As Daily Kos covered on Wednesday, contributors, subscribers, and general readers of The New York Times were invited to sign an open letter calling upon the paper to do better by and for the trans community. This doesn’t mean turning into an overtly pro-trans rights outlet (though, boy, do I ever wish that were the case!) but simply doing better and more accurate coverage and hiring more openly trans writers and editors. The Times has come under fire again and again for publishing op-eds on trans rights that are heavily biased or missing important information or context… which, for the Times, is an especially glaring issue.
Why? Because The Times is quite literally referenced by lawmakers weighing these anti-trans bills we’ve continued to cover here, when it comes to access to health care and sports, among other issues. The Times has long cultivated its reputation for being non-partisan, based on facts, and without opinion bleeding into reporting. And yet when it comes to trans rights, the paper has continued to publish work that—compared to its otherwise strict guidelines—isn’t up to snuff, even with the mindset that it’s an op-ed.
The research is messy, folks in marginalized communities aren’t getting the same space on the page, and frankly, it’s not clear what they’re gaining if they’re not pushing an unofficial agenda. Rage clicks? Well, okay. But people’s lives are on the line here, literally.
So, bumping us back up to the latest news. The open letter got some major traction with signatories including authors, journalists, celebrities, and folks like little old me (proud NewsGuild member!) adding our names. The letter went viral on Wednesday. And on Thursday…. we have yet another hideously anti-trans piece in defense of J.K. Rowling written by op-ed columnist Pamela Paul. Yes, really.
There are many layers here, so let’s dig in below to get at Rowling’s history on trans issues (hint: not good!), as well as the Times’ coverage, and the very real violence against trans folks that should be central to these conversations.
RELATED: Hundreds of contributors are calling out The New York Times for its transphobia in an open letter
Rowling has made her feelings about trans folks clear again and again. She has communicated her defense of anti-trans rights as one about centering and protecting [cisgender] women. Women’s rights are human rights. And…. Trans women are women. Trans women’s rights are women’s rights. We do not get to say we are defending and protecting women if we are referring to only cis women. That is not progress. It is not accurate. It is not enough.
Covering anti-trans rhetoric continues to be tough—on the one hand, folks need to know what it is so they can spot it and decipher it. On the other hand, I hate to amplify it. But here are some links for background on Rowling’s statements, for context.
Now, onto the piece itself. Titled “A Defense of J.K. Rowling,” and published on Feb. 16, the piece feels like a lot of fluff to me. The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling is an upcoming podcast (set to release on Feb. 21 with The Free Press, which was founded by none other than Bari Weiss) and it honestly feels like a lot of promotion to get people invested in tuning in.
“What has interested me in recent years, particularly on social media [is when fans say], ‘You’ve ruined your legacy. Oh, you could have been beloved forever, but you chose to say this.’ And I think: ‘You could not have misunderstood me more profoundly,” Rowling says in part in a trailer for the seven-episode podcast. She goes on to say she never intended to “upset” anyone but was fine getting off her “pedestal.” Okay, J.K. Okay.
The actual points otherwise aren’t anything super new, but for the sake of addressing anti-trans talking points, I do want to pull out a few here.
Paul opens her op-ed by quoting Rowling in defense of trans folks a couple of times—“Trans people need and deserve protection,” for example, is followed by “I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others but are vulnerable.”
These are actual quotes from Rowling, yes. Great!
But you know what isn’t great? That the piece Rowling wrote such lines in follows such assertions by immediately arguing that she doesn’t want “natal women and girls to be less safe” and that trans-inclusive bathrooms are just opening up the door to “any man who believes or feels he’s a woman” unless there is a hormone or surgery requirement.
Trans people are who they say they are. Trans people are not pretending or masquerading in order to gain access to women’s spaces. Guess who might be, in that argument? Cisgender men. Trans women are not men pretending to be women in order to terrorize or assault someone in the women’s bathroom. Might a cisgender man try to pull that excuse? Sure, it’s possible. But again: That’s a cis man pretending to be trans to get that access. That’s not remotely the same as a trans woman—meaning: a woman—simply going to the bathroom, washing her hands, and leaving.
This is also a good moment to remember that while some trans folks seek gender-affirming health care, like puberty blockers, hormonal therapies, and surgeries, they do not have to. There is no checklist to prove you are trans. And not everyone has access to safe gender-affirming health care, nor can everyone afford it. It is truly no one’s business what your genitals are, whether you are sharing a public bathroom or not. You can quite literally just not worry about it and make sure you're washing your hands for long enough. Truly: Mind your business!
Paul also compares Rowling to Salman Rushdie which… is staggering. Truly. “This campaign against Rowling is as dangerous as it is absurd,” Paul writes. “The brutal stabbing of Salman Rushdie last summer is a forceful reminder of what can happen when writers are demonized. And in Rowling’s case, the characterization of her as a transphobe doesn’t square with her actual views.”
Hm. So, did Rushdie deserve to be violently attacked because his characterization does square with his views, or what? Interesting! Admittedly, this isn’t the most generous reading of the argument, but it’s a reading I can draw from what appears on the page. Is this really up to the Times standards? Okay, then!
Paul argues that “nothing Rowling has said qualifies as transphobic,” and that she is not “disputing the existence of gender dysphoria.” Rowling’s history speaks for itself. I will say if our standard is Rowling saying: “I am a transphobe. I identify as transphobic,” then, okay, she hasn’t said that. But is that actually the standard? Of course not. Or at least, it shouldn’t be the standard.
Here’s something else that really, really rubs me the wrong way about this Rushdie comparison. On Saturday, Feb. 11, Brianna Ghey, an openly trans teenager, was stabbed to death in the U.K.—she was found in a park in northwest England. Her case hasn’t gotten as much coverage in the US media, but one 15-year-old boy and one 15-year-old girl have been arrested and charged with her murder, per CBS News. Because they are minors, their names are not publicly released to the media. They are set to stand trial in July 2023, per The Guardian.
If you’re curious about Ghey’s murder, by the way, it doesn't appear in Paul’s op-ed. Even though Rowling is in the U.K. Even though there’s a massive anti-trans TERF sentiment in the U.K. Even though she’s talking about brutal stabbings. Again: Interesting!
“If more people stood up for J.K. Rowling, they would not only be doing right by her; they'd also be standing up for human rights, specifically women's rights, gay rights and, yes, transgender rights,” Paul writes. “They'd also be standing up for the truth.”
Nah, Paul. I’m good! As a lesbian myself—one of the groups some anti-trans folks say they’re protecting by keeping trans women out of women’s spaces—I can safely say I’m all set on any transphobia being used to defend my rights and safety. Trans women are women. Some trans women are lesbians. Some cisgender women are lesbians. Some intersex people are lesbians. And guess what? It is, once again, no one’s business.
And here’s another element worth considering. Here in the United States, I can say it is my opinion that Rowling is a transphobe. It is my opinion that the views she publicly shares are dangerous and transphobic. It’s my assessment! It’s my personal opinion. But, over in the U.K., at least one person says they’ve been threatened with a lawsuit for comparing Rowling’s views to Nazi views on Twitter.
J.J. Welles, an openly queer actor, posted to Twitter that Rowling “absolutely has views that align with Nazis,” and that “relying on tropes and stereotypes is VERY 1930s propaganda.” (Here’s some background on accusations against Rowling, in addition to the trans rights debacle.)
Rowling replied to Welles by saying, “Okey dokey, JJ, we’ll play it your way. Give my regards to your solicitor!”
Here are screenshots of that interaction, courtesy of Alejandra Caraballo.
Guess what happened next? Welles appeared to have deleted the tweets and tweeted out an apology. Folks are understandably wondering if this was the result of a threatened lawsuit or outreach by lawyers on behalf of Rowling.
Does Rowling need all of this protection and coddling in the Times at this point? Who is benefiting from a piece like this one? Who has an incredible amount of power and wealth here? Again: What was the purpose of this op-ed aside from getting clicks and advertising a podcast? I really do want to know. And yes—I know an op-ed is not the same as a news piece. Paul is an opinion columnist—I get it. But again: Why this and why now? Why is this in the paper of record?
And in case you’re wondering, the Times did offer an official statement in response to the open letter.