Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

J.K. Rowling is on twitter-trial once again. She stands accused of being a ‘TERF’, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist.

The author’s most recent transgression was to retweet an article titled ‘Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate.’ Rowling responded ‘“People who menstruate. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

This did not sit well with the Twittersphere and Rowling was quickly denounced, most shockingly, by Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe who apologised to the transgender community lamenting ‘I really hope that you don’t entirely lose what was valuable in these stories to you.’ Hopefully not Harry, because then you’d lose your royalties.

The problem with Rowling’s tweet is that some transgender men menstruate, whilst transgender women do not, alongside pre and postmenopausal women. So technically, the author was mistaken. Yet this doesn’t cut to the heart of the problem. Philosophy professor, Kathleen Stock, pointed out that, ‘Menstruators is not a natural term in English that most people are familiar with’. She explained that society has referred to ‘women’ for centuries, without assuming that all women menstruate, and so it is unnecessary to describe the exact conditions of womanhood, which some find reductive and demeaning. Linguistic generalisations are, by definition, not all-encompassing.

Problems arise when biological women feel that trans activism infringes on their rights by subjugating biological sex to gender identity. Needless to say, if self-identification replaced sex entirely, there would be certain practical implications for example in athletic competitions. When trans activism comes to affect these spheres, others are drawn into the debate, unfamiliar as they may be with the territory.

Rowling, perhaps labouring under the illusion that the situation could be salvaged, released an essay explaining her reasons for speaking up. Her primary concern surrounds the trans community’s erosion of the legal definition of sex, replacing it with gender. Rowling questions how trans women’s rights might be implemented without undermining cis women’s rights and free speech. Unfortunately, the subsequent media backlash has tended to target Rowling’s character, without addressing her apprehensions.

One article in the Washington Post was troublingly titled ‘J.K. Rowling’s transphobia shows it’s time to put down the pen’. It stated that ‘the tolerant are merely trying to move beyond the biological dichotomy our society has constructed over centuries.’ Does Rowling’s scepticism over the idea that binary sex is a social construct render her intolerant?

As Micheal Mascolo explained in Psychology Today, we live in an individualist society where ‘we prize the values of freedom, autonomy, equality and self-determination.’ As such, it is understandable that we see gender as something one should define for oneself. Nevertheless, identities are necessarily developed through interactions. If you saw a self-proclaimed vegan eating a plate of meat, eggs and cheese, you could reasonably challenge this aspect of their personal identity. As Mascolo points out, the same is true of gendered identities although, ‘Happily, public indicators of transgender identities exist.’

Whether or not you agree with J.K. Rowling, expressing one’s misgivings over the direction of trans activism is part of a public discourse. A number of trans women have come out in support of Rowling, saying they do not feel represented by some of those organisations claiming to speak for them. The maxim that trans women are women has real implications that must be discussed and whilst trans lives are not up for debate, language and legal definitions are.