The Rowling furore part 2

Since writing Part One, I’ve realised how ignorant I am on this topic – not completely ignorant, and also not neutral, but in need of a great deal of further inquiry. (Please don’t use the word “re-education.”) I’ve got some work to do, and it cannot be top priority at the moment. However, I’ve seen some of the replies triggered by Rowling’s post, and have reread it with more care.

I don’t like it as much as I did, and I’ll limit myself here to comments. Unlike last time, I shall here use the word “trans woman” to include both those who have transitioned/are transitioning, and those who simply identify as women, without physical transition.

Her post is here:

I shall link to some responses at the bottom.

My first point is that the purpose of her post (note its title) is not entirely clear: is it an explanation or a rallying-call? Although it’s couched as an explanation, it seems to me to be a bit of both, aimed in part at calling people to take a side. Rowling is an extraordinarily famous person, and she must know that anything she posts or tweets will be very widely read, and read by people – like me, perhaps – who don’t know a great deal about the issues. This is part of what infuriates her critics, and understandably so: she has a ready-made “platform.”

I therefore think it’s a tiny bit disingenuous of her to say she doesn’t wish to “add to the toxicity”, while criticising unspecified “trans activists” as a group (“Huge numbers of women are justifiably terrified by the trans activists” is fairly inflammatory talk) and not defining either who these “activists” are or what exactly they’re doing that she doesn’t agree with. She may think everyone knows, but do they?

She also doesn’t define, for example, “gender critical”, a term that I don’t remember coming across before this furore, nor does she differentiate between transsexual and transgender. It may just be me that thinks this is a significant distinction for the argument, but I don’t think I’m alone.

The piece is in places written over-emotively and intemperately, demonstrating that she wasn’t in a perfect place when she wrote it.

Obviously there’s a great deal of history with Rowling and this argument. She understandably doesn’t go into detail, but to say she “absent-mindedly ‘liked’” a post or tweet without more detail (what did it say, and does she now regret this?) raises questions. Rightly or wrongly we live in a society where famous people can expect to be called out on their comments, retweets etc on social media, as Rebecca Long-Bailey recently found out.

There’s also (I’m told) a great deal more that should perhaps be said about Maya Forstater and her case in the Employment Tribunal. With my background I’m well placed to check this out, but haven’t done this yet.

She also doesn’t give any references for facts or statistics.

Facts and statistics are part of the battle-field here, very much so. In a personal explanation, it’s understandable not to include them, but as I say her piece sometimes reads as more than that. Some of her opponents have responded with links to scientific papers and the like, which I haven’t had time to look at.

(But her reference to Lisa Littman highlights a real concern about the alleged silencing of academics who question a certain trans narrative. This I knew about before. And to say (as I’ve read in one of the pieces below) that withdrawing Littman’s paper is simply normal peer review is not accurate. As the wife of a scientist, I can say fairly definitely that peer review comes before publication, not after.)

A lot of the concern and anger is about her comments on “safe spaces” such as toilets and “changing-rooms.” This debate has been rumbling along of course for some time. On rereading she says more about this than I had originally picked up.

(Slight digression: This may be my ignorance, but I personally think there are two issues here: a) should there be gender-differentiated toilets etc for women; and b) should trans women be allowed to use them?

My own view on a) is that there emphatically should be, especially in schools. Teenage girls should be able to have a place to discover and discuss their first period, rinse out blood-stained briefs, or indeed check their pregnancy test, without the presence of teenage boys or men.

Perhaps illogically, given what I said last time, I have no particular worries about trans women and girls using these facilities, but then my personal feelings aren’t really the point.)

When Rowling says things like “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside,” or refers with implicit approval to “a hitherto totally unfeminist older lady who’s vowed never to visit Marks & Spencer again because they’re allowing any man who says they identify as a woman into the women’s changing rooms”, this is taken by her opponents to mean that she thinks physically male trans women may sexually assault other women, and this is attacked as transphobic and as a statement that trans women are (likely to be) predatory. She says … I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined” but this isn’t going to win friends, because of the word “majority.”

I’m not clear that this is in fact what she’s saying, although it may be. The remark about Marks and Spencers could mean “M and S’s policy means that any man, ANY man, can pick up a skirt from a rail, march up to the women’s changing rooms and say ‘I identify as a woman; the Equality Act says you have to let me in.’” To be concerned about this isn’t saying that trans women are predatory; it’s saying a) some men are sexual predators; and b) some predators will lie to get access to victims – neither of which, I suggest, is a contentious statement.

And there is also the interpretation that “There’s no particular reason to think that trans women are predatory, BUT there are also women with histories of being sexually assaulted who do find the thought of physically male strangers being close to them when they’re in a state of undress deeply frightening.”

Whatever the solution, it needs to give trans women, and not just transsexual women, safe places to use the toilet and try on clothes.

To be honest I’m not sure that my hopefully inoffensive interpretations are necessarily correct. When she lists “trans activists” alongside “incel terrorists” who are misogynistically attacking women, then I understand, and so should she, that offence will be caused.

So I really don’t like this piece as much as I did.

But (in my present state) I do share  her concerns that teenagers may be over-enthusiastically encouraged to change their lives by changing their gender/sex; I continue to believe that the word “woman” has a physical element; I do want there to be women’s toilets; I empathise and agree with a great deal of what she says about misogyny; and in particular I am alarmed by the intolerant and vitriolic nature of the debate; not just in the responses to Rowling’s post.

It does seem to me that a large number of trans people and campaigners, and their supporters  (doubtless not all) consistently write and post as if all their arguments had already been won; as if a statement like “trans women are women. Full stop. End of” is totally unproblematic, and as if anyone who disagrees is undeniably a bad person and a bigot, who needs aggressive or patronising “re-education”, a word whose very sinister connotations seem to be getting lost.

We live in an intolerant society that thinks it’s a tolerant one, and people have to be allowed to argue.

Here are some general thoughts about JK Rowling.

She has led an extraordinary life. She seems to have had a fairly normal middle-class childhood, but in early adulthood she went through several years of not only unhappy marriage, single parenthood, poverty, depression, bereavement, and the struggle to get her first book published, but also (we now know) domestic abuse, the effects of which are still damaging her 20+ years later. Then the first Harry Potter book was published, and within a few years she became, and has remained, one of the most wealthy, famous and stared-at women in the world. Despite the sudden celebrity that she did not ask for and cannot have expected, she has managed (I think) to establish a stable and successful family life, to remain sane, to give very generously and unboastfully to many charitable causes, to keep faith with her fans and at the same time to branch out into new writing fields. Whatever you may think of “The Casual Vacancy”, and I liked it, it was a brave follow-on from Potter. She continues to stick her neck out, at personal cost, for what she believes.

Despite the misgivings I’ve mentioned above, I think she’s an admirable person.

If anyone’s interested, here are three responses to Rowling’s piece that people recommended or referred me to almost instantly.

Mermaids is a charity working with young trans people, and their (hostile) response is the most civilised.

Ashley Miller is vitriolically anti-Rowling, and doesn’t draw breath long enough to express sympathy for someone who’s just revealed their history as a victim of domestic abuse.

Uncommon Ground is violently pro. I debated whether to try to delete UG’s paragraph beginning “As a result of this” which makes a series of unpleasant but not always very clearly stated allegations about some trans people. But that’s where the debate’s at.

I take no responsibility for the content of any of these posts.


Love from the PPI Blogger. Next post, on something completely different, will be on 24th July.

1 Comment
  • Stephen Hall

    13th July 2020 at 12:36 pm Reply

    Well done Penny for posting your views on this difficult subject. The topic itself is of little interest to me, apart form being emblematic of the apparent general trend (in the West at least) to prioritise an inward-looking striving for personal perfection over the doing of any outward good in the World. The numbers of people directly affected by the trans wars will be very small, and the commentariat have taken their eye off the ball in recent years by focussing on such identity issues rather than on important stuff like the distribution of power and wealth in the World. Doubtless this suits the likes of Amazon and Goldman Sachs very well. But I agree the whole kerfuffle is emblematic of the anger and intolerance that seems to have infected all public debate and is much to be regretted.

    One of life’s pleasures used to be the intelligent discussion of ideas, especially with people who disagreed with you. I expect I learnt more in my University years from such late night (often alcohol-fuelled) debates than I did from most of my lectures! Often (usually?) I would exit such conversations thinking very differently about the subject than I went in, and much better informed. Certainly friendships were built rather than damaged by such encounters. Today, to approach any subject with someone you’re not intimately acquainted with requires a strategy of either (a) restricting yourself to bland platitudes; (b) a lengthy period of skirting round a subject to check the person is likely be sympathetic to your point of view (and if they are, all you’ll get out of the conversation is confirmation bias); or (c) posting anonymously online. The option of having an open, enjoyable and friendly battle of words is now sadly closed to us.

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