Writer J.K. Rowling is best known as the author of the Harry Potter books. In 2005, she founded Lumos, an international nonprofit NGO with a mission to move children worldwide out of orphanages and institutions and into loving family care by 2050. For her dedicated work on behalf of children, she received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Award in December 2019.
Over the course of June 2020—LGBTQ Pride Month—and much to my dismay, J.K. Rowling posted deeply troubling transphobic tweets and statements. On June 6, she tweeted an article headlined “Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate.” She wrote glibly and dismissively about transgender identity: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Almost a week later, she wrote a series of tweets that had the effect of degrading trans people’s lived experiences:
“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.”
“The idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women—ie, to male violence—‘hate’ trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences—is a nonsense.”
“I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.”
On June 10, Rowling posted to her website a 3,700-word essay, “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking Out on Sex and Gender Issues.” In it she writes, “So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. 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. That is the simple truth.”
Rowling then liked a tweet that opposed a bill to ban conversion therapy (both sexual orientation and gender identity) in Canada.
I have spoken with J.K. Rowling to express my profound disappointment that she has chosen to use her remarkable gifts to create a narrative that diminishes the identity of trans and nonbinary people, undermining the validity and integrity of the entire transgender community—one that disproportionately suffers from violence, discrimination, harassment, and exclusion and, as a result, experiences high rates of suicide, suicide attempts, homelessness, and mental and bodily harm. Black trans women and trans youth in particular are targeted.
From her own words, I take Rowling’s position to be that the sex one is assigned at birth is the primary and determinative factor of one’s gender, regardless of one’s gender identity—a position that I categorically reject. The science is clear and conclusive: Sex is not binary.
Trans rights are human rights. J.K. Rowling’s attacks upon the transgender community are inconsistent with the fundamental beliefs and values of RFK Human Rights and represent a repudiation of my father’s vision. As well, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…” Women’s rights are not degraded by the recognition of trans rights. On the contrary: A commitment to human rights demands a commitment to combat discrimination in all its forms.
We at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights have long fought in solidarity with transgender and other allied activists around the world. We have worked with Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) for nearly a decade to oppose transphobic and homophobic laws, free transgender human rights defenders from arbitrary detention, and create political space for Ugandan activists to carry out their work to create a safe and accepting society. In partnership with La Red Lésbica Cattrachas Honduras, we are litigating the first case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to hold a Latin American government accountable for the murder of transgender women (transfemicide). Here at home, we are suing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to stop his illegal efforts to erase the rights of transgender people from official U.S. foreign policy. Later this year, we will launch Workplace Dignity, a program that focuses on the behaviors and actions that honor the dignity—the inherent value and worth—of all people in the workplace.
We all need to work together to create a world in which every person is able to grow and thrive without limits imposed by artificial barriers or discrimination of any type. At Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, we will not cease in our efforts to realize that world.