[Editors’ note: Since this post was published in January 2020, the “J.K. Rowling is a TERF” conversation has been restarted because of a June 6, 2020 tweet and subsequent blog post written by Rowling.]
It’s been a rough month for those who are Harry Potter fans. Over the holidays, the once ubiquitously celebrated author revealed her assent to a now universally shunned idea: that only a woman can be born a woman.
“Dress however you please,” Rowling said on Twitter. “Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill”
Her statement was in response to the termination of a researcher named Maya Forstater, a tax expert who served as a visiting fellow at the Centre for Global Development, an international think tank combating poverty and inequality. Forstater was not renewed for her position after she claimed that biological sex cannot be altered, specifically that “men cannot change into women.” Forstater argued that permitting men into women’s spaces (like bathrooms) disregards women’s rights and is “fundamentally illiberal.”
Setting the precedent for future cases, the employment judge in Forstater’s case claimed “philosophical belief” was not a “protected characteristic,” and that her views were “absolutist”. His ruling also condemned Forstater’s insistence that biological sex determined one’s gender, citing it as a violation of human dignity that is “not worthy of respect in a democratic society.” Following a single ruling, British citizens risk losing their employment for harboring the belief that one is born male or female. (Note: this ruling follows just after a judge declared Christianity to be antithetical to human dignity.)
Forstater’s case might have remained relatively quiet until J.K. Rowling jumped into the fracas. Overnight, the otherwise politically liberal author was accused of the cardinal sin of intolerance. Specifically, she was called a TERF.
TERFs, Feminism, and Womanhood
“TERF” stands for Transgender Exclusionary Radical Feminist. It describes an ideological feminist who refuses to accede that biological males can become females, regardless of hormone therapies or surgical procedures. While some insist that true feminism requires the inclusion of LGBTQIA groups, a TERF sees the claims of transgenderism as a threat to feminism itself.
Author Sheila Jeffreys, a lesbian radical feminist from Australia, maintains that “gender” is a cultural construct, a set of imposed behavioral expressions to which biological females conform in society, such as patterns of dress, speech, etc. The idea that a man can “become” a woman presupposes that the essence a woman’s identity—the core of what it means to be a woman—can be condensed to a set of behavioral expressions.
Jeffreys explains: “Feminist critics argue that the concept of ‘gender identity’ is founded upon stereotypes of gender. . . . The idea of ‘gender identity’ relies on stereotypes for its meaning and…such stereotypes are harmful to women.”
In other words, for an ideological feminist, a woman is one who is born with the biological destiny inherent to being female (monogamy, pregnancy, menopause, etc.) or has been subject to the oppression of patriarchy. To accept that womanhood is a self-determined identity reduces the core of womanhood is a set of attitudes or behaviors. (Think Caitlyn Jenner’s inane remark that the hardest part of being a woman is figuring out what to wear!)
And here is perhaps the greatest paradox of the entire feminist movement: In an effort to sever one’s personal identity from one’s interpersonal responsibilities—in the struggle to free women from socialized femininity and the gendered expectations of men—ideological feminism has ushered in an “equality” in which a man can determine who is a woman. The same “gender equality” arguments that sought to liberate women from male definitions of femininity are now used to defend a male’s liberty to define what is and is not feminine. The irony is pretty rich.
But the TERF epithet represents more than just a schism among progressive sub-groups. It demonstrates the type of tribalism that supposedly liberal movements like “gender equality” have devolved.
And it all boils down to a denial of what the judge in Forstater’s case denounced: absolutes. To believe, much less express, the simplicity of Genesis 1:27 is becoming a culturally subversive act, one that defies a different set of absolutes. However, the Creation account reveals one’s maleness and femaleness as neither incidental nor accidental to one’s identity.
An Appeal to Design
To accept the increasingly normalized belief that gender is self-determined and separate from one’s biology requires us to suspend objective facts in favor of subjective feelings. It also demands that we regard our own bodies as inconsequential to our gender identity. In the words of Nancy Pearcey: “Christianity assigns the human body a much richer dignity and value. Humans do not need freedom from the body to discover their true, authentic self. Rather we can celebrate our embodied existence as a good gift from God.”
Moreover, medical research continues to prove that biological sex is irreducibly complex. In 2017, the Weitzman Institute of Science identified over 6,500 genes that are expressed differently between males and females, from muscle building and fat storage to the left ventricle of a human heart. To isolate all the biological differences between male and female, dissect them away, and produce a person of different sex is impossible. Surgically altered reproductive anatomy? Perhaps. A manipulated hormone structure? Also possible. But a different biological sex altogether? We simply don’t have that power.
The backlash against women like J.K. Rowling, Maya Forstater, and other “TERFs” is a glaring signpost—no one is exempt from the social scorn awaiting those who affirm even the most basic of objective facts. Even more, it demonstrates the collision that occurs when the LBGTQIA theory clashes with an appeal to design, much less to a Creator to who we are accountable.
To be clear, male and female are indeed equal. My use of quotation marks around the phrase is meant to refer to the cultural meaning of the phrase, namely that gender is a fluid, self-ratified concept rather than an aspect of one’s holistic and integrated identity as an image-bearer of the Divine.