June 15, 2020
Rowling, TERFs, and the Danger of Essential Sex

The essentialist idea supported by TERFs that sex cannot be changed is one of the main reasons behind discrimination and murders of transgender people all over the world.

by Kevin Halim
Issues // Gender and Sexuality
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Recently, JK Rowling, author of the seminal series Harry Potter caused a controversy on the internet for attacking the inclusive language of “people who menstruate”, arguing that the usa of the inclusive term can erase the lived reality of women (she only refer to cis women here) globally. This, she claimed, also impacted the issue of same-sex attraction. She was then accused as transphobic.

This wasn’t the first time the celebrated author was accused as transphobic. In previous occasions, Rowling was documented to support TERF (Trans-Exclusion Radical Feminist) and aligned herself with the dangerous essentialist ideology of the immutable biological sex. From the portrayal of highly stereotypical trans women in her book to liking other TERF’s tweets, including one that refers to transgender women as men-in-dresses. Understandably, these lead many people to find her problematic.

It is such a pity. While many LGBT individuals adore her work, including her famous quote: "If Harry Potter taught us anything it's that no one should live in a closet,"  Rowling consistently showed her strong essentialist believe that sex is unchangeable. Still fresh in our mind was Rowling’s support to Maya Forstarter, who lost her job after saying that people cannot change their biological sex.

The idea that sex cannot be changed is famously associated with the TERFs. The term TERF is widely known in the feminist movement as a slur and it stands for people who believe that biological sex or natal sex is unchangeable, therefore, from their point of view, transgender women are not real women and transgender men are not real men. The view does not distinguish sex from gender. Although no one is trying to erase the importance of biological factor, TERFs see the inclusion of transgender women in women’s space as being harmful, and threatening the so-called “natal women.”

Although she has never really declared herself as one, it’s not wrong for people to associate Rowling with TERFs. Rowling’s effort to defend her ideology can be seen as discriminative towards the transgender community. The very belief that sex cannot be changed is the opposite of what transgender people are fighting for and has been struggling over the years globally. Accusations like men are invading women’s space by posing or pretending as women are always echoed and emphasized within the TERFs movement. Our celebrated author once liked the tweet about trans women being referred to as men-in-dresses – though she claimed it an accident. She also apparently liked another tweet from a transphobic activist who pushed the transgender group to be excluded from the LGBTQ community. Her twitter account also follows TERFs accounts.

Read more: The Vicious Cycle We Have Created for Transgender Women in Indonesia

The essentialist idea supported by TERFs that sex cannot be changed is one of the main reasons why transgender people all over the world are being discriminated against, not to mention murdered for being who they are. Between Oct. 1, 2018 and Sept. 30, 2019, a total of 331 murder cases  of trans and gender-diverse people were reported around the world. Trans people of color are the worst impacted by this discrimination and stigma.

In Indonesia, the number of transgender people being murdered each year has risen  in 2014-2019. Early this year a transgender woman died after she was set on fire in Jakarta. This brutal hate crime comes from the idea that sex cannot be changed, and those who dare to do so deserve punishment.

Those who are lucky enough to stay alive still struggle to survive daily. Transgender people’s social mobility is hindered due to a lack of legal gender recognition. Indonesia only legally recognize sex, not gender. It shows that even our system is easily aligned with the TERFs’ belief that sex is the same as gender, thus cannot be changed. Most Indonesians also can only see gender as the reflection of the materiality of sex, so the suffering of trans people is seen as justified because we choose to be ourselves.

While all over the world, people are showing solidarity through Black Lives Matter movement, Rowling reinforces the segregated line between cis and trans people with her strong view  against trans people. In fact, the people she accused of eliminating the lived experience of women around the world are only trying to accommodate the inclusion of those who menstruate, regardless their gender identity. No one is erasing the reality of sex. Conversely, by doing that, she is the one who erases the lived experience of trans people whose lived experiences have been subjected to censorship constantly.

Inclusion never harms anyone’s rights, therefore, acknowledging the lived experience of people with diverse gender identity doesn’t erase the lived experience of others. It is unfortunate that the colourful lives we have continue to be boxed into two rigid categories.

Read more: Coronavirus Lockdown: LGBTQ People Face Hostility and Loneliness

Acknowledging gender identity or concept does not erase the lived reality of sex. In fact, it will help us to be more inclusive rather than just reinforce  the border of cis and trans people. Putting transgender women with cis women in the same space does not create more harm. There is no evidence that inclusion of trans women in cis women can threaten the existence of cis women or erase the specific needs that cis women have.

For our cis allies, I hope you can help educate more people that sex and gender are different, and that both things are real, and also acknowledge that the current system still creates a wall between biological sex and social identity, which is tantamount to a discrimination no matter how subtle the form is. For my trans brothers, sisters, non-binary folks, and others, I hope we won’t feel belittled that our beloved author is opposing the inclusion of us. In the end, diamonds are made under the pressure. Together, we can overcome this.

Kevin Halim is a transgender woman who used to be a big fan of Rowling, but is now feeling hugely disappointed with her.