Please, have in mind that this is a translated transcript of an episode of Animagos’s podcast, originally called “O cancelamento de J.K. Rowling”. Some things were slightly changed for context reasons. Here is the original transcript in Portuguese.
Cancel culture, also known as call out culture, occurs when people expose problems of an artist or person with great political influence, especially on social networks. It is like “unmasking” someone imperatively. But it always had a problem: there is no need to contextualize the problem. You type out “J. K. ROWLING IS A TRANSPHOBE” in any tweet that mentions the author and automatically feels that your activism was done successfully. But what if a person doesn’t understand what “transphobia” is? Or wants to know more?
Whenever I tried to understand what happened to J.K. Rowling and her strange likes and follows, I was accused of defending her. When I wanted to relativize, to try to reach a conclusion, my thought was taken by those who were participating in the “call out”. So now that I already understand the problematic and agree with the conclusion, I need to do what the activists who denied me context did not: explain.
CHAPTER 1: CONTEXT
In recent years, the UK has been discussing updating the Gender Recognition Act, which was last updated in 2004. The goals for this update are:
- to ensure that trans people do not need a medical diagnosis to have their gender legally recognized;
- to recognize non-binary identities;
- to give trans people the right to self-assert their identity through simpler administrative processes.
The movement that calls itself Radical Feminism, however, believes that this would create a gap for cis men (cis-gender is that individual who identifies themselves with the sex assigned at birth) to start entering women-exclusive spaces. The concern is that cis-male sexual predators would identify themselves as trans women only as a way and means to infiltrate places insured only for them.
The problem is that the concern is based on that hypothesis almost exclusively. There is no evidence, in any country where gender self-assertion is already legalized, that things like this have happened systematically. Isolated cases have occurred in the UK, but the reports on these cases are, for the most part, greatly exaggerated to reach the implicit conclusion that trans women are still men. And since men are abusers, so are trans women.
Among these radical feminists are also those in the group known as TERF. TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. It is, basically, the group of radical feminists that believe that, regardless of how you identify yourself, your sex designated at birth is immutable. That is, trans women are men, and trans men are women. And with that, they characterize any trans woman as a possible sexual predator, and rule out the need for statistical evidence to prove that there are false trans people. For them, every trans woman is a fake woman: a man, and, therefore, a potential sexual predator.
But that is not true.
Fabris: So, I identify myself as a trans woman.
This is Fabris, I talked to her a little after what had happened to J.K. Rowling. She is a Harry Potter fan too. And she will explain a little of her experience to us.
So, being trans, for me, is not accepting that society should impose something that you are not. A male identity was imposed to me in which I did not identify myself, in which I suffered for years, in relation to bullying. I suffered exactly because I didn’t fit that. So, for me, being trans is being able to break free. You go back to living what you should have always lived.
I also talked to Theo Flores, who was one of the people who answered our call on social media for trans people who wanted to talk about their experience and about J.K.’s tweet.
Theo: Trans is that person who does not identify with the gender that was assigned when they were born. That is independent of whether the person feels uncomfortable with the body or not. Regardless of these particular issues of each person.
Fabris: I usually say that I was always a woman… A woman, from the earliest memories. I remember being four or five years old, identifying myself as a girl and being forced, over time, to fit into something imposed.
Theo: In my case, it was always that classic of always being a child who didn’t like dolls… So, I always asked for cars, asked for Max Steel figurines, footballs, anyway … I was always with the boys playing football. Only of course I had never read, never heard anything about trans people. My first contact, I was about 14 years old. It was the period of my life that I felt most bad about my body. So, it was the most dysphoric moment I had. I was kind of trying to fit in, you know? It was a period in which I tried to wear dresses, skirts. I asked my parents to sign Capricho (a Brazilian magazine targeted at adolescent girls) to try to pass as a cis girl. And I remember that, in one of these, I think it was 2013… ‘12… There was a Capricho publication talking about a trans man in Australia, or New Zealand, I’m not sure now. He had managed to go through the entire transition process, the entire document rectification process, and he had become the first trans person to participate in the country’s Rugby league. And at that moment, I was kind of rocked. But I didn’t dig deep to find out what it really meant and all. It was about two years after that, I was 15 to 16, that I started dating a girl, and she had more contact with trans people, with non-binary people. And she lent me a book, David Levithan’s “Every Day,”, and there is a character within the story, a secondary character, they appear on a single page, but it explains more or less how the character felt about it. As if it were almost a concept of being a trans person. And in that moment, I identified myself.
I started talking to that girl at the time, and she started showing me conversations on Facebook groups, of trans people and non-binary people, and I really started to enter the universe. That was already 2014. But at home, until half of last year, that was a reason for fights. When it was October of ‘18, I started the process of rectifying my documents. In this case, I only did the certificate. So much so that the certificate is from 2018. But I never managed to start my transition until July of ‘19, when I started the hormonal therapy. I started taking testosterone. Then I changed practically all my documents. All that remains is to change my driver’s license, but my ID, social-security, Passport, already have their name rectified. The name and the rectified gender.
Fabris: Each person has their own time. I, for instance, started my transition at the age of 40. Other people start at 15-20. From the moment you identify yourself as a trans woman or as a trans man, and you say “wow, I need support”, you have to start talking to friends with whom you really have more freedom, with people that you know will support you. And look for a psychologist, a person who can talk to you, so you can clear up your doubts. For a long time, I had to clear up my doubts all alone. Then, in that process, I created a character, in order to survive society’s standards. Until, I don’t know, about three years ago, I kind of kicked the bucket. I said, man, this is not me. I’m Fabris, I’m a trans woman, it’s time to live and be happy. Instead of trying to please others, I want to please myself.
I met the Harry Potter series through the movies first. Through the DVDs. A friend lent me the DVDs and I saw the first three films at once. And from there, it was history. I got attached at once, then, afterwards, I read the books… You follow the trajectory for about 20 years, everything: the spin-offs, the development of the actors… You create an identity with that world, with that way of seeing things. When you take Hermione, who is a very progressive character, who is engaged, she would never approve of this ridiculous attitude from J.K.. Somewhere, Hermione is looking at J.K. and saying: “Tut tut… How ugly.”
Theo: I’m from ‘97. I was born with Harry Potter, practically. I remember that my cousin got Philosopher’s Stone for his birthday. Only my cousin never liked to read. And then, one beautiful day, he was at the computer, and I took the book to start reading, because he didn’t want to let me play, and I got fed up and went to do something else. And I started to like it… When I got home, my mother already had Chamber of Secrets too, and she gave it to me. And every year, I was waiting to buy, waiting to get to the bookstore so I could buy and read, my mother and I. It was the first big book, let’s put it like this, that I sat down to read, it was the saga. I followed it and I still follow, to see news of the actors, to see people sharing fan-art, or something like that. My computer’s wallpaper is of Harry Potter stuff, so…
CHAPTER 2: TERF LIES
Many biological characteristics make a body male or female. From the amount of hair, the distribution of fat in the body, to gonads. Not infrequently, too, people are born with variations between these two sexes, and they are called intersex. It is common to hear people talking about the X and Y sex chromosomes, which biologically, traditionally, determine the sex of the individual, as if they were central to the discussion. Generally, women have the combination XX and men, XY.
Fabris: There is not only XX and XY. There are several nuances, several possibilities. And, from the moment you turn this question into a binary question, zero or 1, eight or 80, you are leaving a very wide range of people out of it.
But have you, by any chance, analyzed your chromosomes? Do you have a device that allows you to see the chromosomes of the people you interact with? Because if the answer is “no”, then chromosomes are of no importance to anyone other than a doctor. This is not socially relevant. The important thing is: many of the biological characteristics that really matter in social life are changeable.
When a trans person decides to take hormones or have plastic surgery, they are basically changing their biology. For women, breasts grows, the stiffness of the muscles in certain parts of the body decreases, and, in many cases, even the way of thinking changes. In fact, cis-gender people also undergo surgery, take hormones and change their biology. The difference is that, for trans people, this is not considered legitimate. So, after the transition, it is impossible to say that a body’s biology is strictly on one side of the binary spectrum. Man or woman. And yet, even genetic testing is not very reliable in determining anyone’s gender.
Dr. Fausto-Sterling, American professor of biology and gender studies said:
There has been a lot of new scientific research on this topic since the 1950s. But those looking to biology for an easy-to-administer definition of sex and gender can derive little comfort from the most important of these findings. For example, we now know that rather than developing under the direction of a single gene, the foetal embryonic testes or ovaries develop under the direction of opposing gene networks, one of which represses male development while stimulating female differentiation and the other of which does the opposite. What matters, then, is not the presence or absence of a particular gene but the balance of power among gene networks acting together or in a particular sequence. This undermines the possibility of using a simple genetic test to determine “true” sex.
The argument that characterizes trans people as biologically of the sex designated at birth, then, is a fallacious lie, because it uses scientific theories in a biased way to support prejudices. And I am being very generous in saying “scientific theories” here, when, in fact, they are just scientific concepts.
However, not all trans people feel the need to take hormones, or have surgery. This “need” is called gender dysphoria, and it can be more or less severe, depending on the person.
Theo: I believe that there are trans, or non-binary, people who believe you must feel dysphoria – feel that you were born in the wrong body and things like that – to be able to identify yourself as trans. I don’t agree, but that’s what I feel.
There are also people who do not identify with what is socially understood as a man and a woman. These people are called non-binary. It is difficult to characterize non-binarity, since it is an identity that varies from person to person, but some have already been coined: genderqueer, agender, bigender, genderfluid etc.. A good and common method of understanding non-binary identity is to use the spectrum allegory: from one extreme to the other, there are several gradations, which means that between the extreme of the female gender and the extreme of the male gender there is a whole range of variant genres.
CHAPTER 3: MAYA FORSTATER
Now that we understand that TERFs are not committed to the truth, but rather willing to justify their old-fashioned bigotry, let’s talk about a specific TERF that will take us to the J.K. Rowling case: Maya Forstater.
Maya worked at the Center of Global Development in London, and when her contract ended, the organization decided not to renew it. The reason was that Maya had received complaints about her transphobic views at work and on Twitter, and responded in an aggressive and non-conciliatory manner, creating a hostile work environment.
Let’s get to the facts.
In September 2018, Maya commented on Pips, or Philip Bounce, senior director of a Swedish multinational bank who identifies themselves as gender-fluid: they live, depending on the day, as one of the male and female genders. They were selected for a list of the top 100 businesswomen, which caused Maya to revolt and make her most problematic tweets mentioned in the complaint:
Bunce does not ‘masquerade as female’ he is a man who likes to express himself part of the week by wearing a dress
Yes. & weird he felt entitled to accept the award, instead of saying “sorry there has been a mistake I am a man who challenges gender norms
He is a part-time cross dresser who mainly goes by the name of Phillip
Yes I think that male people are not women. I don’t think being a woman/ female is a matter of identity or womanly feelings. It is biology
Bunce is a white man who likes to dress in women’s clothes
After tweeting and writing an article on Medium on the subject, in October 2018, Maya received complaints about her opinions and postures from coworkers. She commented on the complaints:
I have been told that it is offensive to say “transwomen are men” or that women means “adult human female”. However since these statement are true I will continue to say them. Yes the definition of females excludes males (but includes women who do not conform with gendered norms). Policy debates where facts are viewed as offensive are dangerous. I would of course respect anyone’s self-definition of their gender identity in any social and professional context; I have no desire or intention to be rude to people.
It turns out Maya does not consider Twitter, or the internet, to be part of the social context, by the way. Nor does she have a socially consistent notion of what it means to be rude.
After her contract was not renewed, Maya felt wronged and filed a lawsuit in the UK Labor Court against her former contractor, claiming she had been fired for expressing her opinions and beliefs. In the end, the judge concluded that: 1. She was not fired for her opinions and beliefs; and 2. Her views and beliefs are not in line with what is expected of a democratic society.
CHAPTER 4: J.K. ROWLING
For some time now, J.K. Rowling has seemed to be sympathizing with the TERF discourse. She has already liked transphobic tweets, and you can find several TERFs that have recently appeared on the list of people she follows. When the first problematic tweets were liked, some media outlets drew the public’s attention to them, and even asked the author’s team for answers. The answer was: “it was unintentional”.
The least we can interpret from this mea-culpa is that, at least initially, she understood that the troubled waters needed pouring oil to. Or, that she had not yet consolidated her ideology. Now, perhaps what brought the subject to the author’s mind was the course of the discussion on the Gender Recognition Act update.
Then came December 19th, 2019.
The BBC reports on the case of Maya Forstater, and it gains notoriety among TERFs. A few minutes after the BBC Radio 4 (which Rowling already mentioned listening to) ran a story on the case, the tweet came.
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? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 19, 2019
Well, let’s start from the end. Maya wasn’t forced to leave her job for saying that “sex is real”, Rowling. Her contract was not renewed because of her animosity towards the complaints that her co-workers made, creating a hostile work environment. This point already shows that Rowling does not know what she is talking about, or has chosen to speak of the case in this way to imply the unfounded concerns that women are being silenced.
Several articles in The Guardian, the British center-left newspaper, mention the silencing of cis women on the issue of trans women, and say that their “concerns” are not being taken seriously. But, as youtuber Shaun says in his video “Transphobia in the UK“, they apparently don’t like to talk about their “concerns”. They know that their concerns sound bad, but they don’t want to be understood, they want to delay debate and politics. That’s their tactic: delay.
Fabris: This scientific issue ends up being a very lame excuse to justify prejudice. Because there is a question of social construction, there are several issues that go beyond the biological.
When Rowling says that Maya was forced to quit her job for saying that “sex is real”, she is implying that Forstater was wronged, because no one in their right mind would argue that sex does not exist. She is following the logic of The Guardian’s articles, which do not talk about the ideology in question, just comment on its existence, without context, to make the discussion go on and on. TERFs know that men will not identify themselves as trans to abuse women, they already do that without this possibility. It is as if a man wanted to identify himself as a woman in order to comply with the rules of the bathroom, at the same time that he did not care to comply with the law. Not to mention that women who abuse women are also criminals, no matter if they are in a mixed place, or in one that’s just for women.
Fabris: If you analyze the entire speech, there is a famous writer defending a person who had an opinion and has not had her contract renewed. If you take it that way, you see, you will put it her as the defender and the other as the victim. This is the problem, you analyze only one layer and not the whole. That is very dangerous. The problem is that she is a person who has a legion of fans, a person who has followers everywhere, and propagating these ideas, for me, is the worst. The problem is the amount of retweets, the amount of likes, because it shows that these people’s engagement takes roots.
Theo: I could already see, from the political things she commented on, what her alignment was. So for me personally, it was no surprise. Only, for the first time, she spoke with all the letters. That is the only difference. What we try, precisely, in the trans movement in general… It has several aspects, but the basis, in relation to this agenda, is precisely that you do not reduce people to sex or genitals. I think that at no time does the trans movement say that sex is not real. Our attempt is more, precisely, to make people stop prioritizing this. Having the XX chromosome is part of my life, but that’s not what defines me. And that’s why other people should not just turn around, like Maya, and say I’m not going to treat you in the feminine because Science says so, you know?
What I deduce that Rowling has not yet understood is that this narrative of TERF’s “concerns” is nothing more than a post-truth with authoritative tendencies. She has already written about authoritative tendencies, by the way. She is just forgetting that, perhaps, within her white and European feminism, they may also exist.
In the beginning, I talked about how my longing for context and understanding was confused with defending Rowling. And that, to me, seems to be one of the biggest problems in cancel culture: the denial of the right of context. Things are decontextualized in imperative sentences and end up either being completely aggregated to activist behavior or, generating a sense of bitterness towards it. People want to know why J.K. Rowling is transphobic, racist or anti-Semitic. If you accuse them of plainly defending, and rival the relativization of any issue, you keep people away from activism. It is useless to say that it is not your duty to teach, when what you are doing is not just not teaching, but teaching the wrong thing.
Fabris: I don’t know if canceling is something that really exists. I honestly do not know if her next works, if she goes back to Harry Potter, do some continuation; if I’m going to have the same desire to read, to follow. I do not know. Probably not.
I saw a lot of people putting Rowling on their lists of problematic celebrities and therefore creating an affinity for any content that harms their character. After all, it’s great when our idea is confirmed and shared, isn’t it? We always want to do the good thing. The destruction of the reputation of who is our apparent enemy is cathartic, pleasant and fun. Only that doesn’t help much in the conversation, nor does it take us anywhere. The goal of those who practice this type of thing, known as trashing, is something else. Jo Freeman, a political scientist, lawyer, writer and feminist from the United States, said in her essay “TRASHING”:
Trashing … is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.
Theo: My stance with Harry Potter has never changed. I’m even rereading the books. I bought them now in English, so I can reread them, only in English. At the level of really losing respect, no. Of course, like it or not, my enchantment, let’s put it like this, with the universe, it broke, but in relation to J.K. herself, and not in relation to the universe, to the saga, and to books. But I think, really, now that I have started rereading, I can, with the mind I have today, knowing these notes, I can really see the passages that people complain about. And I understand why.
Fabris: With me, in relation to the work itself, I don’t think it changes much. Because, that thing, everything I have lived until today, all the feelings, all the emotions that the work has given me… Every time I went to the cinema, every time I bought it at the premiere so I could see the ending of the saga… This will not be taken from me. Regardless of what J.K. does – and she has done very wrong – it will not… It would be even worse, you know, it would be more frustration. In addition to the person being transphobic, she can still take something beautiful, something that was important in my life at a certain moment.
Theo: For me, it doesn’t change, in terms of consumption. “Ah, let’s boycott everything that J.K. does”. Guys, it won’t do any good. The woman is already a millionaire, her name is already established. Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts, in short, the Harry Potter universe in general, is already established. It won’t be the crowd doing it now that it’s going to change, you know. I personally do not see the boycott as really a way to resolve this. I see it more like really what I did on the day. Sit down, get into the main posts I had on Twitter, of people commenting on… And sit down and talk to people who were denying it or defending her, and say, “people, this has been happening for so long…” And that’s it. I think, really, to stop, sit down and point out the problems within the work itself works best… The issue of werewolves as people with HIV, the terrible representation that she puts on Asian people, as is the case with Cho. So, I think it’s really sitting down, pointing out these problems, both from J.K. in her political statements in the social issues, as well as these problems that we see in the work. I think that’s what really makes the difference, instead of telling people to stop buying licensed products.
But when the trashing victim’s reputation is not that problematic, the attacker must blame her for problems that are not theirs, or invent new problems. False claims and logical fallacies place the author as the culprit in the anti-Semitic depiction of Gringotts’s goblins in the films. They imply that Rowling apologizes authoritarian icons by representing such characteristics in characters and concepts from the fictional world. That her passive racism is indicative of a fascist ideology hidden behind the progressive mask.
The problem is that, with regard to Rowling’s activism, she demonstrates that she is far from these representations. Rowling is an ACTIVELY philanthropic entity for many other conversations. The money you are giving her when you buy Harry Potter books and watch Fantastic Beasts is largely reverted to progressive scientific knowledge. Wanting to strip the author of her political relevance seems to be a shot in the foot. Our responsibility as content producers here at Animagos is to take stock of the problem and try to explain it to those who may not be able to perceive them. We have to make sure that transphobia, which is politically relevant in the UK for now, is not taken elsewhere. Our responsibility is to prevent the ideology expressed by our favorite author from being co-opted by our audience. She was wrong and we will explain why.
Fabris: People don’t need to look at me, Fabris, and say, “Um, let me see … Ah, you have this … And you have this …” Make a checklist, to tell you are or not a woman. I don’t need social validation. I am a woman and period. And like, sometimes, in Harry Potter, I think it is in the first film, the boy said, “Oh, I’m half a wizard and I’m half muggle”. He says, he is there explaining what he is. “Ah, I’m a muggle, I’m the son of muggle parents…” So, it’s the same thing. Let people assert themselves. Let people say what they are and respect that. It costs you nothing to come up to the person and say, “What pronoun do you want to be treated by? Ah, do you want to be treated like a woman? Do you want to be treated like a man? Do you want me to use neutral language with you today? ” The trans person will not take offense if you are left with this doubt. On the contrary. Then, yes, from the moment you know, “Ah, Fabris wants to be treated in the feminine”. As soon as you know, if you don’t do as they ask, then you’re wrong. But coming and asking, I think there is no problem. And have friends and trans friends. We don’t bite. Actually, I identify a lot with Hufflepuff, we are not trendy and neither are we bad. So, we stay there. Hufflepuffs are sweethearts.
Written and translated by Igor Moretto;
Original transcript by Sidney Andrade;
Revised by Nayara Sevciuc;
Thanks to Carol Lima;
and, of course,
Fabris & Theo.