It would be hard to think of any public figure over the past 30 years who has comported themselves with more dignity and grace in the face of overwhelming fame and success than JK Rowling. But for the last two years, for the simple reason of speaking her mind, she has been obliged to demonstrate that same dignity and grace in the face of a tsunami of hatred and vilification.
It was in December 2019 that Maya Forstater, a researcher at an international think tank, lost an employment tribunal case, accused of using “offensive and exclusionary” language on Twitter after she had posted a tweet saying “Men cannot change into women.”
The tribunal judge ruled that the belief, expressed by Forstater, that biological sex is immutable, and that it is impossible to change one’s sex, was “incompatible with human dignity and fundamental rights of others.”
The day after the tribunal ruling, Rowling posted a tweet to her 14.6 million followers: “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?”
The sluice gates opened – and it’s fair to say that since then they’ve never closed.
Last month, three trans activists posted photographs of themselves on social media staging a protest outside what could clearly be identified as Rowling’s Edinburgh home.
In a tweet responding to the posting, Rowling said: “I’ve now received so many death threats I could paper the house with them, and I haven’t stopped speaking out. Perhaps – and I’m just throwing this out there – the best way to prove your movement isn’t a threat to women, is to stop stalking, harassing and threatening us.”
Social media groups set up to target Rowling lit up with abuse: “JK Rowling is a liar”, “JK Rowling is trash”, and “jk Rowling I am about to dress like myself to K!ll you” and “Rot in Hell”.
The three activists, meanwhile, posted a message saying that while “we stand by” the photo they were removing it because of the “overwhelming amount of serious and transphobic messages” they had received.
On January 1 HBO Max showed a documentary, Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts, marking the anniversary of the first film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which included new interviews with actors from all eight Potter films, including Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, as well as the director of the original 2001 movie, Chris Columbus. According to the Warner Bros executive Tom Ascheim, it is “a tribute to everyone whose lives were touched by this cultural phenomenon” – everyone that is except the person responsible for the cultural phenomenon. Despite tribute being paid to Rowling by some members of the cast – notably Robbie Coltrane, who plays Hagrid in the Potter films, and says “One of the many reasons I admire JK so much is that millions now read books who would never have lifted a book up in their lives, and suddenly you realise the power of writing” – JK Rowling herself is represented only in archive interviews.
It is unclear whether Rowling was not asked to appear, or if she declined to participate. But we think we can guess. Corporations that Rowling has enriched over the years now fall over themselves to avoid being seen to be associated with her. Despite being the creator of the Fantastic Beasts franchise and the producer and co-screenwriter of the new film Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, Rowling was given only a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it credit on the trailer for the film, at the bottom of the video’s final title card. The most successful children’s author of the age has been cancelled.
How has it come to this?
Rowling’s own story is as well known as any she crafted for Harry Potter. In 1995, she was a 29-year-old single mother, with a failed marriage behind her, who had been diagnosed with depression, and was living on benefits in a one-bedroom flat in Edinburgh. She had written the first Harry Potter book sitting in a succession of Edinburgh cafes, fuelled by endless cups of coffee, while her infant daughter Jessica slept in her pushchair beside her.
In search of an agent, she picked the name of Christopher Little out of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, because, she said, it sounded like a name from a children’s book, and sent him the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The manuscript went straight into the rejection basket because Little thought that ‘children’s books did not make money’. It was only on second reading that he realised “there was something really special there.” He wrote back to Rowling, asking to see the rest of the manuscript. “It was the best letter of my life, including love letters,” she said. “I read it eight times.”
The book was turned down by every major publisher in Britain, until finally finding a home at the independent publisher, Bloomsbury. Published in 1997, the first print run was just 1,000 copies. “Remember, Joanne,” Little had warned Rowling, “this is all very well, but it’s not going to make you a fortune.” The Harry Potter books have gone on to sell more than 500 million copies around the world in 65 languages, and Rowling’s wealth is estimated at £795 million.
“She was very nice – almost naive at that stage, and freaked out a bit by the attention,” one former Bloomsbury executive remembers. “There was a big literary dinner where she had to get up and speak in front of industry figures, journalists, celebrities, and she was really nervous. We both smoked then and we sloped off to a staircase to have a calming ciggie. Much later she made a speech at Harvard University and she was just fantastic, so different from that almost studenty type girl from the late 1990s. Having millions of pounds and that degree of success is bound to affect you, but she’s dealt with it so well.”
Rowling has never forgotten what it was like to be poor and desperate. She has supported numerous charitable and human rights causes. Her Volant Charitable Trust (Volant was her mother’s maiden name) has an annual budget of £5.1m and works to alleviate poverty and social deprivation while her non-profit organisation, Lumos works globally to end the institutionalisation of children. In 2012 Forbes magazine estimated that she had given $160 million in charitable donations.
She married for the second time in 2001 to a Scottish doctor, Neil Murray, and she has two more children with him.
How then could a woman whose contribution to the sum of human happiness, and in particular to the welfare of women and children, have found herself the victim of a virulent hate campaign?
Look no further than social media.
When Rowling first went on Twitter in 2014 she described it as “an unmixed blessing”. It was a way both to communicate with her fans, and air her opinions. She delighted in mocking Donald Trump on Twitter. A supporter of the Labour party – Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah are friends, and she once donated £1m to party funds – she was fiercely critical of Jeremy Corbyn and his equivocation over Brexit, which Rowling opposed. She also opposed Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum.
Her first sally into the gender wars came in 2018, when she ‘liked’ a tweet by a female Labour party member, complaining that “Men in dresses get brocialist solidarity I never had. That’s misogyny!” Rowling’s publicist dismissed the ‘like’ as “a clumsy and middle-aged moment.”
Trans activists leapt on Rowling’s ‘like’, but the vitriol was nothing compared with the deluge that followed her tweet in support of Forstater.
Forstater, who has never met Rowling, says she was flabbergasted when the author tweeted about her case. “I’d lost the case the day before and was trying to hold body and soul together. And somebody sent me a WhatsApp message with a screenshot of her tweet. I thought they’d made it up to cheer me up.”
The tweet, she says, escalated her own case to a matter of international attention, bringing a huge social media backlash.
“There’s been this move to say that everything that JK Rowling has said on this issue is wrong and in bad faith, and part of that has been to lie and misrepresent my case,” says Forstater “In America, newspapers have said I harassed a transgender colleague. I didn’t have a transgender colleague, and I’ve never harassed anyone. They say that not because they care who I am but so they can say that JK Rowling defended this terrible person.
“The idea is you’re not supposed to talk about this, and she talked about it. If you’re a woman, particularly if you’re on the Left and you work in the voluntary sector or the public sector there are places where it’s dangerous to say anything. Someone will report them to their employer, or try to get them to shut up by making it harder for them to get work. Financially you can’t cancel JK Rowling. But they still had to come after her and make her into a witch, so that other people will be afraid to speak about this. And the fact that she kept coming back and talking about it has been incredibly inspiring and brave.”
After the Forstater row, Rowling backed away from Twitter for a few months, then in June 2020 she responded to an article on the website of Devex, which reports on sustainable development, headlined: “Creating a more equal post-Covid-19 world for people who menstruate.” Rowling tweeted: “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
In America, Variety reported it as an “anti-trans tweet”. The social media sluice gates collapsed.
“If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased,” Rowling tweeted. “I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”
A few days later she posted a lengthy, measured and candid essay titled ‘JK Rowling Writes About Her Reasons for Speaking Out on Sex and Gender Issues’, in which she wrote of having been ground down by “the relentless attacks from trans activists on social media... I forgot the first rule of Twitter – never, ever expect a nuanced conversation”; having spoken up “about the importance of sex” she had been “paying the price ever since.
“I was transphobic, I was a c---, a b----, a Terf, I deserved cancelling, punching and death. You are Voldemort said one person, clearly feeling this was the only language I’d understand. But endlessly unpleasant as its constant targeting of me has been, I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.”
She went on to talk about being a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor herself. “I managed to escape my first violent marriage with some difficulty, but I’m now married to a truly good and principled man, safe and secure in ways I never in a million years expected to be.
“However, the scars left by violence and sexual assault don’t disappear, no matter how loved you are, and no matter how much money you’ve made.
“I want trans women to be safe,” she wrote. “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. That is the simple truth.”
Even those who owed Rowling the most – the young actors whose careers had been made by Harry Potter – turned on her.
Radcliffe posted a statement on the website of the Trevor Project – an American nonprofit organisation that states its mission as being to “end suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning young people” – saying that while Rowling had been “unquestionably responsible for the course my life has taken,” he felt compelled to speak out. “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 healthcare associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either Jo or I.”
Watson followed suit, tweeting: “Trans people are who they say they are and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned or told they aren’t who they say they are.”
Grint tweeted: “I firmly stand with the trans community. Trans women are women. Trans men are men. We should all be entitled to live with love and without judgement.”
One of the few members of the cast to speak out in Rowling’s defence was Coltrane, saying: “I don’t think what she said was offensive really. I don’t know why but there’s a whole Twitter generation of people who hang around waiting to be offended. They wouldn’t have won the war, would they? That’s me talking like a grumpy old man, but you just think, ‘Oh, get over yourself. Wise up, stand up straight and carry on’.”
In America, institutions that had previously garlanded Rowling with awards, immediately caved. The Robert F Kennedy Human Rights (RFKHR) organisation, which in 2019 had awarded Rowling the Ripple of Hope Award in recognition for her “commitment to social change”, issued a statement by its president, Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kerry, describing her “dismay” over Rowling’s “deeply troubling transphobic tweets and statements”. Rowling promptly returned the award, saying “no award or honour, no matter my admiration for the person for whom it was named, means so much to me that I would forfeit the right to follow the dictates of my own conscience.”
The writers’ campaigning group, PEN International, which in 2006 had awarded her the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service award, lionising her as a “fierce opponent of censorship” and an “advocate for women’s and girls’ rights”, issued a deeply equivocal statement saying that “any discussion of freedom of expression must also be a discussion of power” adding “we support the right to hold and express strong views, provided that such expression does not undermine the internationally recognised human rights of others, incite hatred, nor engender the threat or use of violence.”
Such has been the climate of condemnation of her views that it is not uncommon to find Rowling described even in mainstream American publications as “the transphobe JK Rowling”, accused in the hyperbolic language of the times of peddling “hatred” and “endangering” the lives of trans people.
“It’s emotional language that’s designed to elicit fear and stop people talking about the realities of the situation which are much more complicated,” says Nina Power, the philosopher and social theorist. “The trans activist movement is about a lot of people trying to deal with their own suffering and projecting it onto another group. It’s a symptom of a deeper issue of how our society seems unable to think about sexual difference in a non-hysterical way.
“And I think JK Rowling was doing all of us a favour by coming out and saying these things, which she didn’t have to do. She could have remained aloof and not said anything, but I think she felt a moral imperative to do so, because she could see other women getting a lot of flak and losing their jobs. So I think her gesture was brave.”
Rowling’s global fame alone would have been enough to make her the target of the mob, but the vitriol goes deeper than that. With Harry Potter, she created a magical world which gave solace and comfort as well as escape to readers of a certain age, particularly those asking questions about their own identity and feelings. The books created obsessive fans, and the obsessiveness of that fandom has been mirrored by the obsessive nature with which she has been attacked. The tone is not simply of anger but of betrayal. It is the children of Harry Potter turning on the mother, their rage an act of matricide.
Roger Sutton is editor-in-chief of The Horn Book, America’s leading journal on the subject of children’s fiction.
He says he is “perplexed” about the rage that Rowling’s comments have engendered, particularly among those who grew up loving her books. “I’ve read everything she’s written about gender and to me there seems to be a real mismatch between the perceived offence and the reaction. But the American writer Fran Lebowitz once quipped that people love to feel superior to their past, and I think part of the reason she’s attracting so much anger on the part of the people who are angry with her is that they are reacting to their younger selves.”
Rowling’s books have long been pored over by those in search of hidden slurs or stereotypes; this character is supposedly a metaphor for paedophiles, that one is ‘anti-Semitic’; reams have been written on how the depiction of the House Elves perpetuates the canard of ‘happy slaves’. But in the wake of the controversy over her views on gender, the revisionist interpretation of Harry Potter has gathered steam, and Rowling is found guilty of transgressing every social justice shibboleth – as one critic puts it, "[the stories’] arguable racism, queerbaiting, lack of multiculturalism, fat-shaming, and upholding of the patriarchal structures.”
Nowdays, in the increasingly censorious world of children’s and young adult fiction, such trangressions are rigorously policed by ‘sensitivity readers’ – freelance editors hired by publishers to seek out examples of cultural appropriation and infelicitous references to race, sex, gender, disability, class and ‘non-inclusive’ language.
It makes you wonder, if JK Rowling was submitting the manuscript for the Harry Potter books today, would they be published?
Sutton, who describes himself as “gayer than five Dumbledores”, laughs. “That’s a great question, but it’s impossible to know because JK Rowling completely changed the face of publishing in children’s books, for good or ill. You can’t envisage a present without her having been in the past.”
Speaking personally, Sutton is not a fan. “My problems with JK Rowling were aesthetic ones, not political ones – why use five adverbs when one would do? But she’s done wonderful things around children and books; her philanthropy has been exemplary. I think she’s a hero as a children’s writer.”
Yet, curiously, it is not easy to find people in British publishing willing to say the same. Calls aren’t returned. Emails go unanswered. People are suddenly “unavailable”. “Nobody wants to talk about this,” says one publisher. And that includes one person in particular. JK Rowling was not available for comment.