In 2013, J.K. Rowling explained how she chose her now-controversial pseudonym, “Robert Galbraith.” The first name, she said, was a nod to her political hero, Robert Kennedy. And the last name? “When I was a child, I really wanted to be called Ella Galbraith, I’ve no idea why.”
It’s a charming anecdote—but unfortunately, Rowling shares her pseudonym with real-life psychiatrist Robert Galbraith Heath, who in the 20th century pioneered what we now call conversion therapy using techniques including electroshock and “brainwashing” drugs.
Rowling’s anecdote, issued before her alternate name choice had stirred much mainstream controversy, casts this tie as sheer, if improbable, coincidence. But the author’s recent transphobic comments have eroded many fans’ willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt—and Rowling’s new book, which revolves around a cross-dressing serial killer, has only made things worse.
Troubled Blood, the latest in Rowling-slash-Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike detective series, is a 944-page tome in which the killer, Dennis Creed, is described as a cisgender man who occasionally dresses as a woman—sometimes, to get closer to his victims. His propensity for donning dresses and jewelry is framed as both fetishization and the result of trauma, playing into two of the most common and pernicious notions about people who break from traditional gender “norms.”
As critics of the novel have already noted, the trope of cross-dressing killers has a long and sordid history in pop culture. (Think: Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, et al.) The notion is prominent enough that the Netflix documentary Disclosure, which explores media depictions of trans people, devotes an entire segment to it. Laverne Cox, one of the primary speakers in the doc, has condemned Rowling’s remarks, as has Cynthia Nixon, who has a trans son. Beyond the offensive implication that transgressing gender mores somehow correlates with violence, these depictions also serve as a back door into denigrating trans people.
Rowling portrays villain Dennis Creed’s habit of wearing dresses as a guise that masks the violent monster underneath. His effeminate tendencies cause some people he encounters to believe he is gay—which can feel further reminiscent of the homophobic arguments of the 1970s and ’80s, which cast gay people as predators similarly to how anti-trans movements now frame trans people. Rowling’s protagonist Cormoran Strike says at one point that Creed’s victims “had been hoodwinked by a careful performance of femininity.”
But most harmful are the passages that mock Creed using the language of transphobes. There’s a fixation, at times, on Creed’s ability to “pass”—including an entire retrospective on a doctor’s office debating whether an unregistered patient was a “lady” or a man in a dress. The book frames Creed’s interest in women’s clothing as the result of abuse he suffered as a child, and casts him as a voyeur who uses the cloak of womanhood for his own twisted purposes—again, pernicious anti-trans tropes.
“It excited me… to watch a woman who didn’t know she was being observed,” the character writes in one first-person passage. “I’d do it to my sisters, but I’d creep up to lit windows as well… I was aroused not only by the obviously sensual aspects, but by the sense of power. I felt I stole something of their essence from them, taking that which they thought private and hidden.”
“I was aroused not only by the obviously sensual aspects, but by the sense of power. I felt I stole something of their essence from them, taking that which they thought private and hidden.”
The character is further said to enjoy stealing women’s underwear, wearing them “in secret,” and masturbating in them.
Rowling has gradually become the most widely recognizable face of an increasingly toxic anti-trans movement brewing in Britain. Over the past few years, as the U.S. has warred over bathroom bills, the U.K. and many prominent media columnists have similarly seized every opportunity to question the humanity of trans people and frame them as threats to women and young girls.
In 2017 the U.K. government announced that it was seeking public comment as it sought to modernize the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. The announcement made clear that its goal was to alleviate some of the burdens trans people face while seeking legal recognition of their identities and to provide non-binary people recourse under the act; this was not, the announcement noted, an invitation to debate the humanity of trans people.
Yet in the years that have followed, the latter is precisely what the discussion has devolved into, with Rowling and prominent media columnists leading the charge. And it appears their efforts are working: This summer leaked documents suggested the government plans to ban people with male genitalia from “women-only” spaces and walk back some protections already afforded under the Act.
Weaponizing a twisted version of “feminism,” Rowling and others have cast trans people, and especially trans women, as threats to cisgender women when, in reality, trans people, particularly trans women, face terrifying degrees of violence.
“Rowling and others have cast trans people, and especially trans women, as threats to cisgender women when, in reality, trans people, particularly trans women, face terrifying degrees of violence.”
In June, after firing off multiple transphobic tweets, Rowling complicated things further by revealing that she is a domestic-abuse and sexual-assault survivor. She framed her fear of trans people invading “women-only” spaces as the logical result of this trauma, despite the fact that such fears have been thoroughly debunked. (It’s worth noting that homophobes and racists have also adopted bathrooms as battlegrounds in the past.)
Rowling also claimed to worry about young girls who she said transition to escape misogynistic treatment, only to detransition later on. (A laughable notion to anyone who has caught even a glimpse of the treatment trans people often receive, even before one notes that detransitioning is far less common than some coverage has suggested.)
As critic Kelly Lawler notes for USA Today, Rowling’s comments have made “separating the art from the artist” pretty much impossible. Troubled Blood’s premise of a man donning a wig and dress as he terrorizes women feels inextricable from Rowling’s panic over trans people “invading” “women-only” spaces.
It also doesn’t help that Rowling has engaged in even more directly transphobic language in a past Cormoran Strike novel. As PinkNews notes, the second in the series, The Silkworm, portrays a trans woman as “unstable and aggressive”—playing into the transphobic notion that trans women are somehow unable to suppress violent masculine tendencies.
The character, Pippa, stalks Cormoran Strike and eventually tries to stab him—and once the detective traps her in his office, she is revealed as trans, as Rowling describes her Adam’s apple and hands while Strike says prison “won’t be fun for you… Not pre-op.” (Troubled Blood, too, makes mention of Dennis Creed’s “large hands” in contrast to the wig and dress he wears as drag.)
Rowling and her contemporaries love to complain that they’re being bullied into submission—an allegation Rowling herself made in her “TERF Wars” essay this summer. But often, and certainly in this case, those claiming to be silenced have the largest pulpits. Rowling has now used her Twitter platform, her blog, and her novels to spread transphobia. And in perhaps the bitterest irony of all, every time she does so in book form, she manages to profit from it—all under the moniker of a man.