Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Unbearable Straightness of Harry

Last week in New York City, J. K. Rowling announced to an audience of fans that Albus Dumbledore, late headmaster of Hogwarts, was gay. Pardon me if I’m underwhelmed, and not very moved by Rowling’s generosity in giving the world one more deeply closeted gay character, and a solitary token at that, but the British gay movement response was predictable: “a spokesman for gay rights group Stonewall added: ‘It's great that JK has said this. It shows that there's no limit to what gay and lesbian people can do, even being a wizard headmaster.’” Peter Tatchell showed more sense, pointing out that a gay character who can be discerned to be gay in the book is more meaningful for readers, gay or straight. The American antigay-bigot response was predictable too; I won’t bother linking to the more blatant cases. Among human beings I liked best the blogger who titled her post “I Love My Dead Gay Dumbledore.” This was a reference to the great dark comedy Heathers, in which a weeping father expresses his love for his dead gay football-player son; a skeptic in the church murmurs, “Wonder how he'd react if his son had a limp wrist with a pulse.” I had the same thought about Dumbledore.

Then there were the straight liberals. PZ Myers is a scientist and an atheist who likes to twit Bible-thumping homophobes, but he was grumpy: “It's more fuss over nothing,” he harrumphed. “He's a fictional character, the author is getting a little too freakily obsessive over her characters, and it doesn't affect me one way or the other how the character swings. So Rowling says he's gay. Eh. Move on.” If only it were that simple. Some of his commenters promptly set him straight, so to speak, on authors and backstory. Me, I always get suspicious when a straight boy starts letting his imagination run too freakily free: “Dumbledore could have been written up as a flaming ponce who hung out in the Hogsmeade Bathhouse every weekend and did drag cabaret for fun”. I’ll bet he doesn’t care whether Dumbledore liked girls, boys, or Mackled Malaclaws! Someone has mild issues, I think, like the commenter on Blog@Newsarama who complained, “I didn’t really want to know this. Not that I care that a Harry Potter character could possibly be gay, but rather that it’s thinking of Dumbledore in a sexual way at all. It’s like seeing your grandparents doing it.”

Slinking further to the right, there’s this writer for the Dallas Morning News, who didn’t want to know it either, and apostrophized Rowling thusly:

Is Dumbledore gay? He is for you, apparently. But unless you said it in the actual books, must he be so for me? Your saying so now makes it harder for me to imagine anything different. Do you really want to limit your fictional world that way? …

For all of those years, until your books were published, the characters and settings were yours to command and control. But then you let them go.

And speaking for all of your happy readers I need to tell you: Now they are ours.

“Ours” evidently means “heterosexuals” here – it doesn’t occur to the writer that many of Rowlings’s happy readers are also gay, with opinions of their own on this subject. On Jeffrey Weiss’s planet, a gay character is somehow “limited” – can you imagine him making the same complaint about a heterosexual character? (Hey, Ms. Rowling, telling us that Harry got married to Ginny Weasley limits your fictional world!)

What surprised me a bit was the reaction among some gay men. When an article about Rowling’s announcement appeared on, the commercial gay chat and news site, many of the (presumably gay) commenters were hostile. Some accused Rowling of trying to exploit the gay male community to make more money, but some sounded just like homophobes: they didn’t want to know about it. One said he wouldn’t read the rest of the books because “this offends me”, but he didn’t explain why; nor did the one who wrote, “Like most fans around the world, I'm dismayed!!” Still another wrote: “Weather [sic] or not Dumpledore [sic] is gay has no bearing on the telling of the tale, it may be an interesting side note but the sexuality of his character has little to do with the story.” On the whole, the range of responses among these gay men was the same as on the straight sites I looked at, only with worse spelling.

Another ploy was the “They’re children’s books!” line. Strictly speaking, the Potter books are Young Adult fiction, which has always grappled with sexual and other social issues. There are a number of classic, if problematic YA novels that deal with homosexuality. Harry and his friends are adolescents, not children, and the series depicts their awakening heterosexuality (which was enough by itself to make some conservative commentators queasy). While it’s true that Dumbledore’s sexuality need not have been known to them, what about their fellow students? A Gay/Straight Alliance wouldn’t be out of place at Hogwarts, I’m sure. But that would raise the dread spectre of Politics, which was difficult enough when Hermione (no doubt thanks to her human background) tried to organize a movement to free the house elves. But Rowling’s world is one largely devoid of politics (except for the murky power struggles among the wizards); I think that’s one reason for its popularity, especially among adults of a certain age.

As Rowling herself said that night, “Oh, my god, the fan fiction!” Since the 1970s or so, there has been semi-underground erotica, known as slash fiction, depicting various manly couples as gay: Kirk and Spock of Star Trek, Starsky and Hutch, and more recently characters from the Harry Potter universe. Most of it is written by women, largely though probably not exclusively straight; SF writer and critic Joanna Russ wrote a famous paper about it, “Pornography By Women For Women, With Love.” I haven’t seen any of this stuff myself, though I’ve looked at some of the Japanese yaoi and shonen ai comics, also about male love and also wildly popular among young women. What Rowling didn’t make explicit, her fans certainly will. As Jeffrey Weiss wrote with something different in mind, the characters belong to the fans now, and not all of them want Dumbledore or Harry to be straight.

Although I’ve read all seven of the Potter books, I don’t think I’d be considered a fan. I’ve never found Rowling’s wizards appealing; on the contrary, they are narrow and provincial at best, racist and homophobic at worst. In The Deathly Hallows a sensational writer accuses Dumbledore of an “unnatural” relationship with Harry. This supports Rowling’s claim that Dumbledore’s homosexuality had long been part of his backstory for her; it’s reasonable to guess that his enemies used his known queerness to smear him, just as Muggles do in the real world. That the ploy worked doesn’t indicate that the world of wizards is any more enlightened about sexuality than the Muggle world. There’s also the slavery of house-elves, and the common anti-Muggle prejudice that so many wizards indulge, from the crude gut racism of the Malfoys to the muddled, well-meaning liberalism of Arthur Weasley. Magical candies and Quidditch, which delight so many of Rowling’s fans, aren’t enough to make me wish I could have gone to Hogwarts.