How will J.K. Rowling's transgender controversy impact her legacy? 'We reserve the right to ignore her,' fans say

Erin Donnelly
·14 mins read

Rachel, a young mom who preferred to be identified by her first name only, was 8 when she was given a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1998, the year J.K. Rowling’s first book made its American debut.

“I was hooked from the start,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment, particularly when she realized that she, Rowling and the bespectacled boy wizard all shared the same July 31 birthday. “It felt like J.K. Rowling was writing directly to me, like I was the ‘Chosen One.’”

That affinity for the series — and the films, theme park attractions and so on it spawned — and Rowling intensified over the years.

“I've dressed in costume, attended midnight book parties, debated fictional controversies and formed strong friendships largely based on the series,” she says.

J.K. Rowling's statements on the transgender community have been roundly criticized. (Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)
J.K. Rowling's statements on the transgender community have been roundly criticized. (Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

But that’s all changed over the last several months, as Rowling’s controversial tweets regarding biological sex and hormone therapy have sparked backlash and accusations of transphobia. Last week’s report that her latest book under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, Troubled Blood, features a serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing — a well-worn and much-criticized thriller trope — has brought new outrage, though critics disagree on how problematic or prominent the characterization is.

For those who have long considered themselves to be die-hard Potter fans, Rowling’s recent statements about feeling “worried about the new transgender activism” — which have prompted Harry Potter film many franchise stars to speak out, though Hagrid actor Robbie Coltrane has offered his support for the writer — have felt like a betrayal of the book series’ spirit of inclusivity.

“She used the same language that politicians I loathe have used as faulty reasoning for attacking members of the transgender community,” Rachel now says. “It was disgusting. It still is. She hasn’t stopped.”

Indeed, it’s Rowling’s persistence in sharing and defending her stance — including denials that she’s “responsible for harm to trans people” and, most recently, sharing a photo of a T-shirt reading “This witch doesn’t burn” — that has especially frustrated longtime devotees who find her views transphobic. In an era of emotional celebrity mea culpas and Notes app apologies, the British author’s strategy of doubling down rather than backing down has added fuel to the fire, with some fans cutting ties with the Potter-sphere entirely, and urging lovers of fantasy fiction to support trans and LGBTQ-friendly writers within the genre instead.

Amid calls to boycott, the Gayly Prophet’s “Guide to Cancelling J.K. Rowling” and even extreme hashtags like #RIPJKROWLING, one has to wonder: What impact will the fallout have on Rowling’s legacy and the far-reaching, hugely profitable Harry Potter universe she’s created, which includes a third Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film currently in production?

“She can’t destroy her career — she’s J.K. Rowling,” says Jackson Bird, a writer, YouTube creator and speaker whose “transgender memoir,” Sorted, details his experiences as a trans man and longtime Harry Potter enthusiast who once served as communications director for the Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit organization which uses Rowling’s series to spread “joyful activism.” “She’s gonna die a billionaire but … she’s digging herself in so deep. It’s kind of wild to watch.”

“She makes corporations too much money,” agrees Robyn Jordan, co-founder and chief community officer for Black Girls Create, which offers a critical gaze at pop culture fandom and representation. “She is a corporation.

“I don’t think she will be canceled, and I’m not surprised by it, because I don’t think the people that she’s harming have any power, and that’s just being reinforced,” Jordan, who co-hosts Black Girls Create’s Harry Potter podcast, #WizardTeam, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “One of the things that I’ve noticed, just as being Black in the fandom, is that people are able to rationalize and accept a lot of things when they don’t affect them ... If you’re not a marginalized person, there doesn’t seem to be much of an outrage.”

It’s not the first time Rowling has been called out; there have been charges of cultural appropriation regarding the stories Rowling has written for her Pottermore website, as well as controversies involving Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, including Rowling’s support of Johnny Depp being cast so soon after ex-wife Amber Heard accused him of domestic abuse.

“Fan sites and events like LeakyCon [the annual convention for Potter fans] have had to distance ourselves from things that J.K. Rowling and the franchise have done,” Bird says, adding that the response has typically been to focus on fan-created work rather than Pottermore or other aspects of the franchise. “That’s what we’ve been doing, but the more she keeps on going, the harder it gets.”

"Transgender women are women," Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe (pictured in 2009) wrote in an essay for the LGBTQ nonprofit the Trevor Project in response to Rowling's comments. (Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
"Transgender women are women," Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe (pictured in 2009) wrote in an essay for the LGBTQ nonprofit the Trevor Project in response to Rowling's comments. (Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Remaining a fan — of Harry Potter, if not Rowling — is “tough,” he says. He takes pains to make it clear to his followers that he rejects Rowling’s comments, and admits to feeling uneasy about throwing on his coat, which features a Gryffindor logo. (“I can’t walk down the street wearing this — people are going to think I’m transphobic,” he jokes.)

That said, Harry Potter is a “huge part of my life.”

Says Bird, “There’s no way I’m leaving the community that I’ve been a part of. I will probably go to LeakyCon next year and probably still go to wizard rock shows. Anything that is fan-created, I’m still down with ... I don’t want to give any money to the official franchise. I want to re-read the books because I like them and I haven’t read them in a very long time, but I don’t know if I could stomach that for a while and I hope that changes someday.”

Jordan, on the other hand, thinks it’s important to “take what she gave us in those seven books, and look at it with new context and new eyes. I’ve read those books over and over again, and as I grew up, I’m constantly seeing new issues with them. It’s still an extraordinarily important story, though.”

As far as Rowling herself is concerned, however, Black Girls Create is happy to let her “fade into obscurity.”

“She’s proven that she doesn’t deserve to have any cultural influence because she doesn’t understand — or want to understand — culture, people, humanity,” says Jordan. “With her showing us this, we reserve the right to ignore her.”

She adds, “People who are allies will stand in solidarity and make their choice and will do what they feel comfortable with, but I don’t foresee there being this large-scale canceling.”

Sure enough, fan communities have issued statements affirming their support for the transgender community and distancing themselves from Rowling.

Emma Pocock, senior news editor for The Leaky Cauldron, tells Yahoo that the community is working with GLAAD to “uphold inclusivity in fan spaces, ensure diverse voices are heard and — most importantly — represented on our team.”

“Externally, Leaky released a commitment to make our community more inclusive, take action to ensure all are welcome within the fandom, and to ensure it is made clear that we do not agree with J.K. Rowling’s views, and stand firmly with our transgender friends and colleagues,” Pocock says. “This was part of a collective action with other leading fan sites and groups. There are so many other groups who have been putting in the work from day one, so our job now is to uplift those voices, and do more to make sure we aren’t actively harming communities of vulnerable people.”

She adds that some fans are “offsetting” their consumption of Wizarding World content through donations. For example, fan sites backed the #WandsUp fundraiser, in which allies marked Harry’s July 31 birthday by selling T-shirts and other merchandise featuring a lightning bolt in the pink, white and blue colors of the transgender flag, with 100 percent of proceeds being donated to trans-supporting charities.

Melissa Anelli, who, in addition to being The Leaky Cauldron’s “webmistress” and author of Harry, a History, helps run LeakyCon, which draws wizard rockers, readers and fans of all ages and houses each year. Though the convention’s future remains somewhat uncertain amid the pandemic — this year’s planned events in Denver and Orlando have been postponed until 2021 — Anelli tells Yahoo that the show will go on, once it can, regardless of the Rowling drama.

“LeakyCon is about being a Harry Potter fan and part of the Harry Potter community, not just about celebration of the books; those who have been inside the community for two decades, as we have, know that the community stands against these transphobic stances,” she says. “We have an opportunity to make a community that is more accepting and model a more inclusive world for this fandom than J.K. Rowling is trying to present, and we’re going to continue to work hard in that aim.”

Rowling’s outspokenness hasn’t simply lost her fans; it’s resulted in professional conflicts, too. In August, after Kerry Kennedy publicly denounced her “deeply troubling transphobic tweets and statements,” Rowling returned the Ripple of Hope Award she’d received from the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization last December, stating that “no award or honor, no matter my admiration for the person for whom it was named, means so much to me that I would forfeit the right to follow the dictates of my own conscience.”

Meanwhile, last week’s announcement from Warner Bros. that it’s releasing a Hogwarts Legacy video game for Sony’s PlayStation 5, came on the heels of the Troubled Strike reports and stirred up a fresh round of backlash and calls to boycott rather than put more money in Rowling’s pocket. The studio addressed Rowling’s involvement in its online FAQ.

“J.K. Rowling is not directly involved in the creation of the game, however, her extraordinary body of writing is the foundation of all projects in the Wizarding World,” it notes. “This is not a new story from J.K. Rowling.”

David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision PR Group and an expert in crisis management, says that the writer’s determination in standing her ground could serve her well — and even make her a “pop favorite among those who oppose political correctness.”

“Normally not doing a mea culpa in this era would be a death knell for a celebrity like J.K. Rowling with the comments she made,” Johnson tells Yahoo Entertainment. “But in her case, I think not doing the mea culpa is consistent with her brand identity. If you look at Rowling’s career, she has never been afraid to speak her mind and not back down. At this point, if she were to apologize for her remarks, it would be perceived by many as being insincere or just caving into pressure and going against her brand of telling like it is.

“Also Rowling seems passionate about what she said and determined to make a stand on it. In many ways, it has helped her because we are constantly talking about her far more than we would have without her remarks.”

As a crisis PR professional, he would recommend that Rowling reach out to LGBTQ activists and clarify her views and self-professed support for transgender rights.

“I would also have her emphasize how she has repeatedly said she supports and would fight for transgender rights,” he says. “The one thing I would tell Rowling is, be consistent with your brand and your beliefs.”

Ultimately, he suspects that Rowling won’t suffer any long-term damage from the world at large.

“While social media outrage gets a lot of coverage, it is in the scheme of things small,” Johnson says.

But for fans like Flourish Klink, there’s no turning back. The co-host of the Fansplaining podcast first connected with the fandom at age 12 circa 1999, going on to co-found the popular Harry Potter fanfiction site Fiction Alley and help organize HPEF Harry Potter conferences. But despite once being so entrenched within the community — the name Flourish, which they adopted at age 12, is a reference to the Flourish and Blotts Booksellers featured in the books — they’ve made the decision to cut ties with Rowling’s work.

“When J.K. started expressing her opinions about trans folks,” says Klink, “it became really clear that she would fundamentally disapprove of me as a nonbinary person, and that she holds beliefs that I think are fundamentally dangerous to people like me. It hurt because when I was a child, I idolized her so much. It’s one thing to write books that kind of imply a regressive worldview, and it's another thing entirely to speak out so loudly and stridently, you know? Her words felt extremely personal to me. After reading what [Rowling] said, just being around anything Harry Potter-related kinda hurts. Her blog post about trans issues was the moment I knew I had to completely let Harry Potter go.

Many Harry Potter fans are choosing to focus on the original series, separate from the Rowling uproar. (Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble)
Many Harry Potter fans are choosing to focus on the original series, separate from the Rowling uproar. (Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble)

“It’s extremely hard to leave Harry Potter behind. It's hard to express how much it’s shaped my life — I’m 33 now and it’s been with me for two-thirds of my existence. There’s so much of my life that’s intertwined with Harry Potter that it’s difficult to comprehend that I won't be taking part in any of it anymore. But when I do try to think about it or interact with it, it just makes me sad. That’s not what I'm there for?”

Klink says they don’t judge anyone who chooses to continue to engage with Rowling’s brand, nor do they regret having invested so much time in an author who ultimately let them down.

“I regret her words, but I don’t regret my enjoyment or love,” they say. “Yes, [Rowling] could and did take Harry Potter away from me through being so awful — but even though they’ll always have a bittersweet tinge now, she can't take away the friends I made or the experiences I had.”

Whether to leave the fandom completely, to separate the art from the artist and only support the original story and fan-produced content, or to carry without reservation — some in the community “won’t hear a negative word about Rowling without waving you off and calling you a snowflake or a misogynist,” says Pocock — remains a complicated issue. For now, however, the Rowling empire — the books, the movies, the theme parks, the video games and countless other merchandise — appears to have such a grip on pop culture that it’s unlikely to come toppling down over some tweets. Still, Jordan suggests that Rowling’s greatest legacy may also be her biggest threat.

“The funniest thing is that those books ... gave a whole generation of people a language of love and acceptance,” the Black Girls Create co-founder says, “so the people who grew up internalizing those things are the same people who will turn their backs on her because she doesn’t live up to the lessons we read in those books.”

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