The Russell Prize is a pretty new award – it started in 2017. The prize celebrates the ‘holy trinity of writing’; which includes language, moral force, and the knowledge or learning behind it. The recognition is meant to celebrate writing that is monumental, well-written, and capable of inciting change. In 2017, Ronan Farrow’s essay about Harvey Weinstein, published in the New Yorker, won the prize. The 2018 and 2019 winners were a blog post on toxic journalism and an essay on Bing Crosby. In 2020, one of the contenders is JK Rowling‘s essay on trans rights.

The essay was published on her own blog, where she writes about her experiences online, the hate she’s received for her views, and the ‘cancellation‘ she’s undergone as an author and a public figure. One can probably argue that Rowling’s essay is well-written, but it is not informative, and definitely not knowledgeable. Throughout her essay, she argues that trans women’s rights will impede on women’s rights, that trans women are not women, and that women will be unsafe if trans women are allowed into women-only spaces. 

She also notes (with concern) of the ‘explosion of young women wishing to transition’ and those ‘detransitioning’, because of regret. Her argument is that it’s easier than ever for people to transition – resulting in people transitioning to ‘avoid homophobia’, or to ‘avoid misogyny’. Furthermore, she swivels back and forth between arguments – either stating that gender identity is a choice, one that people choose to move between, while also claiming that she knows a ‘transsexual’ woman who she fully sees as a woman.

Rowling’s essay is controversial, to say the least. Her arguments are discriminatory, and her reasoning for why people turn to transition is flawed and inaccurate. Her claims of ‘talking to various experts’ are unfounded, as there isn’t a single citation in the essay. It’s hard to accept her words at face value. Many have called her essay factually incorrect.

One argument she makes is that young people transition to avoid facing homophobia. What she fails to note is that transgender gay people exist. Gender identity and sexuality aren’t mutually exclusive.

She also fails to acknowledge that transgender people face more violence and discrimination, in fact they even face discrimination from other members of the LGBTQ+ community – Miss Major Griffin Gracy, a trans activist claims that mainstream LGBTQ+ movements shut out members of the transgender community.

Another argument she makes is one that’s common amongst TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) – that accepting trans women as women would result in men entering women’s only spaces to prey on women. However, reports have shown that police officials and schools haven’t seen evidence of this happening, and organizations dedicated to women’s rights have debunked this argument as a myth.

The BBC argued that her essay deserved the nomination, claiming that “offense is the price of free speech.” I can understand how this statement can be used to commend a piece of work – when an author is brave for speaking their mind, for blowing the whistle on harmful practices, or for highlighting something the public needs to know. Some ideas can offend certain groups, and it’s hard to draw the line between what should and shouldn’t be celebrated, based on a particular group’s perception or acceptance of that idea.

With regards to Rowling’s essay, however, it’s incredibly difficult to digest that claim. Her essay is offensive in its misinformation, in the ideas it supports. Her arguments are unfounded and her claims aren’t backed by studies or research. Rowling does have the freedom to say what she believes in, but she also needs to recognize that she’s a public figure and that her words have power. We’ve seen her ideas being used by senators to block more inclusive laws – for example, one senator used her quotes to block Senate consideration for the ‘Equality Act‘ – and this essay fuels that fire.

This has gone beyond ‘academic debate’ to real effects on people’s lives.

What makes this essay difficult to digest is because she comes from a place of pain and trauma – she’s a survivor of domestic abuse and wants to fight for women’s rights. However, feminism includes trans rights. Trans women are women, and women’s rights should include support for trans women, too. Fighting for women’s rights should not result in another community suffering. One group does not need to be marginalized for another to rise up. 

I’m irked by her nomination because it shows support to transphobic ideals. She is a good author – her words are influential. We see her ideas being celebrated; her transphobic views are shared, discussed, and rewarded. Without a shred of evidence, she’s become a figure of authority on trans rights.  I’m tired of these ideas continuing to gain traction because of her work. Her writing continues to be in the spotlight for its controversy, and this is another essay that attracts attention, and another way her words affect real people, their lives, and their very sense of being.


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