J.K. Rowling and trans panic: A transgender woman’s perspective
Discourse and controversy pervade social spaces both online and off, leading up to the release of anticipated video game “Hogwarts Legacy,” part of the Harry Potter IP. Social spaces are buzzing with conversations about the franchise’s creator, J.K. Rowling, claiming she is a danger to transgender people, and that she should not be financially supported. What’s going on? Is there something more serious than a video game at the heart of this discussion?
This outpouring of opinions can be attributed to Rowling’s statements on transgender issues and her role in increasing the momentum of the “gender-critical,” or “GC” movement, which is a hate group focused on sowing fear and disgust towards transgender people, particularly in the United Kingdom and United States. Rowling, by using her wide platform and influence to popularize anti-transgender rhetoric, has become a kind of figurehead in GC spaces. She purports that she isn’t transphobic, nor does she mean any harm; she just has some ‘concerns’ and ‘questions’ about transgender people’s involvement in sports, use of gendered public restrooms and placement in women’s prisons.
These so-called “transgender questions” are the very same that can be found pervading the current political landscape across many nations and are leading to a massive wave of bill proposals and changes in social behavior towards trans people, which are having real impacts on transgender people’s lives.
A common talking point, and one Rowling has been very focused on herself, is the idea that trans women are dangerous males, invading women’s spaces to abuse and harm women, fueling a narrative of transgender people as predatory and increasing fear and aggression towards transgender people. Data is rarely provided to these points; they’re merely stated with the expectation they’ll be accepted reactively by an audience that isn’t interested in researching the data. For example, a lot of focus is placed on trans women in female prisons, and it’s a topic talked about so often and with such urgency by Rowling and other GC figures that you’d get the sense that trans women committing sexual crimes in women’s prisons is a commonly occurring and highly important issue.
The reality is that this just isn’t the case. According to data published by the Ministry of Justice in November 2022, there were 49 transgender inmates housed in women’s prisons, with six of those 49 inmates being transgender women, across the entirety of England and Wales. This region had a total prison population of 79,773, and in women’s prisons, a total population of 3,190 as of March 31, 2022. None of the six transgender women were convicted of sexual crimes while serving in prison.
Very few transgender women are being housed in women’s prisons and they aren’t over-representing sexual crimes. In fact, transgender people are extremely overrepresented as victims of sexual violence while incarcerated. A 2007 study from the University of California, Irvine found that transgender inmates were 13 times more likely to experience sexual assault against a randomly selected control group of 322 inmates in California state prisons.
Evidence supporting claims that transgender people are inherently dangerous or predatory is feeble and far-between. In fact, transgender people face far greater rates of violence compared to the average person. Yet the continuing spread of moral panics involving transgender people have reached the political mainstage here in the U.S. There are serious discussions in our government every day about banning access to life-saving transgender healthcare, and even banning and criminalizing loosely defined “drag performance,” which includes publicly wearing clothing that doesn’t conform to one’s assigned gender at birth.
2022 saw 188 anti-trans bills proposed, and so far in just these first two months of 2023, 175 anti-trans bills have already been proposed. The goals of many of these bills include making it illegal for trans people to access their hormones, charge parents with child abuse for supporting their child in transition and even outlawing being in public wearing clothes not arbitrarily aligned with an individual’s assigned gender at birth.
Transgender people and families are already fleeing their home states to evade newly enacted bills, and many are looking to the gray market to stockpile necessary medications. It’s more important now than ever to be kind to the transgender people in your life, and to take care in understanding what makes transgender people so wary of figures like Rowling and their supporters. In the coming political turmoil, it’s important to stay informed with data and to acknowledge reactive biases present in ourselves and the media we consume.