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Illustration by Oscar Bray

Too Long; Didn’t Research: “A Group of Notably Sensitive and Clever People”

A column that finds interesting research coming from NYUAD and explains it to a wider audience. This week: how J. K. Rowling’s essay erases the experiences of transgender men.

Aug 30, 2020

To many LGBTQ+ individuals, it quickly became clear that Pride Month this year would go about as well as the rest of 2020 had. The first of June saw police raiding a queer friendly bar in Iowa where injured Black Lives Matter protesters were receiving medical treatment. Less than two weeks later, on the anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, President Trump passed legislation that rolled back protection from discrimination in healthcare settings for transgender people. At around the same time, the internet’s attention was fixed on once beloved author J. K. Rowling, and her essay outlining why she’s “worried” and “concerned” about “the new trans activism.”
Rowling’s manifesto represents a larger body of falsehoods and mischaracterizations that have been pedaled for decades. There are already numerous resources available that dissect the essay in detail and use academic sources to support their counterarguments, so I would like to focus on a specific aspect of Rowling’s account of “the new trans activism”: how it erases transgender men.
To understand what this kind of erasure looks like, a useful term to know is “epistemic injustice.” In philosophy, epistemology is the study of knowledge: what it means to know something, how we gain knowledge and how we use it. In her 2007 book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, philosophy professor Miranda Fricker proposes another core question: who in our society is allowed to disperse and access knowledge? She defines epistemic injustice as violence that targets one’s ability to spread, gain and possess knowledge. She points out two particular forms this violence can take: testimonial injustice, which rejects an individual’s knowledge and experiences because of inherent characteristics such as race or gender, and hermeneutical injustice, which excludes information about a certain group in a way that leaves both the group concerned and the general public bereft of language that can be used to discuss and share knowledge on the topic.
Last May, I wrote an essay for a core class called Gender and Representation about how epistemic violence is enacted against transgender men. In my research, a disturbing theme emerged across cultures and time periods: people who are born and at least partly socialized as women are discredited simply because they are “gender nonconforming women”. This is seen in the frequent physical and psychological abuse perpetrated by the family members of transgender and non-binary assigned female at birth (AFAB) people in India. This is seen in the accounts of Antonia Young, whose anthropological fieldwork in Albania with communities of “sworn virgins” — women who agree to celibacy in exchange for being considered socially as men — was exoticized in mainstream accounts of her work. Finally, this injustice is seen in how trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) like Rowling characterize transmasculine people.
In her essay, Rowling expresses a fear commonly stoked by gender critical feminists: that young women are being pushed into gender transition, and vast numbers of these women will experience great mental stress and have to detransition in later years. Rowling cites a 4400 percent increase in references for AFAB people to gender clinics in the past decade, the fact that autism is highly represented in the transgender population and a thoroughly debunked theory proposing that gender dysphoria can be socially contagious.
None of these talking points are new; a common strategy used by transphobes is to portray transgender women as predatory men, and transgender men as female victims who need to be saved. By pointing out the correlative link between gender dysphoria and autism in girls, Rowling implies causation and suggests that autistic people do not know what is best for them and cannot be trusted to make decisions about what healthcare they need. She also insinuates that dysphoria can be induced in young girls via peer pressure, and cites the increase in gender clinic referrals without considering the multiple reasons behind it, thus deferring to the more convenient narrative that young patients are being brainwashed. All of this is testimonial injustice in action, discrediting the experiences of transgender men by portraying them as immature, ill, mentally deficient or prone to negative influences.
The instances of hermeneutical injustices in Rowling’s essay are visible more in what is omitted than what is present. Rowling doesn’t directly link to any of the studies or quotes that she cites, leaving her interpretation of the facts to be taken as gospel, as seen in the aforementioned dodgy statistic, and in her depiction of a particular court case which frames active discrimination from the defendent as “stating that sex is real”. She also uses rhetoric to make the struggles faced by transgender men seem inextricable from the suffering of cisgender women like herself. Take, for example, this infamous paragraph:
“The writings of young trans men reveal a group of notably sensitive and clever people. The more of their accounts of gender dysphoria I’ve read... the more I’ve wondered whether, if I had been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge… If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn't find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.”
The fact that Rowling had to go through so much stress in an already abusive environment is horrible and never should have happened, and it isn’t impossible that her stress could have resulted in gender dysphoria under other circumstances. She shows empathy with the struggles transgender men frequently face with “anxiety, dissociation, eating disorders, self-harm and self-hatred,” but acts as if those things amount to gender dysphoria rather than defining gender dysphoria with its own features. This framing of gender dysphoria denies it as a separate mental state, thus making the experiences of transgender men seem interchangeable with those of cisgender women. This is a particularly insidious example of hermeneutical injustice, because the subtlety with which she frames the discourse in a reductive way doesn’t allow for gender dysphoria to be viewed outside the lens of women suffering under patriarchy.
Unfortunately, these arguments need addressing because Rowling’s huge platform has boosted the credibility of false and malicious talking points in the eyes of the uninitiated, while also creating a sense of validity and solidarity for those who already agree with her brand of transphobia. Moreover, many queer people looked to the messages of love, acceptance and embracing your differences within the Harry Potter series as a beacon of hope, only to have Rowling unabashedly argue that a significant portion of transgender people are either confused or dangerous. Frameworks such as Fricker’s concept of epistemic injustice can help us pinpoint the exact problem with the rhetoric around specific issues and provoke the question of who is dictating what knowledge is and isn’t being shared.
With this in mind, only one question remains: if you think that transgender men really are “a group of notably sensitive and clever people,” why is it so hard for you to give them the respect, recognition and rights they are asking for?
Oscar Bray is a columnist and staff illustrator. Email him at
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