Earlier this month, JK Rowling posted a series of tweets expressing her concerns about the growing visibility of transgender people. “If sex isn’t real,” she said “the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many of meaningfully discuss their lives.”
The backlash was immediate, with many Harry Potter stars, including Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, openly disagreeing with her and throwing their support behind the trans community. #IStandWithJKRowling trended on Twitter. And just this week, a number of authors publicly quit the literary agency that represents JK Rowling. Rowling published an essay following the tweet on her blog entitled “TERF Wars” in which she defended her views. For those of you who aren’t aware, TERF stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, a term that’s popped up a lot in Rowling’s replies recently.
I’ve read the essay multiple times now, and each time I do, I’m stuck by how quietly insidious it is. Rowling is an articulate, researched and trusted figure for many. As a young lesbian and passionate feminist, I’m her target audience for this. So why am I not worried?
Many of Rowling’s sources and research are actually just wrong, but you wouldn’t know that from the way she presents it. There’s a Twitter thread from Andrew James Carter pointing out every incorrect statement Rowling presented as fact in her essay, but the most prominent one is that trans people want to erase sex. As someone who majors in gender studies at university, I have spent years reading books, essays, and research papers from trans people, and not once have I seen anyone calling for new laws on the definition of sex. Trans people are well aware of their biology. Scientifically, sex, like gender, is on a spectrum- yes, biological sex! People are born with all sorts of hormonal, chemical, physical and chromosomal traits outside of the binary of male and female. All these sexes are just lumped in one big group together and categorised as “intersex.”
This isn’t a new trend. These ideas and studies have been around since the early 1900’s. A lot of research about sex and gender was lost in 1933 when the Nazis raided and destroyed the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, or the Institute of Sexology. More than 20,000 books were burnt on the streets. The information was never replaced and its destruction put research on transgender people back decades.
At the core of Rowling’s essay is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be trans. She thinks that becoming transgender in the eyes of the law is as simple as getting a certificate, when it’s actually an incredibly difficult, often expensive, and long process. In Australia, except for South Australia, Western Australia, and the ACT, the only way to legally change your gender on your birth certificate is to have bottom surgery, the term for surgery on reproductive organs. Even in the states excluded from this, you still need to have a medical practitioner, psychiatrist or psychologist authorise it. Like many who are critical of trans people, Rowling fears that widespread acceptance of trans people will allow anyone to claim they are a woman to access female spaces in order to assault women and girls.
Why would a man sacrifice time, money, and social standing to assault women when plenty of men manage to do horrible things to women without all of that?
It’s also important to note that Rowling discussed her own experience of sexual assault and domestic violence, saying that she doesn’t want anyone to experience the same thing. Many people have said that Rowling weaponised her assault, but I do not believe that’s true. I think she just truly believes trans woman are men, and that men, as many women believe, pose a threat. It’s a survival tactic. But at what point do these approaches stop keeping someone safe and start harming them and their outlook on the world?
Last year, around 331 trans people were killed in transgender related hate crimes, and women (especially women of colour) are overrepresented on this list. This isn’t even the complete number of murders, as many countries don’t document violence against trans and gender diverse people. There are still many who are left uncounted, despite people’s best efforts. Many were shot, strangled, lynched, and sexually assaulted before their death. In fact, almost half of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their life.
One of these deaths happened on our own soil. Mhelody Polan Bruno was only 25 when she was choked and sexually assaulted in Wagga Wagga in November last year. She had been visiting from the Phillippines and was due to return in just a few days.
Reading these stories and seeing these statistics, I don’t know how anyone could ignore how much these experiences of womanhood overlap. True feminism is about standing up against the patriarchal structures that oppress women, so how could we stay silent or deny these women solidarity when they are dying in the name of womanhood?
Not only is it wrong to exclude trans women from womanhood, it’s also unfeminist. Many people say that trans women will never know what it’s like to be a real woman because they will never menstruate or carry a child. What of infertile women? What of those who choose not to be pregnant? Equating womanhood to reproductive organs and genitalia is a very patriarchal thing to do.
Writer and transgender advocate, Liz Duck Chong, has experienced the importance of trans-inclusive feminist spaces firsthand.
“Trans people, and trans women in particular, have been part of feminist community and organising for around as long as cis women have been,” she says.
“My life, my childhood, and my womanhood are not the same as a random cis woman’s, but her experiences are not the same as another cis woman’s either. We only have to look at the billions of unique women that exist in the world to see that many factors influence who are and what womanhood is, not just our genitals, or chromosomes, or any other single point. That we aren’t the same and yet fight for one another is at the core of sisterhood – you are not me, yet I see you as my equal, and I love you.”
The existence of trans women doesn’t stop cisgender women from talking about their experiences of womanhood, nor is womanhood something someone can just opt in and out of. Womanhood encompasses such a multitude of different experiences and stories. I would go as far as to say that every woman has a completely individual experience of what it means to be a woman. Feminism isn’t just about standing up for those who were born with a uterus, vagina, and XX chromosomes. Womanhood is so much more than that.