An experiment

In my last blog post, I made an aside that I was not ready to engage in the JK Rowling backlash… yet. I mentioned that I loved JKR, generally, and had read tweets of hers that had caused others to react badly, but which had seemed to me to be innocuous.

It’s not that I didn’t think it was important, but I live by prioritization and it just didn’t seem the most important thing happening at the time. I wasn’t ignoring it, I was postponing it. But I was (rightly) called out by my trans brother, who was bothered by the asideness of the aside, and who pointed out that it was cis privilege that allowed me to do that.

Fair enough.

So this is the experiment. I’m going to note how I feel about trans issues and trans rights. And also how I feel about separating the artist from the artwork. And then I’m going to read JK Rowling’s recent essay on her website. And comment on it.

How I feel about trans rights: I completely agree with the sentence that I’ve seen posted a lot in the last week or so: trans men are men, trans women are women, and non-binary people are whatever they declare themselves to be. To rephrase, the person themself decides on their gender identity (if there is one) and you treat them accordingly, because it would be rude to do otherwise. This isn’t remarkably different from addressing my spouse as “Charles”, which is his name and what he prefers. He does not go by Charlie or Chuck or Chaz – he does not like to be addressed by those variations or diminutives. If he introduces himself as Charles, you call him Charles. This is so basic. To do otherwise is an expression of dominance or idiocy.

If a person who is curvy and 5 foot zero and has substantial breasts introduces himself to you as “Norman” and that his pronouns are he/him, that is how you address him. Any discombobulation you feel about discord between his personal appearance and his identity is your problem, not his. If you accidentally misgender him, you correct yourself and (if called for) apologize. If you deliberately misgender him, fuck you, take your issues elsewhere.

Which brings me to another point. A few years ago, I was inspired to post this on FB:

– Are you bothered by other people’s gender identity or presentation?
– If so, unless you want to be in a relationship with them, why do you have any investment in someone else’s gender? How does another person’s gender identity affect you in any way?
– What’s that? You don’t know how to deal with them? That implies that you treat men and women differently, doesn’t it. Why do you think it’s appropriate to treat men and women differently?
– Do you think that trans men are ‘cheating’ somehow, or that trans women are crazy because they are ‘giving up their masculinity’? That sounds like you think women are inferior to men. Why is that?

So the point I’m attempting to make here is the larger question of ‘why does gender matter to you?’ … and “should it”? I would argue that, for most personal interactions, it should not. And that a lot of hue and cry is really people being upset that they can’t use their ‘standard playbook for dealing with a man’ or ‘dealing with a woman’, and where the issue is really that they shouldn’t have two different playbooks.

OK, so before I dive into JKR’s views on transgender issues, I also want to lay out my feelings on tying the worth of an artwork to your feelings about the artist. It’s not a clearcut issue, but very much worth exploring. The central issue of “Amadeus” is that the most perfect music in the world is being composed by a horrible, repulsive, immature scatalogical jerk. Do we downgrade the perfection of Mozart’s music because he himself was far from perfect? (I don’t have a clear answer, but I know I would be very sad if the answer was ‘yes’.) A few years ago, when the movie of Ender’s Game came out, there was a lot of discussion about how awful Orson Scott Card is and we shouldn’t help him in any way by going to see the movie. But, here’s the deal, Ender’s Game is a fantastic book and, I would argue, does not inherently advocate for the horrible positions that its author now supports. Again, I would be very sad to not have read and enjoyed Ender’s Game just because its author is a jerk. And am I never to watch Annie Hall or Sleeper again?

I’ve noticed a lot of conflating of JKR and Harry Potter in social media over the last weeks and I think the jump to “I don’t like JKR now, so Harry Potter sucks” is reductive and unhelpful. I think it is more honest to review Harry Potter (and Cormoran Strike and JKR’s other work) as works that can speak for themselves. Do I love Harry Potter? Yes, I do, of course I do. (Cormoran Strike, too.) Do I think it’s perfect? No, I could go picking nits in its plot holes and inconsistencies all day long if I chose to. Am I willing to learn about issues that (as I mentioned above) seemed innocuous to me, but apparently are not? Sure. I had no idea that “Cho Chang” was a borderline-offensive stereotypy name to give to an Asian character. I don’t think the character herself is a bad Asian stereotype, and kind of love her Scottish accent in the movies, because that’s what real life is like – you speak the accent of where you grew up, not what you look like. But I’m happy (well, not happy, but OK) with having that sort of problem pointed out to me.

But again, I think a rush to dump on everything JKR when she’s done so much good, but in this particular arena seems very misguided, is in itself misguided.

OK, off to read the article.

OK then. First impression I have is that it’s very thoughtful. JKR has always struck me as intelligent and thoughtful, this supports that.

She discusses what she views as the overreaction by trans activists to something she liked or posted on Twitter. Yeah, Twitter is not a place where nuanced discussion thrives, and I don’t envy her that.

She worries that, with constraints removed, young troubled teens will transition to address problems that aren’t really about being transgender – and then regret that choice. I think that’s a valid concern – I also am not sure if that’s a thing that’s been happening with frequency or not. I do think that if you’re going to make irrevocable choices to your body (for any reason), you’d better make damn sure that you understand the risks and are ready to accept those risks.

She opines that using phrases such as ‘people who menstruate’ and ‘people who have vulvas’ rather than simple terms like ‘women’ is dehumanizing and demeaning to women. Boy is that not my call to make, but I can see the point of using such phrases. They are clunky, but I guess we are going through a process where we should be attempting to strike a balance between making sure the existence (and right to exist) of trans people are included in the terms we use and recognizing the societal misogyny and history that makes those terms feel demeaning to cis women. Just like our current attempts to use appropriate pronouns, which feel weird to someone my age, but aren’t wrong per se, it’s just going to take usage and practice to get to the point where we’re all reasonable comfortable with what to do. So we’re going to go through a sanding-off process with our language until such phrases perform their functions without being clunky or offensive (to most).

Finally, there’s this, “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.”

I’m sure any woman or person who’s been abused, or has children or persons they care about that they fear might be abused, might have some horrible scenario in their head about a man claiming to be a woman just so they could go into women’s bathrooms and … do what? Leer at the occupants? Molest them? Kidnap them? Not sure. But wouldn’t that involve a subterfuge of this perverted man completely upending his life to be legally labelled as a woman just so he could go perv in bathrooms? I suppose that’s technically possible, but how likely is something like that to happen? Bathroom fears don’t seem to be particularly logical to me: everyone of all sexes should be able to go into a bathroom and then be private (by using a stall). A person (ok, a man) bent on doing something evil to someone in a woman’s bathroom isn’t going to be substantially helped by a gender certificate that allows him to walk in – he can do that now. I’m not saying that’s OK, I’m just saying if he’s going to commit a crime, the same things that would enable or stop that crime are in place whether or not he has a piece of paper saying he’s a woman.

In conclusion, I think that JKR has possibly placed too much meaning on some possibilities, and definitely placed too much meaning on others. I don’t think she’s an inherently bad person and I definitely think she’s still an admirable one.

There’s a lot of talk on the news right now about bringing down statues of persons who actually represented actions that were celebrated in our past, but are less so now. Civil war monuments are obvious targets (and I’m all in favor of that), but statues of Christopher Columbus or Winston Churchill – less so. A statue of someone is a big proclamation that “this person is admirable and we want to celebrate this”. But those people were people and flawed and part of what we’re going to have to do as we move forward is figure out how much flaw we’re willing to put up with in our heroes to allow us to still celebrate them without asterisks.

2 thoughts on “An experiment

  1. Mark K Maginity

    For me, the question is whether sex and gender are two different things, and if so, which aspects of public and private life are the ones where sex matters instead of gender.
    If sex and gender are two different things, then it is important to be clear which one is talking about at any given time, and not switch back and forth without notice. I have wondered, for example, why people don’t use the words masculine and feminine for gender and male and female for sex, given the precedent from grammatical gender. It would seem to me to make things clearer. Perhaps someone can explain that to me.
    I very much appreciate that you actually read Rowling’s words before commenting on them. Many people expressing their opinions have clearly not read what she actually said, but are basing their opinions on other people’s characterization of her words.

    Liked by 1 person

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