Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional nor an expert on transgender issues. I am no more qualified to have or express an opinion on these topics than any of the other thousands of people weighing in and throwing stones.
In all honesty I had not been following the recent controversy surrounding JK Rowling all that closely. Primarily this was because I don’t believe we should control or be controlled by the opinions of others, and secondly because I don’t believe that we should value the opinions of celebrities to the degree that we do. However, I did finally read the essay Rowling published on her website explaining why she decided to speak out about sex and gender issues, an essay which I was surprised to learn had been published weeks earlier. Despite the barrage of headlines I saw popping up about Rowling’s conflict with trans-activists, it was nearly a full month after the publication of her essay that I saw the headline that she had written such a response. Having read the essay and some (not all) of the many tweets surrounding the controversy, I can say that I stand in support of JK Rowling. I have outlined the three main reasons for my support below.
1. Free Speech. One of the five reasons she gave in her essay for speaking out was freedom of speech, and I agree that this is a right we need to guard vehemently. Our ability assess things, come to our own conclusions, and engage in a free exchanging of ideas with others in which conclusions can be challenged, is the cornerstone of growth, improvement and progress. When we react to an idea with such hostility as is being displayed toward JK Rowling (such as name-calling, sexual harassment, death threats, etc.), this is not a reaction that could be categorized as disagreement with an idea, but rather is a clear attempt to silence her.
When we shut down the discussion of controversial topics, we are hindering the growth and learning of our society, and sometimes doing a disservice to the very people we are trying to protect. Keeping difficult or inflammatory topics relegated to the shadows deepens the culture of secrecy and silence that smothers the voices of the lonely, hurting, marginalized and vulnerable who are suffering in those shadows, gagged by society’s unwillingness to examine what goes on in the dark. It’s a story we hear from victims of abuse time and time again… I kept quiet because I felt ashamed about what happened to me. It wasn’t something that was okay to talk about. Allowing people to have different thoughts, beliefs and opinions is not nearly as dangerous as not allowing people to have different thoughts, beliefs and opinions.
2. Sex vs. gender. It alarms me that so many people seem unwilling to acknowledge that a biological difference exists between male and female, and that these people will sometimes go so far as to verbally attack anyone who suggests otherwise, calling it hate speech or the denial of a trans-person’s existence. I would argue that it does not deny a trans-person’s existence when we acknowledge the existence of biology, and if one were to insist that it does, then I put it to them that to reject biology would be equivalent to denying the existence of girls and women who have been and are raped, abused, mutilated and killed, not because of their gender identity, but because of their biological female-ness (not to mention sexual abuse of biological boys, such as the disturbing tradition of bachabaze); or to deny the existence of homosexuals who have been rejected by their families or communities, not because of their attraction to their same gender, but because of their sexual attraction to their same biological sex; and even to deny the existence of trans-genders who have gone through a painstaking process to change their biological sex. In a discussion that begs to be had with open-mindedness, empathy, and compassion, such ungracious and hyperbolic reactions are counterproductive and only serve to sabotage what needs to be a nuanced conversation.
I agree with Rowling that we should not eliminate sex as a classification in favor of a gender classification only. I believe that to do such a thing would be anti-science, as there are biological differences between the male and female of a species. When we study those differences we learn things such as that survival rates for heart attacks are worse for women than men, women are at a higher risk of stroke than men, and that men are at a higher risk of getting and dying from cancer. Health stats that inform us of our increased risk of particular diseases is one of many important things we learn when we study differences between men and women, and these types of studies could not be conducted properly using gender identity as the classification.
I feel that there are other consequences to declassifying sex worth considering, as well, such as the increased risk it would put on places like women’s shelters. There are many shelters that are for women only — only women work there and only women can take refuge there — that would be faced with a challenging dilemma if sex were no longer a recognized category. If these shelters were, by law, not allowed to turn away any person who claimed to identify as female, this would put an already vulnerable class of women at an increased risk of being tracked down by their abusers. (To be clear, women in same-sex relationships are already more vulnerable than hetero-sexual women for the very reason that their partner can gain access to them in a shelter. The LGBTQ+ community has less resources available to them to keep them safe from domestic abuse, and this is a problem that should be talked about and solutions explored.) The potential risks that declassification of sex would pose on places like women’s shelters, places of safety and refuge for vulnerable victims, is certainly a discussion worth having. To say that we can’t even talk about these things, that we can’t put them on the table to evaluate and consider, is a grievous disservice to women. I use the word women inclusively, but we shouldn’t put some women in harm’s way in order to protect others.
3. Protecting children. The final reason I will give for supporting Rowling is that I consider minors to be a vulnerable class. I believe that it is appropriate that this vulnerability is reflected in laws concerning statutory rape, child pornography, stricter privacy laws, different sentencing for juvenile criminals, etc., etc. So while it may be clear that gender dysphoric children and teens have not traditionally received the support they need, it is incumbent upon us to recognize that the way forward is not going to be as clear, and to proceed with the utmost care and caution when considering the needs and best interests of young people.
Open dialogue, thoughtful consideration of all possibilities, and an unbiased examination of data and results are all key components to getting us to where we want to be. It is not only foolish but dangerous to suggest that there could not possibly be any negative outcomes from starting these transitions at a young age, and that we are currently doing everything exactly right. Just as damaging as refusing to accept that there may be flaws or unknown risks to early or overly-easy transition, is demonizing the mere suggestion that there could be, creating such a hostile environment that young people who have had or are having second thoughts about their own transitions don’t feel able to speak up for themselves or their experience.
Having been raised in a puritanical religious environment where conformity was demanded, sacred “truths” were not to be questioned, and mere thoughts were labeled as “evil,” I have an intimate understanding of how well-intentioned but so very misguided our zeal can be. May we not let our passion for a cause (or perhaps sometimes for being right) lead us and those we are working to protect to destruction. In the words of the wise Alan Watts: “‘Kindly let me help you or you will drown,’ said the monkey putting the fish safely up a tree.”