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The New J.K. Rowling Podcast and Her History of Transphobia

The New J.K. Rowling Podcast and Her History of Transphobia

J.K. Rowling
Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images/FILE

Rowling has continued to make anti-transgender comments and promote stories on her Twitter account that discredit trans-inclusive advocacy.

(CNN) -- For years, J.K. Rowling, one of the best-selling authors of all time, has made inflammatory comments about transgender people, particularly trans women, using dehumanizing language and baselessly accusing them of harming cisgender women. Her words have disappointed legions of "Harry Potter" fans and even the stars who brought Rowling's books to life.

Now, a podcast called "The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling" indicates she'll discuss the reaction to those anti-trans comments -- in addition to discussing her journey as an author -- with host Megan Phelps-Roper, a high-profile former member of the anti-LGBTQ Westboro Baptist Church. Even before its release, the podcast was met with criticism by LGBTQ advocates for seemingly siding with Rowling based on the title alone.

Here's what you need to know about the new podcast, with its first two episodes released Tuesday, as well as Rowling's history of harmful comments.

The first episodes mostly don't mention Rowling's anti-trans comments

Rowling announced her participation in the podcast on Valentine's Day, the same day an audio trailer was released with the author saying she had been "misunderstood." Ahead of the podcast's release, host Phelps-Roper told The Times of London that the series was not meant to "vindicate" Rowling.

For most of the podcast's first two episodes, Phelps-Roper and Rowling didn't directly address the author's anti-trans comments. Rowling's remark about being "misunderstood" appeared in its entirety, but it was more within the context of her legacy and what her critics have said about how she could have remained beloved if she hadn't made certain comments on social media.

"You could not have misunderstood me more profoundly," Rowling said in the podcast's first episode. "I do not walk around my house thinking about my legacy."

"What a pompous way to live your life, walk around thinking, 'what will my legacy be?' Whatever, I'll be dead. I care about now."

Over the course of the episode, Rowling told Phelps-Roper that she'd had a miscarriage shortly before she married her first husband. She also said her first husband abused her and showed up to a home where she and their daughter lived after she left him.

The second episode recounted how many groups, particularly those made up of conservative Christians, accused the "Harry Potter" series of promoting witchcraft and fought to ban it. Phelps-Roper mentioned that today, many of the most frequently banned books are LGBTQ stories. The episode ends with comments from Rowling's critics who condemned her anti-trans comments, which neither Rowling nor Phelps-Roper directly mentioned.

A representative for Rowling told CNN the author would not comment further on her involvement in the podcast. CNN has also reached out to Phelps-Roper for comment, as well as The Free Press, the company releasing the podcast.

Rowling's views on transgender people first came to light in 2018

In March 2018, Rowling liked a tweet that misgendered trans women, calling them "men in dresses" -- a spokesperson for the author said it was a "middle-aged moment" and an accident.

After Rowling's "like" came to light, journalist Katelyn Burns outlined other moments that seemed to indicate Rowling supported anti-trans views. In a piece for Them, Burns wrote that Rowling had previously liked a tweet for an anti-trans essay on Medium. She also said that in the book "The Silkworm," written under pseudonym Robert Galbraith, Rowling used an "insulting trope" to describe a character who was a trans woman, depicting her as aggressive and emphasizing her anatomy.

In December 2019, Rowling publicly supported Maya Forstater, a former UK think tank employee who lost her job after she criticized UK government plans to allow residents to self-select their gender on identification documents. Forstater has said she believes that transgender women who have undergone gender reassignment surgery are men, regardless of their identification documents. She brought a claim against her company, accusing it of discrimination. She lost her case in an initial employment tribunal. (A different tribunal ruled in Forstater's favor in 2022.)

Shortly after details of the first tribunal were released, Rowling tweeted: "Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who'll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill."

Many of Rowling's fans thought the comments dismissed the personhood of trans people. The "Harry Potter" books are some of the most beloved novels in children's literature and among the most popular books in history. Many LGBTQ readers found solace in the series' themes of found family.

"As a gay man that found safety in Hogwarts throughout my childhood - knowing that Trans people wouldn't be able to have that safety (because of Rowling's tweets) breaks my heart," activist Shahmir Sanni tweeted.

This incident was one of the first to earn Rowling the label "TERF," or trans-exclusionary radical feminist. It is used to describe self-proclaimed feminists who try to police the boundaries of womanhood by excluding trans women from the category.

June 2020 marked a turning point

Rowling tweeted that the "lived reality of women globally is erased" if sex "isn't real," a simplification of the idea shared by many LGBTQ advocates that one's sex does not always dictate one's gender. She also derided an opinion piece that used the phrase "people who menstruate," a term inclusive of trans people who have periods but may not be women. It's also not a common argument among advocates for trans equality that sex isn't "real," as Rowling asserted -- sex and gender are separate and fluid, and neither has clear criteria -- and there is no denying the impacts that both have in the lives of both cisgender and transgender people.

Later that month, Rowling published a lengthy essay defending her views on her website. In it, Rowling explained why she'd been "worried about the new trans activism." She cited the oft-mentioned but little-researched claim that many people who seek gender-affirming health care eventually regret their decision and want to reverse it, which is known as detransitioning. It's rare for a trans person to detransition, and there's little data to back Rowling's claims. When people do detransition, it's often understood to be a product of transphobia and discrimination in their lives.

She also wrote she didn't want cis women or girls to be "less safe," referencing the unfounded and harmful belief that allowing trans people to use restrooms that align with their gender could compromise others' safety. Restricting bathroom access can actually harm trans people: Trans teens who aren't allowed to use restrooms that match their gender are at a higher risk of sexual assault, according to the 2019 LGBTQ Teen Study.

"Harry Potter" stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint all issued statements in support of trans people after Rowling's series of anti-trans remarks in June 2020, though only Radcliffe referenced Rowling directly in his comments.

Trans people face a dangerous and difficult reality

Rowling's views don't reflect the realities that trans people face: They're more than four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crimes, per the Williams Institute, UCLA Law's LGBTQ policy think tank. The year 2021 became the deadliest on record for trans and nonbinary people, according to the Human Rights Campaign, with at least 45 people killed. Trans women of color, particularly Black women, are disproportionately impacted by anti-trans violence.

When Rowling compared gender-affirming health care to "a new kind of conversion therapy" in July 2020, "Boy Erased" author and Kennesaw State assistant professor Garrard Conley discussed his own experiences with gay conversion therapy and how gender-affirming care can be lifesaving.

"Research shows that trans people, especially those exposed to this kind of thinking at a young age, are also more likely to attempt suicide," he wrote for CNN Opinion. Conley cited data from the Trevor Project that trans and nonbinary young people are around twice as likely to seriously consider suicide and experience symptoms of depression compared to cisgender LGBTQ youth, who are already at an elevated risk of suicidal ideation.

"Since Rowling is so concerned with protecting trans youth from irreparable harm, she should know about this risk already," he wrote.

Rowling's views continue to cause harm

Rowling has continued to make anti-transgender comments and promote stories on her Twitter account that discredit trans-inclusive advocacy. Some of her novels have also been called out for perpetuating negative stereotypes. "Troubled Blood," written under the Galbraith pen name, was criticized for an offensive portrayal of a character who presents as another gender in order to carry out murders.

"As a children's charity, we are bearing witness to the very real hurt felt by young people who once saw Ms. Rowling's fiction as a place of comfort, friendship and escape," said a spokesperson for Mermaids, a UK nonprofit that supports trans youth and their families, in a statement to CNN at the time.

Rowling's 2022 book "The Ink Black Heart" included a plotline that appeared to mirror her own life, in which a creative was criticized for making transphobic comments and other offensive statements. That same year, she did not appear in HBO Max's 20th anniversary special for the "Harry Potter" films that featured much of the main cast and crew; she said she chose not to be a part of it.

She also said she received death threats because of her anti-trans comments.

Some Harry Potter fans have distanced themselves from Rowling. Last year, major Quidditch leagues said they would change the name of the sport -- inspired by the one played in the series -- to "quadball," attributing it in part to Rowling's continued anti-trans rhetoric.

Some gamers debated whether they should play the recently released "Hogwarts Legacy," a massive video game based on Rowling's Wizarding World, with some ultimately opting not to buy it. (Notably, the game appears to include the first out trans character in the series, though that detail has not been explicitly confirmed.) Even as controversy swirls around some of Rowling's remarks, the game broke pre-sale records. (CNN and HBO Max parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, which is behind the "Harry Potter" film franchise and owns "Hogwarts Legacy," said Rowling is not involved with the game.)

The second episode of "The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling" simply ends with the voices of her critics decrying her anti-trans comments. It seems Rowling's response to them won't come at least until the next episode's release next Tuesday.

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