Harry Potter and Trans Issues

In the Harry Potter novels, we don’t see anyone who is identified as transgender. This could be for a number of reasons: that there are no transgender wizards; that their numbers are too low for our protagonists to encounter one; that Harry doesn’t remark upon them (as the books are told from a third-person account of Harry’s perspective); or that magic can in some way ‘cure’ transgender (henceforth trans) people. The last option has a positive interpretation, and a very dark one.

That there are no trans wizards seems an incredibly lazy explanation; what reason do we have to think that? Further, it’s a boring explanation, as it completely ends any further exploration of the Harry Potter world.

The next explanation, that the protagonists never encounter someone who is trans, seems a plausible enough explanation — after all, trans people constitute somewhere between 0.5% and 0.1% of the general population, and Harry only rubs shoulders with a few hundred people for any length of time; it wouldn’t be a statistical miracle for him to simply never meet someone who is trans.

The idea that Harry doesn’t remark upon seeing a trans person, assuming he did get to meet one, implies one of two things: he either doesn’t recognise the person as trans, or the fact the person is trans is not remarkable. Since trans people don’t necessarily look different to cis people (cis means non-trans) – think of the huge amount of variety of men and women you see every day – it’s not unreasonable to suppose Harry just didn’t notice. If instead he didn’t find it remarkable to note, this says something very interesting about wizarding society: that they are at least somewhat accepting of trans people (I’ll discuss this in more detail later). This leaves the final supposition to explore.

Magic as a cure

What if magic can be used to ‘cure’ people who are transgender? I invoke the inverted commas about ‘cure’ since being transgender is simply not a disease to be cured. As I see it, there are three different different things magic could do: affirm a person’s gender identity physically, change the appearance of the trans person to that of someone of their identified gender without actually modifying their body, or make the trans person cis by making their body confirm to their gender assigned at birth.

Affirmation of gender identity

This is by far the best resolution for trans people that want to physically transition: they get the body they desire and their gender dysphoria would be largely resolved (insofar as it doesn’t apply to missed past opportunities and experiences). What would this look like? A trans wo/man would look like a cis wo/man, with all the associated body parts: breasts, uterus, vagina and vulva for a trans woman; penis and testes for a trans man. It may even be possible to mix-and-match body parts, as many trans people are happy with parts of their anatomy (e.g. some trans women like having a penis).

An interesting question to ask is what would gender affirmation magic mean for non-binary trans or gender-fluid people? I don’t actually have an answer for this, but it would be sad to think that these people would be left out while binary trans people have a spell to grant their desires.

Transition of appearance

There are two major reasons a spell to change appearance would be useful: to help alleviate some of the psychological contribution of gender dysphoria, although it won’t help with physical issues such as inappropriate hormone levels; the other is to change the way others see them, to help alleviate the social aspects of gender dysphoria.

While these may sound like two good things, the latter  can have some negative implications about society. In its most innocuous form, the social aspect helps protect against being misgendered, which is an uncomfortable and upsetting experience for many trans people. However, it can also be to make trans people invisible to society, so that cis people don’t have to feel uncomfortable about gender non-conformatnce; this implies a society somewhat oppressive to trans people, much like the muggle world is today.

Denial of gender

While some trans people would jump at the chance to not have to deal with dysphoria and be happy in their unmodified birth body and assuming their designated-at-birth gender, many more wouldn’t. The question is, would this spell be voluntary? Would it be used instead of psychotherapy to help people accept their gender identity, in stead of muggle conversion therapy is used now?

If society is transphobic, there’s no way that this spell can be ever be free of coercion, and people who are desperate (e.g. the destitute) or pressured by authority figures (e.g. children by parents) may undergo this spell unwillingly, essentially brainwashing them. If society is very transphobic, the change may be mandatory, essentially a genocide against trans people. This would be a very dark world indeed, and I won’t consider it further.

Trans experience in wizarding society

So what would wizarding society be like for trans people? It could be fully accepting of gender non-conformity, it could begrudgingly tolerate trans people (think of the muggle world now, at least in relatively progressive areas), or it could be completely unaccepting (think of the 90’s where trans people were only portrayed as the butts of jokes).

What do we see in the novels? While men and women seem to have an equal legal standing, are treated equally whenever they are interacting in the novels, and appear to wear the same clothes, the world of Harry Potter does seem to be patriarchal, in much the same way the modern world is. All the powerful people are shown to be men (with the exception of Dolores Umbridge and Minerva McGonagall), we see very gendered opinions of people from Harry’s perspective (although this may be peculiar to Harry, since he was raised by muggles and probably internalised some of their prejudices). Further, the facilities in Hogwarts are all strictly gender segregated, and we never see men in a traditionally feminine gender role or vice versa.

This would seem to indicate that wizarding society is not fully accepting of trans people, but we have no way to distinguish between the other two conclusions. If trans people are tolerated, it seems very unlikely that there would be forced denial of gender. Appearance-altering spells would likely serve to avoid uncomfortable experiences, rather than to protect the individual’s safety. Non gender-conforming and non-binary individuals would likely experience some level of discrimination, as the world would still have the notion of a gender binary fully established.

The completely unaccepting society would likely have coerced denial of gender spells, and trans people would be using change-of-appearance or gender-confirming spells as a matter of urgent personal safety. Most children wouldn’t get this opportunity.

Trans experience at Hogwarts

As noted before, Hogwarts seems to have strictly gender-segregated facilities: we have boys’ and girls’ bathrooms and dormitories and differing expectations in social events (e.g. Yule ball). Ignoring the strong heteronormativity of this world that we gather from the novels – so normative, in fact, that not even Dumbledore could be openly gay (if Rowling’s out-of-text assertion is to be accepted) and he’s the most powerful wizard of the age – what would Hogwarts be like for a trans student?

No gender-neutral bathrooms are noted in the novel, but that could easily be because Harry is relatively unobservant about such things, of more concern seems to be the lack of gender-neutral dormitories within the houses: they seem like something that would be noted at least in describing the basic layout of the common rooms. Does this mean that non-binary people have to live in a separate dormitory, apart from the houses? Or do they have to cohabitate with the boys and girls? If the latter, who decides which they live with? How about binary trans people if neither of the gender affirmation spells are available?

Glossing over the administrative difficulties, there’s the magic itself to consider: the girls’ dormitory won’t allow boys in. Is that because it detects whether the person is a girl, or whether they’re a boy? If the latter, non-binary people could enter, but for the former they couldn’t. But how does it decide what constitutes a boy/girl? Would a trans girl be detected as a girl, or as a boy? And the magic doesn’t stop there: unicorns are happy with girls approaching them, but not boys: do they detect gender identity, or do they go off physical attributes? How do they deal with non-binary people?

Ultimately, these questions can’t be answered from textual evidence, but they are interesting to think about.

Closing thoughts

This discussion has focused only on trans people, but these questions could easily be extended to intersex individuals, or those with even different identities. These are the most obvious questions that came to me from reading the Harry Potter series, and no doubt there a million more to explore. Whether or not there’s textual evidence, it’s fun to ask questions and conjecture answers.

Harry Potter and Trans Issues