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J.K. Rowling's essay on trans rights up for award

Ankita Mukhopadhyay
December 22, 2020

The BBC has defended its nomination of "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, who offended many with her comments on transgender people. The British public broadcaster said offense is the "price of free speech."

J.K. Rowling
Rowling's essay on sex and gender triggered a public furorImage: picture-alliance/AP/J. C. Ryan

The BBC's annual Russell Prize, named after British writer Bertrand Russell, has attracted public attention this year due to its nomination list which includes author J.K. Rowling

The writer behind the Harry Potter series was in the running for her essay on sex and gender that triggered a public furor when it was first released in June. The essay made controversial statements about trans rights and the classification of trans women as women.

In the essay, Rowling opened up about her experience of domestic abuse and sexual assault. She said the rise of trans activism would erase the concept of sex that defines the lives of many women. 

Rowling after 'Harry'

"I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he's a woman — and, as I've said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones — then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside," she wrote in the essay.

Rowling has yet to comment on her nomination for the Russell Award. 

Several people have lashed out at the BBC on social media for the nomination. David Levesley, editor at lifestyle magazine GQ, said the BBC had praised Rowling's "entirely misinformed" and factually incorrect essay to justify transphobia.

What did the BBC say?

The BBC inaugurated the Russell Prize in 2017. The award "celebrates journalism and writing that honors the intellectual and moral virtues Russell's prose exemplified."

Journalists Ronan Farrow and Clive James have previously been recipients of the award, which has three criteria for a winner: language, erudition and moral force — "an instinctive and visceral revulsion at injustice," according to BBC media editor Amol Rajan.

The UK public broadcaster defended Rowling's nomination by saying that though Rowling offended many with her comments on transgender people, offense is the "price of free speech." The broadcaster said it appreciated Rowling's "bravery" for writing the blog despite an outpouring of harsh criticism for her views, but added that the nomination didn't mean it endorsed her argument.

The nomination for Rowling comes at a time when the BBC is under scrutiny for its editorial policy. Last week, Ofcom, the UK's broadcasting watchdog, called out the BBC's decision to force transgender people to make appearances with representatives of anti-trans pressure groups in order to create a "balanced" argument.

Celebrities, fans distance themselves from Rowling

While Rowling may have found admiration from the BBC, several fans and celebrities have distanced themselves from the author.

In July, Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe, two stars of the Harry Potter film franchise, expressed support for transgender rights and distanced themselves from Rowling's views.

J. K. Rowling poses with stars of the Harry Potter franchise in London at the premiere of the final Harry Potter film
'Harry Potter' film stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson (left and second from right) have rejected Rowling's viewsImage: picture alliance/empics

The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet — two of the biggest fan sites of the Harry Potter series — have also rejected Rowling's beliefs. 

"Our stance is firm: Transgender women are women. Transgender men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary. Intersex people exist and should not be forced to live in the binary. We stand with Harry Potter fans in these communities, and while we don't condone the mistreatment JKR has received, we must reject her beliefs," the sites said.

The sites also found "the use of Rowling's influence and privilege to target marginalized people" to be out of step with "the message of acceptance and empowerment" in the Harry Potter books.

A previous version of this article misidentified one of the stars of the Harry Potter film franchise. This has now been corrected. DW apologizes for the error.