Pamela Paul defends J. K. Rowling

February 16, 2023 • 10:30 am

Anybody who defends J. K. Rowling against the mob’s assertion that she’s a “transphobe” will get lots of flak, and I’m no exception. (I get the most private attacks on two issues: my atheism and my writings about transgender and transsexual issues.)

I’ve followed Rowling’s saga from the beginning, and have read her supposedly “transphobic” tweets and her account of “reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues.”  I’ve also seen the social-media mob go after her to the extent of some of the offended burning Harry Potter books! And it won’t be news to you that in this issue I’m pretty much on Rowling’s side.

I have seen nothing “transphobic” from her: no hatred of trans people at all. What she’s demonized for is insisting that transsexual women, while deserving of the compassion that should accrue to all humans, are not identical in every respect to biological women. She does not agree in the literal sense with the mantra “trans women are women”, and has explained why. She is navigating a tortuous path between the rights of biological women and those of transsexual women, and has been attacked because she sometimes uses sarcasm and humor to make her point.

But one thing I haven’t seen in her is a fear or hatred of transsexual people. What I have seen are bravery, persistence and compassion in the face of “Rowlingphobia” (now she’s being called a “Nazi”), but also her fierce conviction that some trans activists are trying to infringe on the rights of biological women, rights that are not 100% in synch with the rights of transsexual women.

I digress, but It would be craven of me to call your attention to Pamela Paul’s new defense of Rowling without giving my own views.

You can read Paul’s NYT column on the site (click headline below), but if you don’t have a subscription, you can find the piece free on The Wayback Machine, an internet archive. You can go to that site, put in the URL of the article you’re looking for in the box at the top of the page, and see if anybody has archived it. If they have, you can read it by clicking on one of the dates and any of the links that come up. Paul’s article, for example is archived here.  As always, I urge you to use the “pay” option if you read something like the NYT often (I subscribe).

I wrote what’s above before I read Paul’s piece beyond the title, but I see that she says pretty much what I did, though of course more eloquently and thoroughly.  Let me give one one longish excerpt from Paul’s piece. (Those who demonize her, of course, will accept no evidence that she’s not a  “transphobe”.)  Note, too, there’s about to be a podcast about Rowling and this controversy. While it features Rowling herself, along with her friends and foes, I think, judging by what Paul says (she’s heard it), that it leaves the listener sympathetic to Rowling.

Paul (her words are indented; mine flush left):

“Trans people need and deserve protection.”

“I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others but are vulnerable.”

“I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them.”

“I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.”

These statements were written by J.K. Rowling, the author of the “Harry Potter” series, a human-rights activist and — according to a noisy fringe of the internet and a number of powerful transgender rights activists and L.G.B.T.Q. lobbying groups — a transphobe.

Even many of Rowling’s devoted fans have made this accusation. In 2020, The Leaky Cauldron, one of the biggest “Harry Potter” fan sites, claimed that Rowling had endorsed “harmful and disproven beliefs about what it means to be a transgender person,” letting members know it would avoid featuring quotes from and photos of the author.

Other critics have advocated that bookstores pull her books from the shelves, and some bookstores have done so. She has also been subjected to verbal abusedoxxing and threats of sexual and other physical violence, including death threats.

Now,  in rare and wide-ranging interviews for the podcast series “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling,” which begins next week, Rowling is sharing her experiences. “I have had direct threats of violence, and I have had people coming to my house where my kids live, and I’ve had my address posted online,” she says in one of the interviews. “I’ve had what the police, anyway, would regard as credible threats.”

This campaign against Rowling is as dangerous as it is absurd. The brutal stabbing of Salman Rushdie last summer is a forceful reminder of what can happen when writers are demonized. And in Rowling’s case, the characterization of her as a transphobe doesn’t square with her actual views.

So why would anyone accuse her of transphobia? Surely, Rowling must have played some part, you might think.

The answer is straightforward: Because she has asserted the right to spaces for biological women only, such as domestic abuse shelters and sex-segregated prisons. Because she has insisted that when it comes to determining a person’s legal gender status, self-declared gender identity is insufficient. Because she has expressed skepticism about phrases like “people who menstruate” in reference to biological women. Because she has defended herself and, far more important, supported others, including detransitioners and feminist scholars, who have come under attack from trans activists. And because she followed on Twitter and praised some of the work of Magdalen Berns, a lesbian feminist who had made incendiary comments about transgender people.

You might disagree — perhaps strongly — with Rowling’s views and actions here. You may believe that the prevalence of violence against transgender people means that airing any views contrary to those of vocal trans activists will aggravate animus toward a vulnerable population.

But nothing Rowling has said qualifies as transphobic. She is not disputing the existence of gender dysphoria. She has never voiced opposition to allowing people to transition under evidence-based therapeutic and medical care. She is not denying transgender people equal pay or housing. There is no evidence that she is putting trans people “in danger,” as has been claimed, nor is she denying their right to exist.

Paul (who used to be the NYT Sunday Book Review editor) has gone way further than I: she’s read every book Rowling has written (I read only the first Harry Potter book), including her crime novels written under a pseudonym. If you’ve followed this fracas, you’ll know that the people looking to be offende find “transphobic” stuff in all her books. And Paul reminds us that even before gender activists went after Rowling, the Harry Potter series was widely attacked and even banned by religious people horriied by her depiction of magic and witchcraft.

Paul has listened to the podcast series, which begins next Tuesday (Feb. 21), and you can sign up here. It’s more than just Rowling discussing her views, but includes interviews with both supporters and critics of the author. Clearly nothing in the podcast convinced Paul that Rowling is hateful or a transphobe. In fact, the host of the podcast is Megan Phelps-Roper, described as “a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church and the author of ‘Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving Extremism.’  Phelps-Roper adds that “she appreciated the novels as a child but, raised in a family notorious for its extremism and bigotry, she was taught to believe Rowling was going to hell over her support for gay rights.”  Clearly she’s had a change of heart, and now sees Rowling as someone who, though “privileged”, is using her voice to speak up for those who have been cowed or bullied into silence.

Finally, Paul notes that the tide may be turning: actors in the Potter movies who once were silent have sprung to her defense, and journalists are starting to support her. Here’s are two tweets from Caitlan Flanagan of The Atlantic:

Paul ends this way, having noted that Rowling herself says that bullying and authoritarianism is a trope in many of her own books:

Rowling could have just stayed in bed. She could have taken refuge in her wealth and fandom. In her “Harry Potter” universe, heroes are marked by courage and compassion. Her best characters learn to stand up to bullies and expose false accusations. And that even when it seems the world is set against you, you have to stand firm in your core beliefs in what’s right.

Defending those who have been scorned isn’t easy, especially for young people. It’s scary to stand up to bullies, as any “Harry Potter” reader knows. Let the grown-ups in the room lead the way. If more people stood up for J.K. Rowling, they would not only be doing right by her; they’d also be standing up for human rights, specifically women’s rights, gay rights and, yes, transgender rights. They’d also be standing up for the truth.

Them’s strong words in the NYT. I advise you to follow Paul’s columns by subscribing to them. Her critique of “progressivism” is refreshing, and perhaps portends a new openness in the NYT. Along with John McWhorter, she’s one of the new antiwoke but liberal columnists who have a regular gig at the paper.

51 thoughts on “Pamela Paul defends J. K. Rowling

  1. There’s nothing quite like a group of people calling out ‘Nazis’ while burning books. The only thing better would be if they also labeled it degenerate art (Entartete Kunst).

  2. The return to a modicum of viewpoint-diversity from the NYT is a hugely hopeful sign. No way would this sort of thing have been tolerated two years ago.

    In three years’ time hoards of no-longer-woke people — having swung with the wind — will be pretending that they never demonised JKR and had always respected her principled stand.

    1. Especially those actors and actresses whose careers were made by Rowling’s work and who seem to have been, um, not so busy lately. Maybe they are now running short of money — it’s been a long time — and need to start thinking about where their next paycheques will come from. I will look forward to hearing Emma Watson bleating, “All is forgiven, JK!”

  3. Readers may be interested in the letter organized by trans people and their allies, published yesterday, criticizing the Times for its coverage of trans issues. The letter is widely available online. I believe that what has angered trans people and their supporters is the Times’s seriousness about regarding the issues (like use of puberty blockers) as not simply to be settled by giving the trans point of view. See especially their attack on Emily Bazelon, a careful and conscientious reporter.

        1. You could easily replace “transgender” and the like in that letter with “pedophile”, and it would not make less sense.

      1. There’s an archived copy here: https://archive.ph/OkZPV

        I notice that the letter uses the loaded term “cis” which very many people reject – labelling people in ways that they disapprove of is usually unacceptable. It also makes some disingenuous remarks about the usage and history of “puberty blockers”.

        1. “Cis,” like “trans” is a prefix derived from Latin & lifted from its use in organic chemistry. In the context of gender identity, it’s merely meant to indicate that someone is not trans. It’s a descriptive word, like how we use the words “straight” or “heterosexual” to refer to people who are not gay or bisexual. It’s only loaded if you think it’s a slur, which it isn’t.

          1. Are you allowed to decide for someone else what is a slur? Aren’t you suppose to defer to that person’s determination for words that are used about them?

          2. By your logic, I could call a person a Negro and brush off his aggrieved protest by asserting I didn’t load it as a slur and he shouldn’t be so sensitive. It’s a perfectly polite serviceable descriptive word which was, during its currency, not used as a slur. Why can’t I use it without slurrious intent today? Because he doesn’t want me to. Good enough for me.

            What you’re really saying is that you want to call people whatever you want but other people can’t call you what they want. Doesn’t work that way.

            If you called me a cis-het at work I would make trouble for you with HR and you could explain your logic to them.

    1. The letter certainly has many signators, but whether or not the NYT has a systemic bias against trans people would require an independent analysis. But, what is clear is that trans people are hypersensitive to perceived attacks on their personhood or to attempts by politicians to deny what they believe are their rights. This is understandable. For them, gender identity is what is at the core of their being. Psychologically, the dynamic is no different from those people that consider it is religion what defines them. When people consider that their essence (whatever it may be) is not respected they will strike back. Few people will stand aside when they believe others are demeaning them. Sometimes, the reaction can go overboard, such as the attack on J.K. Rowling. Until trans people feel fully accepted by society, they will be ever vigilant to perceived threats, real or not. Unfortunately, we live at a time when many people, perhaps most, feel under existential threat to their core beliefs and identity due to their race, religion, political beliefs, social values, sexual identity or social status. I think this is the key to understanding why society is so polarized.

      1. I think there are two debates happening. There’s the one taking place in newspapers like the NYTimes, as well as this page, where the question is: how can we ensure that trans individuals receive the proper, data-supported care, while ensuring that the rights of others (like cis women looking for shelter from abusive situations, cis women athletes, etc.) are not violated. The other debate, which is happening in mostly Right-leaning outlets (from what I can tell), is: how can we make these people go away?

        I feel conflicted because I have a close relative who is trans, and – as someone who works in higher ed in a very left-leaning part of the country – I see trans students. I have absolutely no reason to doubt my relative’s convictions and I fully support her. However, she transitioned in her twenties. I’m much less certain about the best way to help younger people.

        All of which is to say, I think trans activists conflate the two debates for the reason you mention. It’s deeply personal for them, and they’re already feeling pretty threatened. But I think we need to keep having the former debate, since we clearly haven’t hit upon a solution.

        1. Trans activists are the problem. Not the trans people. For some unknown reason, the activists have taken up the ‘cause’ when there is none. Trans and gays have the same rights already. The diffidence between them is, gays stay in the same sex. Trans have to ‘prove’ themselves to be the opposite sex before acceptance. This is logical and legal – otherwise everyone can be the opposite sex. Whereas being gay can be a ‘I say so’ without any legal requirements. That is because gay men can go to a male toilet, whether he is gay or straight. Trans have to prove something before they can access the sex specific spaces, like toilets or prisons, or sports!

  4. I mean, she’s publicly supported Matt Walsh, a self described fascist. She may not be a nazi specifically, but I think it’s accurate to call somebody who publicly supports fascists a fascist.

    1. I’m sorry but you’re wrong. If you agree with something somebody says, that doesn’t mean that you deserve to be tarred with whatever that person is called. You’re just looking for an excuse to call Rowling names. Why don’t you deal with her arguments instead of trying guilt by association?

      When people don’t have responses to claims, they revert to the name-calling, and this time it’s even by association. “She may not be a nazi specifically”?? That’s the funniest line I’ve heard all day. The second funniest is calling Rowling a “fascist.” You can’t be serious, and if you are, you should seek professional help.

    2. Matt Walsh doesn’t call himself a fascist. You have no sense of irony. What he says is, “You say that people who say what you think should not be said are fascists? OK, fine, then I’m a fascist. Big whoop.”

      Put me down as a JK supporter, and a Pamela Paul supporter for defending her.

      1. In this whole saga, I’m most of all an Abigail Shrier supporter.
        I think her comparison of the SOGD with the Anorexia nervosa epidemic is utterly pertinent. It ticks all the boxes. (predominantly white middle class girls, distraught with their bodies, willing to destroy their bodies, etc. etc.). I think the comparisons are striking. The only difference I see is that there were no ‘medical’ or internet militant groups actually supporting and promoting Anorexia nervosa (apart from indirectly, by fashion magazines with their horribly skinny models).
        I hope there soon will be a less damaging ‘white puberal unhappy girl’ fad coming, that is less harmful than SOGD and its quacky and permanently damaging ‘treatments’.

        And yes. JK Rowling is perfectly right. I’ve never read a Harry Potter book, but her stance on transgenderism is impeccable.

    3. “Publicly supported…” They agreed on a tiny aspect of the transgender controversy (basically what’s discussed here), and have nothing else in common. Lazy statements like yours are the molotov cocktails that stoke a fire that shouldn’t exist.

    4. Perhaps J.K. Rowling agrees with Matt Walsh on the specific issue of biological vs trans women, but I can’t help but believe that she would be mortified by the long history of anti gay bigotry that has spewed from his mouth. Maybe she’s just unfamiliar with his revolting background.

    5. As pointed out by others, Matt Walsh is a troll, not a fascist. As far as his sincerely-held beliefs go, he’s conservative, and he’s a christian. If, in your opinion, that is enough to condemn everyone who has business with him, good luck living in this world.

  5. The attempted shaming of Rowland is one of the dumbest and most spiteful things I’ve ever seen. All the more amazing in that the Harry Potter series did more than just get kids reading, it is a defining canon on youth empowerment and inclusiveness.

    1. As once said, “We live in a society (ostensibly)!”
      Really, it’s Tw*tter, The next breaking news is that the circles are round: I expect nothing but vitriol from this Tw*tter we are still cursed with…

    2. As was the comment section of the NYT article. Lots of foaming at the mouth, which confirms to me that I am correct to avoid Twitter. As the anti-smoking ads in The Boys’ Own Paper used to say ca.1960, “The best way to stop is never to start”!

  6. I haven’t read a ton on this, but I don’t think Rowling’s claims are extreme. The analogy to Rushdie though seems like an overextrapolation. Ironically, it’s a bit similar to the nazi claims by Rowling’s detractors/attackers. Islamic extremism is an extremely violent, dangerous, and widely adopted ideology in the world. The subset of the transgender crowd in the US that takes offense to everything and in some cases wants people’s careers and reputations ruined, is not the same as cutting off heads and having a God given right to rape women. I agree with a lot of the article, but imprecise, hyperbolic claims are not making the culture wars better.

    1. Yes, but you appear to be dismissing one article over what you see as a hyperbolic claim. Is that what you’re doing, or are you being picky? If she left out the claim would the readers become more sympathetic to Rowling? I don’t think so.

      Remembers, some of her detractors doxxed her, and showing where somebody lives, well, why would you do that?

      1. The decapitate terfs placard isn’t something I was aware of. And yeah, that’s more insane than I thought her worst detractors were. Doxxing is certainly a serious passive-aggressive threat. It is also much worse than “wanting careers and reputations ruined”. I almost added a sentence arguing that until an extremist on the left murders someone, I won’t consider them to pose the kind of threat a lot of people are arguing. If a large swath of these “progressive” activists are in fact ok with treating someone this way, then I guess I overestimated their sanity. Fair to say I’ve been a little deaf to the most malignant aspects. I have really paid much less attention to the culture wars this past year and it’s been great for me. I’ve been a lot cheerier and optimistic. Ignorance is bliss as they say.

        1. One FB interlocutor (FB “friend”), with impeccable progressive attitudes was perfectly OK with the physical assault against Andy Ngo — because of his politics. “It’s OK to punch a Nazi.”

          Another one, actually a relative, and the only progressive person I know of in that branch of my relatives, was fine with censoring ideas he doesn’t agree with.

          Many on the left have just not thought this through. (And I remind them constantly of the 2016 election: What makes you think your team will be in charge?)

  7. Christian nuts and trans rights activists have both burned JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books – and yet detractors of JKR frequently play the “guilt by association” card when it suits them (as seen in comment #4 above). Fascists in Hitler’s Germany also burned books they disapproved of – something that JK Rowling has never done or condoned. People in glass houses and all.that…

  8. This is great. It is starting to appear that many people, including progressives, are seeing the holes in “illiberal left” thinking. I’ve one of many progressives who have seen them from the beginning. Rawlings has her flaws, as any human being does, but on the whole she is heroic, and very courageous on this issue. I’m a published writer, and no writer (or anyone else) should be treated the way she has been treated. Hopefully the tide is turning.

  9. I think the comparison Paul made with the Salman Rushdie affair is perfect. The radical trans activists are not so different from radical Muslims who use death threats (and actually attempt to kill people) for what they perceive as insults to their sacred beliefs. No criticism or dissent is tolerated by these people. I have little doubt many people would try to physically harm Rowling for what she has said, which is not acceptable in a civilized world.

  10. It seems that Godwin’s Law was suspended during the years of the Trump presidency. I move to reinstate it, specifically the corollary that when a Hitler/Nazi comparison is made, the thread of discussion is finished and whoever made the comparison loses whatever debate is in progress.

  11. It seems to me that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is more a comparitive example if you have to go there.
    She IS up against a bunch of fanatical killers when they decide to get out of bed.
    I support JK Rolling after she came to the defense of a Maya Forstater (I read it here) who lost her job simply by exercising her right to free speech… and pretty much said what we know, sex is real and there are only two with exceptions.

  12. <blockquote I’ve also seen the social-media mob go after her to the extent of some of the offended burning Harry Potter books!

    Chrissake, I can’t imagine ever wanting burning a book — not even The Book of Mormon or Atlas Shrugged. (These are not books to be tossed aside lightly, but to be thrown with great force, to get all Dorothy Parker about it, assuming as to the latter that one has the strength to lift such a door-stopper tome.)

  13. Rowling is right. Her concerns are reasonable, her reservations are principled, and her feelings are sensitive and compassionate to everyone involved. She’s speaking of compromise. Well, there you go. Phobic.

    Talk about single-sex rights for women and you’re implying trans people aren’t what they say they are. That’s crazy talk. Only gender matters, it’s supported by science, but we don’t have a testable hypothesis or even a clear definition for it.

    A “phobia” is supposed to be an irrational fear or hatred which meets the clinical psychiatric definition of irrationality, a life-crippling neurosis. I suppose popular use might shave a bit of the seriousness out of the condition, but in what universe is disagreeing, in whole or in part, with an extraordinary claim a “phobia?”

    In this one, I guess, because the phobia indoctrination has gone the other way. The belief that we are in the midst of a “trans genocide” is fueling the hyperbole surrounding JK Rowling. We’re not, but the conviction that we are is ultimately grounded in the shakiness of the original claim. The community is erased when people no longer believe what it believes. That’s apparently followed by death camps, laws forbidding you from leaving the house, and self-harm.

    Here’s an essay on the topic by Eliza Mondegreen being her usual seductively reasonable self:

    https://elizamondegreen.substack.com/p/phobia-indoctrination-not-trans-genocide

    1. Holy shit – SASTRA!
      I remember you from friendlyatheist.patheos.com I had a different user name then, and don’t want to dox myself, but I’m glad you’re still around.
      How they treated you is a big reason I left that site (they’re gone now anyways)
      The AHA should be ashamed of themselves for cancelling Richard Dawkins. The wider atheist community should be ashamed of themselves for giving credible death threats to the sweetest woman in the world, JK Rowling.

    2. That was an excellent article.
      Of course, those familiar with queer theory know that it was always supposed to be revolutionary. The whole point is to continually push boundaries in order to provoke a negative response from the normies, which can be answered with fierce resistance or even violence.

      I personally believe that beyond that, at the level of trans folk and their supporters, the whole thing depends on believing a whole set of things that are obviously not true, and easily disproved.
      Allowing any skeptical discourse at all risks toppling the whole house of cards.

      My kid, a young adult actually, is one of the smartest people I have ever known. He speaks four languages, excels at university, taking math classes that give me a headache just reading the course descriptions. And I have a strong engineering background.
      Yet he believes that babies are literally* assigned a sex at birth, and that assignment results in the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics. There is apparently a gender hardwired into each person. I guess it is invisible, but when the doc assigns the wrong sex, the child develops the wrong sex organs, and is trans, even if they do not know it.
      His mother, who has delivered and treated a great many babies, has tried to discuss this with the child, but it is exactly like talking about religion with a zealot.
      It is difficult for an educated and normally skeptical person to keep themselves from thinking about the logical flaws and physical impossibilities of the tenets of trans beliefs.
      As a parent, you had better tread damned lightly in such discussions, lest you alienate and risk losing the child altogether. They have been indoctrinated to believe literally that questioning any bit of it is violence, and an attempt to erase their identity.

      * I use the word “literally” in the classic sense, and not ironically or as an exaggeration.

      1. The religious zealot analogy is apt, as arguments with trans activists reminds me of arguments with creationists.

  14. Wow! The NYT is really trying to claw back some of its credibility as a reputable source of news and opinion over and above its well-earned reputation in the past few years as a mere mouthpiece of the “teenage Mrs. Grundy” brigade (to quote your recent quote of Dawkins). For some of us, the tarnished NYT still has some clawing to do after purging the newsroom of people like James Bennet after the Tom Cotton affair, but maybe one day …

  15. Memo from Joe Khan to NYT staff about that letter and the protest in which he says the paper “will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums”: https://archive.ph/5nzHb

  16. I’ve gotten to the point that I don’t even think people should go out of their way to deny or even acknowledge an accusation of transphobia, and here’s why.

    There is no such thing as being trans, if it is defined as someone whose gender identity doesn’t match their sex. Backing off and saying “I believe that most trans people are harmless and are in fact vulnerable” is a form of acknowledgment that there are gendersouls that are independent of the body they are poofed into.

    There are those kids, teens, and adults, who do not fit in with the social pressures and expectations of the gender roles that are assigned based on their ex, but the disease is in the way that society pressures them to capitulate. It’s not anything innate in the individual. Widespread societal acceptance that there are trans souls is likely due to the fact that the radical feminists are right about how harmful gender is, but rather than try to fix gender’s ills, it’s easier to fix gender as an innate propery of individuals in order to take the onus from patriarchy and push us all to accept that when it comes to sex and gender, language is wrong and we must accommodate the gender reality.

    There are a whole host of problems created by accepting that there are trans people and the weight falls back on those who’ve actually been forced to push for their rights as equals for centuries. Specifically, women and homosexuals (gay and lesbian.) The costs to those two segments of society of accepting that transgenderism is a natural (as opposed to synthetic) phenomenon are tossed aside as being secondary to making sure that no trans person ever is harmed in any way.

    So, I won’t give in. If someone says I’m transphobic, I’ll shrug my shoulders. It’s not the sin that we should be fearing, after all.

    If anyone’s wondering, I am not conservative. I am a liberal, leftist, whatever you want to call it, who is growing aware of how regressive and conservative that the transgender claim is, and that it is a backlash against feminism that has been bought and sold by progressives who think they are being kind.

    It’s cruel.

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