I had to look twice to make sure I saw it right. Propped up against the Salt Lake City sprawl, on the side of I-15, there is an electronic billboard proclaiming “I [heart] JK Rowling.”
My first instinct was to flip off the sign — I grew up in New Jersey, after all — and my girlfriend joined me from her spot in the passenger seat. But, mostly, I was just baffled. Why here? For years religious conservatives railed against Harry Potter and tried to force book bans for their persistent fear of insidious paganism, and here, in the very religiously conservative Utah, there’s a sign supporting her. Not that it’s a surprise in 2020, but bigotry really does seem to bring people together.
Honestly, I wish I could just forget that Rowling exists. I’ve been to a Harry Potter-themed bar crawl and seen the movies (the books were not my cup of tea), and I’d be perfectly happy for her to take her millions and millions of dollars and just leave everyone else alone. But Rowling has been doubling, tripling, quadrupling down on her transphobia this year, while her supporters decrying “cancel culture” despite the fact that her latest bit of literary rubbish immediately hit the bestseller list and she undoubtedly keeps raking in royalties and licensing beyond this writer’s wildest dreams.
Rowling can be as ugly and bigoted as she wishes. That’s her prerogative and we’re not obligated to give her the time of day. And yet. And yet when I went to go block her Twitter account last week, I saw more than 500 of my mutual followers — colleagues, friends, fans — who still followed. Sprinkle on top seeing the likes of Robbie Coltrane, John Cleese, Brian Cox, Piers Morgan, and Eddie Redmayne thinking that anyone gives a flying whatsit what cis men have to say about trans rights. The rich again come to the defense of the rich, not giving so much as a thought to what transgender and non-binary people endure and suffer every day.
And therein lies the problem.
If Rowling wants to replatform into an iconic transphobe, she’s welcome to try. The problem is the response — that just because people like what she made, that she must mean well. And don’t mistake the transphobia in the responses. Her outspoken supporters don’t see people like me as real or even worth listening to. As ever, trans women are at the center of this, with Rowling and her supporters seeing people like me as delusional men. Cue the wannabe white knights.
All the while, she profits from the ire. Rowling continues to garner support and praise, becoming an icon and symbol beyond her vile words about transgender, nonbinary, and queer people. The sad truth of it is that while we have no shortage of anti-queer bigots in the world, Rowling has become a rallying point and she’s actually making more cash from it.
There’s plenty of clutter in the discussion, of course. “Can you still be a fan of Harry Potter?” Sure, fine, whatever, just please don’t help Rowling accumulate more riches. (By the way, how many books by trans and nonbinary authors have you read lately?) “What about the new HP game, is there some way I can play that without supporting her?” Look, your ethics are your own, but are you really trying to help or are you more concerned with just finding a way to do what you want anyway? “Well, maybe she’ll change her tune, and I like her books, so that’s why I follow.” Ok, but I sincerely doubt you’re keeping tabs to keep informed or even defend against her transphobia. Seeing that you still follow and fawn over her is a signal that you don’t really give that much of a shit about the people that she’s attacking who daily face difficulty and discrimination for simply trying to exist.
It’s hard not to feel like Rowling is making it easier to be a transphobe. People can justify their proximity and support of Rowling because she made something they like, with plenty of hemming and hawing about the difference between art and artist that we’ve been having forever. We’ve been through this dozens of times. No single person is so essential and important that the world can’t exist without them or their influence. (Especially not given that the Harry Potter books are teetering stacks of tropes.) If anything, how much space is Rowling taking up with her words and worlds that tamp down and even suffocate other authors, especially as she tries to raise anti-trans sentiments as part of her brand.
Rowling has made her beliefs and bigotry clear for some time now. We’ve all had more than enough chances to decide how to respond. We could have just said “No, that is not helpful nor kind, and it’s not how we treat people anymore.” Instead, she’s become a divisive icon partly because the thing she made is so beloved and acts as a shield. “Her stories are about love” is the refrain. Except, of course, if you don’t fit into her gnarled and narrowed view of the world.
I’m sure Universal Studios isn’t going to close their Harry Potter attractions anytime soon. There will still be merch and games and studio tours. I have little doubt that when Daniel Radcliffe is gets a little gray that there will be an inevitable Harry Potter remake or sequel where he has a cameo. Rowling didn’t get “canceled.” If anything, she’s poised to make more money while the same people shelling out for her latest literary fumbles will turn to people like me and say “Why are you so upset? It’s off-putting,” never quite catching on that a writer who spent so much time creating a villain who sees others as unworthy of respect or dignity learned to do the same in real life.