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In 2007, Harry Potter series creator J. K. Rowling made waves when she revealed that Albus Dumbledore, the much-beloved headmaster of Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and mentor to Harry Potter, was gay. Normally an author builds his or her characters on the page, leaving out nothing of special importance the reader must know to appreciate that character’s worth and motivations. So Rowling’s years-later revelation, one of startling magnitude, came as a stunning and puzzling novelty to the literary scene.
Nothing in the seven books themselves had pointed to Dumbledore having any particular sexual orientation, and to my knowledge, not a single child who ever gobbled up the series with rapt attention had ever posed the question of his sexuality to their parents or teachers. So Rowling’s after-the-fact announcement made no literary sense.
But it did make political sense. The LGBT community expressed delight at the news, since Dumbledore is an extremely sympathetic and charismatic figure, either respected or feared by everyone in the world of wizardry. Whether or not Rowling had all along imagined Dumbledore as gay, or whether it came to her as a marketing brainstorm to reap plaudits and gin up sales to a new generation, I can’t say. What I can say is that it certainly smacks of opportunism with a safety harness. Dumbledore was sexless in the series, which pleased conservatives, and lo! He was now also gay!—which thrilled sexuality-obsessed progressives. There was a deep whiff of cynicism wafting up from the announcement.
You don’t have to be a conservative to query the wisdom of assigning any sexuality at all to characters in a series aimed at children, although adored by legions of adults. If you “out” one, you implicitly identify the sexualities of all the other characters in the book who, even apart from the married couples, we must now conclude, are heterosexual.
But how does this matter in the first place? Every one of these characters is presented only in their relationships with children. The married couples are not drawn as men and women in sexual relationships, but in their role as parents, and no child likes to dwell on their parents’ sexual lives. The Weaselys and the Dursleys don’t exude any sexual vibes at all. They represent the great theme of “family”—the good kind and the abusive kind – since the overarching theme of Harry’s journey is the grief at a loving family lost and the quest to recreate that lost paradise.
The magical tradition excludes overt sexuality for a good reason. These wizards have magical powers. An adult can imagine some pretty disturbing scenarios where magical powers combined with sexual lust could result in dark plot twists we adults should not be encouraged to think about, lest our thoughts filter down to the children who are the consumers the books were meant for.
So it is extremely weird that Rowling retroactively assigned a specific living sexuality to a character who does not, and cannot, actually exist as anything but the otherwise rounded character he fully inhabits in the books. Anyone who reads the series now, knowing Dumbledore is gay, is in effect reading a different story, just as it would be a different story if the author had revealed that the Weaslys were actually Sephardic Jews, or that Harry’s mother was biracial, or that Hermione was secretly bulimic.
There have been eight films on or spun off from the series, and Dumbledore has yet to be portrayed as overtly gay. Eleven years on from the initial revelation, a new Potter spin-off film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald features the boy Dumbledore had loved (according to Rowling, not her books), who went on to betray their love by going over to the Dark Arts.
Rowling commented: “Their relationship was incredibly intense. It was passionate, and it was a love relationship. But as happens in any relationship, gay or straight or whatever label we want to put on it, one never knows really what the other person is feeling…So I’m less interested in the sexual side—though I believe there is a sexual dimension to this relationship—than I am in the sense of the emotions they felt for each other, which ultimately is the most fascinating thing about all human relationships.”
What the hell is Rowling smoking? “One never knows really what the other person is feeling?” Um, yeah, in real life, that is true. But with imaginary people, the person who created them actually does know what they feel and think. That, you see, is the actual point of good fiction. Likewise, why does she “believe” there was a sexual relationship? She’s their freaking creator. This is something she must “know”; if she doesn’t, she’s kind of saying she thinks these characters are real. (Columnist backs away slowly.)
In any case, the children Rowling allegedly wrote the Harry Potter series for do not give a newt’s eye for what two guys in love are feeling, or anyone in love for that matter, or whether they have sex or don’t. Because ewwwww. They like the magic, the grand battles between good and evil, the (non-sexual) friendships, the aching need for a nurturing family, and the jelly beans that taste like barf.
Speaking of joining the Dark Arts, Rowling’s Harlequinesque flights of fancy about two of her imaginary friends’ grand amour put her at risk, not only of seeming like a hypocrite for currying LGBT favour while maintaining her Brownie points as a mainstream children’s author, but of giving the appearance of having slid down some mental rabbit hole to a strange place where fictional characters, identity politics, dumpsters full of money, and a fat streak of voyeurism are holding a creepy tea party.