BY KEVIN HENDERSON
J.K. Rowling, British author of the popular Harry Potter series, has gained a large following on her Twitter feed over the last few years because she has been outspoken and pithy about her political views, which usually have a liberal bent. However, Rowling also has a curious Twitter history of defending statements made by others that espouse “biological sex” as real, absolute, and immutable. These statements about biological sex are not made in a vacuum: they are made explicitly to deny transgender people dignity, self-determination, and access to social goods.
J.K. Rowling has decided now is her time to rally against transgender people and trans activism in the name of feminism and, in a move that some readers may find strange, in the name of lesbians. As one of the world’s most popular fiction authors, Rowling’s statements have real consequence. Republican Senator James Lankford recently cited J.K. Rowling’s transphobic statements on the U.S. Senate floor to block consideration of the Equality Act, an important piece of proposed legislation that that, if passed, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include anti-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
While there is never a good time for transphobic statements, Rowling’s timing seems particularly bad when one considers how the world is focused on the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, racism, and white supremacy. Inspired by the people of Minneapolis who took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd by police officers, activists across the United States and United Kingdom have produced on-going, transformative protests to stop the murder of people of color by police and the routine policing of Black bodies and to challenge the normalization of white supremacy.
We should not dismiss the debates around Rowling’s tweets as merely a distraction from the important anti-racist work at hand. In fact, Rowling’s transphobic statements are embedded in the history of white supremacy. As many people are engaging in conversations about how white supremacy has shaped so many of our political and social institutions, there is no better time than the present to talk about how “biological sex” and “sexual difference” were created over time to protect, promote, and police the boundaries of whiteness.
Rowling’s statements are also embedded in a history of anti-lesbianism. Anti-lesbianism and anti-Black racism have a shared history: the white supremacist history of “biological sex.” Although Rowling claims the existence of transgender people somehow “erases” women and lesbians and although Rowling feels she is somehow supporting lesbian political claims, Rowling’s statements reiterate all sorts of historically racist/anti-lesbian tropes. Further, it is actually Rowling and other so-called “gender-critical feminists” who are erasing lesbians and lesbian history. Rowling ignores the long history of lesbian opposition, particularly Black lesbian feminist opposition by those in Combahee River Collective, to biological ideas about sex. Thus, Rowling’s defense of biological sex in the name of lesbians redoubles the valorization of whiteness by neglecting Black lesbian feminist histories.
In the 19th century, as European colonialism expanded around the globe, two competing scientific theories about the biological origins of human species sought to explain variation in human skin color. Polygenesis, which legitimated white supremacy and colonization,held that human beings were divided into different races with little or no shared origin. Theories about naturally discrete races translated to classifications and taxonomies of the supposedly distinct, immutable biological characteristics and temperament of each human race. Monogenesis was the less popular theory that all human beings share the same origins. However, Darwin’s evolutionary theories put an end to the polygenesis/monogenesis debate with the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871).
Darwin and his followers argued for a monogenetic but evolutionary view of all species, including human beings. Human beings were thus no longer classified as belonging to discrete species but came to be viewed along an evolutionary but hierarchical continuum ranging from the primitive to the advanced. In this evolutionary schema, all human peoples were related, but it was said that different races were on different scales or stages. All human beings were now to be viewed and judged as being on a racialized continuum where intelligence, beauty, morality, fecundity, and physical ability increased as one moved up evolutionary stages. Of course, the white Europeans who formulated these theories considered themselves the most advanced.
Human evolutionary schemas gave birth to the scientific field of eugenics and to theories about degeneracy. “Scientific” concepts of degeneracy held that social problems, such as crime, madness, and aberrant sexual desire, stem from the hereditary defects or atavistic traits of individuals. In other words, European doctors and scientists claimed that social problems in Europe were the result of some white Europeans retaining “primitive” (i.e., Black) traits or preserving an African phylogenic inheritance. Doctors and scientists used anthropomorphic measurements to decide where a person might fall on the racialized evolutionary continuum in order to diagnose degeneracy or make eugenic interventions.
While categorizations and measurements of “sex” were vital for polygenetic racial taxonomies, “sex” became even more important within monogenetic human evolutionary schemas, eugenic projects, and theories about degeneracy. Doctors and scientists developed elaborate racialized measurements and classifications of genitalia, pelvises, breasts, and buttocks. Undeniably, the present coherence of “biological sex” is an effect of 19th century scientific racism and discourses of white supremacy.
Using racial classifications of anatomical measurements, 19th-century evolutionary theorists asserted that sexual dimorphism was an evolutionary achievement rather than a natural condition for human beings. White Europeans assumed that they were the most “highly evolved” with the highest levels of sexual dimorphism (that is, European men and women were different but complimentary in every way: body and mind) and that sexual dimorphism decreased as one went down the civilizational rungs of the evolutionary ladder. In just one example of many, the famed sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing wrote in 1886, “The secondary sexual characteristics differentiate the two sexes; they present the specific male and female types. The higher the anthropological development of the race, the stronger these contrasts between man and woman.” In this schema, Black people supposedly had the lowest levels of sexual dimorphism. “Biological sex” thus was never simply binary but was, from its inception, categorized along racialized degrees of difference.
But how exactly were racialized degrees of sexual dimorphism determined and how did it take on such significant meaning? The exhibition of Black women’s bodies to a white European viewing public in the 1810s, most notably the case of Sara “Saartjie” Baartman, was essential to cementing the ideology of racial-sexual difference for the rest of the 19th century. One hundred years previous, there was no strong European ideology of feminine physiological or psychological difference. Rather, Europeans had long interpreted bodies through Aristotelian categories and believed that women were simply underdeveloped men. But, starting in the 18th century, the ideology of feminine difference and complementarity began fermenting in tandem with European colonial conquest and empire building. Then, at the very start of the 19th century, the public exhibition of caged Black women’s bodies crystalized the European feminine ideal: dimorphic sex, chaste feminine virtue, and complimentary to men were qualities that white women supposedly exhibited vis-à-vis what Europeans negatively imagined Black women to be.
European doctors and scientists viewed Black women’s physiologies as a sign of sexual excess and aberration. The early development of European theories about Black women’s “biological sex” had lasting impact. Numerous scientists and medical doctors used interpretations of “Hottentot” bodies to develop a wide range of theories about sexuality and sexual pathology. One example is that late 19th-century sexologists first articulated lesbianism as a sexually degenerate pathology. Lesbianism was conceived as a defect in achieving the sexual dimorphism proper to white folks. In sexology, gynecology, and evolutionary biology, European lesbians and Black women were said to share the same evolutionary physiology. In other words, white European lesbians had either “devolved” down the evolutionary ladder to be Black or had never achieved the proper phylogenetic state as their proper heterosexual European sisters. Sexologists believed that if one examined a white lesbian’s labia or clitoris, one would find the atavistic traits of the “Hottentot.”
The scientific racism of sexologists also informed the rise of modern-day police forces, which evolved not only from American slave patrols, but from late 19th century French municipal regulations that policed sex and prostitution in an effort to control outbreaks of syphilis. Criminologists theorized that “the prostitute,” like the lesbian, was a predatory personage with a degenerate racial-sexual physiology that matched “Hottentot” bodies. Previous to these municipal regulations, sex work was only an occasional or seasonal act for many agrarian women. However, when French law and medical science declared that the prostitute was a distinct individual that needed to be regulated, agrarian women who periodically visited port cities to engage in sexual commerce were subsequently forbidden from traveling back to their homes and had to remain hostage as “prostitutes”—by order of the police—in order to undergo regular medical checks for syphilitic decay and to work as police informants.
Left untreated, syphilis is a slow-acting bacterial infection where the body, over time, begins to show sores and lesions and where bodily features deteriorate. Syphilis can also have debilitating neurological effects. Thus, for European sexologists, syphilis was not only a cause of physical degeneracy, it was the sign of a deeper inherited degeneracy. As the prostitute with syphilis aged, it was thought that the “mannish,” atavistic traits of her Black/lesbian primitivity were appearing over time. In other words, as the prostitute aged, she became less sexually dimorphic and devolved into a state of folly—a reveal of her true nature. By corollary, syphilis was not the only disease that the prostitute could pass along to her sexual partner: like the lesbian, she could morally corrupt her sexual partner and turn them into a sexual degenerate or invert. Accordingly, the lesbian and the prostitute had to be policed.
As one can see, a wide variety of medical, biological, and social scientists explicitly asserted that the aberrant and dangerous sexual excesses of Black women, lesbians, and prostitutes were physiologically linked. Further, scientists speculated that lesbians and prostitutes had a natural inclination to hide their inferior or abnormal anatomic features in order to hide their deeper criminal natures. Several French physicians asserted that Baartman and other Black women had developed large butts as a failed adaptation in order to hide their “primitive” pelvises and to “mimic” white women’s child-bearing hips in order to attract a mate. Analogously, these same physicians claimed that lesbians and prostitutes “hide” their atavistic traits with makeup and lavish feminine clothing to cover over their “mannishness” for the purpose of luring mates into sexual corruption. Lesbians, prostitutes, and Black women were, by virtue of their “biological sex,” dangerous individuals who hid their true natures so that they could recruit nice white boys and girls into degeneracy. With this history, one can now see how today’s transphobes refashion Victorian racial science and fear of what’s hiding under people clothes for the contemporary age with “bathroom bills” and the aggressive policing of transgender sex workers in order to “protect” women and children.
Espousals of biological sex have always been about which bodies become sensationalized and who gets to gawk and criticize others’ bodies from a place of comfort. With the racialized science of “biological sex,” Europeans produced an entire police force to regulate promiscuous and predatory inverted women, lest they pass on their degeneracy to promising young European men who should be out conquering the world or nice young European ladies who should be at home having babies or recovering from a fainting spell. Many of the Victorian fears about degenerate lesbians have simply been transposed and projected onto transgender women in the present-day. Anytime J.K. Rowling or anyone else makes an assertion about the neutral “reality” of biological sex, we should remember that the very concept of biological sex was forged in the cages in which Saartjie Baartman was confined for the white supremacist gaze to define and shore up whiteness.
J.K. Rowling’s transphobic tweets also ignore how lesbian feminists—especially Black lesbian feminists—have worked hard to undo biological notions of sex. J.K. Rowling has asserted that sex must be protected as an immutable biological reality if the logical coherence of lesbianism is to be maintained. However, this formulation is theoretically crude, reductive, and ahistorical. Rowling does a huge disservice to gay and lesbian people for whom their identities, desires, and political visions are bound up with so much more that an attraction to genitals. Transphobes like Rowling like to think feminists—and lesbian feminists in particular—somehow cultivated and protected the idea of biological sex for decades until queer theory and transgender people came along, but this is absolutely untrue. Biological sex was first challenged by those very lesbians and feminists that Rowling imagines as being injured.
The Combahee River Collective, a prominent group of Black lesbian feminists active in Boston from 1974 to 1980, strongly opposed political, moral, and medical discourses about “biological maleness” or “biological femaleness” due to these discourses’ simultaneously racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist implications and histories. In 1978, the collective wrote the famed Combahee River Collective Statement to clarify and define their political views and to offer a broad, inclusive vision for the feminist movement. In the statement, biological sex is clear target of analysis and conceptual un-doing. The Collective states, “We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual.” Combahee further stresses, “we do not have the misguided notion that it is their maleness per se—i.e., their biological maleness—that makes [men] what they are. As Black women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic.”
The statement famously speaks to how all oppressions are “interlocking” and how feminist analysis needs to go beyond an examination of one’s personal experience to look at how sexism, racism, economics, and heterosexism have historically been interconnected. Interlocking oppressions necessitated interlocking solidarities and interlocking struggles along many fronts. A narrow vision of feminism that would base political solidarity and political analysis solely around “sex” or a group’s supposedly shared body parts or shared biological virtue would leave racist systems fully intact and unwittingly reiterate all sorts of historically racist and homophobic notions. Victorian-sounding beliefs about the natural or biological differences between men and women could not be a path for Black lesbian feminist liberation. The statement argues that Black feminists must struggle with and alongside Black men and other oppressed groups for collective liberation.
Combahee River Collective members like Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier, and Beverly Smith opposed feminist politics that espoused “biological sex” as authentic and authorizing or as the source of women’s oppression. Denials of biological sex do not erase lesbians. Far from it: as should be clear, assertions of universal lesbian support for biological sex as real and immutable erases a long lesbian history of opposition to biologism and “biological sex.”
Nineteenth century ideas about Black people’s different/pathological “biological sex” are still alive and kicking today. An alarmingly high number of doctors believe Black people have thicker skin and can feel less pain than white people, evoking old beliefs that Black women feel less physical pain and sexual sensation (which justified unanesthetized surgical experimentation on enslaved Black women by J. Marion Sims, hailed as the father of modern gynecology). Black patients continue to receive less pain medication for broken bones and cancer, and black children receive less pain medication than white children for appendicitis. Black women are less likely to be recommended for genetic testing by their doctors for breast cancer. Maternal mortality rates of black and indigenous women remain high due to the routine undertesting and undertreating of Black women for common pregnancy-related medical problems. Doctors recently ignored Black tennis star Serena William’s concerns about having a pulmonary embolism while giving birth, exposing how wealth and notoriety does little to combat white supremacist ideas about Black women’s bodies.
The coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the deep racial inequalities of the United States. Black people are dying from covid-19 infections at dramatically higher rates than whites. On April 27th, Rana Zoe Mungin, a New York school teacher and recent graduate of the MFA program at UMass Amherst, died of complications associated with COVID-19 after being twice denied testing at a Brooklyn hospital and then being denied ambulance service to a hospital because her symptoms were diagnosed as simply a panic attack. Mungin was killed by a white supremacist system like so many other Black women whose salient health problems are dismissed away and assumed to be rooted in their hysterical or excessive sex.
Yet, still today, the numerous social problems facing Black people are continually blamed on the failure of Black people to achieve proper dimorphic sex. From the Moynihan Report to President Obama, people can’t seem to stop blaming the pathological Black family, lazy absent fathers, assertive Black mothers, and the lack of proper heterosexual relations as the cause of Black Americans’ problems and inequality. White supremacy and the maltreatment of black people hides in today’s superficially color-blind discourses of biological sex.
Black Lives Matter activists, many of whom identify as queer and trans, have put Black transgender lives at the center of their activism. They do so because they recognize that white supremacy and racist policing has long been employed to regulate and control gender and sexuality in the service of white comfort and has long been used to cage and eliminate queer and trans bodies. Like the Black lesbian feminists before them, these activists recognize that the liberation of transgender people is intimately bound up with the liberation of all oppressed people.
As many activists are tearing down monuments to white supremacy, it is clearly time for the monumental idea of “biological sex” to be taken down as well.
Kevin Henderson is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is also a student in the program for Feminist Studies. His dissertation, Producing Public Sex,explores histories and political contestations over public sex, policing, and struggles to create queer public sexual community outside of domesticity and coupledom. His research and teaching areas include queer, feminist, and critical race theories, the history of political thought, the history of sexuality and race, gender and the law, and the contemporary regulation of sex and intimacy.