OPINION: The battle for the soul of Hogwarts: Re-thinking ‘Harry Potter’ in the wake of J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments

Graphic by Nina Potischman. Concept by Jordan Wong.

CW: transphobia, sexual violence, assault

The “Harry Potter” books define who I am. 

“Harry Potter” sculpted me into a lover of words, a devotee to the imagination, an empathetic being. It emboldened me to understand my differences as magical and to envision change against a seemingly insurmountable threat. The struggle against Voldemort was the battle against everything evil.

Now, I feel my childhood has been obliterated with a Reductor Curse by the transphobic comments of J.K. Rowling, author of “Harry Potter.” 

In a June 6 Twitter post, Rowling criticized the gender-inclusive phrase “people who menstruate” in an article seeking to integrate reproductive health equity into COVID-19 recovery. Scoffing at the identities of some non-binary people and trans men, Rowling wrote “there used to be a word for those people,” which sounded something like “wumben,” “wimpund” or “woomud.”

Rowling then wrote a 3,670 word essay rooting her comments in active anti-trans sentiments, not just ignorance. 

Rather than being born of genuine self-knowledge, trans identities and gender dysphoria, to Rowling, are an artificial, temporary product of supposed social contagions, like “peer influences” and a “misogynistic” society. Individuals she sees as most “vulnerable” are particularly susceptible to coercion: those whose trans identity intersects with autism, youth or having been assigned female at birth. Rowling condemns efforts to transition and calls for bathrooms to be segregated by biological sex. 

Rowling grounds these arguments in her experience as a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Empathy and trust are the only acceptable responses to a survivor who shares their story. However, by presenting trans rights as counter to protection of survivors, Rowling ignores the pervasiveness of sexual violence affecting the trans community, with up to 66 percent of trans individuals predicted to be survivors. 

Rowling’s position of a survivor should have been a point of connection, of solidarity, with the trans community, not an avenue for identity-based attack. 

By saying she fears an increase in sexual violence if “any man who believes or feels he’s a woman” is admitted to bathrooms and changing rooms designated for women, Rowling conflates trans women with violent, manipulative predators. By using the noun “man” and the pronoun “he” to describe trans women whose gender identity is, to Rowling, a feeling as opposed to a fact, Rowling weaponizes language to somehow bar trans women from an exclusive badge of womanhood. This unacceptable display of hatred strips trans people of their personhood.

Rowling’s comments must be situated in their broader sociopolitical context: a widespread discourse about identity amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic which disproportionately impacts already marginalized communities.

Trans women of color are disproportionately targeted by hate-based violence; at least 27 transgender or gender non-conforming people, mostly Black trans women, were killed violently in the United States in 2019. Because Black Lives Matter, trans Black Lives Matter. Rowling’s attack of the trans community not only permits anti-Black racism, but actively exacerbates it.   

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As an LGBTQ+ person, I am wounded, viscerally and personally, by Rowling’s recent statements, her words so biting because they were hurled from a person I once considered an ally. However, my privilege as a white, cisgender woman also undeniably informs my previous ability to overlook a history of overt and underlying bigotry in Rowling’s personal tweets and in the “Harry Potter” books.

Although the degree to which artist and art can be collapsed is contested, I, as an English major, believe firmly that our examination of texts must not conflate creator and creation. But Rowling’s personal transphobic comments help to illuminate a near absence of diversity — inserted poorly or as an afterthought — in the books themselves.

According to Every Single Word, a mere “12 characters (and 13 actors), two of whom are CGI,” are people of color in the eight original “Harry Potter” films combined and, collectively, they speak for 5 minutes and 40 seconds.

The times people of color, already confined to inconsequential, supporting roles, do speak often reinforce stereotypes. For instance, the portrayal of Cho Chang, Harry’s first love interest, presents Asian women as docile objects of desire for white men. Her name is a composite of surnames, one Korean, one Chinese, to overemphasize her Asian heritage without working to characterize her empathetically or honestly.

Katie Leung, the actress who played Chang, recently responded to this lack of diversity and Rowling’s transphobic comments by providing resources in support of the Black trans community, emphasizing the inseparability of Rowling’s handling of identity from the current political and social moment.

Understanding these failings encourages change. Hopefully, young people and their families will seek more inclusive, more intersectional works to quench their thirst for representation after reading “Harry Potter.” With their voices, they will mandate the continued creation of children’s literature written about and for all children.

After all, books, despite their significant flaws, have long been powerful catalysts in the actualization of meaningful change. 

From the anti-genocide movement in Darfur to the student-led March for Our Lives movement against gun violence, activists have communicated an egalitarian, reform-driven agenda through allusions to the themes of “Harry Potter”: love is a solution, injustice is defeatable. 

Books have the capacity to bridge otherwise insurmountable gaps, to disseminate ideas, to spark revolution. But as impactful as they have been, books are bound paper dappled in ink, not people, not movements. 

So, let us read, then let us remember, let us act, let us protest, let us vote, let us reimagine. In this, lies true magic, not in insensitive Twitter ramblings. We are still Dumbledore’s Army, not Rowling’s. 

Isabel Evans SC ’23 is a Southern Californian double-majoring in English and environmental analysis. She recommends those who seek nourishment in the form of inclusive children’s books read “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds and “Kira-Kira” by Cynthia Kadohata.

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