Rowling does gays more harm than good
J.K. Rowling never had to fight for her freedom to marry and it shows.
Seemingly unsatisfied with the shock value of making the characters in her Harry Potter franchise racially ambiguous, she has decided to double-down on her 2007 declaration that Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, a beloved elderly male character, is gay. Last week, in an interview added to the Blu-ray DVD for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Rowling confirmed something fans have long wondered: Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard who is a friend-cum-rival, had “a relationship with a sexual dimension”.
I have never cast a spell before, so here goes nothing: tedious gravitas!
In the DVD commentary, Rowling says: “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. You can't know, you can believe you know. So I'm less interested in the sexual side — although 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.”
Viewers and readers especially cannot know feelings between two characters when neither uses words or actions to express them. There's a word for that: closeted. By imbuing Dumbledore with a sexuality that does not speak its name, ink its page, or fill its screen in 2019, Rowling outs herself again as a 1990s throwback of a grandstanding faux-ally. “Do not pity the dead, Harry,” Dumbledore tells Harry in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.”
Pity characters penned in fictional, unnecessary closets even more.
Rowling published the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in Britain in 1997. She wrote six more Harry Potter books before she outed Dumbledore, which she did only after the final novel was published. Just like this time, that revelation came not in the text, but in a 2007 question-and-answer session with fans, who broke into rapturous applause. She described Dumbledore not just as a gay man, but as broken, pathetic, unrequited, lonely, doomed. In those intervening years — when 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in an anti-gay hate crime, when same-sex marriage was illegal in most US states and in Britain — the children reading her books could have used a beloved gay character, which might have given gay life some sorely needed heroes. Rowling has said she wrote some aspects of the novels, such as Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley's relationship, as “a form of wish fulfilment”.
An openly gay Dumbledore was not her wish.
What if she had heeded Dumbledore's own wisdom? “It's our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” the Hogwarts headmaster tells the boy wizard in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
Here's a sharper take from WNYC's Nancy, a queer podcast, which, in a 2017 episode called “There Are No Gay Wizards”, took issue with Rowling getting too much credit for writing an “iconic gay character”, as the show's producer Matt Collette put it. “Of all J.K. Rowling's many accolades, there's one I find particularly noteworthy: queerbaiter,” Collette said. “That's a writer who puts in just enough of a queer storyline to appease the fans who'd like one, but not so much as to offend anyone who doesn't like gay people. There's subtext — hints at queer stories — throughout her work, but nothing more.”
How could this clumsy betrayal by a clueless straight woman get any worse? By her straight male director, David Yates, chiming in within the same DVD commentary: “I was very conscious of wanting to try to suggest that Dumbledore still held this affection for Grindelwald. There was not just regret, but there was still a love that existed between the two men.”
The love existed between them because neither offered a bridge to close that distance.
And, sorry, Yates was very conscious of wanting to try to suggest? What does that mean? Wanting to try is for bucket lists and Kamasutra positions. There's such barbed hypocrisy in this self-congratulatory pride about a closeted character from someone who was so aware of the power and perils of representation and misrepresentation that she hid her femininity behind her initials.
I understand Rowling is a 53-year-old children's book author and that maybe it is difficult to access Gossip Girl or Riverdale or Big Mouth in Britain, but teen romantic culture — and sexual culture — has come a long way since she began this franchise in the 1990s. It doesn't need to be the rote, prudish Potterverse pettiness of ill-conceived Valentine's Day dates, rookie kisses, and showing up to the school dance with a surprise on your arm. Remember when Rowling prided herself on the length of the books, scolding the industry for underestimating the amount of complexity young readers could handle? What happened to that person?
For her characters, romantic and sexual emotion exists in Rowling's mind with the no-questions-asked simplicity of invisibility cloaks and the quidditch rulebook. Harry never ever thinks of Cho Chang when he is kissing Ginny. Ron and Hermione do not have talks about how to spice up their sex life — pardon, their lovemaking. She has fetishised Dumbledore's gay pain so much that she is unwilling to write any healing for him. But Dumbledore deserves that Brokeback breakthrough every out person gets: “It could be like this, just like this, always.”
Rowling does not understand how painful it is for queer people to see a straight person be proud of open vagueness. In the real world, we don't get to do that. All queer sexual identities are defined explicitly by their expression. While straight virgins are accepted and respected, queer virgins are rushed with gaslighting doubts, such as: How do you know until you try it? Are you confused? Could this be a phase?
The books and movies span seven years of Potter's life and decades of ours. But no one has lived in the Potterverse longer or deeper than Rowling. Her persistence, then, in promoting a storyline that isn't actually in the story is becoming unforgivable. Closeted Dumbledore is her Jar-Jar Binks, and she is curdling into the Potterverse's George Lucas — well-intentioned and respected as tenured emeritus, but ultimately distrusted to continue the canonical work.
If Rowling thinks, in a fantasy world of magic and possibility and polyjuice potion and metamorphmagi, that easter-egging a character as ex-post-facto closeted is in any way helpful to anyone wondering what to do with gay thoughts and gay feelings, she is wrong.
Dumbledore's pep talk on love rings as hollow as gays who strike thirsty NOH8 poses and cheer #lovewins but then also decry fats, femmes and “black guys” on their dating profiles or hook-up apps.
Rowling's toxic vacuity is not an incidental problem. Her fans are the sort of people who have been so inspired that they have created the Harry Potter Alliance, which “turns fans into heroes” for equality. It's a beautiful manifestation of fans who grew up and decided to bring the magic of literacy to others. It's time for Rowling to grow up, too.
As an artist and creator, she has the ability to show us anything. Then, why choose to show us so little of what she has imagined for Dumbledore? In all these years, in all her work, she does not yet believe in the full power of the only real magic wand that exists in her world: her pencil.
•Richard Morgan, a freelance writer in New York, is the author of Born in Bedlam, a memoir