An Open Letter to J.K. Rowling

Dear Ms. Rowling,

I appreciate the piece that you wrote and published on your website on June 10th explaining your views on sex and gender and why you choose to speak about them as you do. It helps me to understand your point of view, and I hope it will serve as the foundation for a respectful and nuanced exchange of ideas which, as you correctly observe, is unfeasible on social media. 

My purpose in writing this letter is not to cast stones at you. I do not believe that I am qualified to do that. I consider myself a GLBT+ ally and have done so for more than 20 years. However, before that, I was a homophobe in a very literal sense. Because orientations other than heterosexual, and gender identities other than cis, did not fit into my narrow worldview, I dealt with them the only way I knew how, by pretending they didn’t exist.

A week before my 17th birthday, the second of my three beloved brothers came out as gay. Like it or not, I had to figure out a way to deal with it. Eventually, I learned to approach it with an unconditional love that gradually led to acceptance and advocacy. Nevertheless, if not for that particular happenstance, I would probably be out there by myself right now, protesting persistently yet pointlessly against same-sex marriage. 

You may have noticed that I used the abbreviation GLBT+ rather than LGBT+ as has become the custom here in the United States. I eventually adopted the latter to avoid inconvenient questions, but given the choice, I prefer to use the former. Because I have gay men as family members, their concerns and wellbeing are always foremost in my mind. If I were to craft my own acronym based on my knowledge of and comfort level with the various subgroups in descending order, it would go GBALT,* etc. I have met and interacted with trans people, but I regrettably have none among my close friends or family members.

I’m the first to admit that I have a long way to go and a lot to learn along the path of becoming a good trans ally. Therefore, I did not initially respond to you back in December because I did not feel I could speak accurately to the trans experience, having neither first- nor second-hand knowledge of it. Now, however, I believe that my relative objectivity may be an asset rather than a liability because the issue is less emotional for me than for the trans community.

I understand that your views on the issues of sex and gender have been informed partly by your experience of domestic violence and sexual assault. To a certain extent, I am able to empathize with your description thereof. I do not call myself a survivor of sexual assault because I think that implies a physical violation that I have (thankfully) never endured. However, in my mid-to-late 20s I worked in a call center where I was subjected to daily verbal abuse from callers, which occasionally rose to the level of verbal assault.** I do not mean to equate my experience with what you went through, but your descriptions of its aftermath resonate with me significantly.

I, too, have psychological scars that will never heal and irrational fear reactions to things that turn out to be completely innocuous. For example, in the recent presidential primary here in the United States, I couldn’t bring myself to volunteer to assist my candidate of choice because I knew that it would mean receiving campaign calls from the same area code as the most malevolent of my telephonic abusers. I don’t think I could ever answer such a call without experiencing panic symptoms.  Therefore, I do understand why you are afraid of the presence of people who appear to be male in women’s restrooms. I also understand your concern that sexual predators could try to gain access to such spaces through duplicitous means by gaming the system.

However, that concern seems to be based on a fallacy, a cruel fiction that not only does a disservice to you and other survivors of sexual assault but also an injustice to the trans activists with whom you are in opposition. To my knowledge, there is no credible scientific research indicating that this is a common occurrence, nor any documented evidence that it has ever happened at all. I couldn’t help but notice that you cited no such evidence in your post despite making reference to several other works of scholarship to support your positions.

It’s also worth pointing out that “biological sex” is a less straightforward concept than many people realize. An individual may inherit XY chromosomes but fail to receive the necessary hormones in the womb to develop male sex organs. In a situation like this, do you determine the individual’s “biological sex” in terms of genetic makeup or genitalia shape? Maybe you have found an answer in your research, but the best solution I can come up with is to ask the individual.

You said in a tweet on June 6th, “My life has been shaped by being female.” While I completely respect that viewpoint, it is something that I cannot empathize with myself because my lived experience has been very different from what you describe, especially when I was young. I was born in 1980, the fourth of five children. In addition to my three brothers, I also have one sister. I cannot say that my upbringing was entirely egalitarian, but it was very, very close. For example, while the division of labor between my parents tended to fall along traditionally stereotypical gender lines, we kids were usually assigned chores based on age rather than sex.  

If I’m being honest, which I always try to be, I can’t say that I’ve never been denied anything on account of being female. But the few things that I have been denied are things that I would have either rejected if they had been offered (e.g., the priesthood) or pushed back against if they had been mandated (e.g., registration for the draft). 

I was 5 years old when I had my first and most significant experience with gender discrimination, which happened on the basis of perceived rather than actual gender. Specifically, two other little girls decided that I must be a boy because I had short hair. Therefore, not only wouldn’t they let me play with them, they seemed to regard excluding me as a delightful game in itself. At a tender age, I learned that issues of sex/gender discrimination are far more complicated than most adults are willing or able to understand, regardless of where they fall along the ideological spectrum. It’s a lesson that has stuck with me all my life and informed my perception of sex/gender issues ever since. 

By telling you about my background, I do not mean to imply that my experience is more valid than yours or to flaunt what I had that you lacked. It is merely to illustrate that, since my life has not been shaped by being female in the same way that yours has, I do not really understand why it is so important to draw the distinction and defend it so vehemently. If someone were to ask me what I would say to people who say it should be “[Cisgender] Women First,” I would say that from there, it’s one short step to “Straight Women First” and then “White Women First” and then outright fascism.

I neither expect nor require answers to the following questions; all I ask is that you consider them carefully: 

  1. Is it possible that the distinction between transgender and cisgender women has been promulgated by an oppressive hegemony in the interest of weakening resistance by driving a wedge between groups that might otherwise join together to oppose it?
  2. If that is the case, is it also possible that, in trying to maintain that distinction, you are unintentionally helping to consolidate the power of the oppressive hegemony that you profess to oppose? I seem to remember a wise old wizard once saying, “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”
  3. You express compassion for trans people who become victims of sexual violence, but have you ever considered the precarious position that forcing trans women to use the men’s restroom places them in?

As it relates to public restrooms and preserving “single-sex spaces,” I understand that it is not only your own safety, comfort, and convenience that concerns you but that of other women and girls. Nevertheless, I wonder how many people once argued earnestly and passionately for racially segregated restrooms in the name of public safety. 

In the same tweet of June 6th, you also addressed the trans community directly, stating: “I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans.” While I understand that you were trying to be magnanimous, that statement suggests an assumption that is fundamentally flawed. 

By framing the statement as a conditional, you imply that trans people are not being discriminated against now. Even leaving aside the issues of restroom access, government registration, and reassignment surgery that you find problematic, the fact remains that transgender people are being discriminated against at this very moment in concrete, demonstrable ways. 

As a matter of fact, a mere matter of hours before I initially started writing this letter back in mid-June, the current U.S. administration rolled back an Obama-era provision of the Affordable Care Act protecting trans people from discrimination by health care providers. As I understand it, this means that doctors in the United States can now refuse to provide medical services to trans people even for health conditions unrelated to gender dysphoria.

If, for example, a trans individual went to a U.S. hospital trying to get treatment or testing for COVID-19, a doctor could legally turn the individual away on the basis of gender identity, denying access to life-saving ventilators in the process. It puts me in mind of the shameful period in America’s past when hospitals were racially segregated, and Black people could not hope to receive treatment at a white hospital even in the case of a life-threatening medical emergency.  

However, it’s not only in the realm of health care that trans people face discrimination. The lack of federal protections for gender identity means that, in states that do not have comprehensive anti-discrimination regulations in place, trans individuals can be summarily dismissed from their jobs*** or evicted from their dwellings with impunity. According to GLAAD, transgender people are disparately impacted by unemployment, poverty, and homelessness compared to the rest of the population. As Daniel Radcliffe pointed out in his guest post for The Trevor Project, discrimination on the basis of gender identity affects over three-quarters of transgender and nonbinary youth. 

If you are willing to entertain a challenging hypothetical, I ask you to imagine how you would have reacted if someone online had responded to the horrific death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement by expressing a reluctance to use the “approved hashtags” on social media for the purpose of “scoop[ing] up the woke cookies” because “of course [Black] lives matter.” My guess is that you would have responded with righteous indignation, and with good reason.

If you are willing to take the exercise a step further, I encourage you to take a sample of your statements on sex and/or gender and replace those words with “race” and/or “color.” If they no longer sound like things a reasonably decent, intelligent, and compassionate person would say, perhaps you can gain some insight into why your original statements sound similarly disingenuous and tone-deaf to the trans community and allies such as myself.

Because the issue is so deeply personal and emotional, and the stakes are so high, some people have responded to your statements on sex and gender with unkind insults and hateful slurs. Given my own history with verbal abuse/assault, I do not condone these reactions. Nevertheless, I completely understand the feelings of anger, pain, and disillusionment that give rise to them.

I gave this letter to a trans acquaintance to read, who observed that it did not really describe the feelings that trans people may experience in response to your words. Despite the helpful resources she provided me, I found that such was beyond my powers of introjection. But I think I’ve hit upon an analogy that may help you and me both to gain a better understanding of those feelings. 

You describe yourself as an INFJ, while I am an INFP. According to Dr. David Keirsey, that makes both of us Idealists in temperament and identity-seeking personalities. Therefore, we ought to be able to imagine how it could damage one’s self-confidence to be forced to live inauthentically as the wrong gender. We ought to be able to understand how it would hurt to have one’s true self publicly repudiated. We ought to be willing to encourage others in their individual quests for self-actualization, and if we cannot do that, the very least we can do is not try to actively impede them. 

I know that it is a long shot that you will even see this letter, let alone read it. I do not flatter myself that my humble words will be sufficient to persuade a writer and rhetorician of your caliber to change your viewpoint. Nevertheless, because your work is so important to me, I had to at least make the attempt to communicate my thoughts and feelings to you. I read the first three Harry Potter books during my first semester as a university student in 1999, and they helped me adjust to leaving home for the first time. I named my cat, a brown tabby, after Minerva McGonagall. Most significantly, whatever differences we may have, I hope you will be gratified to know that Order of the Phoenix in particular helped me to come to terms with what I went through at the call center. 

Another one of my favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle, used to say that her books knew more than she did. I hope you will understand that I am not trying to criticize or insult you when I say that I think the same is true of your books. Indeed, comparing you to Madeleine L’Engle is perhaps the greatest compliment that I could ever pay you.

Though I initially published this letter on my website in mid-June, I have been making revisions to it throughout July, concurrently with The Ickabog being published in full. I’m glad that I continued reading it because it is so applicable to these issues, more so than I suspect you fully realize.

As I look for examples of characters and situations from your books to apply to the current situation, I do not believe that you are Voldemort, as some have alleged. If I did, I wouldn’t waste my time trying to reach you because I would know it was a lost cause. Instead, I could make a case that you’re Percy Weasley or Sirius Black, or possibly Fred the Fearless. But as I make these revisions, I’ve become convinced that you’re the Ickabog.

Given the Ickabog’s initial intentions, that’s very scary and very sad, but it also gives me great hope. The Ickabog is not really a monster and, given the opportunity, actively chooses not to become one. As the erstwhile King Fred wisely tells the Ickleboggle that was bornded into violent trauma, you can still learn to be a better, kinder person if you really want to become one (as can I and everyone else in the world, with the possible exception of the Dalai Lama). I believe you to be a basically kind, reasonable, benevolent person at baseline, so it may be that you have a relatively short path to tread if you’re willing to take the first step. And if you get lost along the way, you can look to the example of the remarkable people whom you mentored as young Harry Potter film actors, particularly Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe, for guidance. 

To be clear, I do not ask you to just go through the motions so you can “bask in a virtue-signalling afterglow.” That might be enough to satisfy some people, but to paraphrase Madeleine L’Engle again, I want nothing from you that you do without grace.

These are not the circumstances under which I would have preferred to attempt to communicate with you. It feels as though I may be saying good-bye to you without having properly said hello, and I regret not reaching out to you until there was a compelling reason. If indeed we have come to “the parting of the ways,” as Dumbledore says, I want you to know that I will always be grateful for what your books have given me. Though I continue to stand in solidarity with the transgender community, I bear you no ill will whatsoever. I wish you healing and peace with honor. 

With a disappointed but hopeful heart,

Mary A.
Ravenclaw and Pukwudgie

Lumos Potter GIFs | Tenor

*I have a friend who identifies as asexual, an extremely rare orientation frequently forgotten or misunderstood even by other members of the GLBT+ community.
**There are potential legal repercussions if I go into any further detail. I can either disclose where I worked or I can refer to what went on there, and the latter better serves my purposes. To get ahead of the gossip, however, I will say that it was not a phone sex line.
***Since I initially started drafting this letter, the U.S. Supreme Court has made a ruling defending the rights of gay and transgender workers, protecting them from employment discrimination. It’s a spectacular victory, bordering on the miraculous, but the larger point I am trying to make still stands.

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