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How did J. K. Rowling, whose books championed inclusion, become so transphobic?

Goodness, the events of the past year have sown so much chaos and confusion in the world. But one of the most disillusioning moments of the last 12 months was the revelation that famed Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling holds some seriously transphobic views. Two decades after her magical world first enchanted a generation of readers, Rowling was roundly condemned by legions of former fans and LGBTQ+ advocates over the course of 2020.

The novelist began sharing her skepticism of transgender identity online several years ago. Last December, she drew the ire of trans rights groups by tweeting in support of a British tax researcher who’d been fired for espousing transphobic views. Then in early June, she shot off a series of anti-trans tweets and followed them up with a 3,600-word screed defending her problematic opinions. Harry Potter book sales dipped sharply. And in September, Rowling published a novel with transphobic themes under her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. For a while, #RIPJKRowling was trending on Twitter.

How did a woman who often described her books as a plea for tolerance become so vehemently opposed to trans inclusion? That’s the trajectory writer Molly Fischer charts in her expansive feature Who Did J. K. Rowling Become?, published by The Cut on Tuesday. She talked to everyone from the moderators of Harry Potter fan sites, who’d once interviewed Rowling in her palatial Victorian mansion, to former employees of an organization that channels the ethos of the books into activism. What emerges is a portrait of a control-driven artist whose personal trauma has clouded her moral compass.

It’s a fascinating read, but here are some of the most interesting details:

  • Despite her neighbors’ objections, Rowling implemented strict security measures at her Edinburgh mansion, including an eight-foot-high wall and an electronic gate, then CCTV security cameras.
  • The Rowling transphobia scandal was “perhaps the first subject on which both Judith Butler and Pete Davidson were asked to opine.”
  • Rowling had the audacity to turn down Oprah during the first crush of Potter publicity circa 2000. When she finally granted Oprah an interview, they spoke in a 1,300-square-foot suite.
  • Rowling once sued a former Michigan school librarian named Steven Vander Ark, who created the website, The Harry Potter Lexicon, which initially won Rowling’s praise. “It catalogued the minutiae of her books in such detail that she said she occasionally consulted it to fact-check her work as she wrote.” But when he tried to publish it, Rowling soured on the idea: “I believe that this book constitutes the wholesale theft of 17 years of my hard work,” she said.
  • When Rowling joined Twitter, she unleashed all sorts of unsolicited Harry Potter additions: “Readers learned that Fluffy, the three-headed dog, had been repatriated to Greece; that Luna Lovegood’s birthday was February 13; and that there was at least one Jewish student at Hogwarts (his name was Anthony Goldstein, and he was a Ravenclaw).”
  • Rowling’s writing on Pottermore got iffier once she expanded her gaze beyond Britain: “According to ‘Magic in North America,’ the Magical Congress of the United States of America was founded in 1693, or 83 years before there was a United States. In 1777, wizard president Elizabeth McGilliguddy worked out of Washington, D.C., a city that did not then exist.”
  • Rowling was also criticized for trivializing Native American culture, by adapting the Navajo concept of shape-shifting “skin walkers” to suit her magical world.
  • The wizarding school Rowling placed in Uganda had a West African name, and the wizarding school in Japan had a name that didn’t make sense in Japanese.
  • Johnny Depp and J. K. Rowling owned the same yacht (at different times).
  • Rowling sold her Victorian mansion and now lives in a different Edinburgh home, this one with fast-growing 30-foot hedges. This October, a street had to be shut down so the novelist could comply with a city order to trim her hedges.

As Alison Phipps, a professor of gender studies at the University of Sussex, told The Cut: “People’s triggers are not politically correct.”