Editor’s Note: Garrard Conley is an assistant professor of creative writing at Kennesaw State University. He is the author of the memoir “Boy Erased,” adapted into a film of the same name. He is also the producer of Unerased: The History of Conversion Therapy in America. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
On Sunday, “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling sent a tweet comparing gender-affirming medical care for trans people to the harmful practice of conversion therapy:
“Many, myself included, believe we are watching a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people, who are being set on a lifelong path of medicalization that may result in the loss of their fertility and/or full sexual function.”
As a survivor of gay conversion therapy who has publicly spoken out against the practice for many years, I feel the need to correct Rowling’s misusage of the term while also pointing out how this kind of language is incredibly harmful not only to trans people but also to a democratic society.
As a longtime fan of the “Harry Potter” books whose fundamentalist church once forbade me from reading Rowling’s books on grounds of “indoctrination,” this task of correcting the record strikes me as absurd and disheartening. This is not the first time Rowling has tweeted something widely criticized – by fans, queer people, even some of the actors who portrayed her iconic characters – as transphobic. None of the further pain and continued Twitter blowback had to happen if Rowling had simply considered the subject of trans experience with the same care and thoroughness she devoted to the craft of her books.
First, Rowling’s comparison between legitimate medical transition care and “conversion therapy” erases the fact that the latter – a harmful and problematic process that seeks to rid people of their authentic identities – has long been used against trans people, often with horrific results. In fact, conversion therapy has historically targeted trans people at a higher rate than any other member of the LGBTQ spectrum. According to a 2015 survey from the American Journal of Public Health, “13.5% of transgender people in the United States reported lifetime exposure to this practice.”
A trans person entering this kind of so-called therapy would be told to repress any feelings that did not match up perfectly with the gender they were assigned at birth. Research shows that trans people, especially those exposed to this kind of thinking at a young age, are also more likely to attempt suicide. Since Rowling is so concerned with protecting trans youth from irreparable harm, she should know about this risk already.
My second point should be common sense to just about everyone, and certainly to anyone with the time and access to resources Rowling possesses: being transgender does not denote a specific sexual orientation. To say that gender-affirming care will harm “young gay people” displays, at best, ignorance, and, at worst, an attempt to pit the LGBTQ community against itself in order to gain support for her fallacious argument. I doubt my fellow gays will fall for it, however, since the “protect the kids” rhetoric has been used against us for decades by such organizations as Focus on the Family, which is known for its anti-LGBTQ views.
Third, conversion therapy practitioners often use the same tactics Rowling uses in her tweet. Most commonly, words are stripped of their historical context to support an efficient propagandistic end. When I was enrolled at the now-defunct Love in Action, one of the largest ‘ex-gay’ facilities in the country, we were told that a person could not be a homosexual. We could experience “same-sex attraction,” but we could not be homosexual, because God created marriage to exist only between a man and a woman. Additionally, we were told that feelings of love and sexual attraction were “addictions” that could be treated. Our “cure” was to continually deny what we knew and felt to be true.
Sound familiar? Any time someone tells you they want to protect you from what you know and feel to be true, that person does not have your best interests at heart. Thankfully, the kind of thinking I encountered in my “ex-gay” handbook is now archived in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where it belongs, though conversion therapy has only been banned in 20 states thus far.
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This kind of bigotry still exists in many places around the world, but to see it dragged out on a huge public stage by a beloved author is painful and maddening. It will bring harm to many young queer people who look up to the author of “Harry Potter” or may yet discover the magical world of her books.
If Rowling truly cares about democratic values, she will strive to ensure that all people have a right to their own personhood.