The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling: Chapter 4: TERF Wars

3/7/23 - 1h 4m - PDF Transcript

This episode contains language that might not be suitable for children.

So for someone who's never heard the term turf, trans-exclusionary radical feminist,

what is a turf?

Where does that term come from and what does it describe?

Yeah, I'm not sure you're getting quite how offensive a term is to many people.

Think about it like the word queer, which some people are very happy to self-describe


And for other people, it's the term that, you know, someone with a skinhead shouted

at them before trying to beat them up outside a nightclub.

And that's how a lot of women feel about turf, you know.

Some feel that they've reclaimed it, others feel that this is a word that they associate

with people who want to slit their throat.

So it's one that I would handle with tongs, as it were.

It stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist.

And it kind of doesn't mean any of those things anymore.

I'm often called a turf, even though I've written in print that I think trans women

are women.

It doesn't matter, though.

It just means this is a bad woman.

You don't need to know any more about her.

I mean, turf is basically witch.

I had been becoming increasingly concerned about the way in which women were being shut


Women who I felt had some very valid concerns.

I was starting to see activists behaving in a very aggressive way outside feminist meetings.

Like what were they doing?

They were banging and kicking on windows.

Very threatening.

They were masked.

I'm looking at an assault now on freedom of speech, freedom of thought, even freedom

of association.

Chapter 4, Turf Wars.

Growing up, what did you understand feminism to be?

Who were the feminists that you looked up to and what did you see them fighting for?

I was very feminist in my late teens, early 20s.

And I was reading books that even then were a little outdated.

People like Kate Millich, Jermaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, obviously, who was dead

by the time I came to her book.

I would describe myself now and probably then too as an idealist, definitely, but never

really an ideologue.

I was and always have been passionately concerned about the plight of girls and women, not only

in the West, but further afield.

JK Rowling was born in 1965 and that means that she lives her youth through a particularly

vibrant time for the UK feminist movement.

In 1971, the first women's refuge opened in Britain, in Chiswick, in West London.

And that was the first time that women who had been beaten up by their partners had somewhere

to go.

They had somewhere to leave.

You're saying there weren't places like that until 1971?

Yeah, the first one was founded by a woman called Erin Pizzi.

Very shortly after we started, women began to come and to talk about the fact they were

battered at home by their husbands and they seemed to be able to get no help from the

social services, from the police, or from their solicitors.

And her stories about that first refuge are a heart-breaking, you know, women walking

in covered with bruises, covered in cigarette burns.

Nobody seemed to be doing anything constructive to help, they just seemed to be sending these

women back to the men who beat them and some back to be killed.

In 1971, when Rowling would have just been a young girl heading off to primary school,

the world was seeing the development of something that women in my generation grew up largely

taking for granted, a place to go when you've been the victim of what we now call domestic


He came home one day and he cut me right across to you with a carving knife.

I had to wait until he collapsed and fell asleep, you know, before I could go to the


The things that people were going through in private behind closed doors during that

time are now quite horrifying to reflect on.

He strangled me once and all I could remember in the end was all this blood, thick, slimy

blood all coming out of my mouth.

I was on the line between life and death.

And it was part of a wider movement that decade about the idea that you weren't just talking

about what police used to euphemistically called wife beating, which was usually done

in response to nagging and was therefore just a domestic.

All of that language got swept away and people instead began to talk about domestic violence

and that the idea that this was a crime and that was something that caused real harm

and needed to be prosecuted.

The shelter not only gave women a safe refuge, but it also raised awareness of how often

these things were happening.

And that paved the way for real changes in law enforcement and social services.

This is the founder of that first shelter, Erin Pizzi, speaking in 2014.

And the other problem also, unless she had a family to go to who would protect her, there

was no money because as soon as she tried to go to get some kind of security money from

social security, but your husband in those days mostly, your husband wants you back.

So therefore you're not entitled to anything.

Protecting women from both partner violence and the poverty that could befall them if

they tried to leave their husbands became a primary focus of British feminism throughout

Rowling's youth.

So that was a big theme of the 70s and 80s, as was reclaimed the night.

Police are investigating the discovery of a woman's body on a playing field in the

Chapletown district of Leeds.

The woman who hasn't yet been identified was found by a milkman on his early delivery


So in 1977 you had reclaimed the night, which was a response to the Yorkshire Ripper, who

was a serial killer of women.

The Yorkshire Ripper.

Like his Victorian predecessor, Jack the Ripper, he mutilated his women victims.

Sutcliffe murdered 13 women across Yorkshire and the north west of England between 1975

and 1980.

He was also convicted of the attempted murder of seven other women.

And this provoked an enormous feminist backlash, and the backlash really to the idea that women

weren't safe in public spaces, you know, that women were living under this constant

threat of male violence and intimidation, and that sparked marches all across the UK

in the world.

It is magical for men, they hunt down random victims, find in the dark solace, sanction

and sanctuary.

We will have to take back the night.

It's very much a feature of the culture in which I grew up, that women, by virtue of

their biology, are subjected to specific harms, specific pressures, and require certain protections.

And that that is inextricably linked with our biology, and we cannot fight for our rights

without naming and accurately describing what makes us different from men.

Rowling says that this was all foundational to her understanding of why feminism was necessary.

Because for generations, the reality of male violence and predation was a fact that had

been ignored, downplayed, and even excused, until feminists fought for it to be recognized

and remedied in as many ways as possible.

My feminism must remain grounded in the sex class and the oppressions my sex class suffer.

That's the basis for our oppression, that's my understanding of why certain things have

happened to me.

And of course, we now know that Rowling herself needed these protections and services in her

own life.

And while watching these women fight for their rights, Rowling says she also watched as they

were constantly vilified for it.

British feminism faced all the same attacks that American feminism did, that it was being

carried out by ultra-leftists, by overgrown student protesters, by people who were probably

lesbians or not normal women in some other sense.

Feminists were hugely disparaged across the mainstream.

They were ugly, they didn't shave their armpits, they were aggressive, they were butch.

And I suppose I see real parallels with now, with the slur that is turf.

All the same tropes about a woman not behaving the way a woman is supposed to behave.

You know, all of the cliches.

Which brings us to today.

We'll be right back.

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Over the past couple of decades, the fight for LGBT rights has experienced many landmark


Hugging, kissing, and toasting in the streets.

Notably, the legalization of same-sex marriage in both the U.K. and the U.S.

An historic milestone for gay couples in England and Wales.

Just one of many same-sex unions today, proudly under the banner of love, but now also under

the protection of the U.S. Constitution.

Today we can say, in no uncertain terms, that we've made our union a little more perfect.

Even legal restrictions were dropped on same-sex couples' ability to adopt children.

And a record number of LGBT candidates have been elected in races across the U.S.

80 percent of Fortune 500 companies protect their transgender employees.

Most major cities protect their transgender residents.

Starting today, transgender individuals may openly join the U.S. military.

And in just the last decade, trans rights and acceptance in particular have come into

the spotlight.

Culturally, with the visibility of trans celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, but also

through a series of big institutional wins, from the dropping of restrictions on military

service to the Bostock decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court has ruled that LGBT Americans are protected by the anti-discrimination laws

of this country.

Such in 2020, ruled that trans citizens have equal protection under the law and cannot be

discriminated against in areas like housing and the workplace.

This is a major civil rights opinion in the Supreme Court.

And yet…

Overnight, protesters taking their battle cry for transgender rights directly to the White


J-Mon Trump, protect the trans students.

There's also been a backlash to some of these gains, whether it's from President Trump,

who overturned Obama-era protections for trans health care and military service, or populist

leaders across the world, figures like Victor Orban in Hungary, who are stoking attacks

on the very legitimacy of LGBT identities altogether.

But that was not the fight that JK Rowling would eventually step into.

I think the hardest thing for outsiders to understand is that there are two different

arguments going on.

One is the traditional conservative right argument, which is anti-LGBT.

So someone like Victor Orban in Hungary doesn't think people should be allowed to transition

and wants to take away that right from them, which is part of a broader idea that LGBT identities

are decadent and post-modern and are going to sort of sap the vital life force out of

the country.

That is one criticism of modern LGBT politics.

The other one is a criticism from the left, in which it says, sometimes male people and

female people have different interests, no matter how the male people identify, and we

need to work out those conflicts in policy and law.

Recently, a conflict has been growing within the political left.

Among many of the very same people who have long fought for and cheered on, these recent

gains in LGBT rights.

A conflict about whether sometimes the fight for trans rights is ever at odds with the hard

one gains of the women's rights movement.

That is very different from saying someone's a pervert or a degenerate, right?

It says you are perfectly free to live your life.

This is a perfectly valid identity to adopt.

However, there might be times when it comes into conflict with other identities.

Take for example, women's sports.

Former swimmer Leah Thomas is breaking barriers and records.

Leah Thomas to the wall first, and that is a new Ivy League meeting record.

Recently, a swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania, who competed on the men's team as a freshman,

sophomore, and junior, transitioned and began competing on the women's team.

Leah Thomas dominated this weekend's women's swimming Ivy League championships.

Not only winning major championships, but also breaking women's swimming records.

Thomas is eligible to compete under NCAA rules, which require transgender athletes

to complete at least one year of testosterone suppression treatments.

This prompted many to come out and argue that it's unfair for someone who went through

male puberty to join the women's team.

Because they argued, the athletic advantages that come with male puberty cannot be fully

erased with hormone therapy.

You're never going to be able to remove male physical advantage.

Not all of it.

You may be able to remove a third of it, or you may even be able to remove a heart.

This included Olympic athletes like Sharon Davies, Michael Phelps.

I believe that we all should feel comfortable with who we are in our own skin, but I think

sports should all be played at an even playing field.

And Caitlyn Jenner.

It is just not fair.

And also, feminist.

The heart of all of this, there really are just two issues that people feel strongly


Fairness in sports, on one hand, and the importance of acceptance and inclusion on the other.

Many of these feminists point out that they have fought hard and are still fighting for

funding and resources for women's sports.

And they see a real conflict in interest here that needs to be addressed.

But some trans athletes, like Thomas, ask, how is this situation all that different from

the fact that there are real physical variations between all individuals?

I'm not a medical expert, but there's a lot of variation among cis female athletes.

Quick note, the term cis refers to people who are not transgender.

There's cis women who are very tall and very muscular and have more testosterone than another

cis woman, and should that then also disqualify them?

And many trans advocates say that attempts to prohibit trans women and girls from playing

women's sports is a form of bigotry.

And this conflict becomes both more complicated and more contentious when it's not women's

sports at issue, but women's spaces.

Things like women's bathrooms, locker rooms, domestic violence shelters, and even prisons.

In recent years, that tension has become much more urgent, especially for some feminists

in the UK because of a proposed legal change that's often referred to as self-ID.

Well, campaigners are worried about potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act, which

would allow men and women to choose their own gender arguing it could enable predatory

men to abuse women in single-sex spaces.

The legal suggestion that it was going to be made much easier to change your legal gender

was what made this not just an abstract discussion among feminists and queer theorists, but a

matter of quite urgent public policy in Britain.

We say no to self-identification, we say no to males and women's prisons.

For years in the UK, if a trans person wanted to be fully recognized by the government as

their preferred gender, they needed to go through a medical evaluation and receive a

diagnosis of gender dysphoria, which essentially is an intense discomfort that people can feel

if their gender identity does not match their body.

But this proposed change would allow people to alter their legal sex or gender based largely

on, as the name suggests, their self-declared gender identity without any medical requirements

or diagnosis at all.

It was a change some trans people wanted, in part because they felt that the need for

a diagnosis was stigmatizing.

The arguments came about the idea that as it stands, the procedure involves gatekeeping.

You need to prove to doctors that you're trans, which is exactly what the trans activists

hated about it, the idea that someone else gets the final stamp on your very personal


But the feminist argument was that some level of gatekeeping was necessary in order to safeguard

single sex spaces.

In other words, the removal of that need for a medical diagnosis, the elimination of that

gatekeeping, concerned some feminists, especially those shaped by movements like Take Back the


They worried that predatory males would find some way to take advantage of these looser

actions, to harm women and girls.

They were concerned that in a good faith effort to make things easier for trans people, the

government was aggravating risks to women.

I've been watching this.

I've been interested in it, and I did a lot of reading around it.

And as this public debate grew, one of those concerned feminists was J.K. Rowling.

So I was already aware that the activism was arguing for this kind of self-identification,

therefore an entirely male-bodied male, can by self-declaration become, in inverted commas,

a woman, conceptually as it were.

He's now conceptually a woman.

And I was troubled by that activism because after a long life dealing with certain issues,

whether as a donor or an activist myself or from being a woman, I think I have a very

realistic view, not a scaremongering view, on what may happen when you loosen boundaries

around single-sex spaces for women and girls.

So that troubled me.

Have you thought through what this could mean for women and girls?

I can already hear the screams of outrage.

You are saying that trans people are all predators.

Of course I am not any more that I'm saying I'm a happily married straight woman.

I know perfectly well all men aren't predators.

I know that.

I have good men in my life who are among my favorite people.

But I'm also aware that 98% to 99% of sexual offenses are caused by those born with penises.

The problem is male violence.

All a predator wants is access.

And to open the doors of changing rooms, rape centers, domestic violence centers, to open

the doors to any male who says I'm a woman and I have the right to be here, it will

constitute a risk to women and girls.

Now that actually has very little to do with trans people and a lot to do with what we

know are the risks from men to women.

But this is the flash point.

The activists who would argue against me, I've seen them say, but these are now women.

And I say, well, here is where what a woman is becomes hugely important.

And I also ask myself a question I think is such a useful and basic question to ask yourself

if you want to ascertain whether you're being intellectually honest.

What proof would I need to see to change my opinion?

And so I asked myself that question.


So I thought, well, it's being claimed that nobody has ever abused dressing as the opposite

sex and no trans woman has ever presented a physical threat to a woman in an intimate


Obviously, if I go looking and there is literally no evidence that's ever happened, well then

clearly my fears are baseless.

So I went and looked and it's with no pleasure that I say that there was very clear evidence

that that had happened.

Our top story tonight, a transgender prisoner sexually attacked inmates in a female jail.

So there's a famous case in England of a trans woman called Karen White, who was convicted

of sexual offences and sent to women's prison and then sexually assaulted two women.

The court heard how she used her transgender persona to put herself in contact with vulnerable


She'd ended up in the female Newhall Prisoner Wakefield on remand after a number of sexual

offences, including rape.

Tonight questions about how someone who'd raped women and who claimed to be transgender

ended up in a female jail before undergoing any proper gender reassignment and was able

to abuse fellow inmates.

That happened and it was quite a big moment, I think for UK feminism, for all these people

who'd been told that this would never happen to finally have evidence that in fact it had


Can you articulate where those on the opposing side of this debate are coming from?

Like what is the steel man good faith way to understand the argument that says if your

gender identity is female, then medical transition or not, you should be housed in a women's


There is a completely reasonable argument, which is that trans women are particularly

at risk of sexual violence in male prisons.

And that is a fact.

There are lots of groups who are vulnerable, particularly in male prisons.

Male prisons are in any case a really horrible place to be.

The conditions are horrible, you know, they're violent, tense places to be.

And you know, America where there's much greater rates of incarceration, those problems

are amplified.

So I do think there is a completely reasonable point to say, if you are a trans woman who

has been convicted of a nonviolent crime, is it going to be a huge risk to your safety

to be put in an immense prison?

Yes, it is.

And the conclusion that Britain has come to really is that people with a gender recognition

certificate, that is people who have legally fully transitioned, the presumption should

be that they should be in the female estate.

And then for everybody else, it's an individual case conference.

But with the presumption that if you're convicted of a violent or sexual crime, you cannot be

safely held in the women's prison estate.

Now that's not what's happened in America at all.

And the ACLU, the great liberal organization, have been fighting on behalf of trans women,

some of whom have been convicted of violent offenses, to stay in the women's estate.

And that is very alarming to me.

The ACLU has also been fighting on behalf of trans people when it comes to bathroom access.

And there's a similar argument playing out there.

Investments are concerned when they hear of assaults by trans women or males who pose as

trans women in public bathrooms.

There's one well-publicized example that involves an attack on a 10-year-old girl in Scotland.

It's rare, but it does happen.

There are extensively documented cases of it.

However, we should be really careful that we shouldn't play into a moral panic narrative

that says that people are going to transition just to predate on people.

The thing I would say is that predators exploit any loophole that they can.

And that is something that we should always be alert to.

When you're doing safeguarding, you can't have a kind of rosy view of humanity.

You have to look at what the worst that could happen is.

So I think while maintaining that it is rare, I think you have to acknowledge that it happens.

Because assaults in bathrooms are so rare, trans people often find it galling and humiliating

when decision-makers try to force them to use the bathroom of their sex at birth.

It's just routine, like everyone goes to the restroom, everyone gets out.

It's nothing, it's not a big deal.

Many trans people report that they avoid public bathrooms as it is, out of fear of being called

out or even attacked.

And this makes it difficult for them to just be in public, at a concert or a stadium, but

even more importantly, at work or at school.

And advocates ask, when the risk to others is low, why impose interventions that could

make this tough situation any harder?

It's just going to the bathroom.

You go do your business, then you wash your hands and then you leave, it's just simple.

And when people make a big deal about it, it just kind of gets blown out of proportion.

In an increasingly polarized world, gender issues have become the front line, and it

can be hard to know where to start, how to express an opinion, if it's even okay to

voice one.

Yet as the chasm between opposing views increases, it's vulnerable children who've fallen into

the abyss.

And finally, the issue that's brought this once obscure debate into the center of culture

is the medical transition of young people.

Child transition, and that's particularly acute because the composition of the group

of people trying to transition as children has changed, and it has grown enormously.

Now, in recent years, there's been a huge increase in the number of children reporting

gender dysphoria.

You know, we're talking about a difference in Britain between a couple of hundred people

a year, two thousands a year in the last decade or so.

The clinics here and in London see 3,000% more patients than they did 10 years ago.

Among girls, referrals are up more than 5,000%.

Across the Western world, there has been a sharp rise in the number of minors who are

seeking to transition, especially among young females.

And in just the US, the number of clinics that help young people transition has grown

from zero to more than 100 in just the past 15 years.

There's no question this service is helping children who feel distressed in their own

bodies, with a full impact of children making decisions about their gender at such young

ages may not truly be clear until much later in their lives.

5,000 children were referred to the clinic last year, and that's a 20-fold increase on

the number a decade ago.

That's huge, isn't it?


So that means you've got...

There's definitely something going on there, and whether or not those people are getting

the right treatment is a big question, when the treatments are themselves so new is a

very fraught question indeed.

One controversy related to child transition is a treatment often referred to as puberty


Now, these drugs are not new.

For decades, they've been used to treat a condition where a child begins puberty early,

sometimes as young as age six or seven.

Blockers halt that development, and then a child can resume the process years later,

alongside their peers.

That's a very different use case than the modern way of using them for trans children,

which is to block puberty in your natal sex and then go straight on to cross sex hormones

from the other sex.

Young people with gender dysphoria tend to be extremely distressed by their changing


So gender clinicians began using these drugs off-label to halt their puberty, and then

later might introduce cross sex hormones.

So for example, a female would grow facial hair, or a male would develop breast tissue.

I've been concerned for some time that there are providers who are not following the standards

of care, which historically have invoked the need for an individualized comprehensive

biopsychosocial evaluation prior to the initiation of medicines.

This is Dr. Erica Anderson, a psychologist who has worked extensively with transgender

youth and who is herself a transgender woman.

She's also a former board member of WPATH, the World Professional Association for Transgender


As Dr. Anderson told me, WPATH recommends that before prescribing interventions like

puberty blockers, clinicians should methodically evaluate a young person, that they should

take time with a minor and their parents to investigate any underlying conditions and

make sure that this is the right treatment for each individual.

But puberty blockers have become a flash point, in part because some clinicians do not appear

to be following those guidelines.

So what I've seen in the USA, and this has been reported elsewhere, is that there are

some young people who are going to providers and obtaining puberty blockers and hormones,

but not having a full mental health evaluation, and I think that's sloppy and bad practice.

Over the past decade, it has become increasingly common for parents and doctors to adopt an

approach where they affirm a child when they say they're trans.

But Dr. Anderson says that some well-meaning clinics and doctors have gone further than

that, and that in their attempts to support gender non-conforming kids, they have stopped

asking important questions, and often too quickly accept a child's self-assessment.

Some trans advocates argue that that's exactly what clinics should be doing, as this popular

TikTok video explains.

Dr. Anderson says that, especially when dealing with kids, you need to ensure that you're

diagnosing them correctly, just as you would with any other medical condition.

But in addition, child and adolescent brains are still developing, so rushing a young person

into gender transition without a full evaluation of other co-occurring conditions is bad practice.

And this, to me, flies in the face of the history of medicine, clinical medicine, and

clinical psychology, which the hallmark of which is an individualized evaluation before

you provide treatment.

This concern on my part is further accentuated by the phenomenon we've also seen in the

last few years, which is a flood of young people going to gender clinics expressing

gender variance way out of proportion to what we've ever seen before, and in numbers that

are not entirely understandable.

Dr. Anderson and other clinicians still believe there are benefits to using puberty blockers

for some kids with gender dysphoria, but they are also urging caution, especially to doctors

who offer these treatments based largely on a young person's request for them.

And that's partly because these treatments, puberty blockers followed by hormone therapy,

can lead to infertility, and for young males whose puberty is blocked in its early stages,

a high likelihood of never experiencing an orgasm.

She says that doctors need to ensure that these treatments are being provided just to

those who need them, and that they aren't misdiagnosing patients.

Ruby began identifying as male at 13 years old.

Now 21, she'd been planning to have surgery to remove her breasts, but in May she made

the decision to come off testosterone and detransition to identify as female, her sex

at birth.

Stories about young people who regret their decision to transition have been well publicized

in recent years.

They often say that as children, they weren't capable of consenting to treatments with lifelong

consequences that they couldn't truly comprehend.

Others say they wish clinicians had spent more time looking into their other mental

health issues before recommending medical transition.

One of these young women spoke with Sky News.

Ruby now feels her eating disorder was more of a factor than she first realized in her

gender dysphoria.

One of the therapists that I spoke to brought that up, they didn't think that it was linked.

Do you?

I think so, yes, because they're both kind of based in how I feel about my body, so I've

seen similarities between the two.

There's currently no data for how many in the trans community detransition, and to talk

about it can be viewed as transphobic.

Young people like Ruby say more discussion is needed, as well as more options for people

with gender dysphoria.

Accounts like these have served as confirmation for those concerned that young people are

not getting the support they need.

At the same time, they've been a source of deep frustration to many trans advocates

who say that regret is rare and that we should trust kids to know that they are who they

say they are rather than putting them through months or years-long evaluations.

What complicates all of this is that the protocols for youth gender care are so new.

The current president of WPATH, Dr. Marcy Bowers, cites a figure that about 80% of the research

on youth gender medicine has been done in just the last 10 years, and though there are currently

no authoritative long-term studies about the phenomenon of detransition nor about the

overall effectiveness of some of these treatments in minors, Finland, Sweden, and the UK are

all currently re-evaluating their youth gender treatments and calling for more resources,

more studies, and tighter protocols to be put in place.

I'm pleasant as adolescence is.

I mean, I hated adolescence.

I do not romanticize adolescence.

I think it's a dreadful time.

I remember times of pure joy when I was with my friends and I remember fun, but if you

ask me, do you want to go back to being 13 tomorrow and live it all again, I would say

absolutely bloody not.

I want to say exactly where I am, but I do think that it is a necessary part of our development.

Rowling told me that watching this sharp rise in youth transition, especially the rise among

young females, started to feel like a particularly feminist concern and something that resonated

with her from her own childhood.

I grew up in what I would say was quite a misogynistic household.

Like all young girls, I grew up with certain standards of beauty and ideals of femininity.

I felt I didn't fit into either of those groups.

I didn't feel particularly feminine and I certainly didn't feel that I looked the way

I was supposed to look.

I looked very androgynous at 11 and 12.

I had short hair and I can certainly remember in adolescence feeling acutely anxious.

I think this is so common.

In fact, I think I know more women who have felt it than not.

I felt very, very anxious about my changing body because you become aware it's attracting

scrutiny that you don't welcome.

I can remember the comments about your body, the difficulty of dealing with periods, period

shaming particularly from boys at school, this sort of squeamish fascination that young

men have with female bodies that is a mixture of disgust and desire.

It's very difficult to cope with that.

I question my sexuality.

I'm thinking, well, I can tell my friends are pretty, does that mean I'm gay?

Which I think is very common.

I grew up to be a straight woman, but I've never forgotten that feeling of anxiety around

my body.

So is it your position that it's too big of a decision essentially for a child to make,

to transition and experience these long-term consequences that they can't yet comprehend?

Personally, I don't believe even a 14-year-old can truly understand what the loss of their

fertility is.

At 14, if you'd said to me, do you want children?

I'd have said, no, I don't want to.

But it has been the most joyful, wonderful thing in my life.

That doesn't mean I think everyone should have kids.

It doesn't mean I think to be a woman you need to have kids.

I'm talking very personally, for me, my children have been an unmatched joy, and I wouldn't

change a thing.

And I couldn't have comprehended that at 14.

I would have had no idea what I was giving up.

And yet, as I sat with Rowling and listened to her views about youth transition, it was

clear that they aren't black and white.

My feeling is, and it's a feeling that was strongly expressed in the Potter books, that

as many diverse life experiences as possible should be explored and expressed.

And having felt like an outsider in several different ways in my life, I have a real feeling

for the underdog.

And I have a real feeling for people who feel they don't fit.

And I see that hugely in the particularly among younger trans people.

I can understand that feeling only too well.

But seeing this recent surge in numbers seemed like something worth questioning soberly.

Gender dysphoria exists.

It causes massive distress.

I know it's real.

And I know there will be, I believe, a minority of people for whom this will be a solution.

But in the numbers we're currently seeing, particularly of young people coming forward,

I find cause for doubt and cause for concern.

So I did what I always tend to do when in that situation, so I read a ton of books.

That is my instinct.

Rowling said that she went out and bought some of the big bestselling memoirs by trans


Out of this gender identity movement, so Jacob Tobias, Sissy, Andrea Long-Chu, brilliant

writer, females, gender games, the trouble with men.

She read essays.

Is gender fluid, Dr. Sally?

And academic literature from influential thinkers like Judith Butler.

And I'm reading countless blogs and articles.

You're trying to have your views challenged.


Because I really want to understand what is the thinking through personal experience,

but also the philosophy, the ideology.

I'm looking at this and I'm thinking, am I missing something?

We'll be right back.

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Hi there, listener.

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I'm a writer for the Free Press.

Every Friday, I publish a column I call TGIF, where I run down the big and small news stories

of the week while cracking jokes at my own and others' expense, mostly my own.

Anyways, it's fun, but it's also informative and, dare I say, occasionally provocative.

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Over the months and years that Rowling was immersing herself in queer theory and memoirs

of different trans thinkers, this conflict between some feminists and trans activists

continued to escalate.

The debate's due to start in an hour, and suddenly protesters come in wearing masks.

We're putting on a event tonight.

We've got all these young people in bandanas trying to force their way in.

They've got faces covered, they're actually being aggressive and violent.

She pushed me when she got in.

I'm not she, you fucking gun!

I prayed all the way!

In the past few years, as the feminists have tried to organize meetings and debates to

discuss everything from women's sports, to self-id, to the proper treatment of gender

dysphoria in kids, they've been met with protesters trying to shut them down.

As a trans activist protesting outside a feminist meeting, they're shouting turf.

It stands for trans exclusionary radical feminists.

Across the country clashes are erupting between the two groups.

These activists say that trans women are women, full stop.

And to them, to engage in a debate at all, is to engage in transphobic hate speech.

And then we come to the famous two-word slogan, the stock phrase, no debate, no debate, no


We hear it all the time.

That alarms me.

Really alarms me.

I can't think of a purer instance of authoritarianism than no debate.

In fact, that is the attitude of the fundamentalist.

You may not challenge my ideas.

That makes you evil.

I am righteous.

I don't have to explain my righteousness.

And I am entitled, therefore, to bully you, to harass you, to silence you, to take away

your livelihood, all the way up to attacking you.

I've had things thrown at me.

I've been accused of things I have never done or said.

People seem to have no concern about evidence or even about libel.

Many of the feminists labeled as turfs have been attacked and received death threats,

along with accusations that, despite what they say, they are actually Nazis and fascists.

There have been physical assaults of women called Maria McLaughlin.

She was at Speaker's Corner in London, which is an infamous site for freedom of speech.

It's where people can go and say whatever they like, pretty much.

And she went there to a feminist meeting and she was physically assaulted by a trans woman

called Tara Wolf, who was convicted of assault, who had said online, before going to that

meeting, I want to fuck up some turfs.

When I cover this subject, I often say that afterwards I need to relax by covering something

uncontroversial, like Israel-Palestine or abortion, right?

It's extremely fraught.

This is Michelle Goldberg, reporter and columnist at The New York Times.

And one reason it's extremely fraught is that you have two groups of people who feel legitimately

feel extremely embattled.

You wrote about this conflict in The New Yorker in 2014 in an article called What is a Woman?

And even back then, you talked about how intense the threats and intimidation tactics were

towards feminists who were voicing these views.

You quote some of the online threats in the article, which said things like, kill turfs


How about slowly and horrendously murder turfs in saw-like torture machines and contraptions?

A young blogger holding a knife posted a selfie with a caption, fetch me a turf.

Such threats, you write, have become so common that radical feminist websites have taken to

cataloging them.


I mean, I think that those quotes that you just read, I don't think those people are

representative of the trans rights movement.

But nevertheless, there's a lot of feminists who feel like aggrieved at people kind of

constantly saying, if you don't recognize me as a woman, I'm going to rape you.

They feel like there is this very vicious online dialogue in which a really brute sort

of misogyny is dressed up in progressive clothes.

And so to add insult to injury, you're not even supposed to complain about it within

feminist spaces.

It should be possible to have a discussion where there are a range of different people

who could enter into a dialogue about this.

These feminists believe that their views are not only inside the bounds of respectable

discourse, but also that the accusations that they are violent transphobes feels less like

a sincere criticism and more like an attempt to smear them so that no one will listen to


I mean, what we're seeing in the world is more and more people shutting down free speech.

You're censoring ideas, you're shutting down controversy, and in a democratic society,

that's how we come to a better understanding of each other.

And beyond just online insults, this approach from activists has had real-life consequences.

Women expressing these views have lost their jobs in publishing, in academia, in journalism,

and the arts.

Women athletes have been dropped by advertisers, authors dropped from book deals.

For voicing her concerns, Dr. Erica Anderson, a trans woman who's helped dozens of kids

medically transition, has been labeled a turf and disinvited from public events.

Michelle, from your reporting on this over the years, what is the best way to understand

the side of the protesters in this conflict?

The people who are calling to silence these debates, where are they coming from, and what

do they feel is at stake in all of this?

Well, look, what's at stake for a lot of people is just the ability to live their lives with

any sort of dignity and security.

And again, I want to emphasize, and I hope this makes it into the podcast, that that

is why I think the temperature of this is so high.

Because especially in the United States, trans people are so embattled.

You have these sweeping oppressive laws.

3,919 anti-transgender bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year alone.

Sewing the state of Alabama after the governor's making their way through Ohio's legislation.

Arkansas, passing a bill, blocking gender-affirming care for trans...

Activists are calling the move an attack on the LGBTQ community.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that protects transgender Americans from discrimination,

and despite President Biden overturning the Trump-era policies against trans health care

and military service, there have been hundreds of proposed or recently passed laws that have

sought to limit trans people's access to bathrooms, their participation in girls and

women's sports, and to restrict medical transition for minors.

And some of the laws come with severe penalties.

Last week, Alabama became the third state in the nation to pass and measure restricting

gender-affirming care for transgender and non-binary youth.

But it's the first state to actually impose criminal penalties.

The law would make providing that care a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Additionally, online, just as there are some trans advocates who send violent and harassing

threats toward the people they call TERFs, there are also many others, often coming from

the right and the alt-right, who send violent and harassing threats towards trans activists

and their allies.

Some based on accusations that any attempt to teach kids about trans identities is actually

a smokescreen for a desire to sexually exploit young children.

And in this climate, many activists feel that feminists calling for open dialogue and good-faith

debate are really just opening them up to greater harm.

I think that what is so painful for them is that they feel like these issues of daily

survival are being treated as secondary to culture war flashpoints, you know, around

these kind of relatively few handful of cases involving women's sports, these few cases

where there's really hard calls about things like prisons or domestic violence shelters

and people that I've spoken to feel that the intense focus on these issues is itself kind

of undermining them, right, that like they feel so under siege and when people are really

scared and they're really under siege, then they don't want to have a kind of searching,

probing conversation about the legitimacy of their identity for kind of obvious reasons.

Yeah, and they don't want to hear debates about, you know, nuanced issues when they feel

like they're fighting for basic rights.


I mean, I think you'll often hear people say, you know, I'm not going to debate my basic


And part of the difficulty is that there are indeed certain issues which we have sort of

decided somewhat collectively with some sort of consensus are beyond the realm of debate.

And I think that part of what is so difficult about this issue is that there are certain

people who think that this kind of consensus can be imposed maybe as opposed to evolve organically.

And so they're sort of desperately trying to shore it up in the hopes, I think, that

if they can, they will enjoy the same sort of assumed protection as other groups whose

rights we've decided are not up for public conversation.

I think the problem is that we don't actually have a consensus about what gender means or

what makes someone a boy or girl or woman or man.

And so you still have to talk these things out and have these conversations.

And I think there are plenty of trans people who believe that, but the people who are policing

the discourse have maybe outside visibility.


So let's go back to 2016, 2017.

You obviously are a very public person.

You are not shy in general about speaking your mind, and it seems like you've had really

strong views about what you were reading.

And you had done a ton of reading and research and thinking, did you want to join the public

conversation at the time?

Did I want to join the public conversation?


Why did I want to join it?

Because I was watching women being shut down.

And it was as though there was no woman perfect enough to say her piece.

If she's a regular woman with no particular platform, she's a bigot.

That's that.

You're a bigot.

If she's an informed woman who is working in a sphere where this will really have an

impact, and for example, I saw a prison governor speaking out, this is not okay.

These are already traumatized women.

Huge abuse hurled at a shut up.

You don't really understand what you know about being a trans woman.

It seemed there was always a way to shut down women's voices.

People are terrified, terrified of speaking up.

So I really was starting to feel this moral obligation.

I knew what was coming, but I thought other people, there are people who probably, if

I'm honest, probably could speak and don't want to speak.

They're not going to lose their livelihoods, but there are a ton of women who are being

forced not to speak because they literally won't make rent.

So I actually wanted to join the conversation and speak up earlier than I did.

And I was not held back, I'm not saying that I couldn't have done it anyway, but there

were people close to me who were begging me not to do it.

I think out of concern of what that would mean, they'd watched what had happened to other

public figures, and there was certainly a feeling of this is not a wise thing to do,

don't do it.

So I'm living in this state, once again, actually, I'm living in what I feel is a duplicitous


I have this massive concern, I'm watching women being shut down and bullied, their employers

being targeted by a movement that I see as authoritarian, illiberal.

I'm hugely concerned about young people, often the kind of young people who found a refuge

in my books.

So there's a feeling of empathy there because I was one of those young people myself.

And I absolutely can say that I was living in a state of real tension, similar to when

I'm planning to leave my ex-husband, because although I am not physically in danger, I

am lying by a mission, I should speak up.

I feel the right thing here is to try and force this conversation, because on behalf

of people I'm seeing shut down, who do not have my, I mean, let's face it, insulation,

right, from...

It is insulation.

It is that privileged white woman, absolutely.

I am protected in ways I never dreamt I would be protected.

Of course, I'm also exposed to threats that other people sometimes aren't exposed to,

but it's more than that.

Whatever happens, if everyone decides you are an evil witch, we will never buy your books


I can feed my family.

They will know I'm fine.

My world doesn't crash.

My kids don't go hungry.

I once lived that life.

That was the potential of making a bad financial decision and spending £2 too much one week.

So I reached a point of high tension, and I have to say something.

You're saying you felt obligated.

Yeah, there did come a point where I felt obligated because I felt I'm being contacted

by women.

By the way, these women aren't even the same to me, do it, do it, you do it, you do it.

No one's trying to coerce me into it.

It's just that I'm having these conversations and the climate of fear was scaring me more

than speaking out.

What are we letting happen here?

This is insane that there's this much fear around a woman arguing that she has the right

to describe her life and her body in any way she chooses.

This is insanely regressive.

But also, I did reach a point where I thought I can't keep living with myself if I don't

say something.

So it was personal as well.

I have to speak.

I just have to.

Believe you me, I did not feel any sense of joy in that.

I didn't think, yippee, I can't wait for this.

This is going to be amazing.

I really thought this is going to be horrible, but I've got to do it.

I cannot let myself in the mirror if I don't do it.

So I did.

More to come next time.

You've been listening to the Witch Trials of JK Rowling, produced by Andy Mills, Matthew

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Machine-generated transcript that may contain inaccuracies.

The movement for trans rights hits its stride in the early 2010s, but encounters fierce resistance from an unexpected source. J.K. Rowling watches the battle unfold with mounting unease.
Produced by Andy Mills, Matthew Boll, and Megan Phelps-Roper, with special thanks to Candace Mittel Kahn and Emily Yoffe.
This show is proudly sponsored by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. FIRE believes free speech makes free people. Learn more at