(A very brief message to anyone who doesn’t know the background: The letter to which I’m replying is here, and was posted by JKR after numerous concerns about her views on transgender issues. The backstory about the concerns is… pretty much everywhere on the internet, so if you haven’t already seen it just search.)
Dear J.K. Rowling,
OK, this feels… seriously strange. I’m writing this to you but also to others reading or following the current discussion (I do plan to post this publicly on my blog) so it seems strange addressing it to you when I know that, realistically, out of all the people who might read it, you’re one person who almost certainly won’t. But I’m doing so because thinking of this as something you could potentially read keeps me focused on the fact that what I write here isn’t just addressing a collection of views and statements I disagree with, but a human being with real feelings about this.
So. I’m writing this because, having followed the story so far about things you’ve said on transgender-related subjects, I’ve now read the letter you posted on your website. And, whatever else I’ve thought about your views on this topic and how you’ve expressed them, I think that letter was an incredibly brave attempt to open up about something that’s really hard for you and about which you have genuine concerns, and I also know you speak for a lot of people who feel the same way.
And I also disagree with almost every point you made.
So what I want to do… well, I struggled to put this into words, but then realised you’d already done it for me. You wrote:
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.
That’s it. That nails it. I want to be able to hear your concerns and extend sympathy and understanding and also extend that same empathy and understanding to the many, many trans people out there who also desperately need their concerns to be heard and understood without being met with threats or abuse. I want to keep that sympathy and understanding for all concerned at the forefront of my mind as I talk about the points you raised and explain why I disagree. And I hope that, even though you yourself will almost certainly never see this letter, at least some of the people who feel the same way as you will be willing to read what I write in that same spirit and to try for a greater overall understanding.
There’s so much in your letter I want to talk about, and it’s going to take me more than one post to do so. But in this post I’m going to skip straight to your last point, because it’s the nub of the whole thing. What you’ve voiced, here, is a fear that a lot of people hold. And I think that fact gets obscured sometimes by the way these same concerns are so often used as excuses by bigots to justify anti-trans agendas held for much darker reasons; in the midst of the damage those people cause, it’s easy to forget that many people quite genuinely are scared of the scenario you’ve just voiced here:
At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. 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.
Firstly, before doing anything else, I want to correct one point, which is your claim that ‘gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones’. I think this might be technically correct, in that the current law in the UK doesn’t specify that a transgender person needs to have done anything physically about transitioning before applying for a GRC. It does, however, specify that a person can only apply if (among other restrictions) they have lived as the gender in question for two years and are over 18, and that sounds as though it would in practice be virtually impossible to do without physically transitioning. Also, from what I’ve read, getting a GRC is incredibly difficult under the current system; it certainly doesn’t sound as though, in practice, one would be issued to anyone who hadn’t already transitioned.
People are certainly campaigning to have GRCs issued much more easily (with good reason, from what I’ve read in the previous link), but, as far as I’ve been able to find out, the law hasn’t yet been changed. So, the law you have concerns about is actually a proposed law rather than one that’s currently in place. I know that doesn’t in itself affect your concerns, but thought it important to get the facts straight before starting to discuss them.
Anyway. The fear I assume you’re alluding to here – the one shared by many other people who have concerns about trans rights – is that making it easier to gain a gender recognition certificate will lead to male abusers fraudulently gaining gender confirmation certificates naming them to be female in order to enter bathrooms or changing rooms to… oh, well, you know the rest. And I get that that’s a prospect that many people find really concerning (especially, as you said, people with a history of abuse who can find it quite viscerally terrifying).
Here is what does not make sense and has never made sense to me about this scenario, though. Please tell me if you think I’m missing something, but…
Nobody has to show proof of gender to get into public toilets or changing rooms anyway.
(Warning: this discussion has the potential to be triggering to people who fear the thought of male abusers getting into women’s spaces.)
There is no-one standing outside women’s toilets making sure only people who are legally female get in. There usually is someone standing outside changing rooms, but that’s only to make sure people don’t steal the stock; I’ve never heard of anyone checking documentation on the people who go in. So, how does having or not having a gender recognition certificate make any practical difference to these things at all?
As far as I can find, it isn’t even illegal for men to enter women’s toilets. I mean, stop me if I’m wrong about that; I’m not a lawyer, I’m someone who spent five minutes doing an internet search. But I can’t see how it could, in practice, be made illegal for men to enter women’s toilets without causing masses of problems. There are cleaners who are male, there are severely disabled people who need help in toilets and have carers of the opposite gender, there are times when one set of toilets is out of order and the only option is to let people into the other set, there are people with medical conditions that mean they sometimes need a toilet so urgently they can’t take even a few seconds to run round a building looking for the one they’re supposed to be in. There are also thousands of transgender people who don’t have a gender confirmation certificate and thus, even if they’ve transitioned, are still legally recorded as whatever gender was assigned to them at birth. A blanket law stating that men can’t go into women’s toilets would affect people from all those groups… without actually doing much about the very group that we’re worried about here, since a sexual abuser is pretty much by definition not put off by the prospect of breaking the law.
Why is there all this worry that an abuser might go to the work of filling out a form and paying a fee (currently £140) to get access to a public toilet, when he can just walk straight in anyway?
I get that, for the people who are scared about this, that probably doesn’t help much. I get that fears aren’t logical and don’t just vanish as a result of being told that the thing in question isn’t actually harmful. I get that trying to put legal barriers in the way of people with male anatomy or male chromosomes getting into female spaces makes some women feel safer even if it isn’t doing one darned thing in practice to make them safer. I get that fears of things that don’t in practice actually increase your danger level are still fears and still horrible and still real and important emotions. I feel deep sympathy for any woman or girl who’s frightened by the thought of a person with a penis possibly being in a public toilet next to the one she’s in. I hope that anyone who does feel that way has help and support to deal with her fears, and if you have any ideas that might help you or other people affected by this fear feel safer without harming or risking another group of people, I would love to hear about them and see them implemented.
But ‘keep gender confirmation certificates difficult to obtain’ isn’t such an answer. The reason people are campaigning to make GRCs easier to obtain is because the current process is horrendous. (See also this article which I linked to above.) So, when you advocate keeping GRCs difficult to obtain, you are in fact supporting a system that causes massive problems for transgender people without having any actual benefit.
It’s even worse than that, though. In the USA, this myth about trans rights increasing the risk of sexual abuse is one that is being deliberately and actively weaponised by powerful hate groups with anti-trans ideologies. Warning here for descriptions of very serious assaults at some of the following links… because this climate of whipped-up fears drastically increases the risk of assault on trans people generally, and it also increases the risk of public bathroom use for any woman who can potentially be mistaken for a man, whether this is because she actually is trans, because she’s gender non-conforming, or because she just happens to look androgynous. Trans people have to live in fear of something as simple and everyday as using public bathrooms, because for them it is actually dangerous to do so.
I don’t think the UK is as bad from that point of view – we don’t have the Religious Right to the same degree as they have on that side of the Atlantic – but trans people here still suffer transphobia and anti-trans bigotry and even violent assaults, and the fears you’ve described here are a big part of what drives this. I believe you completely when you say that this is not what you want, that you want everyone including trans people to be safe and protected and free from harm. But good intentions don’t mitigate the effects of supporting harmful policies; the policy you’ve just supported above (not to mention the transphobic activists whose pages you read) are, in practice, contributing to the climate that causes these assaults.
So, when I disagree with you, when I stand up against the beliefs you’re supporting, it is not because I dismiss your fears. It is not because I don’t sympathise or want to help. It is because your fears and my sympathy should not be used to support actions that, while doing nothing to change the risk of the abuse you fear, will increase the abuse risk for transgender people and the level of other problems they face. It’s not OK for them to be the collateral damage of your attempts to ease your fears.
J. K. Rowling, if you do ever read this, thank you for all the joy your books have given to me and to my daughter over the years.
(I will hereby stress once again that all comments – from whichever side of the issue – should be polite and respectful. Yes, this means you. Think of how you would wish someone to talk about an issue that’s extremely sensitive to you, and use that same level of respect. Thank you.)