“‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people,” she tweeted. “Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
The phrase “people who menstruate” was intended to be inclusive of women, non-binary people, trans men and gender-fluid and gender-nonconforming people.
Rowling said that if “sex isn’t real,” the realities of cisgender women (women whose gender identity conforms with the sex they were assigned at birth) globally are erased.
But the people she excluded in her initial tweet were trans men, non-binary and gender-fluid people, by emphasizing the idea that it’s only cisgender women who menstruate. It also left out trans women by implying that if they cannot menstruate, they are not women.
Trans women are people who were assigned male at birth but identify as women. Trans men are people who were assigned female at birth but identify as men.
“Your sex is what you are assigned at birth, and your gender is the way that you experience your own sense of gender identity,” Paley said. “It’s important [that we recognize] very clearly that trans women are women and that trans men are men. … and that we respect people for the way that they identify and live their own gender.”
“Beyond that,” she added, Rowling’s tweets “are part of a prejudice that results in discrimination and violence in too many circumstances.”
Understanding the difference between gender and sex is important to understanding the spectrum of experiences based on the two concepts. Here’s what gender and sex mean and how they impact a person’s identity.
Defining gender vs. sex
Some medical associations have recognized the difference between gender and sex.
Gender identity is a component of gender that describes a person’s psychological sense of their gender.
“We need to understand that when we are talking about how people experience their gender, it is the gender that they say that it is,” Paley said. “We really don’t want to live in a world where we look at trans women and say that they are not women because of the sex they might’ve been assigned at birth.
“Suggesting that gender does not exist, suggesting that it’s only the sex you were assigned at birth … if someone makes that argument, it is essentially saying that transgender people do not exist, that they can only live in the sex that they were assigned at birth. That negates and erases the existence of transgender and non-binary people.”
Erasing lived realities of women
Rowling also shared concerns that believing “sex isn’t real” would mean the “lived reality of women globally is erased.”
To suggest that supporting trans women hurts cisgender women in some way is a “false dichotomy,” Paley said.
“Acknowledging the fact that transgender women are women does not remove rights from cisgender women,” Paley said. “It is important that we honor and respect the rights and dignity of all women” whether they are cisgender, transgender or however they identify.
Every woman has a different experience of womanhood, McBride said. “There is diversity in womanhood, and to acknowledge that and to embrace and affirm a portion of that diversity in no way diminishes the validity or reality of anyone else’s womanhood.”
The health impact of dismissing identity
One of the reasons people shouldn’t dismiss one another’s gender identity is because it’s “basically disrespectful to ignore the preferred gender expression of an individual,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City.
Misgendering trans people, even if unintended by the perpetrator, can be frustrating or harmful to their mental health. Some people are more resilient while others’ feelings might be hurt by microaggressions that ignore their realities.
“Every major medical and mental health group acknowledges that transgender and non-binary people exist,” Paley said. “When you deny the existence of people, from a psychological perspective that causes intense pain, suffering and can harm the mental health of trans and non-binary people.”
These sources said that this denial can manifest as roadblocks to health care, gender-affirming care and building positive self-esteem. The discrimination, rejection and lack of access to care and resources also make trans and non-binary people at risk for depression and suicide, Paley said.
Several of the experiences some trans people might go through — including realizing they’re trans, struggling with gender dysphoria and talking with family — are distressing and confusing enough, without prejudice from others.
“It’s hard to be referred to [as] something different than who you are just because you weren’t born as it,” said Lazarus Gates, a trans man from Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“So to be doubly stigmatized by both having the pain of dysphoria and to then be disrespected and stigmatized — it’s not right,” Drescher added.
Educating yourself about language and identities regarding gender and adjusting to how culture is changing can be confusing, especially if you’re older or don’t interact with any trans people on a regular basis.
“Language is changing,” Drescher said, and it can be hard to keep up.
“Many trans people are always willing to educate people and answer questions about being trans as well,” Gates said. “I understand that it can be hard to keep up with these changes, especially for people who grew up in a time or a place where being transgender was unheard of, but it’s never too late to educate yourself on the subject and change your mistakes.”
Becoming culturally aware can help you understand and support the LGBTQ community, but also contribute to the betterment of society as a whole.
“When trans people are able to live authentically and fully, all of us are freer to express ourselves authentically and fully,” McBride said. “Transgender people are part of the rich diversity of our society and our world.”