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No Backsies

October 24th, 2007 · 5 Comments · Books, Culture, Education, Fantasy, Fiction, Film, Human Rights, LGBT, Lit, Media, Politics, Science Fiction

LOLDumbledoreI haven’t weighed in on the whole gay Dumbledore thing, partly because everyone is already talking about it, and I usually view OcPot as a place to post about things that deserve more attention than they seem to be getting.

But Minnesota Malcolm brought it up in the comments to this post last night, and now that the backlash is setting in, I have an angle. I woke this morning to find a piece called “Put Dumbledore Back in the Closet” staring at me from Google News, and it turns out to be written not by a homophobe but by gay writer John Cloud, taking a “glass not only half full, but chipped and dirty” approach to the revelation. Essentially, the piece argues that outing Dumbledore outside the pages of the books, after the series is over, is too little and too late.

It starts out with a couple of very amusing passages about gay subtext in other popular works of fantasy:

Yes, it’s nice that gays finally got a major character in the sci-fi/fantasy universe. Until now, we had been shut out of all the major franchises. Tolkien, a conservative Catholic, wrote a rich supply of homoeroticism into The Lord of the Rings—all those Men and Hobbits and Elves singing to each other during long, woman-less quests. The books and their film versions feature tender scenes between Frodo and Samwise. But in the end Sam marries Rose Cotton and fathers 13 children. Thirteen! You’d think he had something to prove.

Other fantasy worlds have presented gay (or at least gay-seeming) characters, but usually they are, literally, inhuman. George Lucas gave us the epicene C-3PO and the little butch R2-D2, and their Felix-Oscar dialogue suggests the banter of a couple of old queens who have been keeping intergalactic house for millennia. But their implied homosexuality is quite safe. There is no real flesh that could actually entangle, just some electrical wiring.

… and then comes to its point about Dumbledore:

… as we know, Dumbledore had not a single fully realized romance in 115 years of life. That’s pathetic, and a little creepy. It’s also a throwback to an era of pop culture when the only gay characters were those who committed suicide or were murdered. As Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981) points out, in film after film of the mid-century—Rebel Without a Cause; Rebecca; Suddenly, Last Summer—the gay characters must pay for their existence with death. Like a lisping weakling, Dumbledore is a painfully selfless, celibate, dead gay man, so forgive me if I don’t see Rowling’s revelation as great progress.

Lasting books cease to be their authors’ property; we are now all free to imagine a gay life more whole and fulfilling than the one Rowling gave Dumbledore. But it would have been better if she had just left the old girl to rest in peace.

It’s a witty and entertaining essay and I sympathize with some of its points, but ultimately it fails to justify its thesis.

While it’s true that it would have been more powerful to out Dumbledore within the books themselves, I think Cloud is seriously underestimating the positive value of even this after-the-fact revelation by Rowling. In the world of fandom, what an author says about her work is instantly canon, and is eagerly heard by fans who want to keep the world of the books alive in their imaginations just a little bit longer. I think this revelation may have more power now that the books are a popular and established part of world literature than it would have if it had occurred early in the series.

So I’m glad the old girl is out, and that, to paraphrase Tony Kushner, the world of fantasy only spins forward.

Because if anyone seriously doubts that Rowling’s announcement is doing more good than harm, here’s the proof: something else Google News served up, from the Indian Web site DNA. It’s a post titled “Parents not happy with gay Dumbledore,” featuring comments from some parents in India who are up in arms about the news. Check this out:

Rowling has ruined the charm by saying that Dumbledore is gay. My daughter was curious and asked me why Rowling was calling him gay. I was embarrassed but had no choice but to explain homosexuality to her.

And this:

How does Dumbledore being gay make a difference to the story? Now that Dumbledore’s sexual orientations are out in the open, I’ll have to explain to my kids the meaning of gay.

Parents forced to suddenly drag that shameful subject out into the light! Oh, the horror!

Obviously, it’s not just the kids who are getting a teachable moment here.

Of course, there are voices of enlightenment and tolerance in India, as well:

I have no qualms about Rowling’s revelation of Dumbledore being gay. My son is familiar with the concept of homosexuality what with so many films and shows with gay characters.

… and this, from a “clinical psychologist and psychotherapist”:

Parents must thoroughly understand homosexuality, and the characters in the Harry Potter series of books. They should then be able to explain homosexuality to their children.

For instance, they should tell the child that homosexuality is a result of hormonal changes due to which a person is attracted to the same sex. It is also important to tell the child to respect and accept homosexuality as normal.

… as a side note, I don’t think it’s been established that hormones are the cause of same-sex attraction: I think the biological foundation of homosexuality is more likely related to the structure and wiring of the brain. But the essence of what the commenter is saying here is right on the money.

And I think we can assume that the conversations taking place in India this week are happening pretty much around the world.

Parents who were content to let their children grow up in ignorance and develop the resulting knee-jerk hatred of gay people that inevitably develops from that ignorance are now having to discuss this issue with their children, and justify their condemnation in terms of a beloved character.

Thousands of children all over the globe are having that ignorance shattered, and that hatred nipped in the bud, as they learn that someone they feel they know was gay.

The value of that is incalculable.

So thank you, Ms. Rowling. I haven’t always been your biggest booster in the past, but this time I’m giving you credit where due.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Malcolm

    Nice commentary; I knew I wanted that brought up here for a reason.

  • jim s.

    i’m discouraged [and a little bothered] though, by the reaction i’ve been seeing/hearing locally, in the daily papers. whether it is a columnist or editorial or letter to the editor, way too many well-meaning, open-minded sorts have taken the opinion of “not that i have anything against the gays, well, in fact, i’m very tolerable of gays especially that charming couple who run that shop i love, but this just wasn’t necessary — why do it now? Not that it makes any difference to me, but you don’t need to bring this up with kids. Kids, I tell you! Kids are reading these books and they don’t need to deal with this — not that there’s anything wrong with that, yadda yadda yadda…”

    I’ve not read a Harry Potter book and I only this summer watched a Harry Potter movie, but the more I see people saying ‘it shouldn’t matter’ and then ranting about how it does matter to them, it bugs me. I can take it when freaks like bill o’reilly and people on the ‘700 Club’ rail against Ms. Rowling, but it bothers me alot when supposedly ‘liberal,’ or ‘open-minded’ and ‘tolerant’ people say its just not right…

  • Aaron

    That’s because they’re not really tolerant, open-minded or liberal, they just want the APPEARANCE of being so. So they can push their strollers down Halsted Street with their heads held high and still not feel guilty for snickering at the gay jokes in a Farrelly Bros. movie…

  • Ocelopotamus

    Jim, I agree with you — and again, that’s exactly why this is a good thing. It’s good to challenge those people, and make them uncomfortable. The very fact that they’re complaining is a sign that Rowling has done something good — because there’s always some blowback when you score real points in the battle against prejudice. The homophobes (and even the mildly heterosexist types) know that because of this, their kids will be a little less homophobic than they are, and that’s what has them upset. So, think of this annoying chatter as the stinging sensation you get when you put alcohol on a cut — unpleasant in the short term, but a good thing in the long term.

  • Steve Sturm

    I think I’d fall in the “who cares by now” group. Since Rowling didn’t choose to make Dumbledore’s sexuality relevant to anything in the books, announcing this now seems like a hypocritical PR sort of thing. Now that most everyone who was going to buy a book has done so, she “outs” Dumbledore, perhaps to placate those who remarked on the lack of gay characters. If she was going to make a statement, she would have put it in the books. Seems to me to be a bit half-hearted on her part, as if she didn’t want to talk about it when it might affect sales.

    At my children’s current ages, I’d rather not have ANY sexuality in the books they’re reading. That will change as they get older.