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Dumbledore Is Gay 20 October 2007

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Sexuality.
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Well, duh. J.K. Rowling revealed yesterday that her character Dumbledore, erstwhile Hogwarts headmaster, is gay. [Hat tip to Belaja.] Leaving aside the politically delicate act of outing, Rowling’s revelation puts to rest a couple years of rumors concerning the bearded sage, and surely will bring up all sort of pedophilic panic among those already predisposed against the Satanic wizarding world (i.e., Christian wingnuts). I find that I have a mixed response to this revelation.

On one hand, I still have that problem where I crave representation in the larger culture, and so I immediately started rethinking everything I remember about the character through the books. And I felt a bond to Rowling. Apparently, Dumbledore’s life-love was the evil Grindelwald, because of whom he almost destroyed his remaining family (Book 7). Rowling says that his love for Grindelwald disillusioned Big D, and taught him that love can blind you to what is right. And that it was the great tragedy of Dumbledore’s life.

But Dumbeldore as broken, betrayed aging single lonely gay man? The other side of my response was irritation and disappointment. There are two tropes in Western literature going back at least to the Victorians of homosexual male characters. First, the psychopathic, often homicidal, mentally imbalanced. In the narrative, he is usually the foil against which the normal or good men are measured. Think: Talented Mr. Ripley. Even E.M. Forster’s characters in Maurice border on this trope. Second, and the one followed by Rowling, the single outcast, usually pathetic and pitiable, incapable of love, or only finding impossible love; but usually functioning as a care-taker or guide or at worst the comic relief for the straight people in the narrative.. These men are usually not explicitly homosexual. Think: Henry James’ The American. Rowling has followed this trope, albeit a step up, where Dumbledore has an important career and is the center of the fight against darkness. See, all that unused relational energy can be transfered into a career!

So while I understand Rowling’s argument that her books are a “prolonged argument for tolerance,” and I think she had good intentions, in 2007 we are far beyond the time when a sympathetic gay character should be closeted and sexless (and surely Ian McLellan has proved that older gay men are still vital and sexual). Given where the UK is right now in the integration of gay men and women into British society, this is a step backward. I don’t want to be too harsh, here, but ultimately Dumbledore’s narrative turns into sycophantism: How do you write a gay character in a children’s book without freaking the hell out of their conservative retrograde parents? What would Dumbledore have been like had he had a partner (dead or living), if he’d discussed love with Harry or Hermione at appropriate moments? Would it have undermined his position at the center of Goodness in the book? No. If Rowling’s intention is an argument for tolerance, it is a weak whimper of a statement, at least where gay men are concerned.

To be honest, my bets for a gay character were on Sirius. My feeling was that he had been in love with James (Gary Oldman’s plunging neckline can’t help but throw us back to the go-go gay 1970s). But had Rowling outed Sirius last night, we would have been left in exactly the same conundrum. A lonely, single gay man, loveless and pitiable.

UPDATE: If Sirius were gay, that would mean that the two main adult men who take care of Harry as a young man were gay. The horror! Surely, this explains his pouty broodiness in books 5-7, as well as his bad manners and self-absorption and most especially his propensity to flagrantly (flamboyantly?) disregard the rules! I see it now. What Rowling is actually doing is writing a cautionary tale about young men being mentored by homos.



1. belaja - 20 October 2007

Yeah, my reaction was along the lines of yours. He’s gay but she never gives a hint of that–at least one that kids would probably pick up on. She reveals it after the whole thing is finished. She never truly makes it part of his character or experience. In fact, the explanation she did give for his intense relationship with Grindelwald was certainly sufficient to explain it, in my opinion. Dumbledore was smarter than pretty much everybody, including Voldemort, who was supposed to be this evil genius. His best friend (Doge) is really more of a worshipper than a peer. He’s trapped at home alone taking care of a damaged sister and suddenly this guy shows up who is, finally, his intellectual equal. This is the explanation she actually gives and there’s no hint of anything homoerotic or even homo-romantic (if that’s a word).

Of course, sexuality isn’t really dealt with in the books at all other than some adolescent gropings in the later books, which may be a good call in books for children and adolescents. However, I can’t help comparing that to Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy where he has a pair of gay characters (gay angels!) that are openly a couple. He doesn’t get into anything explicitly sexual, but they are obviously and clearly homosexual and utterly devoted to one another. If this was the route Rowling was going to go (and it seems clear that she conceived of him as gay from the very beginning) then it seems a bit–timid–to only out him at the end, as an aside, and not at least make it a bit more obvious in the books themselves. The whole thing seems kind of clumsy.

And I hadn’t thought of Sirius as a gay character, but I think you’re right. She actually makes a better “case” for Sirius as gay, than she does for Dumbledore.

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