There is a growing and dangerous anti-trans movement in some journalism, and it’s something LGBTQ2S+ folks and our allies must be vigilant about fighting back against.
Judy Blume, the beloved author of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and countless other young adult classics, was caught in its crosshairs this weekend, when she had to correct the record on whether she supports all of J.K. Rowling’s anti-trans views. What Blume did—clear, straightforward allyship and dismissal of any indication to the contrary—should be the model going forward for celebrity figures who find themselves caught in this trap.
An article published behind a paywall in the British newspaper The Sunday Times circulated over the weekend with the headline “Judy Blume: I’m behind J.K. Rowling 100 percent,” and understandably inspired a bit of panic amongst queer, trans and ally fans of Blume.
Publicly showing support for Rowling has become a calling card for agreeing with her vehemently anti-trans beliefs, such as comedian Dave Chappelle who proudly declared himself “Team TERF” in a recent special alongside voicing his support for Rowling. Since most people who came across the Blume article on social media aren’t subscribed to the Times and only saw the headline, it’s understandable we were disappointed by her apparently doing the same.
But, as Blume herself quickly pointed out on Twitter a few hours later, that is, in fact, not what she said in the interview.
“I wholly support the trans community. My point, which was taken out of context, is that I can empathize with a writer—or person—who has been harassed online,” she wrote. “I stand with the trans community and vehemently disagree with anyone who does not fully support equality and acceptance for LGBTQIA+ people. Anything to the contrary is total bullshit.”
And that makes sense considering everything Blume herself has actually said. The author had literally just sung the praises of Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer—arguably the most controversial book in the U.S. right now, which follows a young person’s gender journey—in another interview. Blume is and has been there for trans folks for a while now. So how did Judy Blume get painted as an anti-trans sympathizer? And what can we learn from what happened?
Look closer at Hadley Freeman, the author of the Times story, and her name may ring a bell. This isn’t the first time this has happened with a story penned by Freeman—in February 2022, something very similar happened when Freeman interviewed Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood for The Guardian. That story contained a bizarre breakdown where Freeman positioned the “debate” between “gender theory” and “gender-criticals” as threatening to “fracture feminism” and attempted to get Atwood to sympathize with gender-critical talking points and Rowling’s views (Atwood, for the record, was ultimately dismissive of the advances in the story).
Atwood has gotten caught up in this sort of thing before, when she reshared several anti-trans articles pushing back against “toxic” activism from trans folks published by Canadian news outlets back in 2021. The time between that controversy and her interview with Freeman suggests perhaps some learning on her part, but it’s unclear what Atwood would say now when pressed on anti-trans talking points.
Then there’s the Harper’s letter from 2020 titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which saw 153 writers, thinkers and activists—including both Atwood and Rowling along with Matthew Yglesias and Jesse Singal, who’ve both been criticized for the anti-trans slant of their writing—decry the death of free speech on both the right and left. The letter came at a loaded time in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests responding to the death of George Floyd, and the publishing of Rowling arguably most notable anti-trans manifesto.
Considering all of that, the letter is full of what writer Emily St. James rightfully called at the time “dog whistles toward anti-trans positions.” And trans author Jennifer Finney Boylan, who signed the letter, actually later recanted her signature once she learned that the likes of Rowling had signed.
But what about the other signatories? Are they all raging transphobes on the level of Rowling because they seemingly agree with her on issues of free speech? I doubt it. But, when presented with the option to decry “cancel culture”—because of course people shouldn’t be bullied online!—maybe they said “sure,” not realizing the context and subtext that comes along with doing that.
This is going to keep happening. As a very online trans person working in queer media, I do think it would do myself and others in a similar position a benefit to step back and remember that not every well-meaning person, even other queer people, is as online as we are or online in the same way. I don’t mean that dismissively, as an HBO executive did last week when defending the choice to continue to pay and platform Rowling. But rather, this is going to keep happening because well-meaning (often straight, often cis, often older, often white) folks like Atwood and Blume and a bunch of the people who signed that letter frankly don’t know any better and can get baited into agreeing with some of these stances.
I’m not saying that many of them aren’t smart or thoughtful or broadly more educated than I’ll ever be. But when it comes to the insidious nuances of the anti-trans media machine, frankly, they don’t know the game plan. They don’t know the dog whistles and tried-and-true moves, the words and phrases that signal support for anti-trans beliefs.
A lot of these figures—and frankly, a lot of our loved ones—don’t even know what the difference between gender-critical and gender queer is. They might hear the phrase “men are invading women’s spaces” or “J.K. Rowling is being bullied” and instinctively agree.
So many of these public figures wade into these conversations like they’re setting off into the forest without a map, but plenty of confidence—maybe they’ll find their way, but there’s also a good chance they’ll get lost in the dark. And right now, as anti-trans legislation is being drafted on the back of anti-trans media coverage, the dark is full of life-or-death stakes for trans people. In this case, the figures hear someone (maybe a reporter) say, “You support free speech, right? That’s what J.K. Rowling is saying!” and end up agreeing because they don’t have the full picture, or know how their words will be twisted.
Because their words will be twisted. This has become an undercurrent in many media outlets, particularly in the U.K., where there seems to be a concerted effort to swing public perception in Rowling’s—and therefore anti-trans sentiments’—favour. Just look at every actor from the Harry Potter films who’s been asked about Rowling. Some, like lead Daniel Radcliffe, have decried her beliefs and doubled down on supporting trans folks. Others, like Evanna Lynch and Tom Felton have seemingly come out on Rowling’s side. Even Succession’s Brian Cox was asked about Rowling and said people are too mean to her online.
Do I think Lynch and Felton and Cox all share Rowling’s explicitly dangerous beliefs? No! Cox has spoken positively about Scottish progress in trans rights, for example. But as soon as he took the bait and answered that question, he was framed as agreeing with her.
Now back to Blume. What Blume did, and what not nearly enough public figures in similar spots do, is explicitly call it out. Not just that she doesn’t agree with Rowling, but that her quotes were taken out of context and spun off. It shows she’s aware of what’s going on, and frankly, that’s the first step for so many of these maybe-not-so-online but beloved figures in navigating this. It’s also on their PR folks to research reporters like Freeman ahead of time and know what they might be walking into to avoid giving those softball quotes that can be misconstrued.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where people do need to be unequivocal in their vocal support of trans folks. I’m grateful to Judy Blume for doing so, but still endlessly frustrated that she even had to.