Alfred McConnell was not named Alfred at birth. He was given a girl’s name. His parents were not being weird. Their baby was a girl.
Biologically, that is. The person who became Alfred identified as a male. Eventually, he had breast reduction surgery, began taking testosterone and was legally declared a man. Because he was sexually attracted to males, he was a trans gay man. He wanted to have a family, so he became pregnant through artificial insemination. He gave birth to a healthy child. Because he was legally a man, he wanted to be listed as the child’s father. Because he had given birth, the hospital listed him on the birth certificate as the child’s mother.
It ended up in court. A judge declared that Alfred was his child’s mother.
This happened in England, and Alfred’s pregnancy was the subject of a sympathetic and much-watched BBC documentary called “Seahorse.”
But not all Brits are good with the idea of transgender. A woman named Maya Forstater lost her job after declaring that trans women were not really women. That too went to court and a judge ruled against Forstater. The judge said her comments were “not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”
None of this would have mattered to our little burgh except that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tweeted in favor of Forstater, and did so in a particularly snarky manner.
“Dress however you please. 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?”
That started a war of words between Rowling and transgender people and their allies. The end result, for our purposes, was that Left Bank Books, our beloved independent bookstore on Euclid Avenue, announced it would no longer stock Rowling’s work. The store is not “banning” her work. You can order her books through the store, but you won’t find them on the shelves.
I took the news hard. Writers can be awful people. They’re often insecure and arrogant at the same time. Maybe Rowling is so successful that she has forgotten to be insecure and is just arrogant. Still, isn’t it best to judge writers by their work?
“We love her work,” said Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of the store. “But this isn’t about her work. Her words are hurtful. She has a huge platform. We have a tiny one. We’re choosing to lift other voices.”
Jarek Steele, the other co-owner, said that Rowling’s words make life more difficult for transgender people. Steele is a trans man. “This is about self-respect,” he said.
I should immediately admit that when it comes to sexuality, I am a Muggle. That is the term Rowling used for people who are surrounded by magic, but don’t see it. Muggles are almost always unaware of the wizards and sorcerers of Harry Potter’s world.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago. There were no gays in our neighborhood. There was a Jewish family. That was about as exotic as we got. I went to a large public high school. There were no gays in the school. I did meet a couple of gays at the University of Illinois — they seemed fine — but then I flunked out of school and got drafted into the Marine Corps. There were no gays in that world.
But an odd thing happened as I grew older. The number of gays dramatically increased. And then, entirely new types of people emerged. Trans people, for instance. Also, non-binary people. It became polite, in some circles, to ask, “What is your pronoun?”
None of this is easy for a Muggle. “Magic? What are you talking about? Where?”
Happily, I have learned to accept magic even when I cannot see it. What I do understand is that people know themselves and ought to be allowed to define themselves. People who are at variance with social norms are often ostracized. The world can be a cruel place.
How odd it is that Rowling, a magical thinker, would be part of that cruelty. The arguments in this war of words are beyond me. But even a Muggle can recognize snark.
I asked Kleindienst about the response to the announcement that Left Bank will no longer stock Rowling’s work. She said the response was mostly positive, but a few people mistakenly accused the store of banning the books.
“The only book we have ever banned was ‘The Anarchist Cookbook,’ and that’s because it gave instructions on how to build bombs,” she said.
I have three grandchildren, so I am in the target audience for Harry Potter books. Should I order them through Left Bank? Order them myself? Perhaps, in this instance, go to another bookstore?
Something else to ponder: Maybe there were gays in my high school.