Louise O'Neill on JK Rowling: 'Is this how we are going to define women from now on?'

Louise O'Neill on JK Rowling: 'Is this how we are going to define women from now on?'

In the middle of a global pandemic and a long over-due reckoning with the systemic racism that underpins our societal structures, JK Rowling, the author of the phenomenally successful Harry Potter series, decided to share an article on Twitter titled, ‘Creating a more equal post-COVID19 world for people who menstruate’.

“People who menstruate,” she tweeted.

I’m sure there used to be a word for those people… Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?

In the article itself, the journalist wrote that “an estimated 1.8 billion girls, women, and gender non-binary persons menstruate”; and while it is clear they used this particular heading for brevity’s sake, it was also accurate. Intersex people may menstruate. Trans men may menstruate, but they are not women. And really, is this how we are going to define women from now on?

I didn’t have a period for years because of my eating disorder – was I not a woman then? What about those are post-menopausal? Or who have had a hysterectomy? By this narrow definition, do they cease to be women as soon as they stop menstruating?

If we are going to obsess about the biological particulars of being born a cis woman, does that mean that those who don’t or can’t bear children will no longer be deemed ‘real’ women either? How far down this road do we really want to go?

An Australian writer called McKinley Valentine says she believes that, “part of the discomfort TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) feel is that they had distinct experiences of oppression as a child in a body that was seen as female and treated as female, that trans women don’t share. Those experiences feel important to them and they don’t want them erased or seen as irrelevant.”

But, as Valentine goes on to argue, there is no such thing as a universal female experience.

Black women will have a very different experience as a child than a white woman, so too will a child who has a disability or one who was born into poverty. I had a difficult adolescence – I was sexually assaulted, I’d an eating disorder, I have plenty of embarrassing stories about my period. And while these experiences are shared by many other cis women, I would never assume that it made us more inherently female than trans women, in the same way I wouldn’t deem a cis woman who hadn’t had an eating disorder as somehow less ‘womanly’ than I am.

This isn’t the Oppression Olympics and even if it were, do you really think trans teenagers have it easier than their cis peers? The Stonewall School Report in 2017 found that 45% of trans young people had attempted suicide, trans teens are more likely to experience homelessness and poverty, and the Human Rights Campaign estimates that trans women are 4.6 times more likely to be murdered than cis women, and the majority of those victims are black. While white, cisgender liberals debate their humanity on social media, this is the stark reality that trans people face in the real world.

That is why it’s so alarming when those in the public eye use their platforms, unconsciously or not, to feed into this hysteria. So, tell me. What are your concerns about allowing trans women to be called women? You can talk about the unfair advantage trans women will have in female sports, but how then do you explain the lack of trans Olympians, despite being allowed to complete since 2004?

Citing fears about placing trans women in female jails ignores the statistics that prove trans women are more likely to be the victim of assault in these cases than the perpetrators. There is a great deal of rhetoric around the need for segregated bathrooms, reinforcing harmful tropes of predatory trans women - who are, again, more likely to be the victim of assault.

Violence against women is a real issue but neither trans women or desegregated bathrooms are the cause of this, abusers are. Expressing discomfort with the idea that trans women encourage an anti-feminist ideology that being female correlates with wearing makeup, dresses and high heels might hold up more if we as a society didn’t severely punish trans women for failing to ‘pass’, forcing them to conform to stereotypical ideas of what femininity looks like in order to exist peacefully in the world.

Scaremongering about irresponsible doctors prematurely forcing innocent kids into transitioning also falls apart when we look at the scientific research that finds transgender children’s development mirrors that of cisgender kids; they both recognise and identity their true gender at an early age.

And finally, saying that advocates for trans issues are attempting to deny that sex is real is also incorrect. No one is saying that. All we want is an understanding that sex and gender are two different things,and that the concept of sex itself is fundamentally far more complex than we have been led to believe.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you couch these ‘concerns’ in respectful, measured language; the outcome is the same. Trans women and men are further marginalised and many of them will die as a result. This is a senseless tragedy.

There has been a lot of talk about the need to Be Kind; well, why can’t we be kind to our trans brothers and sisters? You may not understand this issue but surely you can understand the need to treat another human being with empathy and compassion. To afford them the same freedom that you would want for yourself, the right to live your life in the way that feels authentic to you.

Louise Says:

Read: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. This is about twin sisters in 1950s America, one of whom decides to ‘pass’ as white. It’s a stunning exploration of race, colourism, and love.

Read: How To Fall Apart by Liadan Hynes. A poignant and moving memoir about separation and divorce.

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