Front Row Seat: Facing J.K. Rowling's views as 'Harry Potter' comes to DECC
The creator of a "Wizarding World" and one of the bestselling authors of all time, she has argued against transgender rights. Northland trans advocates say they can no longer support her.
DULUTH — I recently visited Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, having purchased a ticket to see the Minnesota Orchestra perform the score to "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" during a screening of the movie based on J.K. Rowling's 2005 novel.
On the surface, the event was a buoyant celebration of music, film, books and imagination. Some people who noticed my Ravenclaw sweater nodded approvingly and pointed to their own blue-and-bronze swag representing a shared affinity for that house in the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Across the street, a bartender told stories about his favorite costumed customers, and in the auditorium, the audience cheered for each section in turn when conductor Sarah Hicks invited the musicians to stand for an ovation.
I cheered too, but beneath the surface, I knew it was time for me to step back and think about what it really meant to participate in such an event — one that profits the author and fails to challenge her harmful statements.
"Now would be a good time to have conversations," Beram Compo told me later. "You could have loved someone's work or something that they contributed to, and still be upset with the person that ended up causing harm and won't apologize for it. You can still like the product, and still hold that person accountable for their behavior."
Compo was one of three Trans Northland board members who joined me last week on a Zoom call to talk about Rowling and her views. (Trans Northland is a local group providing "support, advocacy, education, and connection to the transgender community.")
The timing was particularly apt, since the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center was scheduled to screen "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" on Thursday night as part of its "Big Movies at the DECC" series. On Wednesday afternoon, the DECC announced that the screening has been canceled due to an impending snowstorm, and will not be rescheduled.
A lot of us really identified with ... that whole journey of trying to figure out who you are, figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, how to be good in a world that might be not as good as we once thought it was.
A little background is in order. Rowling, now 57, is the British author who rose to worldwide fame in the late 1990s with the extraordinary success of her seven-book fantasy series about a seemingly ordinary boy who's invited to attend a boarding school for wizards. Fans around the world were inspired not only by Rowling's characters, but by her own personal story as a determined author who wrote the first Harry Potter book amid financial hardship, as a single mother fleeing a "short and catastrophic" marriage.
"A lot of folks really identify and relate to the world of Harry Potter," said Compo. "A lot of us really identified with ... that whole journey of trying to figure out who you are, figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, how to be good in a world that might be not as good as we once thought it was."
When concerns about Rowling first arose, they concerned material in the Harry Potter books themselves. Characters of color fill relatively minor, arguably tokenistic, roles. Some readers also saw antisemitic stereotypes in the portrayal of goblin banker characters. Fans further questioned Rowling's decision to "out" the powerful wizard Albus Dumbledore as gay via after-the-fact comments rather than writing that aspect of his identity into the novels.
Starting in 2020, though, Rowling began sharing views that question the legitimacy of transgender women. In a series of statements on social media and her website, Rowling argued for sex as a fundamentally biological quality and balked at accepting gender as a quality of one's entire person — a quality that may vary from sex as assigned at birth.
Some of the people most closely associated with Rowling's Wizarding World soon repudiated the author's views.
"Trans women are women," wrote Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who played Harry Potter onscreen. "Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either (Rowling) or I."
Rowling has held to her position, continuing to make statements and otherwise circulate tropes that cast aspersions on gender variance in general and transgender women in particular. She's also implied that she sees continued sales of her creative output as personal validation.
"I do own all of the movies and all the books," said Compo. "Would I consider buying any more product from J.K. Rowling now? Absolutely not."
Ana Kruger, another Trans Northland board member, said that it's important to see Rowling's statements in a larger context of "anti-trans legislation and hate that has been permeating through not just the U.S., but also through Europe and a lot of other countries."
Kruger encouraged cisgender people to consider "taking off the cis ally goggles and looking at the world through a trans view and seeing what we see — which is the discrimination, the hate, the bad things that are missed, oftentimes, by people who don't live it every day."
Honestly, poor event attendance is the most powerful way to influence what is shown publicly anywhere.
Although the Harry Potter book series ended in 2007, Rowling remains very much tied to her Wizarding World. She continues to hold the rights and earn royalties from products including the hit movies, a Broadway play, theme park attractions and a new Hogwarts video game.
Even an event like the DECC movie night ultimately rolls up to Rowling. While the Thursday screening was to be free to the public, communications director Lucie Amundsen confirmed that the DECC paid a fee for screening rights. Some fraction of that would go to the author of the source material.
"The film was chosen strictly for its entertainment value and what would be exciting to watch on a big screen. Honestly, all the movies were chosen well before this national conversation flared again, and we didn't think through these other implications," Amundsen wrote in an email to the News Tribune before the screening was canceled. (There has been renewed attention to Rowling's views since the video game "Hogwarts Legacy" was released earlier this month.)
"However," Amundsen continued, "it's important to acknowledge that as a public entity, we cannot be the arbiters of good taste or moral judgment. There will be many who are unable to separate the art from the artist, and we respect that. They will likely 'vote with their feet' and not attend. And, honestly, poor event attendance is the most powerful way to influence what is shown publicly anywhere."
Trans Northland board member Wes Samuelson reflected: "There's lots of authors out there who have very problematic past and history, but the authors may have died, or they aren't loud. Maybe they just have stopped trying to support that stance, and it makes it easier to consume media (associated with them)."
Trans women are women, and they need to be allowed into women's spaces. If I didn't have access to women's spaces, I would not be here today.
Kruger, a trans woman, referred to a novel Rowling wrote ("Troubled Blood," 2020) in which a man dresses as a woman in order to attack women.
"These stereotypes are extremely hurtful and caused me personally a lot of pain and discrimination from the people around me," said Kruger, "as well as her idea that trans women are not women and should not be allowed into women's spaces. Those are things that are not true. Trans women are women, and they need to be allowed into women's spaces. If I didn't have access to women's spaces, I would not be here today."
"Men don't have to dress up as women to be harmful," said Samuelson, "and it's trans women who get a lot of violence against them in the trans community."
Kruger emphasized that concern over the welfare of people in the trans community goes far beyond critiquing the statements of any one individual.
"J.K. Rowling is really easy to start this process," said Kruger, "and seeing, 'Oh, I'm a cis ally, I can see that J.K. Rowling is a bad person to the trans community,' and really starting to apply that to, 'What else is bad to the trans community? What else around me can I start to try and make changes towards?'"
Compo acknowledged that for many people, including people in the trans community, negotiating feelings around J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter is "a very complex issue, because a lot of us did genuinely love the books and the movies."
In fact, a lesson one could take from the books themselves is that help and harm isn't always a cut-and-dried distinction between good and evil. Compo mentioned the character of Dolores Umbridge. While Hogwarts students are warned against the villainous Voldemort, Umbridge is introduced as a trusted teacher, working gradually from within the school to craft oppressive policies and dole out cruel punishments.
"A lot of us," said Compo, "ended up identifying that Umbridge is more terrifying than Voldemort, because Umbridge is someone we see in real life."
This story was updated at 3:15 p.m. Feb. 22 to note the cancellation of the planned movie screening. It was originally posted at 7:21 a.m. Feb. 22.