Dear J.K. Rowling,
We would like to begin by offering our solidarity with you as a survivor of domestic and sexual abuse. Reading your moving and honest account, we felt a connection to your pain. That connection exists between us, regardless of any differences we may have around gender identity. Writing those passages must have been very difficult for you and the subsequent front-page headline in a tabloid newspaper was nothing short of deplorable. As a trans charity, our staff and volunteers deal with cases of domestic abuse regularly and we hold unquestioning solidarity with all survivors of domestic violence. No victim or vulnerable group should be used to sell newspapers.
You are doubtless aware that your blog was also difficult for many trans people and their families to read. Only a short while ago, we might confidently have hoped to count you alongside the many respected authors and public figures who help to support and inspire trans lives. This week, we have witnessed trans young people expressing shock and dismay on finding themselves at odds with the author of the beloved Harry Potter stories. Many of these children and teenagers grew up feeling trapped and afraid in their daily lives, and found in your stories a promise that the most fearsome of foes might be overcome with the understanding and kindness of close friends and benevolent adults. As our non-binary staff member Jake Edwards wrote yesterday:
To me, Harry Potter meant that no matter who you are or how you were born or how different or difficult your life was, if you fought against oppression with love, you would win. At 24 I’m realising that might not be true. And wow, it hurts.
This open letter is not an attack on you personally. Nor is it a call for those who support us to send you abusive messages or make unfounded allegations. We deplore any such behaviour, and renew our longstanding call for a calm and reasonable conversation away from social media, where all people can listen respectfully to one another and trans people will be treated as valid.
To state our overriding message:
We would now like to address some of the points raised in your blog. Firstly, we gratefully acknowledge that you accept transition will be a solution in cases of dysphoria and you acknowledge that trans people need and deserve protection.
However, you also write that you share the concerns of people who are:
“…worried about the dangers to young people, gay people and about the erosion of women’s and girl’s rights. Above all, they’re worried about a climate of fear that serves nobody – least of all trans youth – well.”
Surely it is clear, looking across LGBT+ organisations and taking a cursory glance at the response to your blog that the overwhelming majority of young people and LGB people support trans rights and feel huge discomfort around the way trans people are being misrepresented by figures of authority. The modern gay rights movement was, after all, sparked by a protest led by trans women of colour.
To address the core of your point, trans rights do not come at the expense of women’s rights. We see no evidence that trans girls are a threat to other girls in any way. Indeed, it is transgender children who often suffer horrific bullying at school and at home. And, as you will have seen, it is transgender adults who are made to feel afraid in modern British society, by those who would seek to characterise them as a threat without any evidence or justification and in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary.
Your objection to trans rights seems to be based on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which indeed has the potential to allow trans people to identify in their gender without having to go through a lengthy process. You write:
“…When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.”
It is not simple and it is most certainly not the truth to state that under the current Gender Recognition Act 2004 (which still requires a complicated, medicalised and lengthy process) “any man who believes or feels he’s a woman” can be legally recognised in that gender. Furthermore, access to bathrooms and changing rooms is generally not controlled or restricted on the basis of legal gender, so the argument that gender recognition certificates “throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms” is disingenuous…as well as smelly. While you offer no evidence to back up your suggestion that most women oppose changes around trans access to women’s toilets, we can offer evidence to the contrary. In one study of social media comments from men and women around this issue, US research found that:
‘The observations in this paper do not support the belief that most women are against transgender females using female bathrooms: we find that, in the sampled population, about 70% of cisgender female users post non-negative comments, and about a half of the negative comments by cisgender females are incidental.’
The claim that simpler gender recognition will lead to unsafe changing rooms and toilets is further undermined by a strange and ignominious chapter in North Carolina’s history where, in 2016, these exact concerns led to the introduction of a law demanding people only use toilets which correspond to the gender stated on their birth certificate. The new law not only caused a rise in transphobia, it also opened up the possibility of increased harassment of women in public restrooms who weren’t transgender but who didn’t dress or present in a ‘feminine’ way. It also meant that transgender men were being forced to use women’s toilets. In the end, a federal judge got rid of the dangerous and unworkable legislation in 2019.
A subsequent US review of ‘Evidence Regarding Safety and Privacy in Public Restrooms, Locker Rooms, and Changing Rooms’ stated that people opposed to trans rights:
“…often cite fear of safety and privacy violations in public restrooms if such laws are passed…No empirical evidence has been gathered to test such laws’ effects…This study finds that the passage of such laws is not related to the number or frequency of criminal incidents in these spaces. Additionally, the study finds that reports of privacy and safety violations in public restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms are exceedingly rare. This study provides evidence that fears of increased safety and privacy violations as a result of nondiscrimination laws are not empirically grounded.”
You have used your considerable talent as a writer to build in the mind of your audience a scenario where women’s toilets are ‘thrown open’ to the outside world, allowing any predator to enter unchallenged and commit nefarious acts.
But wait. Trans women are already entitled to use the facilities that align with their gender identity, and those protections have been in place since the Equality Act 2010. The Gender Recognition Act is about changing your birth certificate only, and nobody has to produce a birth certificate to use the bathroom or a changing room.
Since 2010, If predators have used the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 to gain access to women’s spaces, we are not aware of it, nor has evidence of such a pattern ever been cited by those who would dearly love to consolidate one of their most common attacks on trans rights. Neither has self-identification, adopted in many nations worldwide, led to abuse of systems.
Men who prey on vulnerable women are a worldwide problem, but this has nothing whatever to do with trans people. On the contrary, trans people are generally far more worried about accessing toilets and changing rooms than cisgender women, because they fear being verbally abused or attacked by people who don’t think they should be there.
You go on to state: “this is the most misogynistic period I’ve experienced.” and you add: “Everywhere, women are being told to shut up and sit down, or else.”
At Mermaids, we join you and our friends at some of the UK’s longest-standing feminist organisations in calling for all women to be protected from violence and misogyny and we call for the dismantling of the patriarchy which causes so much harm at all levels of society, including to men and boys. We should also acknowledge that the vast majority of voices sharing misinformation and openly attacking trans people online, in the press and in politics, are women. While this phenomenon is framed in the context of women’s rights, our many proud female supporters are proof that being a feminist in no way justifies demonising or dehumanising trans people.
In your blog, you explain that your interest in this issue comes in part from your charitable trust which, among other things, supports projects for female prisoners and for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse.
Much has been said about the risk to women, posed by transgender people accessing sex-segregated prison facilities. Statistically, the number of known transgender people in British prisons in England and Wales is 125 out of a total prison population of 84,000. That’s equivalent to 0.15% which is below the estimated incidence of transgender people in the general population. So, there’s no evidence of a trend for men masquerading as women to access female prisoners. Yes, there is the case of Karen White, a transgender woman who sexually assaulted two women while on remand at New Hall jail in Wakefield, but it cannot be ignored that this represented an inexcusable breakdown in prison safeguarding security and processes rather than a reason to class transgender women as a threat. Abusive women are usually placed within male prisons due to the increased security measures in place. We agree that more should be done to keep female prisoners safe from attack from all inmates, cis or trans.
It is a common, inaccurate and ultimately destructive trope to use such limited instances to impute criminality on all trans people and to portray them as a sexual threat to cis women.
This research shows that trans women are no more a threat to women than other cisgender women.
In the case of refuges, we thank you for acknowledging in your blog that trans women and trans people generally are at great risk from abuse. Our 25 years of experience supporting trans youth tells us that refuges are a vital service for vulnerable women. We know of no evidence of transgender women being a threat to other women in refuges, and refuges have been trans-inclusive for many years, to our knowledge without incident. The Stonewall report ‘Supporting trans women in domestic and sexual violence services’ points to the robust safeguarding systems in place to protect service users, and the need to ensure that trans women are supported due to the increased barriers they face in accessing support. Furthermore, as a result of barriers to support for trans women, 24% of trans women do not tell anyone about the abuse to which they’ve been subjected.
Moving on, we read with interest your point that you are an ex-teacher and also the founder of a children’s charity, which gives you an interest in both education and safeguarding:
“Like many others, I have deep concerns about the effect the trans rights movement is having on both.”
It would be useful to know of the evidence you have that trans rights are affecting education and/or safeguarding. Trans rights do not affect either, just as the right to equal marriage did not affect the rights of cisgender heterosexual people to marry. Assumptions that trans rights remove or negatively impact the rights of women and girls is unproven, inflammatory and untrue, in much the same way that Section 28 allowed inequality to flourish, and affected a generation of LGBTQ+ people. The Equality Act 2010 applies to all protected characteristics equally.
You express your concerns: “about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition.”, stating:
“If I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge. I struggled with severe OCD as a teenager. If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.”
It’s a sad reflection of society that any young woman should feel she needs to escape her gender and we agree that girls and young women must be empowered to achieve in their own right and never have to live up to dated, chauvinistic values and expectations. But we see no evidence that any of the young trans men we support are transitioning because they wish to escape womanhood for an easier male existence. On the contrary, transitioning can be a frightening and exhausting process. While there may be young people experimenting perfectly healthily with their gender identity, that isn’t necessarily the same as someone permanently transitioning or following a medical route.
Still, talking to young trans boys and men, it’s clear that something has changed in the way children and teenagers feel able to express who they are. While some see that as a cause for alarm, we see it as a breath of fresh air as we continue to emerge from the social ice age that was the bridled, hypocritical and corseted Victorian age. Just as there has been a rise in the number of young people feeling safe enough to come out as gay and bi at school, so there’s also greater freedom to speak openly about gender identity. It isn’t clear why transgender boys are now more represented than transgender girls in the population, but surely it’s a good thing to allow young people to explore their identities? Your argument against this perhaps, is that girls might take a medical route and regret it.
The implication that there’s a trend for non-trans people receiving gender reassignment surgery is inaccurate. Access to medical interventions is neither quick nor easy, with lengthy waiting times of over 2 years, followed by extensive assessment periods by NHS experts. Under 18s have no access to surgery and any medical intervention, including hormone blockers, is reliant upon the Gillick competency rules around consent, just like any other procedure.
You go on to say:
“(young people have)…in some cases, altered their bodies irrevocably, and taken away their fertility.
There are many accounts and growing research showing that hormone therapy does not necessarily render a person infertile, although it has been suggested that taking oestrogen or testosterone can, over time, lead to a complete loss of fertility. This however has not been proven in any clinical trial.
Furthermore, an increasing number of trans people have seen their fertility return after coming off hormone therapy and have gone on to have a biological baby with or without fertility treatment.
Some surgeries do render people infertile, but they are not available in the UK until 18, at which point the decision has been made by an adult with the full understanding of the consequences, and there are lots of discussions around freezing eggs and sperm for the future.
It’s worth remembering that surgical regret is proportionately very low amongst gender affirmation outpatients and research suggesting otherwise has been broadly disproven.
You express concerns that homophobia might be driving the number of young people identifying as trans.
“Some say they decided to transition after realising they were same-sex attracted, and that transitioning was partly driven by homophobia, either in society or in their families.”
The parents of trans young people are often accused of being homophobic and it’s disappointing to see a similar implication in your blog. We can assure you that our service users, staff and volunteers are most certainly not homophobic and in our experience, it is far easier in today’s society for a parent to accept a gay child than to understand the needs of your trans son or daughter. However, when a parent embraces their child regardless of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, the love and support parents show their trans children is testament to their openness to identities which don’t conform to old fashioned, heterosexual, binary expectations. Indeed, many of our trans young people and staff are gay and they deserve to be accepted without muddling the separate questions of gender and sexuality.
Evidence from a number of studies also points to the fact that transgender people are far more likely to be in same-sex relationships than their cisgender peers, negating the homophobia argument completely. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 2015 reported’ the sexual orientation of the sample demonstrates a diverse spectrum of sexual orientations among transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Among respondents, 23% reported a lesbian or gay sexual orientation; 24% identified as bisexual. The study continues:
‘Those who assume all transgender people are straight after transition are as incorrect as those who assume them all to be gay, lesbian or bisexual.’ This is also borne out anecdotally by our own experience of young people’s sexuality within Mermaids service users.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH DISCUSSES ISSUES AROUND SUICIDE AND MAY CAUSE DISTRESS.
We were troubled by the tone of your blog when you approached the issue of trans lives and suicide. We won’t quote your blog here. Still, to many you seemed to imply that there was no link between preventing young people from transitioning and suicidal thoughts or actions.
You seem to doubt these statistics and imply that people were using trans suicidality as a disingenuous or opportunistic way to win an argument. It is impossible to put into words how horrific such an allegation would be and we sincerely hope this wasn’t your intention. Our staff have shed many tears over lost young people and friends who felt they simply could not continue to live in a world which treated them with bigotry and contempt. Our staff and helpline volunteers carry every one of those lives with them and we ask you not to belittle the damage done to already vulnerable lives by those who refuse to acknowledge the instance of self-harm and suicidality amongst young trans people.
The last statement in your blog which we would like to touch on is:
“I’ve read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive.
Far from regressive or misogynistic, they are based on the latest scientific research, accepted globally by the world’s leading gender biologists. We won’t detail the science around this in full here but perhaps this post by a biologist might prove useful. In short, biology is not as binary or as simple as we often assume and just because you feel no disparity between your own given gender identity and who you are, that does not qualify you to act as a ‘gender sorting hat’ for other people.
J.K. Rowling, you close your blog looking to the future and imagining a “supreme irony” when “the attempt to silence women with the word ‘TERF’ may have pushed more young women towards radical feminism…”
We, however, look to the ‘now’ and can already see more and more young men, women and non-binary people expressing themselves freely, rejecting the patriarchy of previous generations and announcing their true gender identities using their own language and on their own terms. Far from driving most young women to radical feminism, it is driving a collective movement towards greater acceptance and understanding that we are all individual and that gender is something personal to each and every one of us. As you say in your blog:
“I never forget that inner complexity when I’m creating a fictional character and I certainly never forget it when it comes to trans people.”
This gender ‘movement’ is not designed or curated by middle-aged politicians, parents, influencers, charity workers or authors; it is born of vibrant trans voices who have control over who they are and simply ask to be respected.
We have listened carefully to your blog and take heed of your closing words:
“All I’m asking – all I want – is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.
We do not consider it a crime for women to express concern. We do however consider it abusive and damaging when people conflate trans women with male sexual predators, impute sexual criminality to trans identities, suggest that support of a trans child is parental homophobia and misogyny, and share uncorroborated and inaccurate information which severely damages the lives of trans and non-binary people.
Again, we call for all threats and abuse to end on all sides of this conversation.
For our part, all we are asking is that you meet with transgender young people and listen to them with an open mind and an open heart.
With kind regards,
The Mermaids Team