Harry Potter and the Closet of Self-Loathing,
or,
Big Gay Albus


Recent reports that author J.K. Rowling has "outed" fictional character Albus Dumbledore from her best-selling Harry Potter series of books have got people talking all over the blogs and messageboards. Presumably, if I turned my TV on, I'd see some plastic-haired Fox News talking head babbling on about values and the children and shit like that. Luckily, I don't have my T.V. on.

I'm of two minds on this whole issue-- and I'm saying that as a guy who hasn't read the books, but who has gotten a blow-by-blow description from his wife, who's sort of obsessed with them. On the one hand, I think it's great-- and about damn time-- to see a gay character take such a prominent, noble role in a beloved series of children's books. Dumbledore is the venerable old wizard who mentors Harry Potter-- he's unquestionably heroic and wise. That's just the kind of representation of a homosexual man I would want my hypothetical children to read.

But...

Okay, the last book in the series has been out for, what? Four months now? And word that Dumbledore is gay is just now getting out? How could that be? The last book came out at midnight, and spoilers were posted on the web by 2 a.m. How could such a big revelation be missed? If J.K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was attracted to men, why has it only come out (so to speak) now, as everyone in America who was inclined to read these books surely has? Granted, there's apparently been some speculation in Internet fan fiction about Dumbledore's preferences, but that doesn't really mean much, does it? There's fan fiction devoted to Agent Scully getting it on with Xena, Warrior Princess, but there's nothing in the source material to suggest that anything like that ever happened to these characters.

As I said, my wife has read these books, and she was surprised by the revelation. According to her, Dumbledore is consistently presented as kind of generically sexless. According to Emily, the hints that he might be gay aren't really there.

So how do we know he's gay? 'Cause J.K. Rowling told us? Sorry, but that's kinda weak. The author doesn't get to tell the reader how to read the work. In her defense, Rowling did say, "I always thought of Dumbledore as gay" [emphasis mine], which is not as prescriptive a reading of the character as some bloggers have suggested it is-- she created a character, in the backstory she imagined for him, he was gay, but she chose to not include any of that backstory in the actual text. So... Rowling thinks Dumbledore is gay. That's not to say anyone else has to agree with her.

But...

Damn it, let's not give Rowling more credit than she deserves here. She's already a billionaire author. She's written a series of books that children love and that adults can enjoy too. Those are notable accomplishments. She is not, however, a champion of gay causes-- in fact, it seems to me that if Rowling genuinely wanted us to understand that this character is gay, she should have made it clear. That would have been a brave, important artistic decision. But instead, she gave us a book where all of the characters who express any type of sexual or romantic longing are straight. She had the opportunity to present a positive depiction of a homosexual adult; she opted not to do so. If Rowling is being honest about her intentions with the character then I imagine the decision to not make him gay in the books was strictly financial; the series already attracted enough controversy-- why court more with a gay headmaster? I can understand that perfectly (though I do think the choice is cowardly and terrible). But she doesn't get to say after the fact, once the books are bestsellers and the series is finished, "By the way, I meant to make him gay!" and receive accolades for creating such a wonderful gay character. She didn't. He's not-- at least, not definitively, the way Harry and Ron and Hermione are all clearly straight. Rowling's understanding of the character is just one possible interpretation, and the intentional fallacy is still a fallacy.

As usual, Amanda Marcotte has a much more insightful look at the issue.

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