What are implications of Harry Potter author’s detailed essay expressing views on transgender law reform?
JK Rowling said she felt compelled to speak out about her experience of sexual assault. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
Why has JK Rowling chosen to write about her concerns?
The Harry Potter author has published a 3,600-word essay setting out in more detail than before the development of her already well-known stance in sex and gender debates. In it, she reveals for the first time her own experience of serious sexual assault and domestic violence which, Rowling explains, she felt compelled to write about after reading of the Scottish government’s latest progress towards changing gender recognition laws.
“I couldn’t shut out those memories [of my own assault] and I was finding it hard to contain my anger and disappointment about the way I believe my government is playing fast and loose with women’s and girls’ safety,” she wrote.
Rowling underlines that she also wants trans women to be safe. Many other women who share her views likewise insist transgender people have the right to equality and dignity.
But beyond this there is huge disagreement about how different positions – whether those of transgender activists or gender-critical feminists – express that commitment in practice, and indeed what the nuances of those different positions are.
Gender critical feminists disagree with the trans rights activists’ view that gender identity is separate from one’s biological sex, and that it should be given priority in terms of law-making and policy. They fear that sex is being argued into non-existence and that this will erode rights hard-won by women in the face of historical biological discrimination.
Others regard the focus on biological sex as transphobic. They argue that while they do not deny the reality of biological sex there must be a recognition of complexities beyond binary definition, and that people should have the right to privacy around their sex characteristics at birth (as was agreed in the European convention on human rights in 2002, which led to the current Gender Recognition Act).
Can a person change their gender at will nowadays?
Rowling says many people do not know that “a man who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones may now secure himself a gender recognition certificate and be a woman in the sight of the law”. But this has been the case since initial gender recognition legislation was passed in 2004, under which the only legal requirement for changing a birth certificate is proof of living in one’s preferred gender.
The Scottish government’s proposals – which have been put on hold for the duration of the pandemic – remove the current requirement for applicants to provide medical evidence of their diagnosis of gender dysphoria, but other checks and balances remain. Those applying for a gender recognition certificate are entering into a legal agreement to live in their preferred gender for the rest of their life – any breach of this is punishable with up to two years in prison – and there remains a requirement that a person has lived in the acquired gender for three months before signing the statutory declaration, and waits for a further three-month reflection period before the certificate is granted.
Are women-only spaces under threat?
Rowling says that “when you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman … then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside”.
Those supportive of transgender law reform – which has also been put on hold by the UK government – argue that anxiety around single sex-spaces relates to women’s understandable lack of faith in how seriously violence against them is dealt with. Organisations such as Rape Crisis Scotland and Women’s Aid Scotland have operated trans-inclusive policies with few reported problems. Transgender groups point out that they still make up only 0.6% of the population and that “the amount of obsession over where we pee is disproportionate to the likelihood of bumping into one of us”.
Others express the concern that the spectrum of people who identify particularly as trans women is expanding to include male-appearing people who – rightly or wrongly – might be perceived as a threat, and feel sceptical about whether inclusion policies have been properly tested or if individual cis women will be too afraid or uncomfortable to challenge male-bodied people in their spaces.
Is there evidence that more young people are transitioning, and then regretting it?
The problem is that there has been no systematic tracking in the UK of what happens to people after transitioning, so it is hard to offer evidence other than the anecdotal. Rowling refers to a controversial US paper that questions whether transgender identification in teenagers could be a form of social contagion. She notes that “the UK has experienced a 4,400% increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment”.
Critics of Rowling say it is easy to exaggerate demand because the percentages involved are already so tiny. According to the Scottish Trans Alliance, it is estimated that less than 0.1% of under-18s in Scotland have been referred to a gender identity clinic, and the majority of them will receive psychological support at this stage. STA also reports that the numbers of people de-transitioning are “a handful”.
Has the debate become irreconcilable/too toxic to move forward?
Rowling describes the online threats and abuse she has encountered since making her position clear about two years ago, something that many others who speak out on transgender rights, whether supportively or critically, have also reported.
Equalities organisations insist that supporting transgender rights should not and must not excuse abusive behaviour, but also make a plea not to conflate angry and anonymous voices online with organised campaigners: it is dangerous to decide the merits of equality principles based on what is said on Twitter.
There is also concern that, when a woman of such influence and popularity as Rowling sets out a critical position, then the wider public, who are largely supportive of transgender people according to most recent British Social Attitudes research, may begin to question their fundamental rights.