PERSONAL
06/12/2020 21:33 EDT

J.K. Rowling’s Views Made Me Grapple With Whether To Keep 'Harry Potter.' I Won't.

The author's transphobic screed forces us to ask if we can reconcile our love of art with the person who made it.

Dia Dipasupil via Getty Images
J.K. Rowling at the 2019 RFK Ripple of Hope Awards in New York on Dec. 12, 2019.

I’m going to get this out of the way right off the top: J.K. Rowling is wrong. Trans women are women. Trans men are men. 

Rowling’s recent tweets about feminism and transgender issues and her lengthy manifesto published this week arguing that gender is biological and trans people are a “threat” to womanhood have sparked a reckoning, particularly amongst millennials and late Gen-Zs who grew up with Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter books.

There’s lots of great writing from actual trans folks and Harry Potter film star Daniel Radcliffe explaining why Rowling is wrong and why it’s so dangerous — and factually incorrect — to write about sex and gender the way she does.

But no matter how wrong she is, her manifesto is still out there. And many Harry Potter fans are left to reckon with if they can still ethically or morally love books written by someone with those views. For many, it has amounted to a seismic shift in perspective — a childhood and life hero fallen from grace. 

If you’ve paid attention, Rowling’s been spouting transphobic nonsense for years. She follows a dozen anti-trans accounts on Twitter, and occasionally their messaging has made its way onto her feed.

This most recent time was just the loudest and most blatant, where Rowling repeatedly denied the legitimacy of transgender people and doubled down on her belief in “biological sex.” It’s the hill she’s chosen to die on for whatever reason, and while it may have been easy for some to cast off her previous tweets, it’s hard to ignore how forcefully she’s come out about her views now.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about my own relationship to the series and fandom, and the trans and other queer people I know and love. 

Writing and reading thousands of words of gay fanfiction — original stories based on the world and character of an existing property — based on the Harry Potter series helped me find my queer identity as a teen. I dressed up for the midnight movie premieres. I know in my heart of hearts I’m a Hufflepuff — obviously the queerest house. 

This week, I went back and reread a piece of fanfiction I wrote when I was 15, a loose story where I inserted versions of my friends and I into the world of Harry Potter, working through petty intrapersonal squabbles through the lens of a sorting hat and houses and wizardry. 

J.K. Rowling is wrong. Trans women are women. Trans men are men.

A group of friends and I ran a YouTube channel for a summer loosely connected by our love of the series. While we were almost all closeted in high school, of that group, all seven of us are out and queer in some way or another now. Something about the property brought us together.

All of these experiences were essential in forming who I am, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. The same goes for the less queer but equally vital memories of curling up with my mom in bed to pass the sixth book in the series back and forth between us after picking it up at the midnight release, eager to find out what happens and gasping in sync aloud when a beloved character died. 

J.K. Rowling and her shitty transphobic diatribe don’t have to be a part of those memories for me. 

WATCH: How to enjoy Harry Potter without J.K. Rowling. Story continues below.

 

The thing about art, is that its objective self doesn’t change. The letters and spaces and line breaks that make up the Harry Potter books are exactly the same as they were before Rowling started spewing this garbage. R. Kelly’s or Michael Jackson’s music is still the same combination of notes as they were before we knew about allegations of sexual abuse. In theory, our enjoyment of them shouldn’t change just because we learn new information about the person who made it.

But it does. Even though Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” was once one of my karaoke staples, I don’t listen to it anymore. I can’t bring myself to listen to his sex-driven music, knowing the person behind it is accused of sexually abusing and exploiting minors

The letters and spaces and line breaks that make up the Harry Potter books are exactly the same as they were before Rowling started spewing this garbage.

“You can despise the individual and appreciate the art, fine, but you need to be aware that you’re making a conscious decision to overlook some very, very bad behaviour. You’re either ignorant of what he’s been charged of, or you’ve thought it through and said, ‘That all matters less to me than his cool grooves.’ What I want is for people to at least think about it,” Jim DeRogatis, a Chicago reporter who’s covering the allegations against Kelly said in a 2015 interview with Vulture

Many people have similarly left behind Louis C.K.’s comedy specials, or Woody Allen films.

In 1967’s “Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes wrote of the differentiation between the author and a text, and how the “birth” of the reader must come at the death of the author. 

“A text’s unity lies not in its origin, but in its destination,” Barthes writes. 

That’s to say, the meaning of a piece of art comes from how it’s interpreted, not who made it. And many Potter fans have taken that approach to Rowling and the Harry Potter books. 

Queer and trans fans have identified with the Harry Potter books since they first came out. The idea of a secret school where people understood you, where you have magical powers and friends from different walks of life, fits into an easy allegory for the closet. The books had wide appeal, but attracted a devoted fandom across generations and perspectives.

Harry Potter fans have been re-writing their own progressive narratives about the series long before Rowling started making her transphobic comments. Through fanfiction, fanart and other spin-offs directly made by people like me and my friends, the fandom took on a life of its own beyond the actual books Rowling put pen to paper for.

Between sites fanfiction.net and Archive of Our Own, there are over a million published pieces of Harry Potter fanfiction out there. Many push queer pairings like “Drarry” — referring to the romantic pairing of Harry Potter and nemesis Draco Malfoy — or feature original trans and gender non-conforming people. Go to Tumblr and you’ll find thousands of queer spins on the series.

Fanfiction authors garner huge online followings building new, more progressive worlds from Rowling’s. The “Very Potter Musical,”  a parody of the series produced by a University of Michigan theatre group features a queer love story between Voldemort and Professor Quirrell and woman in drag as Draco Malfoy, and has garnered over 16 million views on YouTube. 

And yes, Lauren Lopez in drag as Draco Malfoy was a formative moment for 14-year-old gay me.

All of these works, while using Rowling’s characters, exist in a life of their own. They often move away from some of the books’ admittedly less savoury elements — including anti-semitic depictions of goblin bankers or the fact that the only character of Asian descent is literally named “Cho Chang.” 

Fans are also happy to write Rowling out of Harry Potter history. Following Radcliffe’s impassioned dismissal of Rowling’s views, many people joked that he was now the author of the books.

In the days since Rowling’s screed was published, many others have come out with defenses of still reading and loving the original books.

“I’m still a fan, and I’ll tell you why: because these books and their messages still exist, and whatever views Rowling personally has can’t take that away from us. Nobody can take that away from us, and that world really belongs to the fans now. Nobody can change if these helped you come out. That belongs to you,” trans actor and activist Nicole Maines wrote for Variety this week. 

But, for other fans, it’s simply too painful. Many people with Harry Potter tattoos — and particularly trans people — are looking to cover them up

Comics artist and animation writer Molly Ostertag offered to design free cover-ups for trans fans, and cover-ups for a donation to a non-profit supporting trans women of colour for cis fans. 

Others are advocating fans jump ship from Harry Potter to the works of less problematic young adult fantasy authors, like Tamora Pierce or Rick Riordan, who both explicitly denounced Rowling and have repeatedly spoken out in favour of progressive movements like Black Lives Matter. 

I haven’t been deeply involved in Harry Potter in several years. For whatever reason, it didn’t follow me into adulthood the same way it did for other people. I went away to university, leaving my homemade balsa wood wand and Hufflepuff scarf to gather dust in my parents’ storage locker.

But I recently returned to fandom in the pure teenage sense during the pandemic in binge-watching the new Netflix adaptation of She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power. Even as a show targeted at kids, it’s fun, action-packed and delightfully queer.

There are multiple characters of the same gender in relationships with each other, including the titular character, and there’s even a shapeshifting non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns. I fell in love with the show, and found myself regressing to 15-year-old me, browsing the fanfiction forums for my favourite “ships” and scrolling through “Catradora” fanart on Twitter late into the night.

Joe Scarnici via Getty Images
"She-Ra and the Princesses of Power" show-runner and executive producer Noelle Stevenson meets fans at San Diego Comic-Con 2019 on July 19, 2019.

The new “She-Ra” is created by comics artist Noelle Stevenson, a vocal queer woman who, among many other good things, raised over $40,000 through a fan livestream earlier this week in support of Black LGBTQ+ organizations. When I watch the show, my experience is actually enhanced knowing the person behind it is someone who explicitly supports people like me and the people I love. 

Reading about how hard Stevenson fought to have a same-sex kiss in the show’s finale, and hearing Stevenson talk openly about forcing the “gay agenda” into a Netflix children’s show made me realize maybe the author isn’t dead after all. 

But that other author with the transphobic opinions? She’s definitely dead to me.

Your heroes are going to disappoint you. I’m not going to go dramatically burn my Harry Potter books or anything, and I’ll go back and engage with my favourite spin-offs and fan creations I’m sure. But in 15 or 20 years, when I talk to my kids or friends’ kids about Harry Potter, it will come with a heavy asterisk and unpacking of who J.K. Rowling is.

I am working to seek out new heroes who reflect my values. Harry Potter served that role in my life for a time. Now it’s time for something new.

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