Safe and SeenLeave Potter Nostalgia behind in Favor of Trans Authors

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee, Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender, Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, and Wild Beauty by Anna Marie McLemore. (Photo credit: Rick Riordan Presents, Scholastic Inc., Swoon Reads, and Feiwel & Friends, respectively.)

After my mom died in 2004, I clung to the memory of the two of us sitting on our sagging couch in the projects, reading chapters of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) aloud to each other, and bursting into laughter as we made up inside jokes about “shrinking door keys.” Harry Potter was special to me; as a kid, it was one of the only book series I was allowed to buy brand new instead of waiting for the library copy and one of the few movies I saw in the theaters. (A millionaire who grew up in the same projects that I did bought out a theater so that the entire neighborhood could see the films.) J.K. Rowling gave me those memories. And Rowling is also a trans-exclusionary radical feminist a.k.a. TERF and her vocal support for transphobic people, including Maya Forstater, has hurt many trans people.

It’s heartbreaking to learn that one of your icons is transphobic, though we’ve long known about the Harry Potter series’ racist portrayal of Cho Chang, appropriation of Native American culture, and rampant fatphobia. Fans have also long criticized plotlines of the series, including like Potter himself naming his child Albus Severus instead of Lupin or Hagrid. But there is a difference between finding a story element in a series lacking and an author’s choices directly harming people, which is what happens when authors continue to use their platform to double down on oppression instead of learning and taking accountability. Rowling’s statement on her website, which she also posted to her Twitter, insinuates that autistic children don’t have enough autonomy and self-awareness to understand our own gender, among other problematic assertions about sexual assault and obsessive-compulsive disorder as an excuse for transphobia.

Growing up, I dreamed of writing popular books like Harry Potter, becoming a millionaire (an idea that’s now laughable to me since I work in the book publishing industry), and donating money to my old Sammett Street neighborhood in Malden, Massachusetts. Now, instead of clinging to the nostalgia that fuels a never-ending support of Potter and all of its spinoffs, I’ve thrown my support behind nonbinary and transgender authors writing children’s literature, especially multiply marginalized trans authors. Rowling’s work played a role in my lifelong passion for children’s books, but the Potter series isn’t the reason I currently work in publishing and advocate for children’s books by marginalized authors. We need diverse books so that trans and nonbinary kids can see ourselves in the books we fall in love with, attend author signings, and meet trans and nonbinary authors who make us feel safe and seen.

Author Malinda Lo’s 2018 study found that only 4 percent of mainstream LGBTQ young-adult novels had a nonbinary or genderfluid protagonist. We can work to change that. Middle-grade novels and books for younger readers can be a wonderful place for young trans readers to see themselves in books, such as Alex Gino’s George (2017), Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet (2019), Lisa Bunker’s Zenobia July (2019), and Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl (2020). I was 8-years-old when I began reading the Potter series and 14 when the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was released in 2007. At that time, there was no positive trans representation in children’s media and very little positive queer representation.

Some trans and nonbinary authors, like Mason Deaver (I Wish You All the Best), have publicly stated that they won’t answer Potter fandom questions about their own books, such as what Hogwarts house their characters would be sorted into. Deaver has called for people to stop supporting Rowling, which includes supporting the Potter franchise. Deaver’s choice isn’t wrong, but it may not work for all nonbinary and trans readers, such as those who’ve always dreamed of proposing with a snitch ring box or the ones who meet up with friends every year at LeakyCon. What does it mean to both boycott a series because of its transphobic author and blackball a series that has launched nonprofits like the Harry Potter Alliance and an entire community of readers who wrote their own acceptance letters to Hogwarts?

It starts with supporting books written by actual nonbinary and trans authors. “Harry Potter fandom took a set of books that were almost aggressively straight and cisgender and colored them in with rainbow ink,” author Victoria Lee wrote in a 2019 article for Tor. “We wrote our own stories in new iterations over and over.” Aiden Thomas’s Cemetery Boys (2020) captured the part of me that’s just as eager for a good plot-driven romance as I am for trans-inclusive brujx magic systems. As a reader, it’s tiresome to read stories about gender-based magic and curses that have no on-the-page consideration for trans people who live within that world, which is both exclusive and unimaginative. There are trans people in every world, whether the author chooses to make them major characters or not.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

I came for the plot in Cemetery Boys and stayed because I fell in love with Yadriel and Julian. Cemetery Boys is caring toward its trans characters and trans readers in ways that most cis depictions of the trans experience aren’t, particularly in the way Thomas allows us to truly feel Yadriel’s pain at being deadnamed (and did so without ever revealing his deadname). “I am queer. I am trans and Latinx. I don’t exist in a consumable fashion for people in the book industry, which I think is a big reason why I also wrote Cemetery Boys, because I had never seen myself [in books] and I didn’t want other queer trans Latinx kids to be kind of stumbling through books and being like, ‘Where’s these parts of myself?’” Thomas said during a 2020 Bronx Book Festival panel called Remixing the Rainbow.

Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After, released on May 5, is a contemporary YA novel that cradled me like a hug through a tear-filled hotel night in Washington, D.C., a flight away from my home in Boston, just as the pandemic was becoming even scarier for me as a disabled person. “I’m screaming with joy. I’m screaming with pain. I’m screaming with the awe that I’m here, that we’re all here, and that we’re here because of the people before us, the people who couldn’t be here, and I’m screaming for myself, too,” Callender writes about the titular Felix’s experience at Pride with friends. By the time I read this book, on the brink of shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, I knew that in-person Pride with my friends wouldn’t be happening this year, but Felix’s experience still brought me joy because I’m still here and alive to read books that so perfectly capture the terrifying, freeing choice of loving yourself exactly as you are.

Callender has also written an adult fantasy, Queen of the Conquered (2019), and two middle-grade magical-realism books, Hurricane Child (2018) and King and the Dragonflies (2020), which are now at the top of my 2020 reading list. Potter’s legacy is so powerful, in part, because the series dealt with magic and fantasy, and we’re all a little Daniel Arlington from Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House (2019) at heart; everyone wants to “realize that they had not been lied to, that the world they’d been promised as children was not something that had to be abandoned, that there really was something lurking in the wood, beneath the stairs, between the stars, that everything was full of mystery.” It’s that lurking magic that drew me to Anna-Marie McLemore’s work, including their 2017 novel Wild Beauty, which chronicles the unbreakable bond between the Nomeolvides cousins, their ability to make flowers grow, and the authentic characterization of queer and nonbinary love interest Bay Briar.

We must enthusiastically support trans authors’ careers and give them the publicity, marketing, financial support, and platform that we have afforded J.K. Rowling, even after so many years of public mistakes.

Tweet this

McLemore writes queer, Latinx, trans, and nonbinary identities into fairy tales because, as they recently told We Need Diverse Books, “Queer readers, trans and nonbinary readers, readers of color, we deserve to be heroes in our own stories and our own fairy tales.” That’s one of the reasons I was pulled into Dark and Deepest Red, McLemore’s latest YA historical fantasy, where they write, “Do not stare at me unless you are willing to see me.” I would love to put this quote on a shirt and wear it to Pride. I rarely feel seen, as a queer autistic nonbinary person who’s just as often stimming joyfully in their flower crown as I am advocating for accessibility in queer and trans spaces. That is one reason I fell in love with McLemore’s books that contain magical realism, including Miss Meteor, their forthcoming YA novel cowritten with Tehlor Kay Mejia, which is being released in September 2020..

It’s important to note that all trans authors don’t write trans protagonists. Noam and Dara, the protagonists in Victoria Lee’s Feverwake series, aren’t trans, but the series is a love letter to survivors healing from trauma, rape, and domestic abuse. “Noam didn’t want them to be defined by the worst things they’d survived,” Lee writes in The Electric Heir (2020). In Lee’s fantasy world, magic is caused by a virus that kills most people who contract it, and they deftly weave abuse and consent into the very fabric of the plot. Maybe there are no easy answers, especially if you’re a trans reader who grew up steeped in Potter culture, going to midnight book premieres and wizard rock concerts. What we can do, however, is enthusiastically support trans authors’ careers and give them the publicity, marketing, financial support, and platform that we have afforded Rowling, even after so many years of public mistakes.

photo of Rage member Jae Hermonn, a Black woman with shorn hair and wearing glasses, holding up a yellow mug with the words “Filled With Rage” Like what you just read? Help make more pieces like this possible by joining Bitch Media’s membership program, The Rage. You’ll get exclusive perks and members-only swag, all while supporting Bitch’s critical feminist analysis. Join Today

Alaina Leary is a white person with bangs, purple and blue hair, and a colorful dress on. They are smiling and looking down.
by Alaina Leary
View profile »

Alaina Leary is the communications manager for We Need Diverse Books. She teaches courses in Emerson College’s graduate department of Publishing, Literature, and Writing. Her work has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives just outside Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.