J.K. Rowling has a history of transphobia, between voicing her support for a woman who lost her employment after making anti-trans comments online, to sharing her own transphobic sentiments in a 3,700 word essay titled “TERF Wars” on Twitter. TERF stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. Her public statement of anti-trans rhetoric drew criticism from many fans and non-fans alike, including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Eddie Redmayne, the stars from the movie adaptations of her beloved Harry Potter book series. Despite this, Rowling continues to draw criticism from her latest installment of her crime novel series titled Troubled Blood published on Tuesday. The story centers on the protagonist’s identity as a cisgender man committing serial murders disguised as a woman, and the backlash is condemning Rowling for leaning into portrayals of trans people as villians.
While some people have come to Rowling’s defense claiming too much ambiguity, many people recognize that regardless of potentially ambiguous details, that ultimately the fictional story exists within the real context of her widely-known transphobic beliefs. Critics stress that this is not an isolated incident, but rather just adding more fuel to the fire. The public has access to Rowling’s history of derogatory statements about transgender people, and this history is important when considering her intentions writing this story. However, regardless of Rowling’s intentions or lack thereof, the impact of this story can only do more damage to an already vulnerable community.
It is especially difficult to ignore how this novel further contributes to the blatantly harmful stereotypes that have been pervasive in popular media for a long time. The Netflix documentary Disclosure reflects on transgender representation in visual media, particularly the common narrative of mentally-ill men dressing in women’s clothing and committing violence towards women. This trope has existed since the beginning of Hollywood, like the films Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. It is incredibly detrimental and unfounded to keep portraying trans identities as being intrinsically linked with mental health, especially when the reality could not be farther from the truth. Generally speaking, transgender people are all too often victims of violence, not the perpatrators.
Additional controversy surrounds Rowling’s pen name Robert Galbraith. Robert Galbraith Heath is the name of the mid-20th century psychiatrist and avid proponent of anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy. Rowling has said that this moniker stems from her love of Robert F. Kennedy and her childhood play-pretend name ‘Ella Galbraith’, but the association is unfortunate in the context of her attitude towards transgender people and dismisal of their validity. Not to mention, Troubled Blood is not the first time Rowling faced backlash for her treatment of trans identities in her fictional works. In her book The Silkworm under the same Galbraith pen name, Rowling used problematic stereotypes to describe a transgender character in the story.
J.K. Rowling’s anti-trans rhetoric is not only disappointing to an entire generation of fans who hold the beloved Harry Potter series in high regard, but it is contributing in a major way to our already potent culture of hate-fueled violence towards transgender people and the denial of their humanity. It is especially upsetting when you consider the alternative. Fiction can expose ugly truths and enlighten the masses. Fiction can inspire empathy for characters different than ourselves. Fiction can manifest worlds better than our own and encourage audiences to see the potential for a different reality. Fiction wields so much power, but unfortunately Rowling let her fear and ignorance seep into her writing, and as a result, contaminate the real world, too. In the future, I hope to see more stories centered on the joy and authenticity of the transgender experience, enough to drown out the ugly words of Rowling and others like her.