An illustration of colorful, happy cartoon people (and a couple small cartoon mice) gathering in protest. They are emerging from a laptop and into the real world. In the background, you can see the silhouette of a person going foot first into another laptop, stepping through it to join the protest on the other end. The protestors are carrying signs with red hearts, and a few have speech bubbles over themselves.
Melcher Oosterman

Don’t Underestimate Fan Activists

No one knows how to organize like a fandom.

J.K. Rowling could have died a hero, but will instead be remembered by millions of her most ardent fans as a villain.

At first, it seemed subtle enough: Rowling would “like” tweets that framed trans women as men, toeing the line of support for transphobic rhetoric. Then, in 2019, she shifted from passive implied support to active commentary. She tested the waters by voicing support for Maya Forstater, the plaintiff in a UK employment lawsuit claiming she had been discriminated against for “gender-critical” tweets. On her website, best known for its charming Harry Potter-related Easter eggs, Rowling published a nearly 3,700 word essay decrying trans activism. She has even gone so far as to compare her opponents to Death Eaters, a Nazi-esque terrorist organization in the Harry Potter universe. Today, the author’s brand is practically unrecognizable to many longtime fans; if you emerged from a coma you entered in 1997, you might look at Rowling’s Twitter and assume that policing trans lives was her day job.

As one of the leaders of Fandom Forward (formerly The Harry Potter Alliance), an international nonprofit that helps Harry Potter fans and members of other fan communities become real-life heroes through activism, I had a front row seat to Rowling’s shocking transformation. I wasn’t just angry; I was heartbroken, especially since so many of my friends and collaborators in the Harry Potter fandom are trans. Having grown up in the Catholic school system, where people simply didn’t come out until adulthood, many of the first openly trans people I ever met were people I knew through this fan community.

Whether she accepts it or not, J.K. Rowling is fighting to destroy a safe haven that she helped create. She isn’t just collecting royalty checks or rolling around in champagne: She is using the power of storytelling to enact significant political and cultural outcomes for trans people who are merely trying to live freely, without the threat of violence or death. 

Fortunately, fans who support trans rights are doing the same thing. I am one of them. As a child, pop culture was the lens through which I understood the world and myself. I didn’t just consume stories. I devoured them, and made them my own. I was born in the early ’90s, and grew up with the Hogwarts trio: The night in 2001 that my grandmother and aunt took me to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, then set me up with a copy of the book, changed my life forever. I spent countless hours imagining myself at Hogwarts, fighting alongside my favorite characters. Would I be great at Quidditch like Harry and Ron? An intellectual like Hermione? Great with magical creatures like Hagrid? The ability for readers to place themselves in this magical universe and learn something about themselves in the process is part of why the story has endured for so long.

Like many children of my generation, I also understood the Harry Potter universe not as an escape from reality, but an invitation to tackle the world’s injustices. After all, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger were never passive bystanders. Even at age 11, they stepped up to fight evil, often without the support or knowledge of the adults around them.

Today, I am part of a community of fans using the lessons we learned from Harry Potter to combat a rising tide of transphobic violence in the U.S. and U.K. The fandom’s response to Rowling’s comments has been swift and impactful, creating a path forward that challenges Rowling’s ideas and fosters trans acceptance, all while offering options beyond a mere boycott. The Gayly Prophet, a Harry Potter podcast with a queer and trans lens, created a guide to firing J.K. Rowling that features countless suggestions for engaging with the franchise ethically, and even supporting trans rights through the purchase of fan-made merchandise. Fandom Forward’s Protego Toolkit provides resources and actions fans can take to lobby against anti-trans legislation, attend protests, volunteer for trans rights organizations, and make community spaces trans-friendly. A consortium of fan organizations called HP Fans Against Transphobia has collected thousands of signatures petitioning HBO against further enriching Rowling through the creation of a new Harry Potter television series. And our heroes themselves have even stepped up to be a part of this activism, too: Recently, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe moderated “Sharing Space,” a Trevor Project web series featuring discussions with trans and nonbinary youth.

Whether it comes from the fandom or “Harry” himself, Rowling faces a powerful storm of collective action, rooted in love and community for trans lives. Because the truth is this: Fans have power, and as a collective, we can make a difference—sometimes even bigger than the thing that brought us together in the first place.

Media scholar Henry Jenkins defines fan activism as “forms of civic engagement and political participation that emerge from within fan culture itself, often in response to the shared interests of fans, often conducted through the infrastructure of existing fan practices and in relationships, and often framed through metaphors drawn from popular and participatory culture.” Simply put, fan activism allows fans to channel their creative energy and imagination into civic action—and it’s effective.

As an innovative practice, fan activism can take many forms, though many were popularized by what was once The Harry Potter Alliance, which I joined as a college sophomore in 2012. What started amid a rich ecosystem of transformative works on Harry Potter became a guiding force and community hub for hundreds of thousands of fans. The organization was founded in 2005 to address human rights violations in Sudan and raise money for Amnesty International at local wizard rock concerts in the Boston area. Today, we’ve turned our sights toward countless other causes, too.

In nearly 20 years, fan activists have developed innovative, powerful campaigns on a global scale. As a longtime volunteer and now as the co-chair of the board of directors at Fandom Forward, I have witnessed thousands of volunteers, often young students from various backgrounds, recognize and own their collective power through pop culture. Together, we have donated over 400,000 books and built libraries in underserved communities globally through Accio Books (now Book Defenders), connected with activist mentors at our Granger Leadership Academy (also known as Camp GLA), raised funds to bring three planes (aptly nicknamed Harry, Ron, and Hermione) full of rescue supplies to Haiti during the 2010 earthquake disaster, and even successfully lobbied Warner Bros. to use Fair Trade-certified cocoa products through our Not in Harry’s Name campaign.

The real magic and legacy of fan activism, however, is that it challenges corporate assumptions about what fandom is. The world’s greatest “superfans” are more than just passive media consumers who will buy and stream whatever you put in front of them. They are active participants who will remix and reinterpret your brand through the lens of their own experience. And they aren’t afraid to walk away from the brand itself when its creators do not align with their morals. The swift response to J.K. Rowling’s commentary on trans rights, as well as commentary on fatphobic, racist, and antisemitic tropes in the Harry Potter series, illustrates that pop culture is no longer a top-down hierarchical structure, with audiences waiting to absorb whatever studio executives have decided the masses should consume. Fans have willed ideas about their favorite stories into life. If they don’t agree with the harm a creator has caused, they can—and will—go elsewhere.

This trend is extraordinary not because it is new, but because it brings us one step closer to the heart of what storytelling looks like outside the shadow of corporate greed: not a means by which a few companies could reap profits endlessly, but a modern mythos by which our collective memory passes from generation to generation. Storytelling is one of the key elements that makes us human. For thousands of years, humans have told stories in order to survive. As our species evolved and circumstances changed, stories have shifted in purpose, meaning, and interpretation, but ultimately still exist to help us survive and build community. Fandom, and fan activism by extension, is simply a part of the storytelling evolution.

The passion, joy, and power of fandom is immeasurable. It is a magic that cannot be contained or tamped down, even as brands attempt to wrest control over the meaning and messaging behind their intellectual property. Organizing can still seem daunting, and those in it for the long haul will need plenty of ways to take care of themselves and their community. For fan activists, the hard work of organizing is often accompanied by opportunities to experience joy and self-care at community events, from wizard rock concerts to meditation retreats. In the fight against fascism and anti-democratic practices, my ability to engage in sustainable, joyful activism with other fans has given me hope beyond measure.

While Harry Potter has fostered some of the most popular forms of fan activism, the possibilities are endless, spanning countless other fan communities. The Fan Organizer Coalition, founded in 2021 and co-directed by Fandom Forward and Black Nerds Create, has sparked numerous cross-fandom collaborations. From ending voter suppression with Star Trek fans, to celebrating Indigenous geek culture, to educating Disney fans on how to fight the climate crisis, our civic imagination as fans and as storytellers knows no bounds.