Author’s note: This letter is solely from my perspective as a trans woman on harm being done to other trans women. I recognize that this is not the only place in which harm is being done. This letter includes talk of suicidal ideation, bullying and slurs.
To J.K. Rowling,
When I was a child, I was clearly extremely feminine. In the safety of my home, my parents were relatively accepting. They were liberals and figured I was going to grow up to be gay. Being transgender was nowhere on their radar. In fairness, it wasn’t on mine either... or really anyone’s in the early ’90s.
During my earliest years, my gender expression was allowed. My parents didn’t care when I wrapped towels around myself and pretended they were dresses or belted out songs from the latest Disney princess.
That all changed when I began elementary school. Immediately, as someone assigned male at birth who was clearly very feminine, I was a target of torturous bullying. It started swiftly and mercilessly. I was bullied physically and verbally for my femininity. School officials did nothing. Teachers did nothing. I was being called a “faggot” at the age of 6. Let that sink in.
During recess, I would be made fun of for playing house with the girls instead of playing sports with the boys. Before elementary school, almost all of my friends were girls. But soon the girls reached that age where they began to tell me I couldn’t play with them anymore because “I was a boy,” and the boys were unsafe and bullying me. So I went through elementary school with only one or two friends.
This level of isolation and mental and physical abuse meant my grades tumbled. “You’re so smart ― we don’t understand why you’re not doing better in school!” was a common refrain throughout my childhood. But no one wanted to see the truth of what was going on. How does a child concentrate in school when they are being abused by their peers on a daily basis for their femininity?
The first time I thought about suicide was a few years later. Many nights in a row, I would wake up in the middle of the night, terrified to go to school the next day and endure another round of torture. I would sneak downstairs to the kitchen, and I would hold a knife to my stomach, trying to will myself to use it.
“I want you to stop and consider that the price of existing as a trans femme child was so great that I considered suicide before I was even 10 years old.”
Today I am grateful and blessed that I did not go through with it. However, I want you to stop and consider that the price of existing as a trans femme child was so great that I considered suicide before I was even 10 years old.
The person who felt safest for me during this time was my grandfather. I never felt shamed by him. I never felt like he expected me to be anything other than exactly who I was. He let me play house and be the “sister” or the “mom.” He let me sing that latest Disney princess song. He encouraged my interest in the arts, and when bullying got bad, he instilled in me that I was OK and valid just the way I was.
Then, just after I turned 12, my grandfather passed away very suddenly. My one safe person was gone. That same year, I discovered ”Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” The first book had come out a year earlier, but, like a good little counterculture contrarian, I had refused to read it simply because it was popular. But after my grandfather died, I cracked it open. Here I was, a child going through extreme grief, desperately wanting to find any kind of an escape... and there was Harry.
I related to his isolation and his abuse. I related to his grief. I longed to be whisked away to Hogwarts to find family among friends. I became utterly lost in the world you created. The funny thing is, I remember the pang I felt when reading the chapter about the “Mirror of Erised” because I knew what it would show me if I were to look into it: myself as a girl looking back at me.
By that age, I had come out as gay, but I knew that wasn’t the full story. I knew that I was trans but my only context for trans women at that point was an episode of ”Jerry Springer” that I saw when I stayed home from school one day. Trans women were depicted as jokes, sex objects, people on the margins. Still, once I knew that transitioning was possible, I suddenly found a ray of hope and had my heart broken all at once because I truly believed that coming out as trans was beyond the pale ― and that it would end my life before it even started.
The bullying continued. The lack of safety continued, and, unfortunately, I had more people I loved pass away than anyone my age should have to say goodbye to. I processed those losses as Harry processed losing those he loved: Cedric, Sirius, Dumbledore, Hedwig, Mad Eye, Fred and countless others.
Meanwhile, as all of this transpired, my body began to betray me. For me, the physical dysphoria kicking in was nothing short of traumatic. I felt utterly helpless as my body shifted into something unrecognizable before my eyes. I felt disassociated from every fiber of my being. I dealt with it with drugs and alcohol, which I began using at the age of 12.
That’s the level of pain I was dealing with because of the supposed crime of being born trans. Again ― I was contemplating suicide and abusing drugs and alcohol before I was even a teenager. Just let that sink in for a minute. Sit with that for a minute.
The only constants in my life besides the pain were Harry, Hermione and Ron. I went to the midnight “Harry Potter” book releases. I was at the first showing of every “Harry Potter” film. And I continued to find myself in your characters’ journeys. And it’s where I found some degree of hope for my future. It’s where I learned to truly believe that “happiness can be found in the darkest of times if only one remembers to turn on the light.” Your books literally helped keep me alive.
By the time I was in my 20s, I had a breakdown over the pressure of living a lie. I continued to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol because I was unable to be alone with myself when every piece of me was screaming that the way I was moving through the world was all wrong. I finally got to a point where I realized I had just two options: transition or suicide. I chose the former. I remember thinking, Dana, you are a Gryffindor. You are brave as hell. And this might feel scary, but like Harry, you will get through it and find your friends right there with you.
And so I finally came out as trans and began to medically transition. Soon after I met my transition goals, I also got sober. And do you know how I chose to celebrate my first sober birthday living as my authentic self? I reread every book in the ”Harry Potter” series and rewatched every film, and went to see ”Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” on Broadway on my actual birthday. I wanted to do something that nourished my inner kid, and I knew that “Harry Potter” would do just that. After all, it was the series that got me through it all.
So, it should come as no surprise that I cannot even begin to explain how hurtful your recent delegitimizing of my existence is. I cannot even begin to explain the pain I feel knowing that the author who wrote the most formative book series of my life does not believe I am valid.
Therefore, I decided to write you this letter because there are a few things I want you to understand.
First, I want to let you know that I’m not going to move through each of the points you made in your essay and refute them one by one because I refuse to meet you on the playing field of the same easily debunked lies about trans people that have been peddled long before you chose to speak out and promote them. Instead, I want to make a purely personal appeal to you.
Yes, trans women and cis women are different, but no one is taking anything from you. Recognizing trans women’s validity doesn’t take anything from you. Adjusting your language to be more inclusive of trans identities doesn’t take anything from you. Your experiences as a cis woman are your experiences as a cis woman, just as my experiences as a trans woman are my experiences as a trans woman. They’re not the same, but that doesn’t mean that either experience is invalid.
I remember when I initially came out as trans to a cis woman I love, one of the things she said was that she had endured so much sexism in her life and that it was a hard pill to swallow that I was just now “claiming womanhood.” I believe that sentiment is common among many cis women who do not understand trans identity. Slowly but surely, she learned and grew, and she is now a huge supporter of the trans community. I still believe you can learn and grow, too. I have to believe it. I do not want to believe otherwise.
Because the thing is, trans women and cis women both experience gender-based violence. The relentless bullying I experienced as a child was gender-based violence. It just looked different than what cis women endure. Did I have a small modicum of male privilege before I transitioned? As much as a femme person in an assigned male body can. Did it come with an extreme amount of pain? Yes. But you had the privilege of having your gender affirmed your entire life and not having to fight for others to recognize the validity of your existence. Again, oppression and pain are not ― or, at least, should not be ― contests. They’re just different.
Furthermore, trans women are statistically more likely to experience abuse and violence because of their gender than cis women are. Black trans women in particular face disproportionately high levels of violence. You are punching down at some of the most vulnerable people in the world. And as someone who wrote about oppression and tribalism causing harm and violence, it’s particularly surprising ― and devastating. It’s even more devastating that you’ve chosen this exact moment to engage in this rhetoric, when there is currently a long overdue global uprising calling for an end to racism and police brutality and demanding that we value and uplift Black lives ― including the lives of Black trans women.
Much of the basis for violence against trans women is predicated on the idea that we are not who we say we are; that our gender isn’t real. It’s based in the idea that we’re tricking people or acting at being or pretending to be a woman. I understand from the things you have written that you don’t believe you are causing harm, but by delegitimizing trans identity, you are perpetuating the very narratives that exacerbate violence against our community.
I also want to make it clear that the pain I went through ― the pain so many of us trans people go through ― did not and does not happen in a vacuum. We don’t have high levels of suicide, abuse and addiction in our community because we are trans. It’s because we are trans in a world that denies or demonizes our existence, and the psychological stress that results from that is great. And now you are using your platform to amplify it.
When Daniel Radcliffe released his statement in support of the transgender community the other day, I read his last paragraph, which, in part says, “if you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred,” and I burst into tears. I didn’t even realize how much I needed to read that until I read it.
“Did I have a modicum of 'male privilege' when that was the face I was presenting to the world? Yes. Did it come with an extreme amount of pain? Yes. But you had the privilege of having your gender affirmed your entire life and not having to fight for others to recognize the validity of your existence. Again, oppression and pain are not ― or, at least, should not be ― contests. They're just different.”
I know that you know that the consensus from the medical community is that trans identity is real. I know that you know that the consensus from the psychological community is that trans identity is real. We have existed across cultures for millennia. We are not at war with you. You are not being attacked for standing up for women. We are simply another group of women asking you to stand up for us, too.
Today, I look at myself and see someone almost unrecognizable from the scared trans kid I once was. I’ve lived dreams that I didn’t believe were possible for me because I was trans. I’ve been on TV. I got to go to Sundance for the premiere of a film I was in. My music has been performed from San Francisco to Paris. I have love in my life and the family of friends I always longed for. I am confident as an artist and as a person. I understand how to care for myself and how to stand up for others. That’s what my transition has given me.
I will forever be grateful to “Harry Potter” for getting me through the darkness, and for reminding me to turn on the light. I write this letter because I have the privilege to, while so many trans people don’t. So many of us are still enduring pain and hardship. And so many of us have already lost and continue to lose so many things — family, friends, our livelihoods, homes and even lives ― simply because we dare to dream of being exactly who we are.
Daring to dream of a better world is something you taught all of us. Please don’t take away that gift by tainting it with transphobia. I pray this is not an end but, instead, the beginning of a journey toward understanding.
For information on how you can support and nourish Black trans women, visit The Okra Project and The Marsha P. Johnson Institute.
Dana Aliya Levinson is an actor, writer, composer and trans advocate. They can be seen in the upcoming third season of “American Gods,” the current season of “The Good Fight” and the feature film “Adam” now streaming on Hulu and Amazon. Dana’s visual album, “FALLING,” directed by Zen Pace and generously supported by V Ensler and One Billion Rising, premiered with Paper Magazine this year. They have also written about trans issues for The Huffington Post, Nylon and Women’s Health. They were a 2014-2015 Dramatists Guild Fellow, runner-up for the inaugural Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award and a finalist for the 2019 Sundance Episodic Lab.
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