument about the freedom of men to choose to be a woman precisely underscores the fact that we continue to be prisoners of gender based in biology.
Firestone’s goal of eliminating the sex distinction has not been achieved. I suspect if she were around today she would be reiterating that our objective must be the elimination of all identities rather than the continuous multiplication of new gender identities. I think we would all be better off if we stopped seeing ourselves as women, men, trans, lesbian or gay but simply as persons or beings who are unique, irreplaceable and worthy of respect and dignity. This is not by any means to forget or belittle the experience of many trans persons who have been physically or verbally assaulted, suffered humiliation, loss or shunning just because they are different. Their pain, their suffering, is real, it is deeply disturbing and no society should tolerate any kind of discrimination based on sexual or gender identifications. However, is not what is then called for precisely an end to the prejudicial belief that gender differences should make a difference at economic, social, cultural or political level? Is this not a plea for personhood rather than for the multiplication of gender identities?
But then that is often the problem those who immerse themselves in identity politics without considering historical realities—they tend to erase the past whenever it gets in the way of their present politically correct way of speaking, excluding and condemning any voice not in perfect conformity with what is considered to be the present ‘orthodoxy’. In their endless shrieking at unbelievers and aggressive bullying efforts to hound out, shun and punish any kind of unorthodoxy they have become the 21st Century’s cultural thought police rather than thinking persons who see it as their obligation to question present dogma.