An Open Letter to J.K. Rowling

Dear J.K. Rowling,

I hate writing this.

It isn’t going to make any difference. You’ve made your choices, and been very clear about why you’ve made them. You haven’t tried to listen to the number of people who have very kindly tried to call you in, or to the people who have shouted and sobbed at your targeted attacks. This isn’t remotely surprising—I have never seen you admit to being wrong about anything, ever. Which brings me to my own confession:

I was wrong about you.

Look, one of my greatest weaknesses (as a writer, a critic, a human) has always been giving people the benefit of the doubt long after they deserve it. Part of this is absolutely wrapped up in my own privilege, and part of it is simply an embedded piece of my personality. Maybe it’s naivety. or plain cluelessness. It’s difficult to eschew the problem because it’s baked into my nature—I want to believe that people mean well, even when they do harm. I’ve been burned by this before, many times, but it hasn’t made me any shrewder. Even when the more cynical side of my brain takes hold, there’s always a niggling little voice, hoping for the better outcome.

The reason I feel the need to write this letter is because a hefty chunk of my professional career has been dedicated to talking about your work. Sometimes I did a passable job at it, and sometimes I missed aspects that should have been obvious. Sometimes I didn’t critique things that I knew were wrong (or I did so too gently) because I was tired, or because I wondered if you might change course, or because privilege levied my ignorance and let you get away with more than you should. Privilege is good at punctuating that particular issue, soaking into even our most benign thoughts. But the disappointment I feel in myself for making those errors is something I must reckon with on my own. Today, I am writing because I’m not just a fan, or a critic, or a reader.

I am also trans.

When it came to my attention that you were transphobic a few years ago, my hope was that you would largely keep it to yourself. Not for your protection, but for the sake of all the kids who grew up loving your books, and for the ones who were still discovering them. Harry Potter means so much to so many people all over the world, and while there are plenty of people feeling smug now because they’ve always hated the way in which the series seeped into our cultural consciousness, that doesn’t help the ones who were drawn in. Nothing that you say can alter how your books helped children (and even adults) enjoy reading when they thought they never might. It’s a good legacy, and one that you should honor.

To be fair, there are plenty of artists who believe horrific things, but we still appreciate what they’ve left to the world. “Separate the art from the artist” people say, and there is sometimes merit in that thought. Art has always has existed beyond its creators, no matter how much you try to deny it. (And you do, and you have, frequently and vocally as is your wont.) Fandom is its own entity, especially for a series with the reach that yours has—fandom has reshaped and reimagined your story countless times, often in ways that you wouldn’t approve of. Fandom doesn’t care about that, for which we can only be grateful.

As a teenager, I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of Harry Potter fanfiction. (This is not an exaggeration—I barely slept in high school.) What I wrote has been translated into different languages by people who enjoyed the story enough to want to share it with others. I waited on line with friends at midnight in bookstores to receive the next installments. As a college student, I participated in a town-wide celebration of the final book’s release. It was exciting to be a part of something that united so many people and bound my friendships in warmth and magic. We were weirdos, but the weirdos were finally getting their moment in the sun.

It can be difficult to look back on the things you loved in childhood with a critical eye, but I tried my damnedest because it’s important to be sure that affection doesn’t make our minds complacent. As I worked at my job, I began to notice items that I hadn’t the first time around—the fact that the books didn’t handle race thoughtfully when it was mentioned at all (you seemed to decide that magic was the great equalizer and left things at that), or the fact that most women in the series were openly hostile to any woman who came off too sexy (poor Fleur Delacour), or the fact that your only queer narratives were secret and also tragic (Albus Dumbledore was in love with a fascist monster and never out within the books; Remus Lupin’s lycanthropy was supposed to be an allegory for AIDS, for some reason). No piece of fiction is perfect, and I have my fair share of “problematic faves” as we like to say. That’s okay, as long as we’re aware of those problems.

So I hate that I have to write this because Harry Potter exists and its fandom is beautiful, but you won’t stop trying to control it. You try to control it with the Fantastic Beasts franchise (which completely ignores and overwrites American history, particularly the murder and displacement of Native Americans and the effects of slavery), you try to control it with little blurbs about other fantasy schools all over the world (where you talk about Africa like it’s a country rather than a continent), and you try to control it with a play about Harry and Draco’s sons (where Snape is essentially redeemed in an alternate timeline despite all the abuse he perpetrated on children in your books). I went to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London during previews, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and what the actors brought to their characters, it’s the aftermath of seeing the show that I remember best. My (trans) partner was surprised to find himself in tears because he had believed—even if only for the day between parts one and two of the show—that Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy were in love, and that the play would see them end up together by the end. The disappointment was too much for him to bear.

I had also hoped for this, but my reaction was more subdued. I am used to being disappointed this way, and I know that fandom will be there to catch me when this happens. Five minutes from the end of the show, and I had already moved on. It was a move of self-protection, and I see that now, but at the time it was the only way I could cope.

This isn’t actually about me, nor should it be. But when you make jokes about what the term could possibly be for “people who menstruate”, suggesting that a savvy and caring journalist has forgotten the word woman, you are still talking about me without saying my name. And my existence is not yours to debate. My partner’s existence isn’t up for grabs either, nor are any of my trans friends and acquaintances. My family’s existence has never been up to you.

The world is currently the throes of upheaval, there are people who need and deserve my attention far more than you do, but here I am writing this letter because it feels irresponsible not to acknowledge what you’ve done. You don’t believe trans people are who they say they are. You do believe that any trans person who doesn’t measure up to your specific yardstick of gender reassignment is “fake” and therefore not to be trusted. You used the name of an American psychiatrist who championed gay conversion therapy as a penname. You have made it clear that you will use your gargantuan platform to rally others to your cause, and that you have no interest in backed scientific research or the lived experiences of the people you are actively harming. And you are doing it at a point in time when Black trans people undoubtedly feel more vulnerable to hatred and violence than ever. All this while we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.

That makes it a tactic, whether it’s what you intend or not. A tactic that is often used by abusers to exhaust the vulnerable. In a moment when it was vital for you to wait and listen, you have chosen to raise your voice against people who need protection and care and empathy.

So this is me. Saying goodbye. Not to Harry Potter or its fandom, a place where I have always been one of the weirdos, welcome to carve out my own spot at Hogwarts. But to you, and everything else that you do with your life. I’m done thinking about what you say, or how you say it, or what terrible films you might make out of it. I’ve cried enough this week. It’s time for me to defy you by taking part in the one thing you cannot control: living my life.

Because you see, Jo, you were right about one thing—I must not tell lies.

Yours truly,
Emmet (they/them)

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