Why was J.K. Rowling canceled? The 'Harry Potter' author's controversies explained.
It seems like British author J.K. Rowling, creator of the beloved Harry Potter franchise, is constantly getting into trouble on Twitter. But it can sometimes be hard to keep track of what people are so mad about.
Put in the simplest of terms, many critics have labeled Rowling a "transphobe" because of her frequently expressed views on sex and gender and her support of feminists who take umbrage with the idea that being a man or woman is a state of mind.
But when did it all begin? And why? And what is the latest chapter? Here, a complete history of why J.K. Rowling got canceled.
Related video: Activists say J.K. Rowling is fueling an idea that 'trans women are predators'
Supporting a U.K. legal case: 'Sex is real'
The mainstream war between trans activists/allies and Rowling kicked off in December 2019, when the author offered her public support to Maya Forstater — a U.K. woman who was fired for expressing her belief, among others, that it is "impossible to change sex" — after a judge ruled that Forstater's views were not protected under Britain's anti-discrimination laws.
"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," Rowling tweeted at the time. "But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?"
Reactions to Rowling's support of Forstater — whom many believe is transphobic — ranged from anger to heartbreak.
But Rowling, in a June 2020 essay on her website, traces her cancellation back even further. First, she says, she was canceled by accidentally "liking" a trans-related Twitter comment when she had meant to take a screenshot "as a way of reminding myself what I might want to research later." She recalls that "that single 'like' was deemed evidence of wrongthink, and a persistent low level of harassment began."
Months later, she recalls, she "compounded" the "crime" on Twitter by following a young feminist lesbian, Magdalen Berns, who was dying of an aggressive brain tumor and who was "a great believer in the importance of biological sex."
But there would be many more transgressions to come: In May 2020, Rowling accidentally tweeted a message with an expletive that misgendered a trans woman named Tara Wolf, who was convicted in 2017 of assaulting a woman she referred to as a TERF — an acronym, frequently lobbed at Rowling, which stands for "trans-exclusionary radical feminist." It's a pejorative term used to describe a feminist who is considered to have transphobic beliefs, including that trans women are not women.
Rowling apologized for the tweet and later deleted it.
The author kicked the proverbial hornet's nest again in June 2020 when she retweeted an op-ed, taking issue with its use of the term "people who menstruate," asking, "I'm sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?" Soon after, trans activists and allies including organizations like GLAAD and the Trevor Project, many of them formerly loyal Rowling fans, began accusing her of being a TERF.
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
Rowling responded with a series of tweets.
If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. 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.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
Then came the aforementioned lengthy personal essay defending her position. "This isn't an easy piece to write, for reasons that will shortly become clear, but I know it's time to explain myself on an issue surrounded by toxicity. I write this without any desire to add to that toxicity," she wrote in the essay, tweeting it with the intro "TERF Wars."
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 10, 2020
She revealed in the piece that having been a victim of domestic and sexual violence led her to be "triggered" by some of the conversations around gender. She also outlined "five reasons for being worried about the new trans activism," including that she has a charitable trust for helping women and children in Scotland and she fears the "new trans activism" is "pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender"; she's an ex-teacher and founder of a children's charity with interests in education and safeguarding and, "like many others," has "deep concerns about the effect of the trans rights movement is having on both"; is a supporter of freedom of speech as a much-banned author; and that she's concerned too many young girls are irreversibly altering their bodies and transitioning and that it is something largely being driven by homophobia and misogyny.
Many were outraged, dubbing her essay a "transphobic manifesto," with activist Delaney Tarr tweeting, "don't bother reading JK rowling's bulls*** 'defense.' it's just blatant transphobia through and through. don't give her the attention."
don’t bother reading JK rowling’s bullshit “defense”. it’s just blatant transphobia through and through. don’t give her the attention.
— Delaney Tarr (@delaneytarr) June 10, 2020
There were more tweets in July, calling out the long-term health risks of hormone therapy used to facilitate gender transition — backed by scientific research for both estrogen and testosterone— prompting another backlash, and an angry thread from Rowling.
I've ignored fake tweets attributed to me and RTed widely. I've ignored porn tweeted at children on a thread about their art. I've ignored death and rape threats. I'm not going to ignore this. 1/11 pic.twitter.com/hfSaGR2UVa
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) July 5, 2020
Just a few months later, in September, Rowling's foes complained about newly revealed details about a forthcoming adult novel, written under her Robert Galbraith pseudonym, Troubled Blood.
"The meat of the book is the investigation into a cold case: the disappearance of GP Margot Bamborough in 1974, thought to have been a victim of Dennis Creed, a transvestite serial killer," wrote reviewer Jake Kerridge in the Telegraph. "One wonders what critics of Rowling's stance on trans issues will make of a book whose moral seems to be: Never trust a man in a dress." Sure enough, critics got "#RIPJKRowling" trending on Twitter, where they expressed exasperation and anger over her use of the damaging transgender serial killer trope.
Then ire toward Rowling over the original Forstater controversy flared again in June 2021, when Forstater won an appeal and posted a video thanking Rowling for her support. In July of that year, Rowling revealed she'd been the frequent target of death threats over her positions.
To be fair, when you can’t get a woman sacked, arrested or dropped by her publisher, and cancelling her only made her book sales go up, there’s really only one place to go. pic.twitter.com/MsNWXhWlyc
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) July 19, 2021
More recent controversies
In November 2021, Rowling was "doxxed" — meaning her private information was shared online — by transgender activists who protested in honor of Trans Day of Remembrance in front of Rowling's Scotland home. While there, they took a photo of her house and posted it on Twitter with the address visible. The protesters took the photo down after receiving "an overwhelming amount of serious and threatening transphobic messages" in response. Rowling used the opportunity to give a shout-out to other British feminists who have been similarly criticized, including Kathleen Stock, recently forced to resign as a University of Sussex professor after being labeled a "transphobe."
"Over the last few years I've watched, appalled, as women like Allison Bailey, Raquel Sanchez, Marion Miller, Rosie Duffield, Joanna Cherry, Julie Bindel, Rosa Freedman, Kathleen Stock and many, many others … have been subject to campaigns of intimidation which range from being hounded on social media, the targeting of their employers, all the way up to doxing and direct threats of violence, including rape," she tweeted.
"None of these women are protected in the way I am. They and their families have been put into a state of fear and distress for no other reason than that they refuse to uncritically accept that the socio-political concept of gender identity should replace that of sex," she wrote, adding that the protesters might consider that "the best way to prove your movement isn't a threat to women, is to stop stalking, harassing and threatening us."
In December, it was revealed that Rowling would not appear in HBO Max's January reunion special, Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts, along with stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint; she was reportedly invited but declined.
Then in April, Rowling was back in the public eye for tweeting her support for her "inspirational friend," British lesbian activist and attorney, Alison Bailey, who is suing the U.K.'s largest LGBTQ-rights organization, Stonewall, for allegedly "policing speech" around transgender issues and retaliation against her for creating a splinter "LGB" organization.
Lesbian Visibility Week starts today in the UK. A good moment to salute the resilience and courage of my inspirational friend. #IStandWithAllisonBailey pic.twitter.com/b4TnfBTeNk
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) April 25, 2022
Just before sharing her public support, Rowling had attended a "Gender Wars Lunch" on April 11 with British friends and feminist supporters including Stock, Forstater and Bailey, where they all — "straight/gay/bi, single parents, Left-wing" — reportedly bonded over having been "made to feel as if we are pariahs simply because we challenge the idea that womanhood is a feeling in a man's head."
I wasn’t sitting on @saltwithoutpepa’s lap, although I accept it looks that way. I think she knelt down by my chair. Either way, the love is real. 💜🤍💚 pic.twitter.com/rimSqySGJZ
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) April 11, 2022
Most recently, on Monday, Rowling was once again trending on Twitter, this time for a Sunday tweet praising a protester in Manchester, England, who stood at a statue of U.K. suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst as part of a feminist gathering, holding a suffragist flag, as trans-rights counterprotesters were allegedly "intimidating and assaulting" her. Trans activists believe those at the gathering were "looking for trouble" and hoping to paint them in a negative light.
I never expected the right side of history to include so many people in masks intimidating and assaulting
women, did you?
But she never dropped her flag. Emmelline would be proud.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) May 15, 2022
Who's angry, and why? And who's on Rowling's side?
Since the start of the public controversy, a range of celebrities, activists and LGBTQ organizations have expressed anger, disappointment and a complete disavowal of Rowling — including GLAAD, which called Rowling's statements "misinformed and dangerous," the Trevor Project. Celebrities like Felicia Day, Sarah Paulson, Mary Lambert, Anthony Rapp, Jonathan Van Ness have also spoken out.
Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe wrote a piece on the Trevor Project's website addressing Rowling's stance, writing, "Transgender women are women. 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 Jo [Rowling] or I. According to the Trevor Project, 78% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported being the subject of discrimination due to their gender identity. It's clear that we need to do more to support transgender and nonbinary people, not invalidate their identities, and not cause further harm."
Actor Eddie Redmayne, meanwhile, has spoken out against Rowling's rhetoric, while also calling the fierce backlash against her “absolutely disgusting.”
Writer Gabrielle Bellot offered a thorough dressing down of Rowling's many comments and support of Forstater in a 2020 piece for Lit Hub, noting that "Forstater's views went far beyond 'stating that sex is real.' Forstater refused to gender trans people correctly, a practice that hurts, at best, when you're the target, and that, at worst, can lead to violence.'
"To defend Forstater and attack inclusive phrasing," Bellot explained, "is to defend misgendering and segregating trans people by telling us that we don’t deserve to be in certain spaces.'
Meanwhile, many have spoken out in defense of the author over the years, including Harry Potter franchise actor Robbie Coltrane, as well as Eddie Izzard, Ralph Fiennes, John Cleese, Sir Tom Stoppard, and "thousands" who apparently signed an online petition in her defense in 2021. Oh, and Vladimir Putin.
Regardless of who supports or rejects her, Rowling has repeatedly dug in her heels, most forcefully in her essay, where she stated:
"But endlessly unpleasant as its constant targeting of me has been, I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode 'woman' as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it. I stand alongside the brave women and men, gay, straight and trans, who're standing up for freedom of speech and thought, and for the rights and safety of some of the most vulnerable in our society: young gay kids, fragile teenagers, and women who're reliant on and wish to retain their single-sex spaces. Polls show those women are in the vast majority and exclude only those privileged or lucky enough never to have come up against male violence or sexual assault, and who've never troubled to educate themselves on how prevalent it is."
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