My Words to Joanne Rowling Above the Towers of Hogwarts: Performing Transgender Civility

Dear Joanne,

I want to begin by sharing my disgust with those––starting with The Sun––who have escalated misogynistic attacks upon you in the wake of your recent disclosures of opposition to the movement for trans civil rights. While I disagree with your position emphatically and unapologetically, and it is the primary purpose of this letter to explain the substance of that disagreement, it is beyond doubt that many people who believe themselves to be supporting trans women have targeted you unfairly. I join, then, with Roz Kaveney, Andrea Lawlor, and the dozens of other trans people who signed a letter of support for you after The Sun had published a story under the headline “I slapped JK and I’m not sorry” earlier this year. Such an alarming display of misogynist power gives the lie, in my view, to the notion that “terf” is, intrinsically, a sexist slander: at least, it was not one that The Sun had any need for, when it decided to exercise that power against you. 

I want also to name another point of agreement between us: as you explain in your oddly-titled essay “J. K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues,” our experiences are not the same. It is difficult to find much that I have in common with you––although, like someone quite close to you, I was a child from a lower-middle-class family who, at the age of 11, moved into a magical world of selective education, and gained access to social circles and cultural capital that nobody had heard of in the house in which I’d grown up. Like The Chosen One, I found that my being an outsider emanated a certain ambivalence, in me and in those around me: I found  it easy to hold people’s attention, though perhaps not as easy as the hero of Hogwarts. Still, partly because of the psychic consequences of those experiences, and partly for their ramifications across an entire social domain, I cannot romanticize selective education, nor the Government Assisted Place scheme upon which the ward of Dursley would have depended had he been admitted to King Edward’s School, Birmingham. 

The remainder of this letter, which concerns civility––indeed, has been written in order to endorse and uphold the noble goal of discursive civility to which you have committed yourself––must, I am afraid, make clear what I take to be very serious errors of judgment in your handling of this matter. In some cases, those errors of judgment stem from errors of fact. You write early on, for example, that your absorption into your present circumstances was occasioned by tweeting your “support for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who’d lost her job for what were deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets.” Although the single quotation marks around “transphobic” make clear that you are not quoting from anywhere, it isn’t clear to this reader, at least, whether you believe the tweets in question to deserve that description––my inference is that you do not. 

You go on to describe Forstater’s tweets as part of “a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology.” In fact, the clause might indicate either of three things: either (1) a belief that sex as determined by biology is protected in law, (2) a belief that sex is determined by biology as protected in law, or (3) whether “a belief that sex is determined by biology” is protected in law (the question in the latter case being whether such a belief would be protected in law becauseit was right, or simply because it is a belief, and beliefs are protected in law). The question of whether law or biology comes first, a position on which is quite difficult to extract from your sentence as published, is of course the central question of the very debates in feminist philosophy (in the work of, for example, Catherine McKinnon and Judith Butler) that the current “gender critical feminists” either have not read, or act as though they have not read. 

Still, one thing is eminently clear: neither of these “beliefs,” whether or not they could be attributed to Maya Forstater, adequately describes either the letter or the spirit of the tweets for which her contract was not renewed, and which were primarily at issue in her claim against the Center for Global Development, decided against her in November 2019. The full decision, including the texts of the tweet, has been uploaded to Snopes, the website for debunking online misinformation, since Forstater herself (and now you) have been responsible for such grotesque distortions of it. In particular, I would call your attention to the tweet cited in the decision in §34.2, in which Forstater quote-tweeted, with approval, an article entitled “Pronouns Are Rohypnol”: 

We may save ourselves the usual fruitless debate over whether a retweet constitutes an endorsement, since in this case Forstater has made it clear what is her view of “Pronouns Are Rohypnol”: it is an “important article.” Now, you are perhaps free to think that this alarming analogy is not “transphobic,” but in that case I suspect you would find yourself in the minority. Perhaps you think that, despite being transphobic, it should not be grounds for contract non-renewal: on this point, you might find broader agreement. But you certainly cannot think, unless you happen not to have read the Forstater decision, that the tweets for which her contract was non-renewed were anything to do with “a philosophical belief.” They were abusive tweets, quite simply meant to shock, hurt, and frighten women. 

It will appear unseemly to dwell on the vicious online behavior of one troll––albeit a troll who seems to have had the dubious privilege of radicalizing the wealthiest writer in the world, possibly in history. But it is the central importance of “pronouns are rohypnol” to the ongoing “debate” (I do quote you: “the debate around the concept of gender identity”) can hardly be overstated. The apparent meaning of the phrase, which is indeed the one developed in the essay “Pronouns Are Rohypnol” by Barra Kerr, published on the Fair Play for Women website: basically, that when trans people ask others to refer to us by particular pronouns––and more specifically, when trans women do so––we are, in essence, disarming people of their power to fight us off. “Rohypnol,” then, because trans women are analogous to rapists: all we want is to gain sexual intimacy with women by force––this, the “gender critical” team has it, is the compulsive condition called “autogynephilia.” And pronouns are one among many techniques with which trans women may carry out our work of silencing dissent, the better to prey on unsuspecting women. 

This plain sense of “Pronouns Are Rohypnol,” of course, rather gives the lie to the notion that trans people are uniquely rude or cruel in our participation in what you call the “debate” over our civil rights. Indeed, I think trans civil rights activists should not be discredited on the basis of occasionally sharp words, mostly from teenagers. Believe me, I have also been called cunt and bitch––and addition, I have also been called rapist, in that case by the person you have made it your vocation to defend. And explicitly pedophile, by Graham Linehan, one of the primary signatories of another recent letter in support of you, and by his many defenders, enablers, and excusers, including Jane Clare Jones––who still, I believe, does events with Linehan––and Kathleen Stock, who, after initially having the courage stand up to his ludicrous bullying, and call libel by its name, eventually said she regretted his having been expelled from Twitter for it because, after all, it was just a little rough-housing. Unlike you, Joanne, I have access to neither billions of pounds to comfort and protect me, nor the telephone numbers of the British Establishment from whom I might expect a letter of public support. When the creator of Father Ted publicly accuses me of “grooming” my own students at UC Berkeley, on the basis of my having expressed concern for LGBTQ students currently living at home in perhaps unsupportive families, I have no defense open to me––a beloved former mentor, who knows thankfully little about this whole mess, wrote to me to express concern about Linehan’s accusation, assuming that a person of his eminence would not identify smoke were there not also fire. So I sympathize––indeed, if you will forgive my use of the forbidden verb, I identify––with the “millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.”

You will notice, Joanne, that I have not yet addressed the apparent substance of your essay: the “philosophical belief” you impute to Maya Forstater that “sex is determined by biology.” You flesh out this argument a little later:

I’ve read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive.

Since you don’t say which arguments you’ve read (all of them?) I can hardly respond in detail: indeed, a significant part of my point here is that the supposed philosophical debate that is being silenced (concerning the meanings of something called “biological sex”) is both less censored, and much less interesting, than advertised. It is difficult to know how best to respond to the above bluster––perhaps by attempting to distinguish, as Judith Butler has so conscientiously done, between the body as a material object; the body as it presents itself to consciousness; the body as it is “sexed,” to use your passive construction (which, I take it, indeed derives from Butler); the body as its biological features are assigned particular kinds of taxonomic significance and legibility; the unpredictable effects and distinctions of those meanings as they change over time. Discriminations of this kind are usually necessary to any philosophical analysis of sex (not gender) in both analytical and Continental philosophical traditions: one can hardly characterize a body of knowledge that stretches back over a century, and has shaped the thoughts of millions upon millions of women, as “misogynist,” without sounding a little like one of those politicians who confesses himself sick of “experts.” 

Less useful as scholarship than as ideology––as the mark of how a certain social class understands itself and represents itself at this moment in history––“J. K. Rowling Writes” is indispensable. It perfectly depicts a dishonest and insecure oligarchy, desperate to control access into its own terrains and repel invaders at the border. Though its author may have felt otherwise, “J. K. Rowling Writes” is the document of the Brexit era: a text that could rival the present Prime Minister for evasiveness, philosophically incoherence, and a liability to cover up felt intellectual inadequacy with bluff, unfunny jokes: “a lot of people in positions of power really need to grow a pair (which is doubtless literally possible, according to the kind of people who argue that clownfish prove humans aren’t a dimorphic species).”

I want to conclude with a contention of my own, for which I have no more evidence than a hunch and a few dozen conversations and anecdotes shared with my friends and allies in the LGBTQ community against whom, for whatever reason, you have declared war. We mostly don’t care whether “trans women are women,” and we have many positions on that. We mostly don’t care whether femaleness resides in the sexed body, or what “femaleness” is, or what “the sexed body” is, or what it means for a property to “reside” in a predicated object. We simply don’t believe you when you claim not to be transphobic, not because of these positions, but because of your failure to notice that your apparently blameless movement of frustrated common-sensers, has been infiltrated at every level by the kind of vicious, hostile bigots whose entire business is to defame and degrade the lives of trans women. From Maya Forstater to Graham Linehan, through the Heritage Foundation to WoLF, you have failed to address the hatred in your own ranks, and it is for that reason, and nothing to do with your banal opinions, that you must be called to account. 

         Best wishes,

         Grace Lavery