The Volokh Conspiracy

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J.K. Rowling's Essay on Her Skepticism About Certain Transgender Rights Claims


I saw the controversy about this, so I thought I'd have a look at it, and it struck me as calm, thoughtful, substantive, and, unsurprisingly, well-written. I'm not sure what the right answer is on all these questions, but I thought it was worth passing along; you can find it here. I would be glad to link to comparably substantive arguments on the other side as well. In the meantime, a short excerpt from the end, which is actually somewhat more pugnacious than most of the rest of the piece:

I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode 'woman' as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it. I stand alongside the brave women and men, gay, straight and trans, who're standing up for freedom of speech and thought, and for the rights and safety of some of the most vulnerable in our society: young gay kids, fragile teenagers, and women who're reliant on and wish to retain their single sex spaces….

The last thing I want to say is this. I haven't written this essay in the hope that anybody will get out a violin for me, not even a teeny-weeny one. I'm extraordinarily fortunate; I'm a survivor, certainly not a victim. I've only mentioned my past because, like every other human being on this planet, I have a complex backstory, which shapes my fears, my interests and my opinions. I never forget that inner complexity when I'm creating a fictional character and I certainly never forget it when it comes to trans people.

And from an item from the Times of London, which I believe is an editorial:

[JK] Rowling posted on social media at the weekend a gently mocking comment about an article that referred to "people who menstruate", rather than to women. She was swiftly condemned by transgender activists for her supposedly "transphobic" remark. The criticsm was joined by the actor Daniel Radcliffe, who as a child starred as Harry Potter in the film series based on Rowling's books. Radcliffe said: "To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished, I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you."

Though ostensibly emollient, Radcliffe voiced a pernicious principle verging on emotional blackmail. Free speech challenges people's deeply held convictions. That is the point of it and is how knowledge advances. There would be no purpose in expressing an opinion if it merely confirmed widespread convictions and social mores.

Rowling's insistence that sex differences are real rather than mutable was acutely  perceived and wittily expressed, but even if she had been wrong, Radcliffe would have no grounds for seeking to assuage the pain of her critics. Once a society allows that people who feel emotional anguish are entitled to apology and moral restitution, there is no limit to the abridgment of free speech it will allow in the name of compassion. Radcliffe should think again. His comments are, to coin a phrase, offensive and hurtful to those who cherish liberty.

Again, I'd be happy to link to and excerpt serious arguments on the other side from the Times on this.

UPDATE [June 14, 2020, 1:04 pm]: Many thanks to commenter Martinned for taking me up on my offer to link to thoughtful arguments on the other side; he passed along a Crooked Timber guest post by Prof. Sophie Grace Chappell, which I'm delighted to link to and briefly quote:

Women of every kind should be and feel safe in the public toilets. Of course they should; everybody should. But trans women are simply not a threat to women's safety—not as such. As you say yourself, "the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I've outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection." If we google hard enough, we can find bad anecdotes about trans women attacking other women in the toilets; the tabloids go to town on such anecdotes whenever possible, and so do some trans-unsympathetic feminists. But anecdotes aren't data. And you can find bad anecdotes about natal women attacking other women in the toilets, too. All of that should stop, of course it should. But trans women are not the problem here. Violence is….

Ms Rowling, it's certainly not my intention, or the intention of any trans activists whom I personally know, to erode or erase the biological reality of (cis) women's experience. Certainly not. Natal females start in a different place from trans women, and have a different journey and a different story, and undergo different things both good and bad. All these stories are worthwhile and valuable, and no one should be trying to prevent any of them from being told. Like the rest of the world, I look forward eagerly to seeing which of all these stories, in the future, you yourself choose to tell.