J.K. Rowling's Most Controversial Moments

J.K. Rowling is the creative genius behind the magical world of Harry Potter. Her characters navigate a complex, fantastical web of enchanted people, places, and quests. Rowling has been a creative writer since childhood, but Business Insider reports that Rowling was near penniless before she thrilled readers with adventures in witchcraft and wizardry. While enduring her fair share of struggles, she developed the inner strength and resolve that led her to create one of the best-known characters in literary history. That spirit of determination has also gotten Rowling in trouble because her strong opinions sometimes alienate fans and attract foes.

Rowling has a legion of adoring fans who connect with her on social media, often looking to her for advice and inspiration. She is known for offering supportive, almost maternal words of wisdom to aspiring writers as they struggle to find their voice. And, of course, when fans like the content of your tweets, Twitter is smooth sailing. But the flip side of connecting with fans so easily is that the interaction can go south very quickly, resulting in an angry Twitter mob.

Whether Rowling has had to deal with trolls, who pounce on anyone who voices an opinion differing from theirs, or legitimate critics of her divisive stances on polarizing issues, she doesn't back down. Let's take a look at some of her most controversial moments.   

Some Harvard students weren't impressed with J.K. Rowling's commencement address

During her commencement speech to Harvard University's 2008 graduates, J.K. Rowling spoke about the importance of failure and the security she gained after failing "on an epic scale." She recounted her parents' refusal to entertain her creative aspirations as anything other than "an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension." She could have moved on after pointing out the irony, but her career success despite lack of parental support wasn't the point she was making. She continued, "There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you." 

Although Rowling's sentiments were hardly controversial, and were, essentially the essence of virtually any commencement address, her very presence at the storied institution was — at least for a few students. Speaking with NPR, computer science major Kevin Bombino felt the school "settled" when inviting Rowling to speak, adding, "I think we could have done better. You know, we're Harvard. ... And I think we should be entitled to ... we should be able to get anyone." Fellow student Andy Vaz concurred, lamenting the choice of "a children's writer" for such an honor. "What does that say to the class of 2008?" he asked, adding, "Are we the joke class?" 

J.K. Rowling trolled the trolls while raising awareness of Europe's refugee crisis

J.K. Rowling is a strong proponent of human rights. In 2019, she was honored as a Ripple of Hope laureate by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization for her " lifelong commitment to human rights and [her] exceptional work toward a more just and peaceful world." So, it is no surprise that when the migrant crisis hit the European Union in 2015, she paid attention and tried to raise awareness of the growing humanitarian crisis. More than one million asylum seekers flooded into European countries that year alone, fleeing persecution and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa. Their journeys were grueling, and one report suggests that since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of migrants have died trying to reach Europe.

The EU was unprepared for such a sudden, immense influx of asylum seekers, which gave rise to political conflict throughout the EU as leaders tried to decide how to handle this crisis. Rowling voiced her support for the refugees, tweeting, "If you can't imagine yourself in one of those boats, you have something missing. They are dying for a life worth living. #refugeeswelcome." A Twitter user heckled her, replying, "Said the millionaire on her gold iphone (sic) in her mansion." But Rowling clapped right back. "I'd type a longer retort," she tweeted, "but these diamond buttons really hurt my fingers."

Outing Dumbledore caused J.K. Rowling considerable controversy

J.K. Rowling has always appeared to be a champion for the LGBTQ community. She has heralded openly gay public figures, stood up to opponents of gay rights, and even made one of her lead Harry Potter characters gay. Rowling outed the fictitious headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Albus Dumbledore, at a 2007 audience question and answer session at Carnegie Hall (via The Guardian). This revelation, while loudly applauded in the auditorium, was much to the chagrin of some cynical Harry Potter fans.

The cynics lamented that she'd waited until all books in the Harry Potter series had been released to reveal this. They questioned her motives, suggesting the revelation might have been a ploy to garner support in the LGBTQ community. Solidifying her stance, Rowling took the homophobic critics head-on. To celebrate marriage equality in Ireland, Rowling tweeted a meme supposing Dumbledore and Gandalf were a couple, captioning it, "Then they could get married IN IRELAND!" Rowling then got trolled by Westboro Baptist Church with a homophobic tweet (via the Daily Mail), to which she responded by calling out their "tiny bigoted minds" and "thick sloping skulls."  Mischief managed!

J.K. Rowling has a history of problematic views about transgender people

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) makes it clear that gender identity is "a person's internal, deeply held sense of their gender." In terms of transgender people, GLAAD states: "Their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth."

In June 2020, J.K. Rowling tweeted her opinion on the matter by questioning use of the term "people who menstruate" to refer to — well, people who menstruate. The term was used in a Devex article about the need for menstrual hygiene and supplies around the world that ties the availability of menstrual supplies to reproductive health, access to essential items, and sustainable sanitation. While the title fit the piece, the sticking point for Rowling was that "women" would have sufficed to describe all people who menstruate. Trans men, who often menstruate, are, in Rowling's mind, women.

Washington Examiner, a conservative outlet, supported Rowling's assertion. Many fans, Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts actors (via Variety), and LGBTQ rights organizations did not. Rowling addressed the label many pinned on her: TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) in a response essay, writing, in part, "The 'inclusive' language that calls female people 'menstruators' and 'people with vulvas' strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning. I understand why trans activists consider this language to be appropriate and kind, but for those of us who've had degrading slurs spat at us by violent men, it's not neutral, it's hostile and alienating."

A woman accused of transphobia received J.K. Rowling's full support

The brouhaha over menstruation came on the heels of comments J.K. Rowling made in December 2019 in support of researcher Maya Forstater, whose consulting contract with a tax policy center wasn't renewed after fellow employees became "uncomfortable" with her public refusal to classify trans men as women (per Vox). Rowling tweeted, "Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who'll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill."

Rowling received swift and harsh push-back. The reaction to these comments was so prolific that, as Vox reported, her support for Forstater trended ahead of Donald Trump's impeachment trial. Although Rowling's detractors were decidedly unimpressed, the furor passed after Forstater lost a discrimination lawsuit she filed over the contract dispute. That is, until Rowling decided to tweet the following six months later: "If sex isn't real, there's no same-sex attraction. If sex isn't real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn't hate to speak the truth."

Maybe the reason Rowling has had trouble assigning gender to characters in later novels (via Pink News) is because she doesn't have a full grasp on the wide spectrum of gender identities?

J.K. Rowling opened up about surviving domestic abuse amid the transphobia scandal

J.K. Rowling, pictured here with her current husband Dr. Neil Murray, revealed her thought process on transgender issues in an essay she penned in response to the backlash to her 2020 comments. One shocking revelation in the piece was that Rowling says she is a survivor of domestic abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, and also a survivor of sexual assault by an unnamed perpetrator.

Encouraged by her daughter from that marriage to come forward, Rowling wrote, "I managed to escape my first violent marriage with some difficulty, but I'm now married to a truly good and principled man, safe and secure in ways I never in a million years expected to be. However, the scars left by violence and sexual assault don't disappear, no matter how loved you are...I pray my daughters never have the same reasons I do for hating sudden loud noises." Rowling then linked her stance on transgender issues to a desire to protect vulnerable people "who're reliant on and wish to retain their single sex spaces."

While trauma can indeed create a mama bear, the timing of this revelation had many questioning her motives. One critic tweeted, "Like JK Rowling, I am also a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault, both of which occurred in my teens. These awful experiences don't justify bigoted and trans-exclusionary views and I find it pretty disgusting that she's using them as a shield to deflect criticism."

Internet malcontents stand no chance against J.K. Rowling

Is it really controversial for a woman to publicly defend other women against insults and degradation from online trolls? Sadly, that seems to be the case, but for J.K. Rowling, it's complicated. When one such troll tweeted that Serena Williams' "success" is because she's "built like a man," Rowling held nothing back in her reply: "Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress. You're an idiot." And after Madonna caught flack for falling during her 2015 BRIT Awards performance, Rowling tweeted at those mocking the Material Girl, "Are you the sort of person who gloats when they see a woman fall, or the kind that celebrates a magnificent recovery?" While Madonna was publicly grateful for the author's support, Rowling knows not everyone is so enthused by women backing other women up. 

Rowling put this sentiment into words in her essay defending her controversial stance on transgender issues. "We're living through the most misogynistic period I've experienced... between the backlash against feminism and a porn-saturated online culture, I believe things have got significantly worse for girls. Never have I seen women denigrated and dehumanised to the extent they are now. From the leader of the free world's long history of sexual assault accusations...men across the political spectrum seem to agree: women are asking for trouble. Everywhere, women are being told to shut up and sit down." And Rowling flat-out refuses.

J.K. Rowling does not waver on the body positive debate

While the "body positive" movement is hailed as a victory by many, there is still much debate on the issue of fully accepting people who do not fit into a societal definition of "beautiful" or "healthy." Rowling wrote a piece on her old website intimating her disgust with society's obsession with thinness. She recounts a story with which all women are familiar: you see someone you haven't seen in a while, and you've lost weight since seeing them last. Despite a thousand greetings and accolades that could be given on topics of substance, the first thing the long-lost friend says is, "You've lost weight!" Rowling wondered why "fat" is often the most hurtful insult lobbed at women. Character be damned, your worth is determined by your size. She's not buying it, and neither are we.

Rowling ended the piece with words of wisdom and hope. "I've got two daughters who will have to make their way in this skinny-obsessed world, and it worries me, because I don't want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones; I'd rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny – a thousand things, before 'thin.'"

If this were a universal sentiment, the body positive debate would cease. Case closed.

Theresa May found an unlikely ally in J.K. Rowling

While J.K. Rowling disagrees with Theresa May on many political issues, when vulgar sexism was aimed at the conservative Prime Minister, Rowling called it out. May was targeted after announcing she would form a "minority government" (via Stylist). She received rape threats, profanity-laced tirades, and threats of violence from self-professed liberal men angry about this move. Obviously, misogyny from either side of the aisle is clearly unacceptable, but Rowling took particular exception with the so-called "progressive" perpetrators in this instance.

Pulling out her controversy wand, Rowling tweeted, "I'm sick of 'liberal' men whose mask slips every time a woman displeases them, who reach immediately for crude and humiliating words associated with femaleness." She later added, "Every woman I know who has dared express an opinion publically (sic) has endured this kind of abuse at least once rooted in an apparent determination to humiliate or intimidate her on the basis that she is female...If your immediate response to a woman who displeases you is to call her a synonym for her vulva, or compare her to a prostitute, then drop the pretence and own it: you're not a liberal. You're a few short steps away from some guy hiding behind a cartoon frog." 

As Dumbledore says, "The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution." Rowling loves to drop truth bombs — even when her truth isn't necessarily standard.

J.K. Rowling's paradoxical support of Donald Trump

J.K. Rowling has demonstrated she's willing to put political differences aside for the sake of lofty ideals. But the high road isn't always the route Rowling chooses. When Donald Trump seemed to shove his way to the front of the group of 27 world leaders at the 2017 NATO summit, held at the organization's brand-new Brussels headquarters, it was about as subtle as Bozo's nose. CNN documented the cringeworthy moment as the President of the United States, at his first-ever NATO summit, "pushed aside Dusko Markovic, the prime minister of Montenegro," in an apparent attempt to have a better spot in the photo op. JK Rowling tweeted the BBC News' clip of the moment with a simple caption: "You tiny, tiny, tiny little man." 

Rowling really does have a way with words, but when she gets political, a firestorm of both support and dissent often ensues. And she welcomes the discourse. In her 2016 PEN Literary Awards Gala speech, she defended Trump's right to free speech while condemning nearly everything he says. According to Rolling Stone, Rowling said, "I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted. But he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there." Some of her detractors might call this cognitive dissonance.

J.K. Rowling is not shy about shaming political leaders

When attempted mass murderer Darren Osbourne, who is white, drove a van into a crowd standing outside a mosque in North London, he shouted, according to witnesses quoted by Stylist, "I want to kill all Muslims!" The attack was widely labeled as terrorism, but because of the specific way terrorism is defined in the UK, Osbourne was convicted of murder charges, rather than "terror offenses" (via Independent). Although that technicality has a legal basis, there is a perception terrorism perpetrated by white men is treated differently than the same acts by men of color. Rowling clearly agrees.

While many entertainers shy away from directly criticizing particular political beliefs, so as not to alienate any part of their fanbase, Rowling does not. She's tweeted photos of propaganda and statements by political leaders that seemingly helped to foster the anti-Muslim sentiment that radicalized Osbourne. 

Those are bold positions to take. But Rowling's adamant stance on terrorism and the rhetoric surrounding it perhaps stems from a seminal experience she recounted during her Harvard commencement speech. While working at Amnesty International's London headquarters in the African research department, Rowling witnessed the anguish of an activist whose "mother had been seized and executed ... in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country's regime." Rowling said that experience changed her forever. And being privy to an injustice so severe might be one reason she openly voices unpopular perspectives.

Piers Morgan felt the wrath of Rowling

When you're famous and outspoken, you're a target for ire. It comes with the territory. But J.K. Rowling also knows how to dish it out — and targets on the receiving end of her jabs don't seem to like it any more than she does.

Piers Morgan has managed to enrage, offend, or alienate just about everyone in the English-speaking world at this point (but he is still on the air, so hate-watching must be a real thing). Morgan was booked on Real Time with Bill Maher, and when Maher asked (rhetorically) if he could get an apology from everyone "who said that Hillary Clinton was the lesser of two evils," Morgan replied, "Why?" and then went on to defend Donald Trump. A fellow panelist, comedian Jim Jefferies, then likened Trump to Hitler, and Morgan dismissed the comparison. The conversation culminated with Jeffries telling Morgan to "f*ck off."

Rowling saw the interview and tweeted the clip with the text, "Yes, watching Piers Morgan being told to f*ck off on live TV is exactly as satisfying as I'd always imagined." Morgan responded that he'd never read a Harry Potter book, and Rowling replied, "Because you had a premonition that, one day, the author would roar with laughter at seeing you called out for your bulls*it on live TV?" Celeb-feud schadenfreude is sometimes sweet.