Almost 30 years ago, I was scanning the Chicago Reader when I noticed a classified ad for a shop on Elston Avenue selling women’s clothing in large sizes to men.
”Now there’s something you don’t see in the paper,” I thought, and headed over.
Chatting with the owner, I realized there was a larger story here. Not just one boutique, but a community. So I plunged in, visiting safe houses — cross-dressers often did not tell their spouses, so they needed places to store clothes and wigs — and attending a dance at a Northwest Side banquet hall, selecting “Miss Chicago Gender Society 1992.”
The story holds up, in my view, because it isn’t condescending. It uses “she” to refer to the people encountered. Why? Because that’s the word they used. When you’re a reporter, it gets in the way if you stand in judgment. Honestly portray any group — a skill many people never master — and praise or blame won’t be necessary.
The only outdated aspect of the story is the term “transvestites.” That is what they were called then. Or so I thought.
At the dance, I found myself talking to Leslie, who seemed an attractive young woman, “So you’re gay?”
No, she said, but she lives as a woman and dates men.
That was almost a paradox. These days, she might instead say she “is a woman” rather than “lives as a woman,” and it is easy to tumble into that semantic gap the way J.K. Rowling, famed author of the wildly popular Harry Potter books, has over the past two years.
Rowling began her slide into the bog of disrepute by defending a woman fired for angrily insisting on the preeminence of biological differences. The more Rowling explained herself, the more mired she became, until the stars of the Harry Potter movies felt the need to distance themselves from her. Fans wondered if she’d even be mentioned in the 20th anniversary show about the films that HBO Max began airing Saturday. She is.
I have no interest in weighing Rowling’s soul. That’s her business. If you consider it yours, you can read what she’s written and condemn her to your heart’s content. I’m hopelessly biased, having read all seven Harry Potter books, out loud to my sons, several times, and embraced their message of accepting differences while opposing the wrong of enforced conformity. I simply don’t believe Rowling is now standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Petunia Dursley, muttering about “freaks.”
If we’ve learned one thing from five years of the Trump enormity, it is that too many Americans are desperate for permission to hurl contempt at others. It makes them feel better, I suppose. They’ll betray everything our country represents if it means they’re allowed to ridicule someone. Whom they mock hardly matters.
Is this hunger to abuse limited to red states? Sadly, no. Many liberals, being human, are also hot to sneer. Not on command, but they do need a pretext, need to identify stragglers from the moral herd, like Rowling, to justify hunting them down.
That’s what’s happening. People aren’t evaluating Rowling’s arguments, they’re cherry-picking scraps that bug them and waving supposed sins over their heads, a scorn synecdoche. Look! A bad person! Get her!
That grows old, so they move on to her creations. “Iconic and beloved Harry Potter is the neoliberal fantasy of a transphobe,” Vox announced this week.
Is it? Curating your reading material based on the mandatory moral purity of its authors is a losing game. Because everybody is flawed. T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite, Arthur Conan Doyle a crank who believed in faeries and communication with the ectoplasm. Their work still endures. Shunning it doesn’t hurt them; it hurts you.
Ironic that many claim to be so overflowing with empathy for those grappling with their gender identity that they feel obligated to savage anyone reckless enough to publicly grapple with those grappling with their gender identity.
This is a category error: the notion that bias is a rare, limited condition, like tuberculosis, and all we need do is isolate the afflicted and eradicate the contagion. This is not how life works. Bias is baked into humanity. It’s in everyone. Hate is not TB; it is gravity, a downward pull that affects us all. We all struggle with it.
Views change. A decent society would lift up the mistaken as well as the marginalized. I erred in my 1992 story, assuming transsexuals were a subset of transvestites, and using the latter term to describe everyone involved, trying to keep things simple.
I learned better after a trans woman showed up at the paper to complain I had maligned her. Transvestites were weekend hobbyists, in her view. This was her life. The newspaper ran a correction, and I had a better understanding of her world.
That’s why malice is counterproductive. It freezes error and makes self-correction harder. If you really care how trans people are treated, you wouldn’t beat up J.K. Rowling or anybody else. There are difficult aspects — such as trans athletes in women’s sports — that no amount of performative goodwill can wish away. Tearing at those working through them doesn’t solve anything, no matter how satisfying.