JK Rowling and the tyranny of preferred pronouns

It is not ‘misgendering’ to call a man a man – it’s the truth.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech Identity Politics USA

It’s 2024 and black women are still being publicly shamed for failing to kowtow to white men. The black woman in question is Winsome Earle-Sears, the Republican lieutenant-governor of Virginia. Last week she found herself in the eye of a shitstorm after committing the most heinous speechcrime of our times: she referred to a ‘transwoman’ (ie, a man) as ‘sir’. It was Danica Roem, a Democratic Virginia senator. He’s a man who identifies as a woman. In a debate in Virginia’s General Assembly he asked Earle-Sears how many votes would be needed to pass a bill. ‘Yes, sir, that would be 32’, came her blasphemous reply. Sir? Ready the stake.

Fury ensued. Ms Earle-Sears was damned as a misgenderer. Her use of the S-word was ‘cruel and unacceptable’, people wailed. She has shown her ‘cruelty to the world’, said another fuming white man – Zooey Zephyr, also trans, who sits in Montana’s House of Representatives. The state of Virginia itself was briefly plunged into uncertainty by Earle-Sears’ sinful utterance: all legislative activity in the assembly was suspended as officials tried to figure out what to do about the black lady’s disrespect of the white dude’s pronouns. Eventually, Earle-Sears acknowledged the error of her witchy ways. ‘I apologise, I apologise, I apologise’, she intoned. The black woman is contrite, the white man’s self-esteem is restored, all is well in the world.

You can dress this incident up in as much intersectional finery as you like. You can say it’s about ‘equity’ and ensuring trans people feel ‘safe’ in the workplace yada yada. But boiled down, what we had here was the humiliation of a black woman for failing to bow to and flatter a white man’s pride. Sound familiar? In the past, a black woman in the US might have expected severe social blowback if she failed to refer to a white man as ‘sir’ – now she suffers the same if she does refer to a white man as ‘sir’ where that white man fantasises that he’s a lady. In both cases, the man’s need for validation – whether of his social superiority or his gender identity – trumps the little woman’s right to speak as she sees fit.

The moral chastening of Winsome Earle-Sears exposes the iron fist of intolerance that hides in the velvet glove of ‘preferred pronouns’. Pronoun policing, the noisy punishment of so-called ‘misgendering’, is not about creating a fairer, nicer society. It’s about reprimanding dissent. It’s about shaming those – especially women – who fail or flat-out refuse to genuflect to the new ruling-class ideology of gender identity. It’s an instruction, a warning, from on high: ‘Embrace our ideology and speak our language or we will destroy you.’ The war on ‘misgendering’, which is a war on truth, is woke’s most tyrannical manifestation.

Another woman was dragged to the ducking stool this week for ‘misgendering’. It was JK Rowling. She, too, committed the modern sacrilege of calling a man a man. The man was India Willoughby, a TV presenter who thinks the fact he was castrated and then chose for himself a ‘designer vagina’ makes him a woman. Dude, it doesn’t. Rowling was tweeting her concerns about biological males being allowed into women-only spaces when an X user posted a video of Mr Willoughby dancing and asked Rowling if ‘this lady should use the men’s locker room’. Rowling’s reply was stinging and brilliant: ‘You’ve sent me the wrong video. There isn’t a lady in this one, just a man revelling in his misogynistic performance of what he thinks “woman” means: narcissistic, shallow and exhibitionist.’

There wasn’t one lie in Rowling’s response. Willoughby is a man. A man without a knob no more becomes a woman than a dog without its bark becomes a cat. And she’s right that trans activism often comes off as a repellent parody of womanhood. Willoughby himself has said he picked his ‘designer vagina’ from a catalogue of 10,000 such fake fannies and that it was just like ‘picking a hairstyle’. That’s gross, no? The trans ideologue’s reduction of womanhood to a consumer product, a thing that can be purchased and put on like an old rag, a ‘designer’ product, like a bag or a shoe – yeah, I’d call that misogynistic, narcissistic and shallow.

And yet, merely for spitting truths, Rowling has been hauled over the coals. Again. Willoughby slammed her ‘grotesque transphobia’. ‘JK Rowling deliberately misgenders trans activist India Willoughby’, said a breathless headline in the Independent. Her very public act of ‘misgendering’ is yet further proof of her ‘controversial views’, said the Mirror. Yes, it’s controversial now to say a man is not a woman. To give voice to biological reality. To recognise the existence of sex. It is a testament to the swirling authoritarianism of our times that virtually overnight it has been made a damnable offence to express a truth humankind knew for tens of thousands of years: that there are men and women and they are not the same.

The latest sexist shaming of JK Rowling captures how Orwellian the trans ideology has become. That very word – ‘misgendering’ – is undiluted doublespeak. It is not ‘misgendering’ to refer to a man as a man – it is gendering, the accurate and truthful description of a person’s sex. The rebranding of correct gendering as ‘misgendering’ is a sinister and slippery assault on truth-telling itself. It makes the truth a crime and it makes the lie received wisdom. It makes social pariahs of those who speak the truth and social saints of those who indulge in falsehoods. In this case, the falsehood that someone born male and who went through male puberty and who even fathered a child – something only us fellas can do – is literally a woman and anyone who says otherwise is scum.

When the neo-witchfinders scream ‘Misgenderer!’ at women, really they are demanding that those women recant their scientific heresies and submit to the post-truth delirium of the transgender ideology. It is an attempted forced conversion to a new religion. The religion of ‘gendered souls’, which posits that a person’s mysterious inner gender sometimes runs counter to their pesky biological casing. But some of us don’t believe this, anymore than we believe that Christ walked on water or Muhammad flew to heaven on a horse.

That X user who confronted Rowling with a clip of Willoughby and insisted she acknowledge Willoughby’s ‘womanhood’ was no different to inquisitors of old who would wave the Bible in a heretic’s face and insist they acknowledge its divinity. In refusing their pressure to convert, in preferring the lonely road of truth to the fleeting solace of succumbing to the dogmatic mob, Rowling didn’t only stand up for women’s rights and freedom of conscience – she struck a blow for truth itself. Seekers after truth were once damned as ‘heretics’, now they’re labelled ‘misgenderers’, but many clearly still recognise that the hard life of adhering to reason is more fulfilling than the easy life of yielding to theocracy.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the media wailing over Rowling’s ‘misgendering’ of Willoughby is that they are essentially telling Rowling to be more respectful towards a man who has been incredibly rude to her. Willoughby regularly hurls invective at women. He referred to women’s rights champion Maya Forstater as ‘Mayo Potato’. He once said he saw ‘six men’ in that famous photo of JK Rowling lunching with gender-critical women. Presumably he was referring to the butch lesbians in attendance. Now that’s misgendering. And he once seemed to joke about kidnapping gender-critical women. The idea that Rowling should bow and scrape to a bloke like this is Misogyny 101. Ladies, give in to men, even men who abuse you.

If ‘misgendering’ is criminalised, then truth itself is criminalised. Our right to describe what is in front of our eyes – the most fundamental right in a free society – would evaporate. And it isn’t only the digital mob we need to worry about. The Labour Party, which will likely form the next UK government, has flirted with the idea of criminalising ‘misgendering’. As we saw in Virginia, political life can be brought to a standstill by ‘misgendering’. And even Elon Musk is wobbling on his relaxation of Twitter’s old rules on ‘misgendering’. The sacrifice of free speech, open debate and public life itself to the feelings of a handful of men is insane. As Rowling said, ‘I know a lot of you think the UN should intervene whenever women bruise your egos, but there is no human right to universal validation’.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

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Topics Free Speech Identity Politics USA


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