From beloved to despised: J.K. Rowling and transphobia

by Kylie Chen (’24), Kiana Allard (’24), and Valerie Wong (’24) | March 10, 2023

Art by Emily Tang (’26)

This past month, J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter franchise experienced a new surge of controversy around Rowling’s transphobia. In June 2020, Rowling posted a Twitter thread expressing that the existence of transgender people invalidated the experiences of cisgender women. She claimed that as a result, she couldn’t agree that sex is not the basis of gender—an idea that is fundamental to transgender identity. She doubled down in a blog post four days later, saying that transgender people and activists seek to “erode” sex assigned at birth and “replace it with gender.” Trans and other LGBTQ+ activists, as well as many of Rowling’s fans, responded with outrage that has persisted as Rowling has continued sharing her anti-trans views. 

On February 10, Warner Bros. Games released Hogwarts Legacy, a video game set in the world of Harry Potter. Because Rowling, while not directly involved in the creation of the game, will still receive royalties, many members of the LGBTQ+ community were hesitant to support the game. Additionally, its attempt at inclusivity with the addition of Sirona Ryan, a trans woman, backfired as a seemingly empty display of representation—similar to Rowling’s pattern of creating token diverse characters with names reflecting racist stereotypes (like Cho Chang, Padma Patil, and Kingsley Shacklebolt). While “Sirona” could refer to the Celtic goddess of rebirth, the inclusion of “sir” in a trans woman’s name has received criticism. Despite this disappointment, the game was still respectful in its portrayal of multiple ethnically diverse characters, such as Natsai “Natty” Onai, a playable Gryffindor from Africa, and Chiyo Kogawa, a Japanese flying instructor, who play prominent roles in the game’s storyline. 

Many people who worked on the game, including technicians and voice actors, have voiced their support for the LGBTQ+ community, with some opting not to purchase their own game. Parker Hartzler, a real-time technician for the game, tweeted, “I will not be purchasing the game—it is the least I can do as an ally.”

Adding to the attention on Rowling, the New York Times published an opinion article titled “In Defense of J.K. Rowling” on February 16 in anticipation of the podcast series The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. In the article, columnist Pamela Paul argued that the criticism Rowling has received for her comments is “absurd,” and that “nothing [Rowling] has said qualifies as transphobic.” However, while Rowling has never directly expressed hate toward transgender people, she appeals to common stereotypes used by transphobes to undermine the validity of trans identities, which Paul conveniently ignored in order to push her narrative of Rowling as the blameless victim. It is also important to note that Paul has previously published pieces that criticize the use of trans-inclusive language and compare anti-abortion conservatives to pro-trans rights progressives. Paul, who claims to be liberal and not transphobic, has also promoted the idea of biological determinism, or that sex assigned at birth is the basis of gender—a view commonly held by conservative, anti-trans politicians.

The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, which premiered on February 21, suggests that the criticism Rowling faces, like the accusations leveled at “witches,” is unfairly harsh. The podcast was released by the Free Press, which was founded by Bari Weiss, a former New York Times opinion columnist known for her anti-trans rhetoric, and its first episode focused on Rowling’s perspective and used her experience as a survivor of abuse as an excuse for her to be transphobic. The other released episodes have been all over the place, with the only consistent message being that Rowling is a victim. So far, the podcast has neglected to include any perspectives from the trans community.

With trans activists advocating for people to boycott Hogwarts Legacy, J.K. Rowling and her beloved franchise epitomize a dilemma with which, in recent years, consumers of media have grappled: Can you separate art from its artist? For many, Harry Potter, a cherished part of their childhood, is not something they are willing to give up. However, it is impossible to ignore the millions Rowling continues to make every year off of the franchise and subsequently uses to fund anti-trans legislation in the UK. While reading Rowling’s novels or playing the game does not make one transphobic, it is still important to consider problematic parts of the content and the implications of supporting its creator.

Categories: Entertainment

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