By Erin PeplerOct 23, 2020
Photo: iStock/Sergey Nazarov
When J.K. Rowling began making openly transphobic comments on social media, my heart sank. There is never a good time or place for hate speech, but watching a beloved children’s author reveal herself to be anything but a role model for children was particularly upsetting—especially now, when the world feels more divided than ever. Through the Harry Potter series and several other works, Rowling had captured the hearts and minds of countless individuals, including many LGBT+ kids. Her transphobia wasn’t just shocking, it was crushing for devoted fans who felt hurt and betrayed.
Rowling started by defending several discriminatory statements made by others but soon, she was making exclusionary, transphobic statements of her own. Without repeating them verbatim, the gist is this: Rowling believes that trans women are not “real” women and implied that nonbinary people don’t exist, repeatedly making hurtful comments that invalidate their gender identity. Rowling has also used problematic language to describe trans women and featured several trans characters as villains in her newer books. When called out by readers, activists and even Harry Potter himself, Rowling refused to apologize and firmly doubled down on her position.
While Harry Potter has been a significant part of popular culture for over 20 years, it never made its way onto my bookshelf. In fact, I hadn’t read or watched any of it until my nine-year-old daughter fell hard for Hogwarts earlier this year. That’s when it hit me: To support her love of these stories, I’d have to address my own feelings about the author.
It was immediately clear to me that banning Harry Potter books was not the right solution for our family. I’m willing to boycott a store or brand that doesn’t align with my values, but there’s something deeply unsettling about censoring literature or art. It’s vital that we have access to differing perspectives, think critically and make our own decisions. Banning the series wasn’t going to teach my child anything, and it would rob her of a newfound joy. I also didn’t see how it would help trans kids.
Furthermore, the Harry Potter books don’t actually contain any transphobic messaging that I’m aware of—Rowling’s statements were made entirely outside of the series. My daughter loves these books and is constantly reading them, discussing them with her friends or role-playing various characters around the house. She is set on being Hermione for Halloween. The happiness these stories and characters give her is very, very real and I would never take that away.
There are many different ways to assert our political views. Aside from more obvious acts like voting for the candidate that represents your values and speaking out on issues that matter to you, you can be political with your dollars. This is where my personal conflict with the Harry Potter series began: In buying a great book series that my daughter was absolutely enthralled with, I was inherently supporting an author who used her platform to spread hateful messaging that directly contradicted my own beliefs. This wasn’t going to work.
When I buy a Harry Potter book, I know I’m helping J.K. Rowling earn royalties. Buying used copies would help avoid this, but there aren’t a ton of used bookstores in my area and honestly, I didn’t want to go searching for secondhand books in the middle of a pandemic. But here’s the thing: Rowling is reportedly a billionaire, or at least well on her way to becoming one. A boycott would do very little at this point, as far as I’m concerned. Rowling could never make another dollar and still be wealthy for the rest of her life. She’s untouchable in that sense, and we cannot fight her economically.
On the contrary, many wonderful LGBT+ charities are grossly underfunded. When you make a donation to support trans youth, it makes an actual impact. This is how I came to my eventual decision: For every Rowling-related book or merchandise I purchased for my kids, I would make an equal or greater contribution to a nonprofit organization that supports trans kids. Rowling would get a few bucks, but a deserving charity would get exponentially more. I crowdsourced some reputable organizations on Twitter and within minutes, my first donation was made. I’ve since made several more, each to a different nonprofit program. It’s imperfect and unquestionably privileged to be able to make this choice, but it’s the best solution I’ve found.
I don’t expect my favourite artists to reflect all of my values at all times, but it’s important to pay attention to what our families are consuming. When a child feels like an outcast, they often find comfort in music, books or other forms of art. The Harry Potter series created a refuge for many kids, sharing a world where differences were celebrated and every child could find a sense of belonging. Rowling has since shattered that refuge—or at least seriously damaged it—and as we’ve learned from a number of disgraced actors and musicians, it can be hard to separate art from the artist. It’s a perennial conflict, and how each of us handles it is deeply personal.
Transgender youth often face discrimination, abuse or rejection from their parents and loved ones. They experience significantly higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, self harm and sexual violence than their cisgender peers. These are kids that need love, acceptance and support above all else—not a public attack from a celebrated author. There is no excuse for an educated, arguably intelligent woman to use her power to punch down. These comments aren’t just words in a tweet; they’re a dismissal of a person’s identity, value and right to safety. It’s dangerous ground, and Rowling knows it.
I want my children to keep discovering books they love and be able to dive into them with joy, even when the source disappoints us. I also want them to know that things like racism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny should never be tolerated. It’s not enough to give money to charity—I’m committed to teaching my kids about these issues and showing them how to stand up against hate and prejudice. My daughter already knows that J.K. Rowling isn’t as wonderful as the world of Harry Potter, but it hasn’t changed her enthusiasm for the stories she loves. She is quickly learning that people are complex and often flawed. She will build on this knowledge when the time is right.
As a straight, cisgender, middle-class white woman, I recognize that I have blind spots and need to keep learning myself. But when something bad happens in the world, I don’t hide it from my kid. I talk to them about it. We have open discussions, even when it’s hard. We make choices based on our values, even when those choices surround fictional boy wizards. I may not have all the answers, but it’s a start.