Explainer: J. K. Rowling and trans women in single-sex spaces: what’s the furore?

June 15, 2020 - 12:37 PM
British author JK Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series of books, poses during the launch of new online website Pottermore in London June 23, 2011. (Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett/File Photo)

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling released a 3,600 word essay on Wednesday linking her experience of sexual assault with her concern over transgender access to women only spaces.

Rowling, 54, published the essay online after being criticized on social media for making “transphobic” posts, which some said questioned trans people’s identity and excluded them from public spaces.

What did Rowling say about single-sex spaces?

Rowling, a domestic violence survivor, said she was worried that “the new trans activism” was eroding women and girls’ rights to single-sex spaces by “offering cover to predators”.

“I believe my government is playing fast and loose with womens and girls’ safety,” she wrote.

“When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman … then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.”

READ: Rowling reveals past abuse and defends right to speak on trans issues

Why the furore? 

Rowling is unhappy that Scotland plans to relax the law so that trans people can change their birth certificates without having to provide a medical diagnosis.

Trans people will still have to live in their acquired gender for six months before a gender recognition certificate is granted.

She said the reform will “in effect mean that all a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one”.

Scotland’s proposed reforms would align it with countries like Ireland, Portugal, Norway and Argentina that allow trans people to change their legal gender without any mental health diagnosis.

What does British law say?

“Trans people have used the single-sex spaces, including toilets, that align with their lived sex for decades,” Cara English of Gendered Intelligence, a UK-based trans rights organisation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Male violence against women has nothing to do with us.”

Supporters of trans rights emphasize that trans women are women. Britain’s 2010 Equality Act protects trans people from discrimination in accessing single-sex spaces.

The law does provide for exclusions in exceptional circumstances, such as if a group counselling female victims of sexual assault judged that other clients would not attend the session if a trans woman was there.

A 2019 parliamentary inquiry found no evidence of this provision ever being used.

What is the experience of women’s shelters? 

In the United States, women’s rights groups said in 2016 that 200 municipalities that allowed trans people to use rape crisis facilities and domestic violence shelters saw no rise in sexual violence or public safety issues as a result.

“Transgender people already experience unconscionably high rates of sexual assault – and forcing them out of facilities consistent with the gender they live every day makes them vulnerable to assault,” they said.

How do trans people feel about the debate?

LGBT+ helplines – Switchboard in Britain and The Trevor Project in the United States – said they have experienced a surge in calls from trans people in the past when governments have proposed to roll back trans rights.

Trans teens experience much higher rates of mental health problems and sexual violence than non-trans teens, with one in three having attempted suicide in the past year, a 2019 study by The Trevor Project found.

Alphonso David, head of the U.S. LGBT+ rights group Human Rights Campaign, said Rowling’s comments could encourage discrimination and hate crimes.

“J.K. Rowling is trafficking in harmful lies at a time when the trans community is facing unspeakable violence,” he said in a statement, adding that 26 trans and gender non-conforming people were murdered in 2019 in the United States.

So who is at risk in women’s toilets?

Some trans people say hostility towards them is so intense that they experience “trans bladder” where they have go a whole day without using a toilet, Ruth Pearce, a sociology researcher at the University of Leeds, said on Twitter.

Lesbians also said they had been abused in public toilets because they were mistaken for men.

“Speaking as a butch lesbian with a girlfriend who is very tall, the bathroom panic doesn’t make me feel safe,” one U.S. Twitter user under the handle @LouisatheLast wrote.

“It makes me feel like we could have the cops called on us for trying to use the restroom any time we’re in public.”

What’s the solution?

Despite recognising the vulnerability of trans people, Rowling did not suggest any alternatives for when they need to use a toilet, changing room or rape crisis shelter.

“Trans people – as indeed all LGBT people – continue to need appropriate access to crisis centers, being on the receiving of the same and higher levels of sexual violence and abuse as our peers,” English of Gendered Intelligence said.

“It would be another misdirected and regressive step to try to remove critical care from trans people to prevent non-trans men from inappropriate access.” —Reporting by Amber Milne and Rachel Savage; Editing by Katy Migiro