The Re-Education of J.K. Rowling

This article is a response to “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues” (June 10, 2020).

It didn’t take me very long to accept my own sexuality, and J.K. Rowling’s books about the freak-turned-celeb boy wizard get only some of the credit. The rest goes to a pair of pets – two brilliant-yellow budgies who had the hots for each other.

Both were female, as far as the nine-year-old me could tell. Every afternoon, they would take a bath in the water bowl, and then, after drying off, they would hump each other, taking turns, in the frantic, blink-and-you-miss way that birds often do.

“You are not alone,” they seemed to say. “One day, you too will hump a person of your choosing.”

Photo: Dalton Touchberry/Unsplash

Growing up in India, in the nineties, being gay wasn’t exactly fashionable. To me, there seemed to be only two types of gay men in the world – sex-offenders who targeted children, and ludicrously effeminate characters who provided comic relief in Bollywood movies, often at grave personal cost. Which would I become?

One day, on the news, I watched grainy footage of a man running through a crowd with a burning tire around his body. I don’t remember the headline, exactly – something like “Man Necklaced For Being Gay”. I don’t remember anything else about that experience either – perhaps I blocked it out? – but it was enough to keep me in the closet for another decade. Yes, I wanted to hump a person of my choosing, but I also wanted to live.

The years passed, largely without incident, although one time a private tutor of mine – a “biological” man – tried to have his way with me. But I wriggled out of that bastard’s grasp like an eel in the springtime, and then I locked myself in the bathroom for an hour, all the while threatening my assailant with dire consequences if he didn’t leave the house right away. A close shave – I’ve been luckier than most.

And then, finally, in my first year of college, I decided to come out to my family. I wrote my doctor parents an email, and, for two whole weeks, they pretended not to have received it. When I finally confronted them, on Skype, the tsunami of their collective biases struck land. “Do you have AIDS?” my mother asked. “Are you going to become like that tutor of yours?” my father demanded to know.

In a way, I guess my parents were being authentic. For a while,  I felt like the world was going to end. But then the floodwaters receded, and I picked up the pieces of my shattered heart and put them back together.

Also read: The Week of Rainbows and Greys: My Coming Out Story

All of which brings me back to J.K. Rowling. Her open letter reminds of my own parents all those years ago – compassionate and personal, but also tragic and myopic. People are shocked when I tell them about my parents’ reactions, and rightly so.

But I know my parents as well as anyone, and I know them to be loving, thinking people. They really did believe that they were doing their best. My mother is a medical microbiologist with a special interest in HIV research. From the papers she had read, she knew that MSM (men who have sex with men) were at especially high risk of contracting HIV, that the disease was already rampant among gay men in the U.S., where I was living at the time.

And so, when I came out to her, in 2010, when the hysteria around AIDS was still high, her primary concern was this: did her son – her darling boy, her own flesh-and-blood, who had moved thousands of miles away – have the dreaded disease?

In Rowling’s letter, she says that she has done a lot of reading on the latest trends in gender reassignment as well as trans issues in general. I believe this. I also believe her when she says that her concerns come from a good place. My mother’s concerns did too. But, alas, being well-read and well-intentioned is not enough. There is no magic formula for arriving at an opinion that makes the world a better place.

All those years ago, when my English tutor molested me, the first person I called when I emerged from the bathroom was my father. He was still at work, meeting with a patient, but, as always, he excused himself to speak with me. I explained what had happened, as clearly as I could, and then I asked him to call the tutor and fire him. He agreed to do so right away.

That night, my father kept looking at me all through dinner, his eyes wide and fearful, inspecting his son – his dearest crystal chalice, dropped from a great height in his absence – for signs of damage. Isn’t it natural that that’s where his brain went when I came out to him all those years later? His son had been damaged after all. My English tutor – the only queer person my father had ever met – had somehow turned his darling son into one of them.

In her letter, Rowling points to research that shows how “entire friend groups became transgender-identified at the same time,” which she views as alarming. I’ve read the paper myself, and although I see where she’s coming from, I don’t find it quite as alarming. My father believed that my tutor had somehow damaged me, and Rowling similarly believes that the groups of young people who identified as trans are somehow damaged as well.

A radical thought – what if I’m not the one who’s damaged? What if those kids aren’t damaged either? What if, instead, the rot lies with the parents, the ones who have chosen to discuss their children’s personal lives online, or with society as a whole, which continues to deny so many people the right to live as they wish? (As a queer person who didn’t have the luxury of having a queer friend group, I can definitely see the appeal of deciding to transition as a group instead of going it alone. More power to them!)

But I mustn’t get in the weeds. There will undoubtedly be lots of people who’ll dissect the finer points of Rowling’s article, who’ll carve it up like a turkey at Thanksgiving. Many of the positions that people will argue will also be correct. And some of them will be so vitriolic that the logic of the arguments, whatever their merit, will be subsumed by the kind of vicious personal attacks that have already been mounted against her – reason sharpened to a cutting edge, then laced with poison.

No, that is not my purpose here. Instead, I want to address Rowling as I did my own parents – with compassion, sympathy, respect, but also with firmness, so that she continues to take responsibility for the impact of her words.

First, I would urge Rowling to be more cautious about jumping to premature conclusions based on patchy scientific research. Scientific publications are part of an ongoing conversation and should not be taken as absolute. I had a geology professor in college who once bemoaned the fact that he was teaching us a bunch of lies – “The science is only as good as the current model of it,” he said. It was a little melodramatic, but I believe he was on to something.

Science uses models , which are definitionally incomplete ,  to explain the world. That’s the whole point of science, part of why it’s so great. This is what powers science’s ability to explain things that have been studied both extensively and objectively – mechanics, kinetics, thermodynamics – but it is also the reason why science is famously bad, not to mention dangerous, when it comes to things that haven’t gotten a lot of unbiased attention historically – gender, psychology, sexuality, race.

Also read: What It’s Like to Be Queer and HIV Positive in India

In a recent tweet, Rowling contends that “sex is real”, which is only sort of true. In reality, the dichotomy of male and female is a model, a human construct, with a number of well-known deviations. Gender, too, is a model. For too long, studies of sex and gender have been dominated by an incredibly narrow subset of the world, i.e., straight white men studying everyone else. I do not care whether Rowling draws a distinction between sex and gender – both are useful models, in their own way, but both are also rather limited in their ability to describe the human condition. Defining them with greater specificity, or arguing over their definitions, won’t make the problem at hand go away. Tacking on terms like “natal,” as Rowling has done, isn’t helpful either.

“You cannot define a problem out of existence,” a philosophy professor of mine used to say, and the problem, in this case, is this – for a constellation of reasons, we still have a woefully deficient understanding of gender and sexuality. These are tough topics, constantly in flux, as they should be, and it does not do to make flippant comments about them on Twitter. When you broadcast something like “‘People who menstruate’. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” on the internet, you’re asking for trouble.

Which brings me to my second point. Rowling’s experience – her history with abuse and trauma as well as success and fame – is precious and powerful. But it is also individual – the experience of a single human being. I am heartbroken to read about her suffering, but I do not think that it gives her the ability to truly empathise with the plight of trans people for the simple reason that she is not trans. I can’t fully empathise with trans people either, and for the same reason.

In the letter, I believe that Rowling, like my straight parents, is projecting her limited understanding of the world onto people for whom the world looks very different, with its own unique pitfalls, its own set of demons. For example, she cites a hypothetical scenario – that of creepy men invading women’s bathrooms because getting a Gender Recognition Certificate in Scotland is about to become really easy.

“All a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one,” she writes. From her perspective as a cis-woman, yes, a creepy person walking into your bathroom is unsavoury indeed, but her fear is still, fortunately, hypothetical – Rowling does not provide any records of creeps going through the trouble of gender reassignment in order to invade women’s bathrooms, and I couldn’t find any examples either.

At any rate, what about the very real pain of millions of people who feel trapped in their labeled bodies – isn’t that at least as bad? According to the BBC, the average wait time for an initial consultation for gender reassignment in the UK is 18 months. According to ITV, changing one’s sex isn’t cheap – the cost of gender reassignment is £19,236 per patient.

And what about trans people who do not feel the need to physically transition – has Rowling spoken to any of them? Shouldn’t things be a little easier for them too? What solution should a just society, one that cares about both cis-women and trans-women, come up with? Shouldn’t we demand laws that make gender reassignment easier while also protecting the sanctity of safe spaces for women? Surely, that isn’t asking for too much?

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I want to point Rowling to the idea of the shifting moral zeitgeist, which my parents found to be a helpful framework as well. The term was coined by the colourful, controversial Richard Dawkins, but the concept itself has been around for much longer. According to this idea, morality is not constant but something that changes with time.

Also read: How Should You React When Somebody Comes out to You?

History is full of spectacular examples of this – opinions on subjects as weighty as slavery, divorce, suffrage, and homosexuality have all shifted with time, often slowly, and sometimes, rather quickly, and not always in the right direction. Things tend to go in and out of fashion. Sometimes there is progress, and at other times, there is regress. Which side would Rowling like to be on?

As a nine-year-old in India, I witnessed a curious phenomenon – gay budgies humping each other . At the time, in the eyes of the country at large, it was both legally wrong and morally wrong for me to emulate. The prevalent opinion, at least in my family, was that homosexuality was immoral because gay people molested children. To be clear, until I came out, they believed that all gay people were immoral, but then they began trying to make an exception for me.

A question I challenged them to wrestle with – might the emancipation of one vulnerable group of people be achieved without compromising the rights of another vulnerable group? In other words, should homosexuality remain illegal in India because some homosexuals assault minors? Surely not. India needs laws protecting homosexuals as well as minors.

This train of argument carries. Should slavery have remained legal because a lot of livelihoods at the time depended on it? Surely not. The government just needed to help ordinary people find other livelihoods. Should women’s suffrage have remained illegal because men were afraid of the havoc it would wreak on their own status? Surely not. Men just needed to buy into the notion that women’s empowerment could mean men’s empowerment too. Should gender reassignment remain difficult, time-consuming, and expensive just because some people might choose to misuse the law to their own devious ends? Surely not. Instead, like every other worthy law ever passed, there should be safeguards in place to prevent its misuse.

At the end of Rowling’s letter, she says that all she wants is for her “concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.” And yes, of course, she is entitled to that. We all are. I have no patience for people who use failed ideas, such as misogyny and ageism, to attack her.

But I also want to remind Rowling that the freedom to speak is also the freedom to stay silent, and, when it comes to trans rights, I hope that she chooses to talk less and listen more, to cultivate an even more open and flexible mind. Maybe she will take a leaf out of my parents’ books – those recovering homophobes who have stopped to try and understand the incredible pain of a gay child watching a gay man being necklaced for being gay.

I challenge Rowling to try and imagine what her words might sound like to a 14-year-old trans person who suddenly finds themself waging battle not just against their labeled body but also against a billionaire author they would ordinarily consider an inspiration.

And the next time Rowling chooses to punch – which is what a joke really is (“Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”) – I hope she punches up.

Po Bhattacharyya is a product designer based in San Francisco and Kolkata. Read his work here, and see examples of his writing here – humoroussurrealistinstructional.

Featured image credit: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash