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Albus Dumbledore in The Secrets of Dumbledore
Image: Warner Bros

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Dumbledore’s Gay Storyline Isn’t the Groundbreaking Moment You Think it Is 

The trailers for the upcoming Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore – releasing in North America this week – have demonstrated that Dumbledore’s sexuality will “finally” be confirmed in an official Harry Potter film. “Finally” seems to be the buzzword that is circulating around this event, considering that CBRHITC, and Out all include the word in their headlines.  

To use the word “finally” is to imply that people have been waiting for this moment for a long time, patiently anticipating the day when Dumbledore will finally get to come out in an official capacity. It positions this moment as somehow meaningful, significant, or exciting for queer audiences. However, in reality, Dumbledore’s sexuality has a much more tenuous relationship with queer fans, and the significance of his coming out in the film is either inconsequential or, indeed, actively harmful, for many of us.

For a bit of history on Dumbledore’s sexuality: the character was coded as queer in the seventh Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The book tells the story of how he and his best friend Gellert Grindelwald – with whom he had a very close relationship – got swept up in a dangerous, fascist vision of a world where wizards subjugate and rule over non-magical folk (referred to as Muggles in the Harry Potter universe). While Dumbledore eventually realized the problems with this fantasy, Grindelwald doubled down on it and became a villain, leading to a rift between them that ultimately concluded in Dumbledore defeating Grindelwald in a famous duel. Their relationship was not revealed to be romantic or sexual in the novel, but it was heavily implied to be.

Dumbledore and Grindelwald duel in The Secrets of Dumbledore
Image: Warner Bros.

In 2007, Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was, indeed, gay. At the time, this was often seen as a progressive move, angering conservatives and delighting those invested in diversity: a beloved fictional character and mentor figure being queer seemed like good news to the queer community indeed! However, critical reflection on both the real-world politics surrounding this revelation, and the actual storylines in the novels themselves, can serve as a sobering reminder of just how non-radical, and even conservative, this big revelation was.

Dumbledore`s Sexuality Off the Page

It is, of course, impossible to talk about queer representation in Harry Potter without discussing J.K. Rowling’s relationship with transphobia. As far as I am concerned, J.K. Rowling’s transphobic statements more or less render any gestures she may offer cisgender gay people null and void. Articles in major publications such as CNN have made sophisticated arguments discussing the bigotry of her statements, and I argue that an author’s discrimination against some queer people makes it difficult to justify any investment in seemingly progressive things she may do for other queer people. If you don’t stand with all of us, you don’t stand with any of us, and my solidarity with trans people means that I refuse to accept any gesture of goodwill towards cisgender queer people if it does not extend to trans people as well.

Even if someone tried to argue that Rowling’s harmful words against trans people do not bar her from doing good things for cisgender gays, it is hard to ignore the ways that her actions have also harmed cisgender queer folks. Some of her recent comments have attempted to position cis gay people as somehow “under attack”(her words), as if the existence of trans people is somehow a threat to gay identity. This mentality is harmful to gay people, trans or cis, because it suggests that our identities are so fragile that anything other than a hardocore, binaristic sense of gender essentialism is somehow threatening to our very existence.

This stance is also insulting to any gay person who dates a trans person, as Rowling’s suggestion that trans people threaten homosexuality does not line up with the fact that cis gay people very often do date trans people. And, of course, the strategy of attempting to pit marginalized groups against each other in an attempt to undermine and harm both is nothing new: trying to create enemies out of potential allies is how oppressors stay in power. She has engaged in similarly harmful rhetoric surrounding autistic people, trying to present transgender existence as somehow threatening to them.

Furthermore, even if one were to ignore the past 15 years and just go back to the moment when Rowling originally revealed that Dumbledore was gay, the original arguments from 2007 as to why this was not particularly progressive still stand. Rather than choosing to include an openly gay character in her books, Rowling avoided publicly confirming his sexuality until after the book was safely published and sold. 

Despite being an extremely successful and wealthy author, she was only willing to include a gay character in the most roundabout, noncommittal way. In a time when more and more celebrities were taking major career risks to stick their necks out for marginalized communities, it is insulting to act as if Rowling’s offhand statement that one of her characters was gay – despite no actual commitment to openly representing or supporting queerness in the books themselves – was in any way comparable. Rowling wrote 1,084,170 words of Harry Potter, and not a single one of these included queer representation, so pretending that an offhand statement after the fact is somehow groundbreaking is baffling.

Furthermore, for anyone who likes to give Rowling the excuse that “2007 was a different time!” it is important to remember that major queer YA books like Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist were successfully being published at the time, so it wasn’t impossible to include an openly gay character in a novel for young people. Doing so may have hurt her sales and circulation, but she was already a wealthy bestselling author, so she could have taken the hit to demonstrate that she actually cared.

Furthermore, all of this real-world context doesn’t even answer the question of whether Dumbledore being gay would have even been a good thing in the first place if it had been confirmed in the pages of the novels. The next section explores how – real world politics aside – Dumbledore’s fictional character arc is far from progressive.

Dumbledore on the Page

The U.S. Cover for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Image: Bloomsbury

Dumbledore’s sexuality first becomes relevant in the Harry Potter novels when a malicious journalist begins pressing into his past to slander his name. Rita Skeeter learns of Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald and how it relates to his seduction into fascist extremism: she uses this information to write a damning biography.

In this context, homosexual desire is associated with evil, and the novel suggests that it is something that can shame and tarnish Dumbledore’s reputation. A big goal of The Deathly Hallows is to show readers that Dumbledore isn’t perfect and has a flawed past: the fact that his homosexuality is only ever suggested is when it’s associated with this flawed past gives a good sense of how the novels would frame queerness if it was ever explicitly acknowledged.

Revealing a character’s queerness at the same time that said character is shown to be villainous is a common and harmful trope that links queerness and evil by association: think Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’s notoriously transphobic scene where the villain’s transgender existence is directly associated with her villainy. Dumbledore’s treatment in Deathly Hallows, if he was written more clearly as gay, would follow in this tradition, where the big queer reveal happens at the same time as the big villain reveal. Gayness would come across as part of a shameful secret tied to Dumbledore’s dark past, rather than something he is proud of. Harry would have to grapple with his mentor’s dark history at the same time that he learns said mentor is gay, and both of these revelations would be part of Skeeter’s smear campaign.  

Rowling’s more recent work has presented trans characters in a similar way: her trans character Pippa’s gender is directly associated with violence. Pippa is revealed to be trans during a scene where she tries to stab the protagonist; he threatens to call the police and makes a cruel comment about violence against trans women in prisons. Her queer reveal is directly tied to an act of violence (attempting to stab the protagonist), and the protagonist’s first response to her identity is to threaten violence in return (having her imprisoned).

Like with Dumbledore, a character’s queerness only becomes relevant when it is directly associated with shame, violence, or something else negative. We never get a character who has a happy relationship with their queer identity. Even if these novels never outright say that the queer identities themselves are the thing that characters should be ashamed of, the constant association of queerness, violence, and shame inevitably links them.

If the novels had confirmed that Grindelwald and Dumbledore were lovers, what would this really have done? It would make it so that the only example of a gay relationship in the entire Harry Potter series is between one of the most evil wizards who ever lived and a man who was seduced into evil by him. It would make it so that the only major gay character in the series has only one romantic relationship, and that this relationship was founded on fascism. Notably, Dumbledore has no noteworthy romantic relationships after Grindelwald. It is hard to see a path where an openly gay Dumbledore results in anything other than a homophobic narrative, and the novels actually may have been less homophobic by keeping him in the closet.

This isn’t to say we can’t have gay villains, or that gay people can’t do terrible things. This article isn’t trying to suggest that gay characters need to be perfect – or even “positive characters” – to be worthwhile. Meaningful, complex representation means representing the good and the bad, and a gay character who is seduced into evil by a lover is not inherently a bad thing. There is a context where a story like that of Dumbledore and Grindelwald could be powerful and well executed.

The problem with Dumbledore is twofold. First of all, if he had been confirmed as gay, he would be the only explicitly queer character in the entire book series, meaning that the only version of queerness that readers would have access to would be one associated with evil. This is particularly egregious considering that the novels have a huge cast of characters spanning seven novels: the idea that literally none of these characters are queer except for the one whose queer desire led to violence is pretty obviously homophobic.

If Dumbledore’s story had been accompanied by the existence of other queer narratives in the series, this would have easily solved the problem and made his narrative much more meaningful. The presence of other queer characters would have shown Dumbledore’s problematic past as one of many different ways people can experience queer desire, instead of it being literally the only queerness that was shown existing in the wizarding world.

The second problem is that Dumbledore’s queerness is not relevant to the majority of his life, except for the evil part. He never goes on dates, has crushes, experiences romance, kisses anyone, or even makes a passing comment about a former partner: literally the only time Dumbledore’s sexuality is ever relevant is when it’s a shameful part of his past that led him into evil. This narrative is clearly closer to implicit homophobia than it is to nuanced and complicated navigations of multifaceted queer representation.

All of this is to ask: why were so many people so desperate for a film to depict a plotline that is – depending on who you ask – either inconsequential or even homophobic? Part of this is likely because it is so darn hard to find queer characters in mainstream fantasy fiction that we have become accustomed to taking what we can get. Part of it is also likely because Harry Potter is so important to so many peoples’ childhoods that any representation – even borderline offensive representation – can feel empowering. Just seeing someone with the same identity as you existing in a world you’ve loved since childhood can mean so much.

But, at the end of the day, fantasy fiction is starting to move on from the days when queer audiences had to accept any scraps we could get. Mainstream fantasy television shows like the CW’s new Charmed, bestselling fantasy novels like N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, and video games like BioWare’s Dragon Age provide nuanced, interesting, and compelling queer characters. Perhaps it’s time we leave Dumbledore behind and start seeking out more meaningful queer narratives by writers who haven’t spent the past few years being constantly associated with views that are opposed to many queer folks’ rights to exist.

Written By

Steven Greenwood is a Montreal-based writer & director, and the Artistic Director of Home Theatre Productions. He holds a PhD from McGill University with a focus on queer cultural history, and he teaches university courses in film, theatre, and popular culture. His work is influenced by his passion for queer history & culture, and he is a fan of all things geeky, pulpy, campy & queer. You can find him on Twitter @steven_c_g or on Instagram @steven.c.greenwood.

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