explainer

"A new kind of conversion therapy." Why everyone is talking about J.K.Rowling... again.

This post was originally published on June 9, 2020. It has since been updated with new details.

J.K. Rowling has compared hormone therapy to a "new kind of conversion therapy" for young gay people.

She also suggested that young people struggling with mental health issues are being "shunted" towards this kind of therapy "when it isn't in their best interests". 

It's the second time in two months the Harry Potter author has faced criticism, after first voicing what some have called trans-phobic sentiments about periods, womanhood, and sex versus gender.

So how did we get here in the first place?

Let's start at the beginning.


Video via Mamamia

J.K. Rowling's history of undermining trans identity.

Over the past three years, J.K. Rowling has left a trail of social media breadcrumbs, hinting at her stance on transgender identity.

In 2017, she hit the 'like' button on a tweet directing to a Medium article that claimed cisgender women are scared of sharing female-designated spaces with trans women. (Or, in the author's words, "Tell us again how we should willingly get changed next to a stranger with a penis while focusing on ensuring our fearful body language doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable.")

In March 2018, Rowling then 'liked' a tweet that described transgender women as "men in dresses". Rowling's reps backpedalled fast on that one.

"It was a mistake," they told NewsWeek. "I’m afraid J.K. Rowling had a clumsy and middle-aged moment and this is not the first time she has favourited by holding her phone incorrectly!"

But the following year, Rowling also tweeted her support for Maya Forstater, a British woman who was fired from her job for tweeting anti-trans statements, including "men cannot change into women".

ADVERTISEMENT

Rowling's comments this week are her most explicit on the issue yet. 

What did J.K. Rowling say recently?

On June 7, J.K. Rowling retweeted an article to her 14.5 million followers titled, "Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate". 

"'People who menstruate,'" she wrote. "I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?"

Many Twitter users accused Rowling of transphobia, or at least harmful ignorance, and pointed out how her comment entirely erased the experience of so many people who have periods.

"Not all women menstruate and not all who menstruate are women. There are many girls, non-binary folx, trans boys, and trans men who also get a period," one wrote.

"I have endometriosis and an IUD in place to treat it, and therefore, I no longer menstruate," wrote another. "I haven't had a menstrual cycle since early high school, and I'm 21. I guess I'm not a woman anymore?" 

But Rowling doubled down...

Image: Twitter 

ADVERTISEMENT

She also shared an article that alleged the LGBTQI community has become "dangerously anti-lesbian and pro child abuse" — a reference to gender confirmation surgery undertaken by some trans youth.

Rowling's stance has led some to describe her as a TERF: trans-exclusionary radical feminist.

The acronym, which was coined by an Australian writer Viv Smyth in 2008, refers to a vocal group of feminists who argue that the only "real women" are those born with female sex organs and an XX chromosome. Trans women, in their view, couldn't possibly understand the female experience and shouldn't have access to female-designated spaces.

By tieing gender (which is the social and cultural expression of one's sex) to biology, they erase the experience of trans and non-binary people and suggest they shouldn't have any agency in their own gender expression.

On June 10, Rowling published a 3,600 word essay in response to the criticism, stepping the reader through five reasons she is concerned about the trajectory of trans activism. Read the full text on her website, but this is the crux:

  1. "It’s been clear to me for a while that the new trans activism is having (or is likely to have, if all its demands are met) a significant impact on many of the causes I support, because it’s pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender."
  2. ."I’m an ex-teacher and the founder of a children’s charity, which gives me an interest in both education and safeguarding. Like many others, I have deep concerns about the effect the trans rights movement is having on both."
  3. "As a much-banned author, I’m interested in freedom of speech and have publicly defended it."
  4. "I’m concerned about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition and also about the increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning."
    In this section, Rowling seems to compare the gender dysphoria experienced by trans people with her own desire to fit in and be heard. She writes, "...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."
  5. And finally, she reveals her own painful experiences of male violence — a traumatic sexual assault in her 20s and domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband — to explain her fear around trans women being given access to female-designated spaces: "I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman... then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside."

Rowling concluded by insisting she is not looking for sympathy.

"I’ve only mentioned my past because, like every other human being on this planet, I have a complex backstory which shapes my fears, my interests and my opinions. I never forget that inner complexity when I’m creating a fictional character and I certainly never forget it when it comes to trans people.

"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."

A month later, on July 5, Rowling 'liked' a tweet comparing hormone prescriptions to anti-depressants. 

"Hormone prescriptions are the new anti depressants," the tweet read. "Yes they are sometimes necessary and lifesaving, but they should be a last resort. Pure laziness for those who would rather medicate than put in the time and effort to heal people’s minds.” 

After receiving widespread criticism, Rowling attempted to clarify her stance on both trans women and mental health in a series of tweets.

ADVERTISEMENT

"Many health professionals are concerned that young people struggling with their mental health are being shunted towards hormones and surgery when this may not be in their best interests," she wrote in the 11-tweet thread.

"Many, myself included, believe we are watching a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people, who are being set on a lifelong path of medicalisation that may result in the loss of their fertility and/or full sexual function," she said.

Rowling added that she believed the long-term health risks of cross-sex hormones "are often minimised or denied by trans activists". 

She then posted a link to an account of a woman who has "detransitioned" after briefly living as a trans man.

The backlash.

Rowling's comments over the past two months have been broadly condemned by LGBTQI activists, including the organisation GLAAD, which tweeted, "JK Rowling continues to align herself with an ideology which willfully distorts facts about gender identity and people who are trans. In 2020, there is no excuse for targeting trans people. We stand with trans youth, especially those Harry Potter fans hurt by her inaccurate and cruel tweets". 

ADVERTISEMENT

Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliff voiced his criticism of Rowling's statements via The Trevor Project, an organisation that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQI youth.

"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," he wrote in a statement on the organisation's website.

"According to The Trevor Project, 78 per cent of transgender and nonbinary youth reported being the subject of discrimination due to their gender identity. It’s clear that we need to do more to support transgender and nonbinary people, not invalidate their identities, and not cause further harm."

Other stars from the Harry Potter film universe also spoke out in support of the trans community, including Emma Watson and Fantastic Beasts star Eddie Redmayne.

ADVERTISEMENT

The trans community is undoubtedly marginalised. 

Recent research by UNSW's The Kirby Institute found that 53 per cent of trans and gender diverse Australians have experienced sexual violence or coercion. That's four times the rate of the wider Australian population.

Trans people over 18 are also 11 times more likely to attempt suicide, 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression. And less than half say they've experienced inclusive sexual health care. 

Rowling's statements, which first came in the thick of Pride Month, have caused yet more hurt to many trans people. 

Trans author Jackson Bird described her trans-erasure as "a punch in the guts" to gender diverse people who found much-needed escapism in the magical world she created and acceptance in the diverse fan community it inspired. As he previously wrote for The New York Times, her views are painfully at odds with the core message of her all-time-best-selling series: that love is powerful, above all else.

"I can only hope she takes this opportunity to practice some of the same values she taught us and listens to trans fans of her books," Bird wrote. 

"Let us tell you about our lives, how we got here, and even how the world you created saved many of us."

Responding to the more recent tweets, transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf called Rowling "dangerous". 

"Trans healthcare is not conversion therapy. This is INSANE. JK Rowling is not a scientist. She is not a doctor. She is not an expert on gender. She is not a supporter of our community," she wrote.

If you are thinking about suicide or experiencing a personal crisis help is available through Lifeline. Call 13 11 14. No one needs to face their problems alone.

Feature Image: Getty.

00:00 / ???