Few life stories from our time are as compelling as that of J.K. Rowling (above) —the penniless single mother who wrote the best-selling book series in history and found herself one of the richest women in Britain (or possibly on Earth). Translated into eighty languages, the fantastic world of Harry Potter has struck a chord with children across the planet and its final instalment racked up the fastest sales in history: in the first twenty-four hours, it sold 8.3 million copies in the United States and 2.7 million in Britain. Rowling’s books have also encouraged many young people to persevere in reading rather than give in to the pluriform distractions ever present in an increasingly screen-dominated world.
Rowling’s journey from zero to hero, based purely on the strength of her own imagination, is inspiring (or at the very least envy-inducing) but the writer now finds herself under almost perpetual attack. Radical transsexual activists object to Rowling’s vigorous assertion that the scientifically observable biological difference between men and women is both real and a valuable distinction.
This report appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Activists first targeted Rowling in December 2019 after she tweeted in support of Maya Forstater, a British researcher who argued that her former employer had unlawfully discriminated against her for tweeting against biological males being recognised as female. As Forstater originally put it, “radically expanding the legal definition of ‘women’ so that it can include both males and females makes it a meaningless concept”. She further tweeted that such moves undermine women’s rights and legal protections for vulnerable women and girls.
Defeat in Forstater’s initial lawsuit prompted J.K. Rowling to tweet in support of the dismissed researcher, questioning whether it was wise to “force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real”. The outrage in trans activist quarters was predictable and some fans of the writer’s work took to social media to object to Rowling’s comments.
More surprisingly, many of the very actors whose careers were launched through the Harry Potter films joined in the pile-on. Daniel Radcliffe—Harry Potter himself—said that while Rowling “is unquestionably responsible for the course my life has taken” he felt “compelled to say something at this moment”, asserting that “trans women are women” and “any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people”. Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Eddie Redmayne and others who have acted in films of Rowling’s work likewise criticised her comments or made statements in support of the trans activist side. Harry Potter fan sites have distanced themselves from the views of the woman without whom such forums would not exist.
Rowling is no conservative: she made a million-pound donation to the Labour party, opposed Brexit, supports abortion, and compared Donald Trump to Voldemort, the arch-villain from her Harry Potter books. Indeed, the fight against trans activism and gender theory has mostly been led not by social conservatives—whose positions are regarded as irrelevant by most of the establishment anyhow—but by forthright feminists who point out that if men can be women then it deprives the status of women of any meaning, importance or difference.
The actor and writer Graham Linehan was the target of a campaign of abuse and intimidation that he says led to the collapse of his marriage and damage to his career. Kathleen Stock made no secret of her views as a “gender-critical feminist” as she rose to professorship of philosophy at the University of Sussex. A leading thinker on aesthetics who describes herself as a left-wing lesbian, Stock says that while she will “gladly and vocally assert the rights of trans people to live their lives free from fear, violence, harassment or any discrimination”, many trans women are “males with male genitalia” and they “should not be in places where females undress or sleep in a completely unrestricted way”.
But the greatest victims of trans radicalism are not those who’ve opposed attempts to change sex but those who’ve given in to it. Keira Bell is the offspring of an English woman and an American air force officer who was serving in Britain. Her parents divorced when she was five years old, and her mother descended into alcoholism and mental illness while her father remained emotionally distant from Keira and her younger sister.
Bell describes her early childhood as that of a “classic tomboy”. She dressed in boys’ clothing, excelled athletically, and was accepted in boys’ social groups. “I never had an issue with my gender,” Bell says. “It wasn’t on my mind.”
The advent of puberty threw Keira’s life into disarray. With few female friends, she was completely unaware that many girls find puberty difficult. She gave up on school, confined herself to home, and played video games.
By the age of fifteen, Bell insisted she wanted to be a boy and was referred to the National Health Service’s Gender Identity Development Service based at the Tavistock Trust in London. Following what she describes as “a series of superficial conversations with social workers”, sixteen-year-old Bell was put on puberty blockers, followed a year later by regular injections of testosterone. At twenty, she had her breasts surgically removed and grew a beard to appear more like a man.
“But the further my transition went,” Bell says, “the more I realised that I wasn’t a man, and never would be.” Growing up, maturing and experiencing more of life made Keira realise that the gender dysphoria she experienced was a “symptom of [her] overall misery, not its cause”.
Bell brought a judicial review legal action against the Tavistock Trust, arguing they failed their medical responsibility to consider all her co-morbidities and the context of her mental troubles, and instead affirmed what she described as her “naive hope that everything could be solved with hormones and surgery”. Young patients require careful, individualised treatment, her lawyers argued, instead of being the subject of uncontrolled experiments.
In the UK, children as young as ten have been put on puberty blockers, almost always followed up by hormone injections which must continue regularly in order to continue the intended transition. Bell’s legal team pointed out that very little medical evidence exists to support this treatment and there is very little follow-up data on those who’ve taken puberty blockers and hormone injections.
High Court judges agreed with the substance of Bell’s case and ruled that under-sixteens are only capable of consenting to puberty blockers in very limited circumstances. Given the experimental nature of the treatment, judges suggested clinicians should seek the authorisation of the court before prescribing puberty blockers to young people over sixteen.
The trans activist charity Mermaids, human rights group Amnesty International, and civil liberties group Liberty condemned the decision. The Tavistock Trust succeeded in getting the ruling quashed on appeal, effectively leaving the legal side of the issue unresolved. Marina Wheeler QC, however, pointed out that the rapid expansion of gender dysphoria cases and the number of young people who change their mind after undergoing procedures means “a clinical negligence claim is just a matter of time”.
In the UK, this rapid expansion is not in doubt. In 2009-10, seventy-seven children were referred to the Gender Identity Development Service, just over half of them male. By 2018-19, this had risen to 2364 children—624 boys and 1740 girls. Just over half these referrals were children younger than fourteen years old, with some as young as three.
Whether it is ethical to attempt to change a child’s gender permanently based on dysphoria that may well prove temporary (or simply a side effect of the difficulties of puberty) is highly questionable. Trans activists have resorted to bully-boy tactics to shut down any genuine discussion of the issue.
Earlier this year, Great Ormond Street Hospital—the children’s hospital to which J.M. Barrie donated the copyright of Peter Pan—and the North East London Foundation NHS Trust jointly organised an online seminar aimed at trainees in the field of child psychiatry to discuss how best to treat children experiencing gender dysphoria. Three of the experts they encouraged to speak were disinvited after a group of the trainees objected that there is “no possible way in which this event can be a safe environment for LGBQT+ and especially trans participants”. One of the speakers in question is the head of a voluntary group arguing in favour of evidence-based care for children with gender dysphoria and for science-based teaching on the subject in schools.
This kind of episode is an excellent example of the weakness of modern institutions against forms of pressure from below. This event was organised by experienced leaders in their field for the betterment and education of medical clinicians still in training. Instead, the students have usurped the part of teachers and reversed their roles. A commonsense response on the part of those in charge would be to either ignore this usurpation as inappropriate or, even better, utilise it as a teaching opportunity by insisting a range of voices and evidence be heard. In this case—as, alas, in so many others—the adults have caved in to the children, effectively ceding control. Those we expect to stand up to bullying instead give in to its demands, setting the tone and establishing a power dynamic that shows that bullying works.
Examples of how trans activism is affecting everyday life in Britain are multiplying. Biological men are admitted to female-only wards of hospitals. Orthodox Jewish women can no longer enjoy the female-only bathing ponds in Hampstead Heath because biological men who identify as women are now permitted. Rape victims who are nervous about encountering biological males in a rape crisis centre are denounced as bigots.
As on many “woke” issues, the government prefers to avoid the subject. A number of government departments have withdrawn from Stonewall’s Diversity Champions program that deployed pro-trans activists to train civil servants, but the excuse has usually been that the scheme—a massive source of income for the LGBT lobbying organisation—represented poor value for money to the taxpayer. (It remains to be seen whether achieving social conservative ends by economic liberal means will be a hallmark of the Johnson government.) Requests from activists to allow citizens to identify on passports as “X” rather than male or female have been denied on the basis that the UK must uphold the standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which recognises only the two biological sexes.
REPUBLICAN victories in Virginia following battles over Critical Race Theory show there is huge electoral potential for the Right in rejecting, not just trans activism, but the entire woke agenda. As in the US, metropolitan liberal virtue-signalling is not a vote winner in the UK, least of all amongst the working-class voters of the “Red Wall” who delivered Boris Johnson’s December 2019 landslide. Perhaps all the Conservative government needs to do is sit on its hands and refuse to either give in to trans activists or to take a field of battle chosen by the enemy. More can be gained by pointing out that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has refused to say whether a woman can have a penis.
Former Labour leader Tony Blair—with three general election victories under his belt—has suggested Labour would not win an election if it “looks askance” on views like Rowling’s. “On cultural issues, one after another, the Labour party is being backed into electorally off-putting positions,” the former PM wrote. It’s not that the voters are becoming more socially conservative—though in some limited ways on specific issues this is happening—but that the leftist social agenda is descending into such a vortex of increasing radicalisation that ordinary people reject it as obviously extreme and bordering on the insane.
The Starmer Labour party’s heart isn’t really into advancing the trans agenda but moderate politicians of the Left are fearful of resisting it, given the shibboleth that the progress of history moves only in one direction and there is a fear of missing out. This means if Labour return to government they will ensure—merely by default—that the craziest sexual radicalism is promoted. The entire government apparatus that Conservatives can never seem to turn in a different direction will be deployed in full to advance a radical social agenda much more destructive than any socialist or statist economic policy.
The fight against transexualism being led by left-leaning feminists like Rowling, Stock and others—derided as “TERFs” (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) by trans activists—is a great advantage for social conservatives. When even Germaine Greer has said that “trans women are not women”, conservatives in positions of power and authority would be wise to let these feminists do the work of opposing gender radicalism and lend them support when and where it seems prudent.
In the meantime, more ordinary people will be caught in the crossfire of the trans wars. J.K. Rowling is free to speak out precisely because her enormous wealth—earned through her own work and merit—gives her the ability to speak without negative repercussions. Many others face financial or professional pressures ranging from the subtle to the blatant. The aim of trans activists is to bully people into open support for their proposals, but the more radical their proposals the more they antagonise the centre ground—the great big middle of British society.
“There have been a series of legal wins and cultural shifts,” Maya Forstater suggested recently in the Critic. “People are finding a voice and wrenching the discussion back to reality.”
Andrew Cusack, born in New York and educated in Argentina, Scotland and South Africa, now lives in London. He has a website at www.andrewcusack.com.