J.K. Rowling posted a series of tweets on June 6 to her 14.5 million followers that made clear the author of the global bestselling “Harry Potter” book series does not believe that transgender women are women or transgender men are men.
“If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction,” Rowling tweeted. “If sex isn’t real, 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 to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”
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The fallout — for Rowling, for her creative universe known as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and for its spinoff movie series “Fantastic Beasts” — is already being felt by the author’s lifelong, devoted fans. For many, the anti-trans tweets she posted were a heartbreaking repudiation of the lessons steeped in the “Harry Potter” novels of empathy, egalitarianism and the power of love.
“For somebody who stood so much for equality and tolerance for so many years to actively punch down on a marginalized group — like all ‘Harry Potter’ fans who feel this way, I’m just kind of devastated,” says Melissa Anelli, founder and CEO of Mischief Management, a fan events company that runs the popular “Harry Potter” fan conventions LeakyCon. “Supporting a creator with this view is difficult.”
Jackson Bird, a writer and YouTube creator whose memoir “Sorted” chronicles how “Harry Potter” fandom helped him come out as trans, was especially disappointed to see Rowling pick this particular time to share her views on trans people amid the global protests in support of Black Lives Matter. “For her to decide to use her incredible platform to be very critical and hateful towards a particular group of people, it just seems an irresponsible use of the platform by one of the most influential people in the world,” he says.
Rowling’s actions were also just latest and loudest evidence for many fans that the 54-year-old has aligned herself with activists that have come to be known as trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs.
“She’s been liking transphobic tweets and supporting transphobic folks for a minute now, and she also has a track record of not listening to people when they try to call her out,” says Bayana Davis, co-host of the Potter podcast #Wizardteam and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Black Girls Create. “So when she finally said it [herself], I was just like, ‘Welp, there it is.'”
“Studios, networks, and brands affiliated with J.K. Rowling owe it to their transgender employees and consumers to speak out against her inaccurate and hurtful comments.”
GLAAD’s Anthony Ramos
Rowling’s decision to state her beliefs on trans identity brought a level of recrimination and condemnation commensurate with the size of her massive following. Even “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe felt compelled to make clear he supports trans rights, posting an impassioned essay on the site of LGBTQ crisis prevention organization the Trevor Project.
“Transgender women are women,” Radcliffe wrote. “Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either [Rowling] or I.”
After Variety first published this story, “Fantastic Beasts” star Eddie Redmayne sent an exclusive statement in which he also spoke out in favor of trans rights, and repudiated Rowling’s statements.
“I disagree with Jo’s comments,” Redmayne said. “Trans women are women, trans men are men and non-binary identities are valid.”
GLAAD, the LGBTQ media watchdog organization, also provided a blistering statement to Variety about Rowling’s tweets, and issued a direct challenge to any organization partnered with Rowling — like Warner Bros. — to publicly rebuke her anti-trans statements.
Warner Bros. has declined to comment on GLAAD’s statement specifically, and for this story in general.
“J.K. Rowling proactively spreads misinformation and has refused conversations with LGBTQ leaders who merely want to have a dialogue and let her know the negative impact that these tweets have,” says Anthony Ramos, GLAAD’s head of celebrity talent. “A generation raised on J.K.’s own books about embracing differences is now making their voices loud and clear and if she refuses dialogue, then companies that partner with her should tell the community where they stand. Studios, networks, and brands affiliated with J.K. Rowling owe it to their transgender employees and consumers to speak out against her inaccurate and hurtful comments.”
Indeed, Rowling’s actions could have severe repercussions for the Wizarding World, especially for the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise.
“I hate to say it: I’m not interested in [those movies] any more,” says Anelli. “You have to understand, this is like breaking up with someone, you know? It’s so difficult to say out loud.”
The “Fantastic Beasts” series was supposed to be a home run for Warner Bros., promising a major expansion of the “Wizarding World” well beyond the confines of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Unlike the “Harry Potter” films, Rowling herself wrote the screenplays for the first two films in the series — set in the early 20th century and centered around the magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) — and many of core creative team from the “Potter” team returned as well, including director David Yates, producer David Heyman, and production designer Stuart Craig.
Instead, “Fantastic Beasts” was beleaguered with controversy before the first film in the series, 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” had even opened in theaters, after news broke of Johnny Depp’s surprise appearance in the movie only months after he’d settled his divorce with Amber Heard amid accusations of domestic violence.
Now, between Rowling’s anti-trans tweets, longstanding concerns about the casting of Depp as the series’ main villain, and unresolved questions about a video of actor Ezra Miller — who plays a critical role in the films — choking a woman in April, the future of “Fantastic Beasts” is as precarious as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teaching position at Hogwarts.
When it did open, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was a hit, grossing $243 million domestically, and $814 million worldwide. But the decision to cast Depp in the film as the nefarious dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald struck a sour chord for many fans upset by allegations by his now ex-wife Amber Heard that the actor was physically and verbally abusive. (Depp has denied he abused Heard, and the two are locked in an ongoing legal battle over her allegations.)
Despite the fact that Grindelwald is capable of using magic to change his appearance (for most of the first film, the character is played by Colin Farrell until he transforms into Depp), the “Fantastic Beasts” creative team elected to keep Depp in the role, and Rowling even made him the title character for the follow-up, 2018’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” The fan backlash was so enormous, however, that in December 2017, Rowling, Yates, Heyman, and Warner Bros. all issued statements defending their decision to stick with Depp.
“‘Harry Potter’ fans had legitimate questions and concerns about our choice to continue with Johnny Depp in the role,” Rowling said in her statement. “As David Yates, long-time ‘Potter’ director, has already said, we naturally considered the possibility of recasting. I understand why some have been confused and angry about why that didn’t happen.” Rowling alluded to a reported non-disparagement clause in the couple’s divorce settlement, saying it “must be respected,” and that “based on our understanding of the circumstances,” she and the filmmakers were “genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”
The explanation left many fans wanting. “I never even saw the second one because I wasn’t sure how I felt about it ethically,” says Bird. “And then frankly it got such bad reviews, I just kind of forgot to see it.” He pauses. “Despite some of the bad apples amongst the cast and the crew, there are a number of actors and crew members who are part of that I admire and care deeply about it. I’m disappointed for them that the franchise has, you know, hit upon so many stumbles.”
“The Crimes of Grindelwald” significantly underperformed from the first film, earning just $159.5 million domestically, and $654.8 million worldwide, by far the lowest grossing film in the greater Wizarding World movie franchise.
“To be honest, I have not talked to a single person at conventions, in conversations with people who are very active in the Harry Potter fandom, that are excited about those movies to begin with,” says Robyn Jordan, co-host of the #Wizardteam podcast, and co-founder and chief community officer of Black Girls Create. “They’re not good.”
Despite the poor reception and performance of “Crimes of Grindelwald,” and the 2019 departure of Warner Bros. chief Kevin Tsujihara — a major champion of the series at the studio — the third “Fantastic Beasts” installment began filming in Iceland in March, with Depp still aboard, and “Harry Potter” screenwriter Steve Kloves joining Rowling on screenwriting duties. But the COVID-19 pandemic promptly shut down production just as soon as it had started. Then on April 1, Miller — who was revealed at the end of “Crimes of Grindelwald” to be the long-lost brother of Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) — was filmed choking a woman and throwing her to the ground outside a popular bar in Reykjavik. When the video surfaced online five days later, it quickly went viral.
Miller and Warner Bros. have not commented on the matter, and no charges have been filed. But the incident only reinforced an uneasy feeling with some “Potter” fans that the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise — and especially Rowling herself — are out of step with what they see as the franchise’s core values.
“I’m not going to give her another dime of my money.”
Robyn Jordan, co-host of the #Wizardteam podcast
“If you’re able to hold on to a trans-exclusionary ideology, it’s indicative of all the other things — oppression and misconduct — that you’re able to excuse, ignore, or accept,” says Jordan. “It is not unreasonable to believe that if [Rowling] doesn’t believe that trans people have rights and have bodily autonomy, that she wouldn’t believe that for other people as well. If she can excuse that ideology, she can excuse abuse as well.”
Even though Rowling has said there will be five “Fantastic Beasts” movies, it is not clear at all how, or if, the author can repair the damage she’s done.
“I’m not going to give her another dime of my money,” says Jordan. “Hopefully now people can move on and don’t have to talk about her anymore. There’s so many other things going on in the world. It really felt like [the tweets] pulled focus away from a larger conversation onto herself.”
There would never have been a good time for Rowling’s comments, but she made them at a critical moment of reckoning within the greater culture that has made plain that bigoted speech will have real-world consequences well beyond denunciation on Twitter.
“[Rowling’s] comments reinforced a troubling pattern of behavior,” says Laura Guitar, head of crisis communications and reputation management at rbb Communications. “They weren’t a slip of the tongue or a misunderstanding. Given where we are in the world, that’s a problem. The social justice protests may be focused on black lives, but they also speak to a rising sensitivity about the issues facing all minorities.”
The specific language Rowling chose to defend her views on trans people — in one tweet, she responded to a tweet calling her a “TERF” by tweeting, “‘Feminazi’, ‘TERF’, ‘bitch’, witch’. Times change. Woman-hate is eternal” — paint her into a rhetorical corner that will be difficult to escape.
“I don’t think she sees her point of view as incorrect or out of step,” Guitar says. “That leaves her with nowhere to go. She can’t offer an apology. It won’t seem genuine. She can’t see that what she sees as her truth isn’t the same truth that many other people are experiencing.”
The damage Rowling has inflicted on her legacy will play out over the next few months and years, but the immediate impact is already apparent.
“I thought about doing a reread a few months ago and I just — it’s hard to imagine doing that without sort of like having her snarky offensive Twitter voice in the back of my mind,” says Bird. “I hope that one day I can enjoy it again.”
In his essay, Radcliffe directly addressed exactly this anguish, and perhaps pointed to the future of “Potter” fandom. “If you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred,” he wrote. “And in my opinion, nobody can touch that.”
No matter what happens with “Fantastic Beasts,” the legacy of what “Harry Potter” means to these fans — and what the story inspired them to create for themselves — still endures. “The ‘Harry Potter’ brand is so institutionalized that there will be blowback, but it will survive,” says Guitar. “It puts a dent in a multi-billion enterprise, but even if Rowling wanted to burn it down, I’m not sure she could.”
“I think a lot of people are choosing to focus on the fandom aspect of it — she can do all that stuff over there, but we’re gonna keep the ‘Potter’ series,” Davis says. “This is no longer hers. There’s lots of fan art, fan fic, tons of podcasts, tons of all these other things that have come out of that that she doesn’t own, that she didn’t create.”
“It does nobody any good for us to just pull up stakes and just abandon the community,” Anelli adds. “You can’t really love something unless you can critique it. But if we can create a world where the Harry Potter community rises above and beyond the intolerant views of its author, then I think we can feel really proud of that.”
For some creative fans, the future of “Harry Potter,” in other words, may not include Rowling at all.
“We are the reason why they’re even able to make a ‘Fantastic Beasts,’” says Jordan. “I’m not going to abandon or discount the work that I’ve already created, building a space for myself in this world. We, the fans, own the Wizarding World. She’s a landlord, you know? And we’re canceling rent! We’re canceling all over the place, so we’re doing it here.”
Brent Lang contributed to this report.
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