Mamamia Out Loud is a podcast hosted by three Australian women, and I love it. The three have often intense disagreements and discussions because while all three are white, they have differing generational views, backgrounds and experiences which provide some diversity.
On a recent catch-up of the show, Jessie Stephens (the millennial host) brought up J. K. Rowling retroactively de-closeting some of her Harry Potter characters.
Now J. K. Rowling has done a lot of good in the world. She has spoken up on injustices, has offered her voice to issues on economic disparity and social inequalities. In 2012, Forbes removed her from their billionaires list in part for the large sums of money she donated to charity.
Yet despite her iconic stature I take offense to her new revelations about her beloved characters.
“People are angry. The people are angry for lots of reasons… because they feel like it’s paying lip service to queer issues, and if you read Harry Potter then there is no reference to anyone being gay. It feels like she’s retrospectively placing these identities on these characters in order to stay woke.”
As someone who read her books growing up, having Rowling turning her 20-year-old characters gay is incredibly typical and ignorant of the heteronormative world overlooking the complexities and vast experiences that are part of the LGBTQ+ community. I can understand why she is doing it, attempting to give part of her story to a group so often marginalized by popular culture except through the standard tropes of sex, love, and coming out. But unless you’re going to continue the story or rewrite the books, then please – stop.
Reframing Dumbledore’s sexuality won’t change how young people see their place in the world. Labelling him without addressing his sexuality in the story creates a subplot about a deeply closeted wizard.
Mamamia’s other hosts, Mia Freedman and Holly Wainwright, defend Rowling’s actions; gay stories shouldn’t be all about being gay. They are right. We do need more stories that don’t revolve around familiar plotlines. But by ignoring gay characters as being such any sentiment created is invisible. We live in a world where the default is straight and cis. Unlike ethnic or gender minorities, sexuality isn’t readily presentable. And when you situate these characters in a story defined by seemingly heterosexual leads there is no way to acknowledge the heroism of a wise, queer patriarch. Dumbledore’s newfound gay identity hasn’t changed his story, or how he is written. The impact on Harry Potter is zero.
There are ways to create gay characters without focusing on their sexuality. Characters who don’t follow heteronormative behavior (without utilizing stereotypes), or simply discussing potential dates to the school dance or feelings about a crush, are two very simple imaginations and would follow the way we read Harry chasing Cho Chang in the books. This is normal behavior for people of all ages, and doesn’t have to be direct or performative. Excessive focus on sex as the singular drive for queer characters is problematic. But to address gay characters in the binary form of closeted, invisible Dumbledore or as positively hyper-sexual á la Queer as Folk is dismissive. We are more than our sexuality, but we are not asexual.
Rowling’s latest adaptations, Fantastic Beasts and the Crimes of Grindlewald does attempt to address the complex sexual relationship between the notorious Grindlewald and Dumbledore. In the movie, there is an allusion, but it dances around the subject indirectly. In a heterosexual coupling, there would have been even a basic discussion:
“Grindlewald? I can’t face her in a fight. It’s complicated. But there was a time when… we were together.”
And that ends that.
Why do gay stories if not outrageously explicit have to be irrationally suggestive, where audiences have to be a detective to figure out the connection?
Normalizing us is vital. Presenting a gay character long after the fact, without new stories coming from it, is just hurtful. Rowling may have good intentions, but her need to stay relevant in a changing world is dismissive. I want my stories told, I want us to not be all about who or how we fuck. But having us nameless and faceless and only relevant long after a story concluded is not progressive. It’s disrespectful, and seems to be just another way for a rich straight person to colonize a marginalized identity for her own conscience. And financial benefit.