We the Mudbloods: J. K. Rowling and the Trans-Exterminationists (Book 1)

Zinnia JonesAs a published work by perhaps the most famous author in the world, J. K. Rowling’s muddled, meandering, hastily-assembled essay on the supposed dangers posed by transgender rights and acceptance earns a solid one-star review. In the absence of a byline, there would be nothing to indicate that this was produced by the creator of a beautiful fantasy world that captured the hearts of children and adults the world over. There is not a hint of transcendence, imagination, or humanist care for the well-being of others to be found here; it is a base and shameless exhibition of the worst tendencies of fear, ignorance, and dehumanization. Harry Potter is to this essay what Aladdin is to your vulgar uncle who spends Thanksgiving dinner calling for a billion people to be bombed into glass.

Rowling has produced an article that consistently fails to make anything resembling a persuasive case for its thesis. In no way does this come off as a genuine attempt to convey and explain her position to a general audience in a comprehensible or accessible form. Rather, this is a rote recitation of the same long-debunked transphobic talking points that the trans community has already been addressing for years – almost certainly for the sake of gaining approving nods from an increasingly paranoid and insular group of older white British writers who derive a sense of self-importance from believing that they’ve uncovered the hidden truth of some vast transgender conspiracy. This is a profession of faith, and nothing distinguishes it from the ramblings of fools I’ve taken apart countless times over the years. Countless trans people share in that experienced familiarity with these facile assertions. Sweeping and vague proclamations about “many people” repeatedly stand in for missing evidence; the facts sprinkled in are brazenly misrepresented and used only to give the appearance of authority; the arguments she makes do not hold up to the slightest examination; and what her essay ultimately argues in favor of is horrific. This is nothing short of a manifesto calling for the total nonexistence of trans people, openly indifferent to our lives to the point of gladly depriving us of any kind of life worth living. That is a strong claim – but it is what the recurring themes of her essay inevitably imply.

No matter one’s values, no matter whether one actually cares about the lives of trans people or not, it can be established that the vast majority of assertions in the article are objectively false. The factual and fact-adjacent claims made by Rowling are so misused and distorted as to make Rita Skeeter call a time-out. Consider the following statements:

The fourth is where things start to get truly personal. I’m concerned about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition and also about the increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning (returning to their original sex), because they regret taking steps that have, in some cases, altered their bodies irrevocably, and taken away their fertility. 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.

Because Rowling provides no sources or citations that would substantiate the claim that there are “increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning”, it is unclear what is actually meant by this. If the number of people transitioning increases, then all else being equal, the number of people detransitioning would also be expected to increase. For instance, suppose that 1 in every 100 people who transition will regret doing so and ultimately detransition. Should the number of those transitioning increase from 1,000 to 2,000, those detransitioning would accordingly increase from 10 to 20. One could then say, as Rowling has, that there are “increasing numbers” of people detransitioning – but this would obscure the underlying reality that the likelihood of detransitioning among those who have transitioned is actually no greater than it was before.

Rowling may have no interest in clarifying her statement or even attempting to substantiate it at all, but this is indeed a testable claim. Dhejne et al. (2014) studied all 767 individuals in Sweden who had undergone legal change of sex and surgical sex reassignment from 1960 through 2010, finding that the number seeking this treatment per 100,000 people did significantly increase over that time – and that the proportion of those expressing regret decreased. While 2.2% regretted transition over the entire time period, by the period from 2001-2010 this had declined to only 0.3%. Wiepjes et al. (2018), studying 6,793 youth and adults referred for evaluation at a gender clinic in the Netherlands from 1972 to 2015, found that “Despite the large increase in treated transgender people, the percentage of people who underwent gonadectomy but regretted their decision was still very small (0.5%).” Notably, five of the 12 patients who expressed regret did not experience the “true regret” of transition being wrong for them or the result of misdiagnosis, but rather regretted the way they had been treated by others socially since transitioning.

Looking more narrowly at transition treatments for youth, Brik et al. (2020) studied 143 youth receiving puberty-blocking medication in the Netherlands, and found that 3.5% chose to discontinue puberty blockers without seeking any further transition treatment. These would be the cases where their bodies were not altered irrevocably, such as by treatment with cross-sex hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgeries. None of this reflects a “huge explosion” or “increasing numbers” of cases of regret. If Rowling believes that similar studies in the years to come will eventually reveal such a phenomenon, that too is a testable prediction, but the evidence to date certainly does not support her claims.

We can similarly evaluate the plausibility of her claim that large numbers of trans people “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”. Does personal and societal homophobia actually serve to make being trans seem more appealing in comparison to being cisgender and gay? Everything that is known about the prevalence of and relationship between homophobic and transphobic attitudes suggests that this is not the case at all, and that transitioning as an escape from homophobia is a notion that simply makes no sense. Norton & Herek (2013), surveying the attitudes of adults in the United States, found that prejudice against lesbians, gays, and bisexuals was tightly correlated with negative views toward trans people, and attitudes toward trans people were broadly even more negative than views of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. This sample did not express a pattern of belief that being trans is a more appealing alternative to being gay; instead, there was “evidence of a strong psychological linkage between the two attitude domains” of anti-trans prejudice and anti-LGB prejudice. Rye, Merritt, & Straatsma (2019) also compared these attitudes among college students, and found a stronger correlation between anti-trans sentiment and anti-LGB sentiment than there was between anti-trans sentiment and any other variable studied, concluding that “homophobia is likely to always be the ‘best’ predictor of transphobia and these two constructs probably share a common foundation”.

A family or society that hates you for being gay is very likely to continue hating you for being trans, and Rowling has proposed an incentive that does not appear to exist in reality. As Ashley (2019) points out, many parents and clinicians of gender-diverse youth have openly expressed that they would actually find it more desirable to have a cisgender gay child than a trans child. Moreover, trans people’s transitions broadly do not map to a pathway that proceeds from apparently cisgender and gay, to transgender and straight; Ashley finds that when combining several surveys of trans youth, only 8.7% reported being straight, a rate similar to that found among trans adults. By and large, transitioning isn’t a way to become not gay.

Rowling exhibits no awareness of these relevant facts whatsoever; such glaring oversights are the norm throughout her essay. She continues:

Most people probably aren’t aware – I certainly wasn’t, until I started researching this issue properly – that ten years ago, the majority of people wanting to transition to the opposite sex were male. That ratio has now reversed. The UK has experienced a 4400% increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment. Autistic girls are hugely overrepresented in their numbers.

Here is more research on this issue for her to consider: Vujovic et al. (2009) reported a sex ratio of 1:1 trans men to trans women in Serbia, consistent throughout 20 years, while Olsson & Möller (2003) noted a ratio of 1:1 in Sweden in the late 1960s. Godlewski (1988) found a sex ratio of 5.5:1 trans men to trans women in Poland over six years; Cohen-Kettenis & Gooren (1999) later reported a ratio of 5:1 trans men to trans women in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Okabe et al. (2008) found a ratio of 1.5:1 trans men to trans women in Japan, and Garrels et al. (2001) found that while the ratio in Germany was 2:1 trans women to trans men from 1970 to 1994, this later decreased to 1.2:1 after 1994. Sex ratios of trans people seeking transition treatment have varied across regions and across time, with trans men constituting a majority in several places, far longer than ten years ago – this was not considered cause for alarm then, but Rowling insists it is cause for alarm now. But as these studies make clear, there isn’t any kind of well-established consistent baseline for the ratio of how many trans people seeking to transition “should” be women or men; without such a baseline, it is meaningless to assert that there has been some anomalous or troubling deviation from it. A predominance of trans men is not actually a new phenomenon.

The absence of such baselines for the characteristics of the transgender, gender-dysphoric, and treatment-seeking populations continues to pose a problem for Rowling’s arguments. While she cites “a 4400% increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment”, this figure alone could be the result of countless possible combinations of numbers, and lacks important context: An increase from what? To what? Out of what? This claim appears to be taken from a 2018 article in The Telegraph, which states: “In 2009/10 a total of 40 girls were referred by doctors for gender treatment. By 2017/18 that number had soared to 1,806.” To regard this trend as concerning requires accepting several unstated assumptions – in particular, how many youth does Rowling believe should be accessing this service? What is the “right” number of assigned-female youth to be referred for evaluation? Why is 40 children a year untroubling, but 1,806 is cause for alarm? The same article goes on to state that “Referrals for boys have risen from 57 to 713 in the same period” – is a 1,151% increase among those assigned male not notable or worrisome? At no point does Rowling state a concrete threshold – what degree of growth over what period of time – at which her “concerns” kick in.

It is actually a trivial matter to provide the context which she has conveniently omitted. Documents from the NHS Gender Identity Development Service indicate that youth ages 3 through 18 are referred for evaluation, and the UK Office of National Statistics population pyramid for 2014 states that there were 5,883,570 assigned-female individuals in the UK aged 3 through 18. 40 assigned-female youth being referred for evaluation represents 0.00068% of AFABs in that age range overall; 1,806 being referred for evaluation is 0.031% of that group. Rowling appears to find it objectionable that 1 in 3,258 AFAB youth are being referred for evaluation rather than 1 in 147,090. How many trans people “should” there be? A 2017 UCLA report based on CDC survey data states that 0.7% of youth aged 13-17 in the United States identify as transgender. Not all individuals who identify as transgender will experience the clinical syndrome of gender dysphoria or receive medical transition treatment, and these figures suggest that while 700 in 100,000 AFAB youth may be transgender, only 31 in 100,000 are referred for evaluation.

Crucially, these are only the statistics for those who are referred for evaluation at the gender identity service, not those who go on to receive transition treatments – a substantially smaller number. A 2016 presentation by the Gender Identity Development Service states that “About 40% of referrals to the service decide to undertake physical treatments”, and only “about 25% of young people referred before age 12 years” will receive those treatments. Put another way, we might find it concerning that only 1 in 22 AFAB trans youth, and even fewer AMABs, have been evaluated for possible gender dysphoria and potential treatment. And this is how the number “4400%” can be misused to suggest a scenario that’s diametrically opposed to reality.

The data from Rowling’s own apparent source show that this recent dramatic increase in referrals for evaluation at gender clinics is not limited to those assigned female – it is seen both among those assigned female and assigned male. And it is not limited to children and young people: this upward trend is also seen among adults presenting for evaluation, as illustrated by changes over time in the number of people attending a first visit at a gender clinic in the Netherlands (Wiepjes et al., 2018).

The same increasing numbers are seen among adults applying for legal and surgical sex reassignment in Sweden from 1960 to 2010 (Dhejne et al., 2014):

And in New Zealand from 1990 to 2016 among trans women and trans men in all age groups referred for evaluation at a gender clinic (Delahunt et al., 2018):

And in a meta-analysis of 17 studies from 1954 to 2014, Arcelus et al. (2015) found a statistically significant increase over time in the number of trans women and trans men presenting for evaluation and treatment.

In particular, a dramatic uptick in the number of trans people attending gender clinics in the UK is not some unexpected development. Funded by a grant from the Home Office, the Gender Identity Research and Education Society published a report in 2009 predicting continuous growth in the UK’s treatment-seeking transgender population:

So far, only 10,000 adults have presented for treatment but a further 50,000, or even 90,000, may do so. Accordingly, the current growth in incidence may continue for a lengthy period, as more transgender people feel able or compelled to present to health professionals with gender dysphoria.

Few younger people present for treatment despite the fact that most gender dysphoric adults report experiencing gender variance from a very early age. Social pressure, in the family and at school, inhibit the early revelation of their gender variance. Only 84 children and adolescents are referred annually to the UK’s sole specialised gender identity service, compared to 1 ,500 referred to the adult clinics. Nonetheless, medical services and schools should note that incidence among youngsters is also doubling every five years and has the potential to grow much more rapidly if gender variant people start presenting for treatment and undertaking transition while still young. This would have major capacity implications for the specialised service that cares for these young people. Moreover, even greater pressure would be placed on its endocrinology component if the approach to treatment there is brought into line with best international practice.

The report went on to offer “reasons that more gender dysphoric people are now choosing to identify themselves to providers of medical services”, including “greater general knowledge of transsexualism and its medical treatment as a result of publicity in the media and the dissemination of information via the internet”, “increased provision for treatment within the NHS”, and “the ‘buddy effect’”: “help-lines, and local support groups and web-based discussion facilities enable people experiencing gender dysphoria to meet and gain confidence”. In other words, this is not a growth in the population of people who are actually trans; it is a growth in the number of trans people among the trans population who choose to come out and seek evaluation and treatment for gender dysphoria:

Relatively few transsexual people have, as yet, emerged from the large reservoir of transgender people. Unpublished data from the Transgender Eurostudy indicates that the median age at which trans people first visited their GP to discuss their gender dysphoria has been rising and is currently 42. If the reservoir of people likely to transition were nearing exhaustion, that age should be diminishing.

11 years later, it is possible that the UK may finally be approaching the true number of trans people in need of evaluation and treatment; the number of referrals to the youth Gender Identity Development Service in 2018/2019 shows a leveling-off of the last decade’s growth. The actual number of trans people is not experiencing some kind of unchecked exponential growth to the point that everyone in the UK will eventually seek to transition. Instead, more trans people in need of care are finally receiving it, and that number is no greater than the number of trans people overall – it’s actually much smaller. This was all known over a decade ago.

Another thing that’s been known long before J. K. Rowling sought to carve her ignorance into the hand of the public: Autistic spectrum conditions are not “hugely overrepresented” only among AFAB trans youth; there is an elevated prevalence of autism among trans people of all ages and all genders. Glidden et al. (2016) note that “robust studies conducted in this area suggest that the prevalence rates of ASD in children and adolescents with symptoms of gender dysphoria are considerably higher than in the general population”, and that in adults “there is a co-occurrence between symptoms of gender dysphoria and ASD”. May, Pang, & Williams (2016) point out that “Similar rates of males and females with GD and ASD were found” – autism does not appear to occur disproportionately among AFAB trans youth.

But more importantly: So what? Rowling insinuates this is yet another cause for concern, again without bothering to explain why that would be so. As these studies clearly show, trans people can be autistic and autistic people can be trans. Having autism in no way makes a trans person’s gender identity more suspect or less genuine, yet others like Rowling have previously attempted to claim exactly that. For instance, psychiatrist Susan Bradley in 2017 accused “trans activists” of “unethically influencing autistic children to change genders”, declaring that there is an “aggressive approach by adult trans activists in recruiting adolescents with Asperger’s Syndrome or other types of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to their cause”. That supposedly aggressive approach, compelling enough as to warrant the direct accusation that the LGBT community is literally recruiting children? The #AutisticTransPride hashtag campaign by the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network – an organization comprised of and led by autistic people. As the ASAN stated:

Misperceptions about what it means to be transgender or about autistic people’s ability to understand their gender or make decisions about their bodies often prompt service providers or family members to stand in the way of transgender autistic people’s attempts to live life with authenticity and dignity. This can include denying transgender autistic people access to transition-related care, subjecting them to “normalization” treatments aimed at suppressing their gender expression, or placing them in guardianship or institutional settings that restrict their decision-making power. . . .

“Too frequently, autistic people are denied basic rights to make decisions about our own bodies and health care, including when it comes to expressing our gender identity,” said Sam Crane, Legal Policy Director for the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. “Whether we’re transgender or not, autistic people’s gender identities are as real as anyone else’s and should be respected and supported, not dismissed based on baseless stereotypes.”

Autistic trans people are quite capable of speaking for themselves – indeed, Rowling and others would seem to suggest that they are even “recruiting” themselves. Autistic trans people are also clearly very aware of what Rowling is trying to do and they do not find this acceptable in the slightest: the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network points out that her “statements, commonly made about autistic children who were assigned female at birth, rely on ableist beliefs about autistic people’s incompetence and presume that cisgender and neurotypical people know us better than we know ourselves.” Additionally, numerous clinicians and experts in gender dysphoria and autism have affirmed that autistic trans people can and do know their own genders and this should not be invalidated on the basis of their autism: a publication of initial clinical guidelines by expert consensus stated that “diagnosis of ASD should not exclude an adolescent from also receiving a GD diagnosis and, when indicated, appropriate GD-related treatment” (Strang et al., 2018). Moreover, the authors “emphasized the importance of screening for ASD among gender referrals and the importance of screening for gender issues among ASD referrals”. That is, rather than determining whether trans people are autistic and dismissing the authenticity of their transness on that basis, it is important to determine whether autistic people may also be trans and in need of gender-affirming care.

Continue reading the incredible adventures of J. K. Rowling and the Trans-Exterminationists in Book 2!

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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