Sex and gender: JK Rowling's essay

In her text, the writer explains in detail the reasons why she felt the need to address the trans issue, defying the violence of activists. A manifesto-writer for gender critical feminism translated into Italian by Alessandra Asteriti
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Attacking JK Rowling today can also be a business. The latest initiative is that of a young Canadian imbecile art book creator who decided to de-rowling Harry Potter publishing a special edition of the saga on the cover of which the author's name disappears: $170 per copy for a despicable abuse. Let them keep all the copies in stock.

Back to serious business: in June 2020 JK Rowling published a essay on his website to explain in detail his position on the issue of gender identity. The essay was met, as usual, by a wave of prejudiced, specious and unacceptable threats and abuse, regardless of its content.

With Rowling's consent, Alessandra Asteriti translated into Italian the essay that should have been published by the magazine The Mill. Making excuses (again, as usual), the magazine later withdrew its availability. Asteriti then decided to publish it on its website anyway Gender Dissident, and allowed us to republish it in our turn to give it the widest possible circulation. We thank her for this and we thank JK Rowling.

The translated text follows. Happy reading.


It was not easy to write this essay, for reasons that will soon become apparent to readers, but I am aware that the time has come to explain my position in a debate that has assumed particularly violent tones. In writing this essay, I in no way want to contribute to this violence in tone.

For the uninitiated: last December I wrote a tweet to express my support for Maya Forstater, a tax expert who had lost her job for writing 'transphobic' tweets. Maya opened a dispute in the labour court, to have her right to believe that sex is biologically determined. The judge, James Taylor, did not recognise this right in his ruling. 

My interest in the trans debate predates Maya's case by almost two years, during which time I have closely followed the debate on the concept of gender identity. I met trans people, read several books, blogs and articles by trans people, gender identity specialists, intersex people, psychologists, safeguarding experts, social workers, doctors, and followed the debate online and in the media. On the one hand, my interest is professional, since I am currently writing a detective series, set in the present day, and the main character, a detective, is of the generation affected, and affected, by these issues; on the other hand, it is also something strictly personal for me. Let me explain. 

Throughout my research period on this topic, I realised how many accusations and threats were made against me on Twitter, by trans people and activists. It all started with a 'like'. Since I started studying the issue of gender identity, and transgenderism in general, I got into the habit of saving screenshots of comments that interested me, as a reminder for things to read and research in the future. Once, by mistake, instead of saving the screenshot, I clicked 'like.' That single gesture has been raised to the status of 'psycho-reality', starting a low-key, but persistent, negative campaign against me.

Months later, I further compromised my position following Magdalen Berns on Twitter. Magdalen was an immensely courageous young feminist and lesbian, then already suffering from the brain tumour that would kill her. I had decided to follow her because I wanted to contact her directly, which I later did. However, since Magdalen was unwavering in her belief of theimportance of sex as a biological fact, and refused to call lesbians who did not want relationships with trans women with male sex organs bigots, trans rights activists on Twitter were quick to put two and two together, and the level of abuse on social media grew accordingly. 

I only say this to explain that I knew very well what would happen as a result of my declaration of support for Maya. By then I was already on my fourth or fifth 'cancellation.' I had anticipated the threats of violence, accusations of being literally killing trans people with my hatredof being called a slut and a whore, of seeing my books burned at the stakeIn fact, a particularly offensive man revealed to me that he had composted them. 

Instead, I did not expect to receive an avalanche of emails and letters, most of which were positive, expressing support and gratitude. They were sent by a diverse set of kind, generous and intelligent people, some of whom worked in fields where they came into contact with trans individuals and the phenomenon of dysphoria. They were all seriously concerned about how the theoretical concept of gender was influencing decisions about safeguarding, medical care and political choices. They were especially pconcerned about the risks to which young, gay people were exposed and the damage to women's and girls' rights. Pmost of all, they were concerned about the climate of fear that had been established, which did not serve anyone's interests - least of all trans people. 

I had stepped away from Twitter for several months around the time I expressed my support for Maya, knowing that it would be better for my mental health. The only reason I recently returned to Twitter was my desire to share a children's book during the pandemic. Activists, who obviously believe themselves to be good, generous and progressive people, rushed to my timeline, arrogating to themselves the right to censor, accusing me of fomenting hatred, covering me with sexist insults, above all - as every woman who dares to intervene in this debate knows - TERF.

In case you don't already know - and why should you? - 'TERF' is an acronym created by activists, and it stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. In practice, women of all political positions are called TERFs, the majority of whom do not consider themselves radical feminists. Examples of TERFs range from the mother of a young gay man who feared her son would find in being trans an escape from the homophobic bullying he was subjected to, to ladies of a certain age who had never considered themselves feminists but was horrified that the Marks & Spencer department store would allow any man who identified as a woman to use the women's fitting rooms. Not only that, but TERFs do not actually exclude trans people, since they include trans men in their feminism, as they were born women.

Either way, accusing someone of being TERF has proven to be a very effective tactic to intimidate individuals, institutions and organisations whom I once admired, and whom I now see surrendering to these schoolyard tactics. 'They'll say we're transphobic!' 'They'll say we hate trans people!' What's next, they'll say you have fleas? Coming from a woman, I think a lot of public figures need to grow a pair (which is undoubtedly possible, according to people who believe that the existence of the clown fish proves that human beings are not a dimorphic species).

So why am I doing all this? Why did I decide to speak? Why not continue to do my job and keep my head down?

There are five different reasons why this new trans activism causes me concern.

First, I run a foundation in Scotland that works to alleviate social deprivation, especially for women and children. Among other things, the foundation funds projects for women in prison and women who have suffered domestic and sexual violence. I also fund medical research for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, a disease that afflicts men and women differently. It has been clear to me for some time that this new trans activism is having an impact (or will, should all their demands be met) on a whole set of projects that I care about and support, as it seeks to have sex replaced by gender identity as a legal category.

Secondly, I worked in the school world and I started a children's charity, so both education and child protection are especially close to my heart. Like many, I fear the effects that certain claims for trans rights could have on both.

Thirdly, as an author who has suffered censorship numerous times, I have a special interest in freedom of expression, and I defend it publicly and strongly, even for Donald Trump.

Fourth, and here we come to the more strictly personal reasons. I am very concerned about the explosion of cases of young women calling themselves trans, and express their desire to undertake the gender transition process, as well as the increasing number of girls who undertake the opposite process (of returning to their original female gender), having changed their minds and regretting having taken steps that led them to irreparably alter their bodies and compromise their fertility. Some of them revealed that they decided to transition after realising they were lesbians, and that transitioning was a way of avoiding homophobia, both in society and in their families.

Most people probably do not know - I certainly did not, until I started my research in this area - that ten years ago, the majority of individuals undertaking the gender transition process were men. Now the percentage has reversed. In Britain we have had a 4400% increase of girls who have undertaken the transition process under medical supervision. The percentage of autistic girls among them is very high.

The same thing is happening in the United States. In 2018, Lisa Littman, a US physician and researcher, began researching the phenomenon. As she explains in an interview:

'Some parents on social media began to report a very unusual pattern of girls being friends with each other, or even sometimes whole groups of girls claiming to be trans at the same time. It was my duty as a researcher not to consider the possibility that this was a phenomenon of social contagion.'

Littman mentions Tumblr, Reddit, Instagram and YouTube as factors that may contribute to the syndrome she defined Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (sudden gender dysphoria), a phenomenon for which, in the context of transgender identification, 'boys have created sounding boards that are completely isolated from the outside world.'

Her article caused a furor. She was accused of bias and of spreading misinformation about trans people,  was overwhelmed by a tsunami of abuse and made the subject of a well-conceived campaign to ruin her personal and professional reputation. The magazine removed the article from the website and subjected it to a further process of peer-review, before releasing it again. Nevertheless, her career followed a similar trajectory to that of Maya Forstater. Lisa Littman had dared to question one of the fundamental dogmas of trans activism, namely that gender identity is innate, like sexual orientation. No one, the activists insisted, can be persuaded to become trans.

Many trans activists argue that if a trans teenager is not allowed to undertake the gender transition process, the result can be suicide. In an article written to justify his decision to resign from the Tavistock clinic (an English NHS centre for the treatment of gender dysphoria), psychiatrist Marcus Evans stated that the assertion that boys who are not allowed to undertake gender transition might commit suicide 'is not in harmony with the data and studies in this field, nor with my many decades of experience as a psychotherapist.'

The writings of these young trans women reveal sensitivity and intelligence. The more I read their stories of gender dysphoria, their accurate descriptions of feelings of anxiety, mental dissociation, eating disorders, self-harm and self-hatred, the more I wondered If I, too, had been born 30 years later, I would not have attempted the gender transition. The desire to avoid my being a woman was immense. As a teenager I suffered from a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.  If I had found an online community and solidarity that I could not get in my life and environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to become the son my father openly said he would have preferred.

When I read theories on gender identity, I am reminded of how mentally 'asexual' I felt when I was young. I remember Colette's description of herself as an 'mental hermaphrodite' and the words of Simone de Beauvoir: 'It is perfectly normal for a future woman to be indignant at the limitations imposed on her because of her sex. The real question is not why you ever reject them: the question is rather to understand why you ever accept them.'

Since becoming a man was not within the realm of possibility in the 1980s, I took refuge in books and music to overcome both my mental problems and the male preoccupation with nascent sexuality and the judgmental attitude that drives so many girls to a real war against their bodies. Luckily for me, I recognised myself in the works of so many female writers and musicians, who questioned, as I did, their sense of alienation and their ambivalence in being a womanand reassured me that, despite the pressure that sexist society exerts on the female body, there is nothing wrong with not feeling like a surrendered doll dressed in pink ruffles; that we can feel confused, sombre, sexed and asexual beings together, unsure of what and who we are.

I want to be as clear as possible: I am sure that for some individuals suffering from dysphoria, gender transition is the right solution, but I also know that there is a great deal of research confirming that between 60-90% of adolescents with dysphoria overcome it without intervention. I am constantly told to 'meet trans people.' I have: in addition to some young people, all of whom are unfailingly lovely, I know in person a transsexual, older than me, who is a great person. Although she makes no secret of her past as a gay man, she has always been a woman to me, and I believe (and certainly hope) that she is completely happy to have taken this step. Given her age, however, she has undergone a long and rigorous process of assessment, psychotherapy and transition in stages. Today's trans activists call for the removal of almost all rules and steps that candidates for gender transition had to undergo. A man who does not want to have gender reassignment surgery, or take hormones, can obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate and legally become a woman. Not many people are aware that the law currently guarantees this right.

We are living through the most misogynistic period I have ever experienced. In the 1980s I imagined that my daughters, if I had any, would have a better life than I did; instead, between the anti-feminist regurgitation and the online culture steeped in pornography, I think things have actually gotten worse for girls. Never before have I seen women so humiliated and dehumanised as now. From the free world leader's long history of sexual harassment, and his boast of 'grabbing them by the pussy', to the incel ('involuntary celibate') movement that rails against women who do not consent to sex with them, to trans activists who openly call for violence against TERFs and their 're-education,' men of all political colours agree on one thing: women are asking for it. Women everywhere are told in no uncertain terms to shut up and step aside.

I have read all the arguments about how femininity is not necessarily connected to having a female body, and the assertion that women, as a biological class, do not have common experiences, and I find them deeply misogynistic and reactionary. Furthermore, it is evident that one of the aims of those who deny the importance of sex as a category is to dismantle the idea, erroneously perceived as an unfair form of segregation, that women have their own distinct biological experience as women or - and herein lies the danger - a reality that unites them and makes them a cohesive political class. The hundreds of e-mails I have received over the last few days are proof that the concern that this dismantling project is taking place is at least as heartfelt. Apparently it is not enough for women to stand in solidarity with trans people. Women are required to accept and admit that there is no material difference between trans women and women.

And yet, as many women before me have already said, 'woman' is not a costume. 'Woman' is not a concept in a man's head. 'Woman' is not a pink brain, or a passion for Jimmy Choos and other deeply sexist criteria that now pass for progressive. Plus, the 'inclusive' language of calling women 'menstruating' 'people with vulvas' and the like is demeaning and dehumanising for many women. I understand why trans activists may think these terms are appropriate and it is a sign of kindness and courtesy to use them, but for women who have received degrading insults all their lives from violent men, they are not neutral, they are hostile and alienating. 

And so I arrive at the fifth reason why I am concerned about developments in trans activism.

I have been a public figure for more than twenty years now, and in all that time, I have never spoken in public about the sexual and domestic violence I have suffered. Not because I am ashamed of it, but because remembering it is traumatic for me. Also, I wanted to protect the privacy of the daughter I had from my first marriage. I didn't want this to be just my story, it belongs to her too. Recently, however, I asked her if she agreed that I should tell this part of my life publicly, and she encouraged me to do so.

If I say this, it is not out of pity, but out of solidarity with all those women, and there are so many of them, who have a similar story to mine, and who have been accused of being bigots because they want to maintain spaces only for women.

It was difficult for me to get out of that violent first marriage, But now I am married to a good, principled man, and I feel as secure as I ever expected to be. However, the scars of the violence and sexual harassment I suffered do not disappear, despite being loved, despite being rich. It has become a familiar legend the my perpetual onlooker - Even I realise it is ridiculous - but in the meantime I pray that my daughters will never have reason to hate sudden noises, or finding a person behind them without hearing them approach.

If you could see what I feel when I read about a trans woman killed by a violent man, you would only see solidarity. I have a visceral sense of the terror felt by these trans women in the last moments of their lives, because I too have known those moments of blind terror, when I knew that the only thing keeping me alive was my assailant's shaky sense of self-control.

I am sure that the majority of trans individuals present no risk to others, being on the contrary vulnerable to violence, as I have already explained. Trans people need, and deserve, protection. Like women, they are at risk of being killed by their partners. Trans women who work as prostitutes, and especially trans women of colour, run special risks. Along with all other women survivors of relationship and sexual violence, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity for trans women who have been abused by men.

So I want trans women to be protected. E but I do not want girls and women to be less protected. If you allow any male individual who thinks he is or feels he is a woman to have access to women-only spaces such as public toilets and changing rooms - and, as I said, the law allows for gender recognition without hormones or surgery - you open the door for any man who wants to take advantage of it. This is the simple truth.

This Saturday morning, I read that the Scottish Government decided to implement its controversial Gender Recognition Act reform project, effectively reducing the criteria required to change gender to a simple declaration. To use a term much in vogue, I felt 'triggered'. Exhausted by the constant attacks from trans activists on social media, when all I wanted to do was respond to the children who sent me drawings for the book I was writing during the lockdown, I spent most of that Saturday plagued by dark thoughts, with memories of the sexual violence I suffered as a young woman replaying in my mind. That violence I had suffered at a time in my life when I was vulnerable, and a man took advantage of that vulnerability. I could not stop the flow of memories, and I found it difficult to contain my anger and disappointment at the way the government ignored the safety of women and girls.

Late Saturday night, scrolling through the children's drawings before falling asleep, I forgot the first law of Twitter - impossible to have reasonable conversations on Twitter - and I reacted to what I thought was a degrading expression towards women. I reiterated the importance of the term sex (as distinct from gender) and have been paying the price ever since. I am transphobic, a bitch, a TERF, I deserve to disappear, to be punched, to die. You are Voldemort one wrote to me, clearly thinking that this was the only language I could understand.

It would be so easy to tweet only the hashtags that gain approval - because of course trans rights are human rights, of course trans lives count - receive my reward and glory for pointing out my virtue. Conformity gives contentment, relief, protection. To return to Simone de Beauvoir, "... no doubt it is more comfortable to endure blind servitude than to fight for one's liberation; the dead are better off on earth than the living."

There is an impressive number of women who are terrified of trans activists; I know this because so many have contacted me to tell their stories. They are afraid that their personal data will be leaked, to lose their jobs and income, and to suffer acts of violence.

But as unpleasant as these constant attacks are, I refuse to submit to a movement that is causing serious damage, I believe, in his attempt to change the meaning of the word 'woman' in its biological and political class sense, offering its side to men intent on taking advantage of it to harm women in a way that has never been seen before. I stand with courageous women and men, gay, straight and trans, who have taken a stand for the protection of freedom of thought and expression, and for the rights and protection of some of the most vulnerable elements in our society: gay boys, fragile teenagers, and women who need women-only spaces and want them to remain available. Surveys show that these women are the vast majority, and do not just include those who by privilege or luck have never experienced male violence or sexual harassment or worse, and have never bothered to find out how common this experience is.

What gives me hope are the women who are politically organising and protesting, and the men and trans people who stand by them. Political parties that only listen to those who shout loudest ignore women's demands at their peril. In Britain, women from all parties have begun to work together, concerned about the loss of rights and the campaign of intimidation against them. None of the women who criticise gender theory I spoke to hate trans people; on the contrary. In many of them, their interest in this issue arose out of concerns they had about the treatment of trans teenagers, and they feel immense empathy for trans adults who demand nothing more than to live their own lives, and are now caught up in this rejection of a type of activism they reject. Ironically, these attempts to silence women with the epithet TERF has prompted many young people to rediscover the kind of radical feminism not seen for decades.

The last thing I want to say is this. I did not write this essay to win anyone's sympathy. I know that I am an extremely lucky woman. I have survived, but I am certainly not a victim. I only mentioned my past because, like every other human being in the world, I too have a past that influences my fears, interests and opinions. I never forget that inner complexity when I create my characters and I certainly never forget it when it comes to trans individuals.

The only thing I ask for - the only thing I want - is the same empathy, the same understanding for the many millions of women whose only crime is to want to be heard without being threatened and abused.

JK Rowling

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