JK Rowling has been tweeting again.
If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth. The idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women – ie, to male violence – ‘hate’ trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences – is a nonsense. I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.
Where to start?
Well. Sex is real. Absolutely. Sex is how almost all flora and fauna reproduce. Sex is real in its effects on people, in sex-related medical conditions. Much of our culture revolves around sex, and ascribes experience related to being female or male specific meanings, but there is a “real” thing underlying that culture, and it can be difficult to establish what is real and what is cultural.
And, trans people are real. We exist. We do not rely on anyone saying “sex is not real”. Claiming trans people “erase the concept of sex” is transphobic. We don’t have the power.
However, if a form requires you to state your “gender” rather than your “sex”, that is not a denial that “sex is real”. For most purposes English uses “gender” and “sex” as synonyms. It might reduce sex discrimination to cease to specify sex except when that is essential.
So. Sex is real. Women menstruate. Women get pregnant. Women give birth. All this matters. Experiencing these things shapes people’s lives, but much of what is experienced is cultural. If a man denigrates you because of menstruation, that is cultural. Trans people have the experience of denigration too.
Lesbians can be attracted to cis women and not trans women and nobody cares about that. We just care when they deny that a cis lesbian in a relationship with a trans lesbian is a real lesbian, or announce loudly and repeatedly that they could never be attracted to a trans woman, or that trans women are not women. That is, we do not want to define “lesbian” for others or force anyone into a relationship or a hook-up they do not want, we just want them not to be vocally transphobic.
What are the “lived consequences” of sex? They are physical- the physical processes of menstruation and pregnancy, and cultural, including the vulnerability to rape culture. They don’t mean that trans women should not be treated for every social purpose as women. Women who do not menstruate and are not incontinent do not need sanitary towels, and are still women. Women who are not pregnant do not need maternity care, and are still women, even if they are trans women. Trans men can get pregnant and are still men. Trans men menstruate.
I don’t know why Rowling would use the term “same sex attraction”. Some Christian homophobes use it, but it could be used to distinguish the attraction from the culture around it. But then, there is no need for a separate term. People fall in love. People are sexually attracted to each other. People form life-partnerships. Much of the culture of lesbians is around resisting homophobia. Homophobia is only cultural, not “real” like “sex is real”. If there were no homophobia, if the culture simply accepted that people may hook up or form life partnerships without being of opposite sexes, there would be no need for counter-culture or resistance.
That does not mean that saying “lesbians are real” should give cover to transphobia.
To say “Sex is real”, or “same-sex attraction exists”, is not transphobic. It becomes transphobic if it is used to justify transphobic conclusions: to argue that trans women are men, or trans women are not lesbians, or trans women should be excluded from women’s space.
This twitter thread is transphobic because it implies that standing up for trans rights, or speaking up for trans people, might in some way mean “erasing the concept of sex” or “removing the ability of [cis women] to meaningfully discuss their lives”. Menstruation matters. Intrauterine cysts matter. Endometriosis matters. Talk about them as much as you need, demand the help you need to live with or overcome them.
To avoid transphobia we need to make a rigorous distinction. We do not erase sex, or say sex is not real, or say it does not matter, physically or culturally. It is transphobic to eject a trans woman from women’s spaces because she is a trans woman rather than because she has done something relevant and objectionable, as an individual, justifying exclusion. Being a trans woman, by itself, does not justify exclusion. Trans men may need cervical smears and trans women don’t, but that is only relevant to the provision of cervical smears, not to women’s space generally.
These tweets are transphobic, more in what they imply than what they say on their face. “Women like me”- does she mean her, specifically, or other women who say “sex is real”? If a woman campaigns against violence against trans women, but also to exclude trans women from women’s space, she is acting in a transphobic manner.
Rowling is attempting to stop us calling out transphobia. Yes sex is real. Period poverty matters. Girls missing school because of menstruating matter. But any transphobic conclusion anyone seeks to hang on the idea that sex is real is still transphobic.
Rowling is transphobic in assuming the role of martyr. She, or “women like me”, is accused of “hatred”. Well, if you express transphobic ideas then you’re a hater, not a martyr.
To say “Sex is real” is not transphobic. Sex is real. There. I said it. But to say “Sex is real, therefore [transphobic conclusion- trans men are women, you should always say “pregnant women” rather than “pregnant people”, lesbians can’t be attracted to transwomen, whatever]” is transphobic.
Added: Various people, including Daniel Radcliffe, have responded to the tweets by saying “Trans women are women”. Really, here, we should be saying “Trans men are men”, as Rowling initially said that women menstruate, excluding trans men. She was responding to this article, headed “Creating a more equal post-Covid 19 world for people who menstruate”, who the article said were “girls, women and gender non-binary persons”, also excluding trans men. I found that from this Guardian article.
“People who menstruate”, “pregnant people”: including trans men and nonbinary people offends Rowling. There are ways round that. The headline could be rewritten, perhaps “Reducing inequality arising from menstruation”, though the social model of disability, which explains that inequality arises from how society is organised not from physical conditions, might improve it further: “Reducing inequality related to menstruation.” The article argues that development aid should continue investing in menstrual health and hygiene, so the headline has to involve menstruation somehow. Talking of menstruation as a women’s issue may make it appear of no concern to men- talking of it affecting “people” shows all people with empathy should be concerned.
I am not sure how I feel about the Guardian explaining how the stooshie started. It provides context, but does not excuse Rowling. Language which includes trans men and nonbinary AFAB people might be made more elegant, but going back to just using the word “women” is not the answer. “Critics accused her of being transphobic”- well, talking of “women” menstruating excludes AFAB trans people, and the article should explain that, rather than merely saying “critics accused”, as if the accusation might be baseless.
I wonder if we should not do the transphobes’ work for them. “Sex is real!” they cry. “We are erased!” With a piteous air of martyrdom. We could wearily point out the transphobic errors they make, but another way to respond is to ignore everything that is not clearly and on the face of it transphobic. Mocking the phrase “people who menstruate” is transphobic. But this mini-rant might just be ignored. “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction.” Congratulations on your trivial reductio ad absurdum! If gravity wasn’t real, there would be no planets. “It isn’t hate to speak the truth,” she says, obscurely- what can she mean? So one might politely ignore her gibberings, or, less politely, say, “Well, yes. So what?”