JK Rowling, TERFs, Bioessentialism, Sexual Assault, and Trauma Performativity (or, in other words… yikes)

I read the essay.

Some of you likely know exactly which essay I’m talking about, but for those who don’t, I’ve just finished reading JK Rowling’s lengthy response to the correct and justified backlash she’s received this week for being more openly anti-trans than usual. As folks on Twitter may know, this isn’t Rowling’s first TERF-y moment: for at least several months, she has made statements in support of or liked Tweets by known anti-trans public figures. This week, she took severe issue with delineating a difference between “people who menstruate” and “women,” sparking the backlash that’s led to where we are now.

First, a note on this: we need a difference between “people who menstruate” and “women,” because those two things aren’t inherently linked. The Venn diagram of the two is not a circle. In obvious ways, it ignores both the trans community and the intersex community, and I’d be remiss to erase either group from the conversation. (If you’re not sure what intersex means, here’s a great primer. Please note some historical descriptors of this community are considered degrading and should no longer be used.) It also imposes ridiculous limits on AFAB (assigned female at birth) people: what happens when you hit menopause? Do you no longer count? What about if you’re on an IUD, and as a result you don’t have a period? What about AFAB people who never have a period at all?

That said, we’re not going to spend time centering cis women past this point. The argument is massively more harmful to transgender and intersex people, whose biological features may not align with the tropes (and, by extension, societal expectations) associated with their gender(s). And while it can be easy to encourage marginalized people to not care what society says, have you ever educated yourself (by reading plenty of available material, NOT by foisting emotional labor on your nearest relevant person) on how difficult it is for trans and intersex people to get quality health care? Are you aware that literally yesterday the Trump administration made this even more difficult by giving insurers and health care providers the ability to openly discriminate against trans people? Did you know that many intersex people are operated on at a young age without their consent to attempt to make their bodies conform to one binary or the other, often with negative long-term side effects? Have you realized that the insidious goal of anti-trans rhetoric is to produce tangible policy changes that, by doing things like cutting off access to health care (at any time, but especially during a pandemic), further disadvantage the trans community and will literally, quantitatively cost lives?

The post JKR published as a follow-up (hereafter referred to as “the essay”) is, as many have pointed out, essentially a list of TERF talking points. TERF, as you may know, stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” though as someone firmly in the “if your feminism isn’t intersectional it’s not feminism” camp, I take issue with coining them feminists at all. (It is not a slur, and if anyone tells you it is, you might want to find out if they think trans people deserve rights.) Currently, the branding they’re using among themselves is “gender critical,” abbreviated GC. I will not be using that phrasing here. Among other tactics, TERFs commonly fall back on bioessentialism, which is exactly what it sounds like: a focus on genitals and biological characteristics as gatekeeping tools. Importantly, though, it attributes biological sex as the basis of women’s oppression, which invites in arguments like “you do not have [body part], and therefore you’ve never been oppressed in this way.” (As anyone who’s ever spent time around trans folks in academic or professional settings or daily life can tell you, that is one hundred percent bullshit.)

Bioessentialism really likes talking about two things, though I’m constantly learning so I’m sure there’s more: pregnancy and periods. You’ll also hear terms like “natal/biological woman/man” thrown around (please note these are Very Bad Word Choices You Should Never Make, for reasons the trans community at large is more clearly able to articulate than I can right now). Though these qualifications can unintentionally exclude some cis folks, those people don’t receive the harassment, dehumanization, and hatred that the trans and intersex communities at large do. Their rights to things like doctors are not threatened.

Bioessentialism is also what’s at play when people say they don’t want to date trans people and cite a genital preference (whether those people doing the talking are straight or not). It furthers the argument that trans women (or men, or whatever the case may be in that instance) are not really women(/men/etc), because they do not fulfill the roles demanded by society’s fixation on women as baby incubators and men as impregnators. This deserves far more time and attention than I can currently give it here, but for the sake of your own introspection, please be mindful of the fact that genital preferences are pretty bigoted because the structure of our society inherently intertwines them with the dehumanization and fetishization of trans and intersex people. Everyone’s transition looks different, and the degree of medical involvement, or lack thereof, depends on an individual’s personal choices and financial privilege. The ultimate yes/no of sexual compatibility should not hinge on someone’s genitals.

And, frankly, it should never have to. You can have awesome sex with almost anyone you’re attracted to if you’re creative and get enthusiastic consent from all parties. Comprehensive sex ed would help with this immensely, but again, that’s a topic for another time.

I’m not going to take you blow-by-blow through JKR’s post, because it is vile and after two readthroughs I’d like very much to take a break from it, but here are some other common TERF talking points she drops in: the idea that trans rights take away from women’s and girls’ rights (they don’t), the emphasis on the “radical” part of TERF (see above comments re: intersectionality), the idea that trans men were born women (for nonfluid identities, being trans usually manifests as a change over time from an aesthetic standpoint, not from how a person sees themself—they just didn’t use the same vocabulary to describe themself previously), transition as a workaround tool to escape homophobia (it’s not, because that’s not how risk assessment works), the concept that people are detransitioning at astronomical rates (they’re not, and detransitioning is a topic you should learn about from someone more knowledgeable than me), the highlighting of autistic girls as a disproportionately large percentage of folks wanting to transition (implying super ableist things about autistic people and knowing themselves, so go listen to the autistic community to learn more about that), and the setup of many false equivalencies, including the idea that gender being innate means that it is also inherently a fixed point. As you might expect, this hit genderfluid me particularly hard—because I have always been this way (it’s innate), but my identity shifts (it does change, from a strict “what gender am I today?” standpoint). However, Rowling’s idea of “gender can change over time” lies in the realm of “people can be persuaded to be trans,” which does not lie along the lines of logic I’ve just outlined. THAT’s transphobic, because being trans isn’t a choice.

(In case anyone’s a little confused why genderfluidity and trans identities are somewhat intertwined here, genderfluidity is classified as a nonbinary identity. By definition, genderfluid people are part of the trans community. However, trans isn’t a word I’m currently laying claim to for myself, because one of the endpoints of my gender spectrum is the gender I was assigned at birth, and as such, I wield immense privilege and prefer to yield the floor and the microphone to folks without that luxury. It is not my job to take up space in that community; instead, I’d like to use my platform to lift it up.)

Because we have a responsibility to speak with clarity and conviction, let me tell you the best wording I’ve ever heard about non-cis gender identity: “trans people[/nonbinary people/gnc people/etc] are who they say they are.” This wording may not be preferred for everyone, but because I’m a) genderfluid and b) more rooted in a nonbinary identity than some others may be, I like it because it does not pretend that you, the speaker, can put more words to someone’s identity than they can. It is more specific than “trans people[enby/gnc/etc] are valid,” which essentially means nothing. It advocates for an acceptance of and respect for a person’s gender, regardless of the degree to which you understand it. I probably wouldn’t recommend directing this straight at your local non-cis person—it’s an okay blanket statement but more of a form-letter approach to personal conversations that are more genuine (and emotionally valuable!) when you take the time to express your compassion in your own words.

I think it’s important for me to be pushing back against this now because my newly-out life is currently full of questions I need to start asking of the people and organizations around me. Is my music still welcome on concerts of works by female composers? Am I still welcome at the International Women’s Brass Conference? What about with 5th Wave Collective? Has the value and place of my voice and my work begun to shift in the eyes of those around me because I no longer pretend I am always the gender I was assigned at birth?

Because, in the end, I’ll probably just stick with genderfluid. Maybe femme is the word that will end up feeling more right than female. (Coming out can be a process! But this is me musing, not a decision or announcement.) And yes, I still feel the same within myself as I did six months ago or a year ago or exceedingly long ago—the core identity hasn’t changed—but the coming out process has taken me a long time in part because I constantly have to reckon with what it means for my professional endeavors. Even spaces that brand as progressive can have continuing problems with the gender binary, whether they’re being bioessentialist or not. We have not yet learned to make space for nonbinary people, whose trans-ness is just as valid (though our experiences are not inherently the same) and whose voices are still very quickly erased from this world.

Yes, I am still working out a couple things in my identity. No, it’s not a final destination. (It may never be, because . . . genderfluidity. I am having a very agender day while writing this.)

But this is where I have to speak up, because I feel female sometimes, and I was assigned female at birth, and I have lived a long time with the aftereffects of sexual assault in my life, and I’m not female all the time, so I can tell you with my whole chest how bad it is that JKR also chose a defense of her transphobia as the right time to open up about her experiences with sexual assault and domestic terrorism. It is every kind of not okay to throw around your assault history as an excuse to get trans people out of the spaces you frequent. It is every kind of not okay to say, “I don’t feel safe with them around.” Trauma is very, very difficult to deal with, but we as victims/survivors/casualties do not get to abuse our privilege and marginalize other people so we can be more comfortable. Our comfort is rooted in patriarchy, ableism, and white supremacy, and undoing these ideals requires us to hold true to the idea that we do not have the right to do harm to others simply because harm was done to us. Because the women pulling this bullshit are perpetuating something awful by doing so: they are saying that the (theoretical) presence of a penis (not the presence of AMAB levels of testosterone, for what that’s worth) is the single unifying fear factor for all AFAB victims of sexual assault.

That, I can say without a shadow of a doubt, is bullshit. The presence of a penis isn’t what traumatized me in my first assault, because there wasn’t one in play during the act committed. It’s not what has made me wary throughout my lifetime of strangers who leer at me and objectify me. It’s not why I was afraid of the man who refused to leave me alone on my train ride home from my Easter gig sophomore year of college. It’s not even why I noped right out of multiple makeout sessions at different points in my life with multiple men who brought my hand straight to their dicks without question or any kind of prior consent—because the organ itself is not the problem. The decision by a partner or a stranger to override my consent (or lack thereof) in favor of expediting their own pleasure, desires, or entertainment is the problem. The abuse of power is the problem. The fear itself is not contingent on which part of the body they use to make it happen. A body part may be a trigger, but it is not okay to request censoring of someone else’s physiology.

Or, put another way, I would be just as afraid of someone without a penis doing the same things to me, which I think is the important clarification. I might have triggers based on certain things, but like JKR, they’re actions—surprise contact from behind when I didn’t hear someone approaching, touching certain body parts, things like that. And although this does not hold universally true, although body parts are triggers for some people, we do not get to use that to punch down at other marginalized groups. Cis, white women’s tears are among the most powerful tools in the arsenals of white supremacy and queerphobia. They’re used to justify the exclusion of other marginalized groups in the interest of the comfort of the least marginalized group. By participating in this power structure, JKR is upholding the white supremacist patriarchy, which is completely antithetical to many of the pro-woman ideals she claims to espouse.

Now, I won’t say I’m not afraid of men. I am. With good reason. But Schrödinger’s Rapist does us an incredible service here by answering the simple questions so we can ask the hard ones. It posits to us: “do I think this man might assault me?” Sometimes the answer is yes; sometimes it’s no. But Schrödinger’s rapist talks about men. Not about people.

I am afraid of men. I know they are more likely to assault me. But trans women are not men. And if your threat detection is going off when a trans woman stands in front of you, congratulations. You don’t see that woman for who she is. And the sooner you stop assuming that certain physical attributes (that are often not shared across an entire assigned-at-birth group!) define a gender, the better for all of us.

Confronting the tenets of our privilege (should!) make us deeply, deeply uncomfortable. We can’t all get what we want all the time, and the responsibility to get less of what we want rests on those of us with privilege. Good allyship means stepping aside to let others in, especially when it means we now have to wait awhile to return to that space. Our trauma does not absolve us of this responsibility, whether we have fourteen million Twitter followers or not.

Wow, I didn’t mean to write 2500 words. I’m glad I did, but please keep in mind that I probably screwed some things up and/or worded things improperly at some point in this post. I always endeavor to do my best, but I’m still new-ish to shouting about queer things (unless you follow my Twitter), and I am especially new to doing it with an audience I may need to explain things to. Queer fam, if I’ve fucked something up in here and need to make corrections, please let me know however you wish. Everyone else, stay learning. Stretch your compassion. Keep pushing. I’ll talk to you again soon.

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