Why do we still care so much about what JK Rowling has to say?

About once a month for the past couple of years, I’ll log into Twitter to see another hashtag accusing JK Rowling of bigotry against trans people, accompanied by the obligatory counter-hashtag defending her position.

This past Sunday it was #JKDoesntSpeakForMe, in reference to Rowling’s comments lambasting Keir Starmer for an interview with The Times in which he pointed out that by legal definition, trans women are women. This factually accurate (and fairly neutral) statement, Rowling said, was “yet another indication that the Labour Party can no longer be counted on to defend women’s rights”.

It’s another in a long line of questionable remarks by the author, whose position on trans identity is at once both reasonably stated and quietly troubling. It’s reasonable in that she is never explicitly hateful or particularly extreme in her delivery, but troubling in that she relies on the same spurious logic and semi-clever dog-whistling that has become a feature of anti-trans discourse in the past decade.

As such, it’s difficult to come out and accuse her of being bigoted towards transgender people, but the sheer frequency and nature of her interjections on the topic has raised questions as to her motives – questions that will be discussed ad nauseum for the next week or so, before being superseded by the next bad tweet or essay. Discussion of Rowling’s position is in many ways her new brand; a brand which is fed and strengthened by her detractors’ inability to simply ignore her.

Like Dave Chapelle and Graham Linehan, Rowling’s overwhelming preoccupation with trans issues has caused her to become a poster girl for anti-trans rhetoric for people on both sides of the issue. From what I’ve seen, as was also the case with those men, it has caused a large portion of her overwhelmingly left-leaning former fanbase to feel betrayed by the author’s newfound obsession. It seems to me that this betrayal is really the thing that keeps her relevant, as her once-admirers try to come to terms with the fact that their favourite author has left them behind.

Here is a woman whose career was built on the most popular and successful good versus evil allegory of the past century, appearing to show her hand as a potential force for the latter.

I know it’s trendy to look down on Harry Potter now, but if you were a kid in the late 90s to early 2000s, those books were a phenomenon on a level that you don’t really see today. Before every basic white lady had “I solemnly swear I am up to no good” tattooed on their wrist, the world was enthralled by the story of an orphan in a life or death struggle with magic Hitler to prove once and for all that bigotry is bad.

If you were a kid when the series was released – back before we carried the internet around in our pockets and when Twitter discourse was what you called it when your budgie woke you up at 6am – you were allowed to enjoy the world’s most straightforward bildungsroman without thinking too hard about the ethics of owning house elves or what those banker goblins probably represented.

For better or worse, Harry Potter helped shape the politics of an entire generation of millennials who, perhaps naively, adopted a fairly simplistic set of morals that skewed broadly towards good. It also acted as an imaginative haven for people who saw themselves in the books’ outsider characters. Kids who felt different, who were bullied, who were Muslim, black, gay and yes, trans, found in the series a sense of magic that may have been lacking in their own lives.

Although it’s a source of derision now, a lot of those kids congregated in online spaces like Tumblr and Reddit to keep some sense of that magic alive. Dunk on Harry Potter nerds all you want, but it’s never a bad thing for marginalised groups to find solace in an uplifting piece of fiction.

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Rowling herself was also packaged as a beleaguered outsider, overcoming poverty and the insular nature of publishing to bring her vision to the world. She donated to charity, she was an avowed Labour supporter (at a time when that was considered an admirable position), and she even retconned her own canon to be more inclusive, to the extent that she was for a time labelled as an overzealous “social justice warrior” by people who preferred their Dumbledores straight and their Hermiones WASP-y.

Now, Rowling stands exposed as the antithesis of the myth she spent two decades cultivating. Regardless of the nuances of her beliefs on trans people, she has outed herself as somebody who amplifies causes and individuals that may contribute to their harm.

While it would perhaps make more sense to ignore her tweets, to let her disappear into the echo chamber she has fashioned for herself, it’s hard to blame people for wanting to engage. It’s difficult to see somebody you once looked up to be swallowed up by harmful ideologies that seem to grow more toxic and ubiquitous with every passing week. It’s harder still when that person had such a formative impact on your imaginative life.

Rowling may be happy to throw away her legacy, but it seems to me that she fails to understand that it isn’t just a series of books – it’s the people those books helped inspire. For those people it’s hard not to try and fight back against the erosion of ideals that you were taught to champion by the very person eroding them. Even if it’s just with a hashtag.