“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends,” says Albus Dumbledore in an address to the Great Hall in J.K. Rowling’s The Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in her fabulously successful Harry Potter series. I confess I don’t know who Dumbledore is, nor what the “Great Hall” is, having never read a single page of any of her books. The courageous Ms. Rowling is certainly having to do her fair share of standing up to former friends and supporters these days, making me more inclined to read her books, if anything, to show solidarity for her latest cause: defending authentic womanhood.
In early June, Rowling ridiculed a new campaign by international development organization Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council that aims to create “a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate.” Rowling tweeted in response: “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” Social media and the liberal mainstream media erupted in protest, labeling Rowling transphobic and a practitioner of the “dark arts of bigotry,” to quote columnist Molly Roberts at The Washington Post. Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who starred as Harry Potter in the movies, authored an op-ed for an LGBTQ organization refuting Rowling’s tweet. “Transgender women are women,” says Radcliffe. “Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people.”
This is not Rowling’s first rodeo as a prominent TERF—that’s “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” for you insufficiently woke readers—who “denies transgender women’s womanhood on the theory that it detracts from cis women’s womanhood,” as Roberts helpfully explains. In March 2019, a London-based think tank fired researcher Maya Forstater for expressing her opinion that people cannot change their biological sex. A London employment tribunal in December upheld Forstater’s dismissal and described her opinions on sex and gender as “absolutist” and “incompatible with human dignity and the fundamental rights of others.” Rowling was incensed, and mourned that a woman could be fired for “stating that sex is real.”
Is a woman really being censured and shamed for defending the biological essentialism of femininity? If people can change their identities like a set of clothes, then any legitimate complaints about prejudice or discrimination lose their probity. If a male can identify himself as a female—whether by wearing feminine clothes, undergoing surgery, taking hormone treatments, all the above, or none of the above—then he can claim the right to professional opportunities (like a corporate executive position) otherwise unavailable to him. If he is the athletic type, he will be able to excel beyond many, if not all of his biologically-female competitors. The much-hailed U.S. national women’s soccer team, current defending champions of the World Cup, lost a scrimmage to the FC Dallas under-15-years-old boys squad in 2017.
This isn’t just about gender and sexuality. It applies to all identities that claim victim status in our society. Elizabeth Warren garnered professional academic success by labeling her ethnicity as Native American (she’s less than one percent), effectively delegitimizing the historic marginalization of Native American communities who have real grievances with the United States. Rachel Dolezal, former president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), claimed to be black even after she was exposed in 2015 to be of entirely white, European ancestry. If a white woman can claim to be black and rise through the ranks of the NAACP on that lie, what stops white students from doing the same in order to enjoy the benefits of affirmative action?
This kind of abuse of the system has been happening for a long time. My first year of college at the University of Virginia (almost twenty years ago) I had a first-generation Egyptian American from a middle-class family for a roommate. In his college application he labeled himself “African American.” I suppose it wasn’t untrue, but it was certainly misleading, given the intention behind colleges asking applicants about their race. The first week of school, a black upperclassman came to our dorm room asking for my roommate—he was my roommate’s mentor, presumably assigned by the university’s diversity office or some similar organization. They met only once. Whatever one thinks of the merits (or demerits) of affirmative action, this was not the intention. I imagine some hard-working black kid, raised in a broken home in lower-income Petersburg, Virginia, turned down because my college roommate beat him out.
The Catholic Church acknowledges, mourns, and condemns the many injustices of this world, including those against various identities. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on May 29 issued a stern rebuke of racism in America, following up in their 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts.” Moreover, it has historically been the Church who has affirmed the inherent dignity and value of all human persons. It was Christianity, many forget, that gave women unprecedented opportunities for education and advancement, exemplified in the many female saints of the ancient and medieval worlds. It was Catholic priests like Bartolomé de las Casas who denounced the violence and brutality committed against indigenous Americans. And, as early as 1435, Pope Eugene IV in his papal bull Sicut Dudum condemned the enslavement of black Africans, as did Pope Gregory XVI in his 1839 constitution In Supremo.
The Church stands with victims of sexism, racism, or any other “ism” because we appreciate their inherent dignity as created in the image of God, and because those persons are entitled to certain fundamental rights to life and liberty as explained in Catholic social teaching. Nevertheless, none of these identities, no matter how victimized, are the primary markers for personhood. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” says Saint Paul (Galatians 2:20). We find our truest identity not in sex, race, or ethnicity, but in Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Rowling identifies as a Christian, though she’s also a progressive feminist who was once a darling of the left. Never mind that. Activists now seek to cancel her for her refusal to deny basic biological and philosophical principles about human nature. They tell her, with increasing disdain, that a person can identify as a woman and should be able to enjoy whatever social or cultural capital comes with that label. For now, Rowling remains unconvinced, and perceives such ideology for what it really is: misogyny. For the sake of the real victims, let’s pray she holds her ground.
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