Opinion: As a non-binary person living in Thailand, JK Rowling broke my heart

2020 sure feels like a series of punches straight to the gut. The months of lockdown has seen the death toll of COVID-19 soar to hundreds of thousands worldwide; some who were fortunate enough to not die of the disease, died instead from being deprived of a means to eke out a living.

From far away, we were enraged and moved by George Floyd’s final moment — his face pressed on the concrete floor, gasping and begging for the very same air that many others seem to breathe so freely and effortlessly. In Cambodia, another person struggled to breathe as he was taken away by unknown men in an unmarked van.

Although both cases differ in detail, the hands that gripped at both George Floyd’s and Wanchalerm Satsaksit’s necks are no doubt parts of the enormous body of deep-rooted and systematic oppression and violence. But for the latter there remains no nationwide protest to reclaim justice.

The initial silence and the ensuing fecklessness on the part of some key government and human rights agencies and some mainstream media following the abduction of Wanchalerm is excruciating, which only serves as further proof that the oppression runs deep and wide and is all-encompassing. It forces out of existence a different color of the skin, an eye that sees differently, and a mouth that raises too many questions.

So, one might reasonably ask, why would a body that dares to defy the most adamant of norms such as those of sex and gender be spared?

This is where J. K. Rowling slides in to make sure that 2020’s string of gut punches does not lose its momentum. Yes, J. K. Rowling, the world’s beloved author who does not just write magic but is herself the embodiment of magic. Her inspiring commencement speech at Harvard in 2008 — still accessible on Youtube — revealed how the small bricks that were to become the multi-billion-dollar Harry Potter empire were being laid against all odds when she was still a jobless and divorced single parent on the brink of homelessness. In her own powerful words, “rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

To this day I am still thankful to J. K. Rowling’s brilliance and generosity in sharing her magic to the world. If you are anything like me and grew up in a typical middle-class Thai family upholding conservative values and went to a typical Thai primary school where the sex-gender line tended to be as rigid as country borders, where a teacher would rarely assign you to sit next to a peer of the different sex, and where you would more often than not be the butt of a joke and the subject of a teacher’s scrutiny if you did not just stick to friends of, again, your own sex.

If you think these authoritarian rules only exist in kids’ schools, on my first day of Grade 10 at Triam Udom Suksa back in 2007, I was still asked to move seat by the class teacher because “boys are not supposed to sit next to girls.”

It would also be at Triam Udom, one of the country’s most prestigious high schools where over 10,000 of students compete every year to get in, that I would be told by a very well-respected teacher in front of other students and in all seriousness that queer people would all end up in their final moment hanging themselves.

When the world can only register binary oppositions, the important question is, what happens when — like I did then and still do — you feel like you are caught in between?

That is when a fictional world like Harry Potter’s can be a perfect shelter for a non-binary kid to hide in. Oh, the vicarious joy and satisfaction of conjuring up out of thin air the pig’s tail on a bully’s buttock! Oh, the world in which youngsters prove more courageous and capable than grown ups — grown ups who are quick to point out to your parents your effeminate mannerisms and make you feel like an embarrassment to your family name! 

So, you can imagine the feeling when, on a Sunday morning during Pride Month, I woke up to the latest of Rowling’s transphobic tweets.

Being perhaps pleased with herself for delivering what she thought would be yet another zinger, which is her brand on Twitter, Rowling failed to consider that not all women — for a plethora of reasons — menstruate, and that some of those who do — such as many trans men and non-binary people — do not identify as a woman. 

Nevertheless, with the determination of a Gryffindor, Rowling doubled down with more tweets, basically reinforcing the notion that, because of the sex that they were assigned at birth, trans women cannot be women, and to think otherwise would be dismissive of the struggles of the supposedly “real” women like Rowling herself. (Is this a lost chapter on another of the Purebloods vs. the Mudbloods?)

A few days later, in response to all the backlash, Rowling published a lengthy essay on her website. Despite the revelation of her having been a victim of sexual assault and domestic abuse, it further upholds the essence of her trans-exclusionary tweets, most importantly in the name of preventing sex-based violence against non-trans women. 

Not a fan of the Scottish law being proposed that would allow a trans person’s gender identity to be recognized without a need for surgery or hormones, Rowling suggests in the essay how “any man who believes and feels he’s a woman” could come into women’s bathrooms and changing rooms and wreak nasty harm.

To which I say, first of all, transitioning is very personal. Not every trans person will undergo the process by taking hormones and/or having a surgery, while some of course do. As GLAAD states on their website, “being transgender is not dependent on medical procedures.” Second of all, you never conflate being transgender with being criminal. Last of all, how long are we going to make trans people pay for the crimes they did not commit?

Along the same line, Rowling also wonders whether, if it had been possible, she might not have transitioned simply to escape the struggles that come with womanhood — as if being transgender is a game of hide-and-seek — clearly forgetting the kind of life-threatening hatred that trans men too often face whether now or in the past. And therefore, to Rowling’s point about how many young people just become trans out of peer pressure, I invoke a line from the queer-centered hit series POSE, “You’d be crazy to choose this life if you didn’t have to.” 

Such a sentiment as Rowling’s invalidates both non-binary and transgender people. I myself do not also identify as transgender but as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I believe it is an obligation for queer identities to stand in solidarity. As a lecturer of queer literature I cannot only speak up amidst the comfort of the classroom. Of course, one would be painfully innocent to think that some sort of utopian equality exists within the queer community. As we are all made, in different degrees, outsiders in the hetero- and cisnormative world, each of the groups under the LGBTQ+ umbrella often faces struggles of different natures and levels of hardship. The inconvenient truth is that sometimes members of some groups will even go out of their way to marginalize and efface another group. 

The Golden-Globe-award-winning series POSE, again, portrays it best when a black trans female character Blanca is made to leave the bar filled with white gay men — defeated as a fellow trans friend tells her, “Bitch, it was over before it started. Everybody needs someone to make them feel superior. That line ends with us, though. This shit runs downhill past the women, the blacks, Latins, gays until it reaches the bottom and lands on our kind.” (Spoiler alert: Blanca goes back to the bar once more only to be hurled out of the premise, to the crowd’s cheers and applause, by a cop who addresses her as “sir.”) 

When we stand idly by as the bullet is being aimed at the most vulnerable of our community, we are as good as letting the whole community be jeopardized. When we deal with pain by making sure that a greater pain must be inflicted on another, we activate the bottomless pit of suffering that we ourselves will one day inevitably fall into. 

So, no, J. K. Rowling, biological sex should not be held above all else, and trans folks are not trying to erase anyone’s sex. In the first lesson on gender, we are to learn that sex is what a person is assigned at birth by the look of their external anatomy, whereas gender identity is a person’s innermost sense of what their gender is deep down. You can be assigned male at birth but later on have your gender identity be female. The two do not need to coincide. Wouldn’t you — a novelist whose works deeply touch humanity across languages and creeds — agree that it is most human when one is able to live according to their most deeply held reality? 

By acknowledging that trans women are women, the lived reality of non-transgender women is not wiped out. Their truths and stories, their struggles and abuses, can still be told — in fact, are still being told right now as this article is being read — alongside those of trans women. If anything, going back to the “kinship” Rowling herself acknowledges in her tweet that she shares with trans women because they, too, are “vulnerable in the same way as women,” the parts of the stories that overlap between trans and non-trans women will only make both stronger.  

Even then, would it be outlandish to claim that even sex is not real? Some in the medical community have pointed out that sex, too, exists on a spectrum. In the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, Michel Foucault, as early as the mid 1970s, cautioned against the unified artificiality of sex, which presents as a perfect whole the jumble of different and random things including hormones, chromosomes, reproductive organs in- and outside of one’s body, and secondary characteristics such as conducts, pleasures, and sensations. Not to raise anyone’s suspicion but, joining forces with the strict binary gender oppositions, sex, then, dovetails so conveniently with, and serves so efficiently, the power structure of the capital-driven patriarchal world.

In the process of writing this article, not only do I get to examine and embrace my gender identity in the way that I have always, ironically, feared to do, I also had an opportunity to discuss the matter with one of my students, Parkers Argasnoum, a transmasculine student who enrolled in my Queer Literature course last semester at Thammasat and who, as part of their queer rights activism, manages the Facebook page “Aro/Ace-clusionist: Aromantic & Asexual Exist” for aromantic and asexual visibility.

As we were sharing our disappointment about Rowling’s tweets, Parkers related how, due to the law not permitting a trans person to change title, they have an awkward encounter nearly every time they present an ID card at a hospital, a government office, or to an inspector in the exam room. The disbelief and the probing questions. The burden of having to explain oneself and the anxiety from not being quite sure whether the other party gets it. 

“I’m not pissed off by it. It’s understandable,” says Parkers, nonetheless, “People that are confused, they could not help it. Their only intention is to make certain that they got the right person.” 

Parkers also went on to remark how people are more often dumbfounded by trans men than they are by trans women as the former are less in number and people are seldom aware that, taking hormones, a trans man, too, can have a deepened voice and grow facial hair. Also, some trans people would rather hold their urine for fear of being driven out of a restroom at the mall. Not to mention some are murdered. Fearing the erasure of the lived consequences of being a woman, J. K. Rowling clearly fails to recognize the lived consequences of being trans, which are already severe enough without her wearing her heart out on her sleeve to the 14.5 million followers on Twitter.

In the same commencement speech at Harvard, Rowling also extols imagination, stating how, “in its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” As those words moved me to the verge of tears the first time I heard them, the very same words today leave a bitter taste in my mouth. 

Imagine if your voice has the power to inspire a queer kid like myself — who, at 16, was already guzzled by the hopelessness that came from witnessing the elected government being overtaken by the military — then just think what impacts your voice will have now that you direct it to exclude the most vulnerable among us.

Anant Utchin is a lecturer in the English Language and Literature Program at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University


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