JK Rowling and the Progress of Civilization

So, the big, big news making the rounds amongst nerds this week — apart from discussions about how mind-bendingly bad Cats is, alternating love and hatred for the latest Star Wars film, and speculation about Pixar’s Onward — is the discovery that JK Rowling is a TERF. For those of you fortunate enough not to have to deal with other people’s toxic political stances (and, my apologies for ‘man-splaining if you are familiar; we’ll get to the insightful stuff shortly), TERF is the acronym for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. In practice, it’s feminists who think women deserve the same rights and privileges that men currently enjoy, but that transgender/non-binary folks are not worthy of those same rights and privileges. I assume they’re including transgender men and NB folks on that list, but it’s usually transgender women who seem to bear the brunt of societal hatred, so I’m assuming Jo & co. are singling them out, specifically. Essentially, it’s the paradoxical political stance that “Women are people, too; but transgender people are not.” For some reason, men entering women’s restrooms always enters into the conversation (I have no clue why this is always the weird, extremely specific hypothetical go-to, but this is always the go-to situation)(even though more GOP Congressmen have assaulted women in bathrooms than NB and transgender folk).

Initially I wasn’t really that surprised. I mean, a few years ago, when someone asked her about LGBTQ representation in Harry Potter, her response was to announce that Dumbledore was gay. The measured, moral response would have been, “Look, puberty, learning to date, and sex are all confusing and frightening as a cis-heteronormative person; I have no idea what that looks like for LGBTQ people, and I did not want to come off as inauthentic or harmful. And they are children’s books; I’m not really certain further hyper-sexualizing 10–14-year-olds — of any orienation — is a good thing. Having said that, it is a work of fiction, I didn’t specify a lot details of a lot of characters; you are free to assign gender roles and orientations to anyone you want, as the reader. It is your story, too.” That would have been a good response, not, “Oh, the incompetent head-master who had children fight his battle, “contracted” a lethal curse, and was then killed by his friends and adopted family? Yeah, he’s totally into dudes.” Not really a win for representation, that. What we now know she should have said is, “Well, I don’t really know any LGBTQ people, and they make me feel uncomfortable, so I didn’t write about them.”

To be fair, Rowling announced her allegiance in the most round-about way ever; by Twitting that she openly supported a British researcher, Maya Forstater, who was fired after she Twitted that transgender women were not women. In context, it’s kind of an opaque way of signalling where one’s allegiances lie; but it would be like a senator saying they stand with David Duke. That senator may or may not have a white robe in their closet, but they’ve announced that they like the guy who definitely does. The optics are not good. Also, to be fair, Twitter is rapidly becoming the next Reddit of the Internet: a bygone dinosaur used largely by people from 2014 (or 1824, in some cases).

Initially, I was in the same boat as most other nerds who have felt betrayed by their favorite creators for taking a regressive stance — “JK Rowling is an awful human being? I’m so sorry, let me tell you about Orson Scott Card, Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, and Josef Konrad.” Never meet your heroes, what? And don’t let them detract from your love for their work.

The impetus for this essay came from a friend who posted a Star Trek meme condemning Rowling’s stance, and saying that he liked how nerds were inflamed at Rowling’s exclusionary view of society. Which got me thinking. Star Trek is ALL about how much better the future is going to be than the present, especially if life sucks for you. To quote you Eugene Roddenberry himself,

Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.

Nerds are taking this whole JK Rowling outing herself as a bigot (or bigot-lite, at least) particularly poorly, because most of us need some sort of safe fantasy. You want to know who reads escapist fantasy? People who need to escape their current situation. Who wants to go to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters? People who are being bullied in their current school, or who feel they don’t fit in.

I’m puzzled by that recurring, recent refrain from cis-heteronormative, able-bodied white men bemoaning that social progressives have ruined their escapist fantasies. Motherfucker; you don’t have anything to escape from. You have all of reality and society, set in your favor. You know who sits down and invents a fake future that’s better than the present? People who know they don’t have a future.

My favorite apocryphal story about Star Trek is about the guy who was on his way out of the apartment to jump off a bridge, when he noticed the last few minutes of Star Trek on the television, so he sits down and watches those last few minutes. And the next episode. And so on, until the urge to end it all passed. There are so many variations of this story that it makes me doubt that it happened exactly like that, but there are so many variations on it that I have to wonder if there isn’t some core of truth to it.

But, it does serve to illustrate the central thesis here: escapist fantasy’s primary demographic are not people who are on a yacht with lingerie models. For many of us, various authors and creative people were the only affirmative voices we heard during some very, very dark and traumatic times. Which is why it seems such a betrayal for someone who made her name and fortune off of us to turn around and say, “Oh, this isn’t for you,” to some of us. We know how it feels to be singled out by bullies, regardless of race, class, creed, orientation, identity, fashion, body type, or the million other little ways we’ve been excluded before. And Rowling casting her lot in with the Malfoys is unnerving.

To all the people who have been directly hurt or targeted by Rowling’s Twits, if you want to disregard her statements and keep on reading Harry Potter because Rowling is not an official HP character, that’s okay. If you feel you can never go back to Hogwarts after this weird verbal attack and feel the need to move on; that’s fine, too. Nerd-dom is vast and accompanies people as diverse as AV techs who were theater majors; physicians who went to medical school after reading Michael Crichton; engineers who were inspired by Geordi La Forge; painters whose only solace in childhood were Blackadder episodes, and so on.

Despite what Rowling and the new batch of toxic fascist-lite Star Wars nerds might think; being a geek is not exclusionary, or based on hate. There are no gate-keepers, and there must never be. We are defined only by a shared love — for some obscure band, artist, story, franchise, writing, or Medieval poem. And somewhere in that vast sea of random humanity, there is a place for you, no matter who you are, without qualifications, judgments, or reservations.

It’s just a damned shame Rowling isn’t capable of feeling that love.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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