On JK Rowling’s Recent Comments

I’m sure many of you have seen JK Rowling’s recent comments on transgender people and how including transgender women and cisgender women in the same group erodes the experience of cisgender women. As this all began on Twitter, that is where I’ve been most vocal. I’ve shared articles, shared the experiences and reactions of trans women, and made my stance clear: trans women are women.

(If you’re not up to date with what’s been happening, these two articles – here and here – have been recommended to me as good representations of the timeline of events and some of the reactions.)

But beyond that, I haven’t written much, haven’t written anything more in depth. I’ve wanted to but with my mental health and cognitive skills (including my concentration) so drastically affected and constantly fluctuating due to my pandemic anxiety, I haven’t been able to sit down and finish anything that I felt said much more than ‘I disagree with JK Rowling’s tweets,’ something which I have already said. I would never want my voice to take the space that belongs to a trans person but then I don’t think this post will do that: it’s simply my little corner of the internet where I get to talk about the things that are important to me and this is important to me. And to remain silent feels like a betrayal. If you are transgender, I support you. If you are non binary, I support you. If you do not fit into society’s expectations around sex and gender, I support you. I support your right to explore who you are, be who you are, and live your life unchallenged, unlimited, and unafraid, and I will do all I am able to help that become a reality.

As the topic has, in this case, been brought into the spotlight by JK Rowling, I’d like to write a little about her. My relationship with all JK Rowling is has become increasingly complicated as time has gone on and as I have grown older and more aware of the issues in our world and the discrimination against different groups of people in our world. 

As a child – I must’ve started reading the Harry Potter books when I was about seven or eight – I didn’t really connect stories with their writers. They were just glorious worlds to fall into with characters whose journeys you followed. The writers were simply a name on the front cover. I loved the world of Harry Potter and many of the positive experiences of my childhood (and beyond) are connected to it. It had a massive impact on my life and my own desire to tell stories and for that I’ll always be grateful. 

Then, as a young teenager, I became more aware of JK Rowling as a person, both in connection to the world of Harry Potter and as a person, and was honestly really impressed by her: her creativity, her dedication to her work, all of her charitable work and contributions (losing her billionaire status after donating more than £120 million to various charities), and how she stayed in the UK and paid her taxes because she believed it was her duty, having received financial support from the government before her writing afforded her such wealth. I really respected her for that and while I still respect those good choices, they do not excuse her recent comments, for which many people (myself included) will never be able to truly forgive or forget, even if she takes it upon herself to apologise, learn, and take serious positive action.

I know that as a cisgender person I cannot truly understand what it’s like to be transgender and I can admit to having limited academic knowledge. But I do have multiple transgender friends who have been generous enough to share their experiences with me and I have been close enough with some of them to have been present during some of the discrimination and difficult experiences they’ve faced. That has made it a very emotional issue for me, having seen my friends hurt like that. I do want to have a more intellectual understanding as well though so, as soon as I can focus enough to read again (as I mentioned earlier, the cognitive symptoms of my mental health problems have worsened since the onset of the pandemic), this is something I really want to pursue. I’ve sourced a collection of recommended books and reputable articles to read as soon as I can actually concentrate and absorb the information.

As nice as it would be, it’s probably naive to believe that we can simply divorce the creation from the creator. Rowling’s prejudiced comments are cause for concern about whether these harmful views are present in her work, are present in the world of Harry Potter. There are certainly problematic aspects, for example the naming of Cho Chang, the anti-semitic stereotype present in the Goblins, and the slavery of house elves – the existence of the latter two could be ‘explained’ by the fact that magic doesn’t automatically make for a perfect society had anyone seriously addressed the prejudice and inequality but they didn’t, apart from the odd comment or throwaway plot line. Having said all of this, the books are out in the world and I think that the best we can do is discuss the issues they raise, how they translate to the real world, and how we can address these prejudices, individually and as a society* – not an easy goal but a worthwhile one nonetheless.

(*in an understandable and digestible way considering the age of the reader.)

I would just like to touch on Fanfiction briefly because I think there’s a certain kind of magic in that it allows us to dig into the holes and stereotypes and problems and write stories to challenge the problematic parts and flesh out the things that weren’t properly explored. I’ve read some great stories that seamlessly integrate transgender characters and how Hogwarts accommodates (i.e. the rules about who’s allowed in which dormitories), some that explore the history of different magic (such as the development of wands in order to control who can use magic and how wandless magic may have evolved so that women could use magic without them), some that have the characters examining why history so often repeats itself, some that challenge the stereotypes of the Hogwarts houses and the repercussions that they can have on impressionable eleven year olds, and so on. Fanfiction allows us to make these worlds bigger and more complex and look at them through different lenses and I think that’s a really wonderful thing to have access to.

But back to the matter at hand, I don’t think that all of this – JK Rowling’s obvious (and harmful) views and actions – necessarily has to ruin the stories or the positive experiences we gained from Harry Potter, especially considering all of the good messages in them. But then I don’t know if I’d be able to say that had I not started reading the books before I connected them to authors with opinions and prejudices and big platforms on social media. I know that for many people this will have irreparably damaged their relationships with the stories and that makes me deeply sad. I’m reminded of what Daniel Radcliffe said in response to the tweets: “To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished, I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you.” Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could store away the things we love(d) in a time capsule so that they could remain untouched by the outside world?

I confess that I’m having trouble reconciling my feelings for the woman I admired as a young teenager and the woman I’m now seeing as an adult. I’m grateful for the gifts she gave me, both through the world of Harry Potter and the telling of stories, but I cannot and will not support her while she spreads such harmful and incorrect views. If she’s going to comment on something that has the potential to endanger an already vulnerable group of people, especially with a platform as big as hers, it is her responsibility to be thoroughly educated on the topic. I am deeply disappointed with her lack of empathy.

So, to conclude this post, I’m going to celebrate Rowling’s recent birthday by making a donation to Mermaids (a charity that supports transgender and gender-diverse children, young people, and their families) and to a series of personal fundraisers to help some transgender people get the support they need.

“I think trans women, and trans people in general, show everyone that you can define what it means to be a man or woman on your own terms. A lot of what feminism is about is moving outside of roles and moving outside of expectations of who and what you’re supposed to be to live a more authentic life.” – Laverne Cox

Living in Lockdown

When I’m not spiralling into an anxiety-induced meltdown over the pandemic, the resulting quarantine, and (particularly) the thought of a loved one getting sick, I can look at living in lockdown in a somewhat detached, practical sense (something that has taken over a month to be able to do). Intellectually speaking, we’re living in unprecedented times, experiencing something that our parents are experiencing with us for the first time – something that very rarely occurs. There are very few people alive who have witnessed the last pandemic of this scale: the Spanish Influenza in 1918. So this is a big deal, one that will be written about in history books and studied in the future – from political, sociological, and psychological points of view to name just a few. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently and I can’t help thinking how often history is told from the point of view of the powerful and how terribly, appallingly wrong that is, especially given the number of mistakes being made by the people in power during this period (I’m speaking from the UK but I think we’re all aware of the mistakes being made by other governments, especially that of the US). So, if we want that to change, we have to write it ourselves, write our own experiences of living in lockdown, both for the history books but also for our own sake, so that we don’t forget what this experience has been like and how our lives have been changed by it. And as true as it is that we’re all in the same position – all in lockdown with limited access to our families and friends, the world outside, and our ‘normal lives’ – each of us will be experiencing this differently so I think the more experiences written about the better. So here I am, writing about mine, both for the reasons I’ve already listed but also to keep from drowning in it all, in the anxiety and the fear and the attempt to keep going as if this isn’t a traumatic experience.

I was aware of the Coronavirus before it even moved out of China but it felt like such a horror movie scenario and caused me such anxiety that I worked really hard not to think about it too much. It seemed unlikely that it would get all the way to the UK so I focussed on the anxieties in front of me and got on with my life. Besides, surely the government would be prepared should it reach us, given how much warning they had. I didn’t vote for this government nor do I trust them but I assumed that their egocentric motivations would have them preparing the country as best they could, for themselves if not for their people.

But then the virus started to move from country to country and more and more people in the UK began to take the idea that it might reach us seriously. I battled with my anxiety around it, trying to act responsibly without thinking so hard about it that it sent me into anxiety induced meltdowns. To an extent, I felt fairly unafraid of getting the virus as a young, physically healthy person but having said that, I was very aware that I was in regular contact with immunocompromised people and I was terrified of getting it and passing it on to them. So I was careful to wash my hands, use hand sanitiser, and avoid busy areas and travel times where possible. My anxiety had already been high before the virus made the news so it was a daily battle, as it often is.

Then everything seemed to happen at once. One day I was making plans with a friend for later in the week and the next she was on a plane back to her home country because of the travel ban. I didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye (that’s my little bit of self-pity done because I know, without a doubt, that she made the right choice and I absolutely support her decision). Before that week of classes began, our course came together (electronically) and decided that we didn’t feel it was safe for us or others if we were travelling to and from uni, etc, so suddenly my weekly routine was gone, my education disrupted, and my friends were all going home, again without any of us actually getting to say goodbye to each other. I know we can all talk via social media and video calls and that this isn’t forever but depending how long this goes on, we may never come together as a course again and that is an idea I find really difficult to get my head around emotionally.

I think it was the next week that we went into official lockdown. My university pulled out all the stops to support us and within days, our classes had been moved online but prerecorded lectures and a forum aren’t the easiest ways to have discussions and a sudden lack of access to the library and facilities wasn’t an easy adjustment. I found the online classes difficult. Don’t get me wrong – I really appreciate how hard they worked to keep our education up to date and as normal as possible – but it’s not the way I learn best. It’s just a personal thing. It also made working on the assessment essay much more challenging. Fortunately, I had a tutor who was incredibly supportive and with his help (and my Mum’s), I managed to get it in with good time, despite the added stress and the impact that had.

The essay, despite the anxiety it caused me, was actually a good distraction. As soon as it was done and submitted, I really started to feel the effects of being in lockdown. After all, up until then, I was pretty much doing what I would’ve been doing anyway: spending all my time on my assignment. But with that done, it all started to sink in.

The most obvious struggle is that I miss and worry about my family. I have four parents, only one of which I’m living with, and the others are all on their own; my brother is living by himself in London; my Mum’s Mum is also living by herself, a significant distance from any of us, even if we were allowed to visit each other (I’m thinking more in the case of an emergency where we would obviously keep our distance from each other and be very careful); and I have multiple family members categorised as vulnerable. So I have a lot of people to worry about and worry about them I do. The constant anxiety is exhausting. And as grateful as I am for video calls, it’s just not the same. I miss BEING with them. I desperately miss HUGGING them. I try not to dwell on it – or stress about how much longer we’ll be separated – because that is only more damaging to my mental health but it’s hard. It’s really hard.

On a similar note, I also really miss my friends. We have video calls, regular calls, texting, social media, movie dates on platforms like Netflix Party, and so on but again, it’s not the same. It’s not the same as hanging out with them, or hugging them, or going on coffee dates, or having writing sessions. As I’ve already said, I’m trying not to think about how long it could be before I see them again. We’ll manage, thanks to the technology we have,  but it will be really wonderful to see them again.

The other thing that I’m really struggling with right now is my mental health.  For those of you who know me or have followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that, amongst other things, I struggle daily with anxiety and depression. These are the particular problems that have only gotten worse since the appearance of Covid-19 and the lockdown.

  • Anxiety is my constant companion, although fortunately I have my ’emergency’ medication (to be taken as needed) for when it gets really bad, like I-can’t-breathe bad. My anxiety rises to that level at some point most days and the medication has kept it about as manageable as I think I’m going to get in the current circumstances. But my anxiety isn’t constantly that overwhelming (at least not anymore) and I’m wary of going through the medication too fast so most of the time, I’m just left with this relentless pulsing under my skin that leaves me restless and unable to think as clearly as usual.
  • My depression has been really bad too. Some days are a complete write off from the beginning, where all I can do is stare at the TV. Most of the time though, my mood is better but more precarious. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope: one little knock and I’m going to plunge straight into the darkness. It feels like I have to constantly watch my step, be hyper aware of any possible threat to my mental health, otherwise I’ll fall and who knows how long it would take to build myself back up again, given the uncertain, scary times we’re living in. Maintaining my mental health in this period is like trying to build a house of cards of shifting sands. It’s practically impossible.
  • Since the lockdown started, I’ve had serious difficulty concentrating. On anything. Getting my university assignment done took more force of will than I knew I had and while I knew that I’d need some recovery time after that and after finishing an intense semester, weeks later my ability to focus hasn’t returned. I’ve had phases where I’ve struggled to focus (likely caused by my fluctuating mental health and trying different medications) but it’s never been this bad. I can’t read a book, I can’t watch anything, I can’t do anything without my concentration drifting. Everything takes ten times longer to finish and ten times as much energy, if not more.
  • Most distressingly for me is that my creative brain is completely dead. Out of power. It just feels empty and I have no ideas. I’ve suffered extended periods of writer’s block before and usually experience it to a degree along with the exhaustion of finishing a difficult semester and stressful assessment period but it’s scary to feel that it’s still not working, even after several weeks have passed. I’ve tried all my strategies for writing and all my strategies for writer’s block but nothing is working. It feels like my brain is broken and that’s really, really upsetting.

I’ve still been having therapy, but via Zoom instead of in person. In theory, it shouldn’t be that different but somehow it is. I’d never really considered how important it is to have a space to work through all the hard stuff and then be able to walk away from it, which you just can’t do when you’re having therapy in your living room. Plus, Zoom calls are exhausting – here’s a good article about that – which only adds to how exhausting therapy can be. Then, when it comes to the content of a session, it all feels a bit frozen: it’s hard to tackle difficult emotions when we’re in the middle of different difficult emotions. And when I’m just about coping, feeling so fragile, I don’t want to trigger something and make life even more emotionally difficult for myself than it is already. So the whole thing is really tricky and confusing. Having sessions is definitely better than not having them but it’s not straightforward. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be when we made the plan just before lockdown.

And just to add to that, I’ve been struggling with sleepiness as a side effect of my medication for months but that’s gotten a lot worse since self isolating (perhaps from the increased anxiety – I don’t know). I’m exhausted by the smallest things and I seem to need so much more sleep. And that hasn’t been helped by a sudden, intense bout of hay fever, which has bestowed upon me the additional symptoms of an itchy, blocked nose and sore, itchy eyes. It’s been so bad that even having the windows open makes it dramatically worse so going outside definitely hasn’t been an option (I can’t take antihistamines because of my other medication). So I can’t even go in the garden, making me feel all the more trapped. Inhaling steam helps but only for short periods of time. The recent rain has been a blessing, giving me several days of relief. I’m cautiously hopeful that it’s started to settle – I’ve managed a couple of trips into the garden without incident – but I don’t want to speak too soon.

And lastly, for now at least, I’m really struggling with how uncertain everything is, uncertainty having always been something that causes me anxiety. We don’t know when the lockdown will end, we don’t know when we’ll be safe again, we don’t know when we’re going to see our friends and family again. I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of my university course. And so on and so on and so on. So on top of the ongoing fear, there’s nothing solid to hold onto. Many of my summer plans have become impossible or at least difficult, while some have been cancelled outright, which has obviously been very upsetting and left me without anything to look forward to or anchor me. I feel very lost. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people at the moment. I try to focus on each day as it comes but it’s hard. We’re all so used to looking and planning ahead.

One more thing… I found this on Twitter the other day and wanted to share it:

I found it really helpful to have various explanations as to why I’m struggling, to know that my brain isn’t actually broken. Of course, knowing this stuff doesn’t actually fix the problems but being able to take a breath and reassure myself that there is a reason and that it won’t last forever has been helpful.

I hope you’re all safe and coping the best you can. And if you’re in the UK and they do loosen the lockdown this coming week, please continue to be careful. I hate being in lockdown but I’m absolutely terrified of what will happen if the government relax the rules, of how many more people will get sick and die. I’m scared out of my mind that someone I love will catch it. I can only speak for myself but I’m sure I’m not the only one with such fears. So please, please be careful. For all of us.