A new podcast about J.K. Rowling premiered its first two episodes this week amid criticism that it is unfairly biased toward the Harry Potter author, who has become notorious for her anti-trans views.
The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling purports to examine “the forces propelling this moment in history, through interviews with Rowling’s supporters and critics, journalists, historians, clinicians, and more.”
Host Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the anti-LGBTQ+ Westboro Baptist Church, announced the series earlier this month. She described the podcast, which is produced by The Free Press, former Times op-ed writer Bari Weiss’s media company, as a “story about the polarization of public opinion. About the fracturing of public conversation. About the dangers of certainty, and the difficulty of discernment.”
“Search Twitter for ‘trans witch hunt,’ and you’ll find no shortage of people—both ‘team trans’ and ‘team TERF’—who see themselves as the object of a moral panic,” Phelps-Roper tweeted. “Major toxicity surrounds this conflict, but there are human beings on all sides of it. I spoke with dozens of them. Their stories are important, illuminating, and—in a moment when black-and-white positions abound—essential to understand.”
Almost immediately, Twitter users questioned Phelps-Roper’s objectivity and “both sides-ism,” noting that the show’s very title implies that Rowling is being unfairly persecuted.
In an essay published on The Free Press’s website, Phelps-Roper wrote about Rowling in glowing and sympathetic terms, calling the author “a kind of saint,” comparing the backlash to her comments about trans women to the campaign against the Harry Potter books by Christian conservatives in the late 90s and early 2000s, and even identifying with the author as “an object of intense hatred.” She quoted Rowling as saying she has been “misunderstood,” but failed to quote any trans people or the critics Phelps-Roper says she interviewed for the podcast.
Plenty of people jumped to Phelps-Roper and Rowling’s defense, pointing out that the podcast had not even been released yet and it was too early to judge. But one transgender woman who was interviewed for the series has already disavowed the The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. YouTuber Natalie Wynn says she feels she was used by Roper and regrets her participation in the series.
In a long tweet thread posted on February 16, Wynn explained that Phelps-Roper approached her last year to be interviewed for the project. Phelps-Roper said that she had discussed points from Wynn’s videos criticizing Rowling in her interviews with the author and wanted to speak with Wynn in turn about Rowling.
“I took the bait and consented to a pretty miserable three-hour interrogation about my own transition, as well as the usual ‘concerns’ about trans rights,” Wynn wrote. “At the end of the interview, Megan asked if I had any advice about the project. I said that the one thing she definitely should not do is frame the conflict as a debate between two equally legitimate sides, ‘trans people versus transphobes—both have some good points!’”
“It’s now clear that this is exactly what she’s done, how she’s conceptualized the project from the outset,” Wynn continued. “Her stance seems to be that trans people and transphobes are equally dogmatic & combative; that if we could all just have a calm, civil conversation, empathy would prevail.”
Wynn went on to criticize Phelps-Roper for her approach to the issue of trans people and their allies’ criticism of Rowling. Phelps-Roper’s experience leaving the Westboro Baptist Church after interacting with people on Twitter, Wynn wrote, has led her to a misconception of the “debate” around trans people’s fundamental right to exist in society. “She’s extrapolated an entire political worldview: the basic problem facing humanity is too much ‘polarization’—incivility,” Wynn wrote.
Phelps-Roper’s “empty centrism,” Wynn continued, “cannot conceive of systemic power, of the legislative, institutional, and stochastic terror threats wielded against LGBT people. In assessing the ‘trans debate’ it has no standard but civility by which to judge the merits of ‘both sides.’”
“Megan does not seem to grasp that trans people are fighting for our lives, our right to exist in society. And that this fight is in no way equivalent to the rationalizations offered up by people who oppose trans rights, even when the former are angry and the latter composed,” she wrote. “She thinks ‘God Hates F*gs’ is wrong because it’s rude. But if God merely has a few reasonable concerns about f*gs, well then we’d better do a whole podcast exploring the intricate nuances of her point of view.”
On Tuesday, Phelps-Roper responded, telling PinkNews that Wynn’s criticisms “pained her.”
“I think I understand where she’s coming from,” Phelps-Roper said. “She appears to be extrapolating from an understandable misreading of the show’s title, but the series we’re making is full of complex questions and stories – including from many LGBTQ+ people – rather than conclusions and justifications. I know that withholding judgment is not an easy thing to do, but I believe that if she listens to the show through its end, she will see that it isn’t what she fears it to be.”