Tranny Potter and the Contentious Tweets

Despite being transgender myself, I tend not to write a great deal about trans-related topics. That’ll change soon, as I could hardly let 2020 end without some sort of commentary on what must surely be the year’s most widely-read essay on transgender matters: the 3670-word blog post formally entitled “J. K. Rowling writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues” but more widely known as the “TERF Wars” essay, after a phrase Rowling used when linking to it on Twitter.

Much has already been written about this essay since Rowling published it back in June, and given that the post recently won its author a Russell Prize for Best Writing, I doubt that debate will be ebbing any time soon. But while I can’t promise I’ll be saying anything exactly groundbreaking about the piece, I can at least attempt to discuss it in as much depth as I can.

My plan is to run a series of blog posts – lasting into 2021 – that use J. K. Rowling’s TERF Wars essay as a gateway to the Augean stable that is mainstream transgender discourse (particularly mainstream British transgender discourse). Each post in the series will examine a different aspect of the essay, with one question above all others in my mind: how did we end up here?

In the first post, I shall be looking at the key incidents that led to Rowling’s reputation as a transphobe and examine how she presents them in her essay’s version of events.

Strike one: racybearhold

In the TERF Wars essay Rowling identifies the backlash against her as beginning when she clicked “like” on a certain tweet:

When I started taking an interest in gender identity and transgender matters, I began screenshotting comments that interested me, as a way of reminding myself what I might want to research later. On one occasion, I absent-mindedly ‘liked’ instead of screenshotting. That single ‘like’ was deemed evidence of wrongthink, and a persistent low level of harassment began.

The tweet referred to here was posted by an individual calling themself “racybearhold” in March 2018. Rowling had in fact been criticised on an earlier occasion in October 2017 for liking a tweet by Harvey Jeni. The tweet in question links to a Medium essay in which Jeni says the following:

You  [left-wing men] have read our painful disclosures, our universal cries of me too! You have had a taste of what it might be like to try to navigate a male dominated world as a woman, and of how a socially conditioned fear of male bodies might ingrain itself. You have read the stories at the thinner end of the wedge, the ones we can stand to share, and have judged them harrowing. So tell us again how our desire to retain our safe spaces and sex based rights are bigoted and unreasonable? Tell us again how we should willingly get changed next to a stranger with a penis while focusing on ensuring our fearful body language doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable. Explain to us how you reconcile your smears of TERF and fascist with your dismay at how we are continually treated by male bodied people.

However, it’s true the accusations of transphobia were comparatively quiet at that point, and didn’t really get going until the March 2018 incident. So, let’s take a look at the “racybearhold” tweet that earned Rowling’s like:

I was shouted at by men at my first Labour Party meeting aged 18 because I asked them to remove a Page 3 calendar. I’ve been told to toughen up, be louder, stronger, independent. I’ve often not felt supported. Men in dresses get brocialist solidarity I never had. That’s misogyny!

The account of “racybearhold” has since been suspended, so I have no way of digging out the exact context, but the tweet appears to have been commenting the activities of Dawn Butler, Labour MP and (at the time) shadow women and equalities secretary.

In January 2018 Butler commented in support of transgender people: “I think if a trans woman wanted to be included in an all-woman shortlist then that should be considered”. The following February Butler invited transgender model Munroe Bergdorf to sit on an LGBT advisory board. This provoked controversy due to Bergdorf’s previous comments on race – she had said that white people are inherently racist – and in early March Bergdorf resigned from the role, citing “endless attacks on my character by the conservative right-wing press and relentless online abuse.”

The “racybearhold” tweet responds to this context with a sense of conspiracy-mongering paranoia, pushing a narrative that transgender people – “men in dresses” – are uplifted by misogynist men, and that support for trans women runs in opposition to support for cis women.

Underlying all of this is a distinct touch of petulance. She mentions being on the receiving end of verbal aggression for objecting to a pornographic calendar at a party meeting, but seems oblivious to the possibility that the “men in dresses” she so freely derides might, themselves, have faced similar abuse.

If the tweet was written in response to Dawn Butler’s comment, then it is doubly clueless. In what way is Butler a “brocialist”? Is it all that likely that Butler is motivated by misogyny as opposed to, say, straightforward empathy? Bear in mind that Dawn Butler is black, and will have first-hand familiarity with the prejudice faced by minorities. Similarly, Munroe Bergdorf is mixed-race, and the controversy about her appointment derived largely from her comments on racism. The apparent attempt by “racybearhold” to frame the matter as a conflict between men and women seems thoroughly out of touch – as, by extension, does anyone endorsing her sentiments.

PinkNews, reporting on Rowling’s implied agreement with the contentious tweet, reached out to an unnamed spokesperson for the author who said “I’m afraid J. K. Rowling had a clumsy and middle-aged moment and this is not the first time she has favourite by holding her phone incorrectly.” PinkNews also reported that, somewhere down the line, Rowling un-liked the offending tweet. In the TERF Wars essay she claims that she “absent-mindedly ‘liked’ instead of screenshotting”.

Is it plausible that Rowling clicked “like” by mistake? Yes. I myself have sometimes viewed my Twitter likes and found that I’d accidentally clicked endorsements of everything from car adverts to poo jokes. But take a closer look at her wording here: “That single ‘like’ was deemed evidence of wrongthink”.

Not “evidence that I shared the tweet’s hostility towards transgender people”. Instead, “evidence of wrongthink”. Rowling’s usage of the term wrongthink, with its connotations of Orwellian dystopia, clearly casts her opponents as the villains – with the implication that, if even if Rowling does agree with “racybearhold”, that would be no big deal.

Strike two: Magdalen Berns

Rowling identifies accidentally liking the “racybearhold” tweet as her first strike. The second was another Twitter interaction – namely, following Magdalen Berns:

Magdalen was an immensely brave young feminist and lesbian who was dying of an aggressive brain tumour. I followed her because I wanted to contact her directly, which I succeeded in doing. However, as Magdalen was a great believer in the importance of biological sex, and didn’t believe lesbians should be called bigots for not dating trans women with penises, dots were joined in the heads of twitter trans activists, and the level of social media abuse increased.

Magdalen Berns was a YouTube commentator who passed away in September 2019, aged 36; Rowling followed her in June of that year. Before I go on I’d like to provide a quick run-down of Berns’ main talking points.

A sampling of Magdalen Berns’ YouTube output.

The earliest upload on Magdalen Berns’ YouTube channel, posted in 2016, is entitled “There Is No Such Thing as a Lesbian With a Penis”. It’s a response to a (currently unavailable) video by lesbian vlogger Arielle Scarcella. In the original video Scarcella discussed relationships between lesbians and transgender people and interviewed a trans woman named Tara. In her response, Berns states that Scarcella is “pissing me off” and “throwing young lesbians under the bus”. After playing a clip in which Tara mentions having sex with lesbians, Berns suggests that Tara is a rapist, and later calls her “a heterosexual male who has a thing for lesbians: Tara is a fucking bloke.” (Arielle Scarcella would later become more hostile towards the transgender movement herself, but that’s another matter).

Scarcella and Tara were far from the only people criticised by Magdalen Berns. In “Non Binary Bullsh*t” she takes aim at a non-binary person called Alok (“This bloke Alok is just too annoying, there’s so much wrong with everything he’s producing”). In “Response: ‘Agenderphobic YouTube Girls – Two Genders?’” she critiques YouTuber Onison (“sexist and homophobic”). In multiple videos she spoke out against Riley Dennis (“Misgendering is violence? Nah, Mate!”; “Riley, You Are Not a Lesbian – Not a Feminist Either”; “Riley Dennis Sounding Like a Cult Preacher [Again]”). On Twitter, Berns once got into an argument during which she declared

You are fucking blackface actors. You aren’t women. You’re men who get sexual kicks from being treated like women. fuck you and your dirty fucking perversions. our oppression isn’t a fetish you pathetic, sick, fuck.

I mention all of this not because I necessarily have strong feelings on any of the people involved, but because I want to emphasise a point: that Berns was a debater. Her public persona was based around controversy, and a person with Rowling’s platform getting involved on one side or another of her debates would, inevitably, embroil themselves in controversy. That she faced criticism from Berns’ detractors is not itself particularly noteworthy.

Spacial constraints mean that I can only really skim over the topic of Magdalen Berns and the debates in which she was involved, so apologies to anyone who believes I should go into more detail. In my defence, Rowling also skims over the subject in the TERF Wars essay: she describes Berns as “a brave young feminist and lesbian” who was “dying of an aggressive brain tumour” and “a great believer in the importance of biological sex, and didn’t believe lesbians should be called bigots for not dating trans women with penises”. That’s it. No mention of Berns’ assertion that transgender people are motivated purely by “dirty fucking perversions” or her usage of a person’s transgender identity as the basis of a rape accusation.

As with accidentally clicking “like” on a tweet, it is debateable as to whether following someone on Twitter necessarily constitutes an endorsement. Off the top of my head, I can think of two people – one a secularist blogger, the other a TV scriptwriter – who I followed because I liked their writing; they later began posting virulently anti-transgender material, but somehow, I never felt the need to unfollow them. Call it masochism, call it knowing the enemy – at the end of the day, it’s my business and I don’t believe I’m obliged to offer an explanation. In the case of Rowling following Berns, we have the added factor that the latter was terminally ill at the time – pity could well have played a part.

But even if we set aside her decision to simply follow Magdalen Berns on Twitter, the TERF Wars essay confirms that Rowling sees nothing particularly objectionable about Berns’ views. She could have said “I appreciate that this individual made controversial statements, but I chose to follow her for my own reasons” or something along thise lines. Instead, she opted to speak approvingly about Berns’ hostility towards transgender people. Any objectionable conduct, Rowling implies, occurred on the part of Berns’ opponents.

Strike three: Maya Forstater

So far, all of the controversies mentioned in the essay have stemmed from minor social media interactions: following a certain account, clicking “like” on a certain tweet. Now, however, we come to an incident in which J. K. Rowling specifically came out in support of views expressed by a person hostile to the transgender movement:

For people who don’t know: last December I tweeted my support for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who’d lost her job for what were deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets. She took her case to an employment tribunal, asking the judge to rule on whether a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology is protected in law. Judge Tayler ruled that it wasn’t.

This is Rowling’s tweet in support of Maya Forstater, made on December 19 2019:

Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill

The findings of the tribunal mentioned in Rowling’s essay can be read in this 26-page PDF document. The Maya Forstater affair is the main incident mentioned in Rowling’s essay, and rather too large to adequately cover in the present post. For now, I’ll settle for a brief summary based on the tribunal report.

Between 2015 and 2018, Maya Forstater was involved with the London office of the Centre for Global Development think tank as a consultant. Her final consultancy period with CDG ended on New Year’s Eve 2018. Shortly beforehand, she received critucism for certain tweets:

In early October 2018 some staff of the Respondent raised concerns about some of the Claimant’s tweets, alleging that they were “transphobic”. This was put to the Claimant who denied the allegation. There was lengthy correspondence and investigation of the complaints, the details of which are not relevant to theses preliminary issues.

2 October 2018 the Claimant stated in part of her response to the complaints against her: “I have been told that it is offensive to say “transwomen are men” or that women means “adult human female”. However since these statement are true I will continue to say them. Yes the definition of females excludes males (but includes women who do not conform with gendered norms). Policy debates where facts are viewed as offensive are dangerous. I would of course respect anyone’s self-definition of their gender identity in any social and professional context; I have no desire or intention to be rude to people.”

Here is an excerpt from the PDF’s sampling of Forstater’s tweets:

On 2 September 2018 the Claimant tweeted about the GRA stating;

“UK gov consultation on reforming the #GenderRecognitionAct – proposes to dramatically change scope of the law; from requiring medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria for change of sex on birth certificate, to using the basis of ‘self identification’ …

I share the concerns of @fairplaywomen that radically expanding the legal definition of ‘women’ so that it can include both males and females makes it a meaningless concept, and will undermine women’s rights & protections for vulnerable women & girls. …

Some transgender people have cosmetic surgery. But most retain their birth genitals. Everyone’s equality and safety should be protected, but women and girls lose out on privacy, safety and fairness if males are allowed into changing rooms, dormitories, prisons, sports teams.”

The legal document cites many more statements along similar lines made during 2019. Here is a fairly typical example:

I reserve the right to use the pronouns “he” and “him” to refer to male people. While I may choose to use alternative pronouns as a courtesy, no one has the right to compel others to make statements they do not believe. I think it is important that people are able to refer to the sex of other people accurately and without hesitation, shame or censure. This is important for children to be able to speak up about anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, and for adults to be able to risk assess the difference between a single sex and mixed sex situation.

On 15 March 2019 Forstater submitted a claim to the Employment Tribunal asserting that the think tank cut ties because of her personal views on gender. The main thrust of Forstater’s case was that she suffered discrimination due to a philosophical belief:

The Claimant has been a Visiting Fellow and has entered into consultancy agreements with the Respondent since January 2015. The last consultancy agreement ended on 31 December 2018. The Claimant contends that the relationship came to an end and/or the Respondent refused to continue it because she expressed “gender critical” opinions; in outline, that sex is immutable, whatever a person’s stated gender identity or gender expression. The Claimant contends that her gender critical views are a philosophical belief and that she has been subject to direct discrimination because of them; or has suffered indirect sex discrimination as such view are more likely to be held by women than men.

For discrimination against a belief to be prosecuted, it must be demonstrated that the belief fulfils what are known as the “Grainger Criteria”. These criteria consist of five points, but in this particular case, the fifth was deemed the most significant: “[the belief] must be worth of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.”

Examining the case, Judge Tayler decided that Forstater’s opinions on gender did not fit this description:

I do not accept that there is a failure to engage with the importance of the Claimant’s qualified right of freedom of expression, as it is legitimate to exclude a belief that necessarily harms the rights of others through refusal to accept the full effect of a Gender Recognition Certificate or causing harassment to trans women by insisting that they are men and trans men by insisting they are women. The human rights balancing exercise goes against the claimant because of the absolutist approach she adopts.

The judge’s conclusion: “Put either as a belief or lack of belief, the view held by the Claimant fails the Grainger criteria and so she does not have the protected characteristic of philosophical belief.”

As noted, the implications of this ruling are too broad to be covered in the present post – I shall take a closer look at the questions raised by the Forstater affair later in this series.

Strike four: the Ickabog incident

Rowling’s Twitter interactions with “racybearhold”, Magdalen Berns and Maya Forstater are the key events mentioned in Rowling’s account of her conflict with transgender activism, but there are two smaller incidents that I’d like to mention before I conclude this post.

One of these incidents isn’t mentioned in Rowling’s essay at all, but is relevant partly because of the bad publicity it prompted, and partly because it occurred only a week before the fifth strike (which I’ll be getting to in due course). On 29 May, Rowling responded to a tweet showing a child’s drawing of her latest storybook character, the Ickabog. In the process, she accidentally pasted an inappropriate line of text copied from elsewhere:

I love this truly fabulous Ickabog, with its bat ears, mismatched eyes, and terrifying bloodstained teeth! In court, Wolf claimed the Facebook post in which he’d said he wanted to ‘fuck up some TERFs’ was just ‘bravado.’ #TheIckerbog

I’m not sure exactly where the offending line was copied from, but a very similar sentence can be found in this Feminist Current article. The individual referred to is Tara Wolf, a transgender activist who was convicted of assaulting Maria MacLachlan.

The incident itself strikes me as an amusing mishap but nothing more. I’ve come across people suggesting that Rowling’s mistake here was in fact deliberate, but I personally don’t believe this: I know first-hand how easy it is to accidentally select “paste” instead of “send” when fumbling with a touchscreen device. Meanwhile, it seems hardly fair to judge a person for a line of writing they happened to copy for private use. After realising her error, Rowling posted an apology for having “accidentally pasted in part of a very un-Ickaboggish message I’d just received”. This tweet was in turn followed by a wave of criticism in the replies, much of which likely stemmed from an argument with activist Nicola Spurling (to be covered in a later post) and her earlier support for Maya Forstater rather than the copy-pasting incident per se.

Strike five: “people who menstruate”

Finally, we come to this statement in Rowling’s essay:

Late on Saturday evening, scrolling through children’s pictures before I went to bed, I forgot the first rule of Twitter – never, ever expect a nuanced conversation – and reacted to what I felt was degrading language about women. I spoke up about the importance of sex and have been paying the price ever since.

The Saturday referred to would have been on 6 June 2020. This was when Rowling tweeted a link to an article on the Devex website by Marni Sommer, Virginia Kamowa and Therese Mahon entitled “Option: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate”. Rowling reacted with sarcasm towards this turn of phrase: “’People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

This is clearly the “degrading language about women” she refers to in the TERF Wars post. Note that the Devex article does in fact contain the word “women” (“An estimated 1.8 billion girls, women, and gender non-binary persons menstruate”). It is also worth remembering that, even if we completely ignore all people who identify as transgender or non-binary, the fact remains that women are not the only people who menstruate: adolescent girls, not yet women, also have periods; and given that the article is about period care, “people who menstruate” is indeed a more accurate term in this context than “women”. Yet this attempt at inclusive language struck Rowling as “degrading” towards women.

Conclusion

So, these are the three main events – and two lesser events – that led to Rowling receiving her reputation as a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Rowling incorporates the most significant of these incidents into her TERF Wars essay as narratives of victimhood – the victims being Maya Forstater, Magdalen Berns and, above all, herself.

I shall be looking at the role of victimhood in the essay with the second post in this series, Tranny Potter and the Chamber of Death Threats.

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