J. K. Rowling is well-known for her support of the LGBTIQ community, but John Taggart ponders whether she sometimes compromises that support to maintain mass appeal – exciting her LGBTIQ audience with a gay Dumbledore but keeping mainstream audiences happy by keeping his closet door only slightly ajar.
November will see the release of The Crimes of Grindelwald, the sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Part of the narrative will explore the relationship between a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp).
While writer Rowling says she thinks of the long-time headmaster of Hogwarts as gay and in love with Grindelwald, director David Yates says that Dumbledore’s queerness won’t be explicit in the movie.
Dumbledore’s own words are ripe for speculation, but not definitive. “Grindelwald,” he says, “You cannot imagine how his ideas caught me, Harry, inflamed me.”
And that’s it. “His ideas inflamed me” – not him.
Rowling manages to both secure the adoration and loyalty of a desperate, under-represented queer fan-base, and maintain her commercial success by not being “in your face”.
More troubling still, is that Rowling employed the same strategy in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. In that play, the sons of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, Albus and Scorpius are suspiciously close until near the end when Scorpius suddenly develops a yearning for an opposite sex romance.
Of course the Potter franchise consists of children’s stories prompting cries that representations of sexuality are inappropriate and irrelevant.
But the stories do not hesitate to document and celebrate the sexualities and romantic crushes of the heterosexual characters, while those of apparently LGBTIQ characters are barely glimpsed dirty secrets.
To my mind, this echoes Scott Morrison’s ‘gender whisperers’ comments – that young people are ‘turned’ gay, queer or trans because of their exposure to or awareness of it.
Our young people exist whether they’re acknowledged, supported and represented or not – and Rowling straddles a dangerous line of teasing and removing that support.
Further, the sexualities and crushes of the straight characters in their formative years are all explored without comment, sometimes only as convenient and implausible plot devices, so the argument about children’s ability to understand and relate won’t fly.
Also, Dumbledore’s sexuality is relevant because his relationship with Grindelwald is a crucial catalyst for all the subsequent events in the Harry Potter universe, so if it’s a romantic or even lustful connection, that’s important for the narrative.
Secondly, though, in an era of buzzwords, keyboard warriors and constant complaining, a question of value exists. As perceived gay and bisexual men are placed in illegal concentration camps in Chechnya, as Trump bans trans people from the United States military, and Indonesia publicly flogs those convicted for being gay, does whether Jude Law’s Dumbledore present as implicitly or explicitly gay matter? I’d argue yes.
Granted, we are lucky and privileged to have progressed to a situation where we can openly discuss the politics of representation.
Some argue that these are Rowling’s characters, and it is her right to do as she pleases with them without censure.
But she threw her hat into this particular ring when she outed Dumbledore.
The suggestion now that his sexuality is incidental is damaging because it purposefully invalidates same-sex relationships as a “lesser” love than the “deserving” screen-time or word count allowed to their straight counterparts.
For example, even beyond lead characters, Dumbledore’s Hogwarts Vice Minerva McGonagall is given a hugely elaborate, detailed and irrelevant backstory to her two romantic relationships in Rowling’s wider Potter-verse, while she merely “thought of” Dumbledore as gay.
There is a responsibility to our young gay audiences allowing them to understand that gay characters are not less relevant, less worthy of representing love – particularly as Dumbledore himself places such store in the power of love.
One suspects, however, that commercial studio concerns about international release returns literally trump such power.
Rowling herself has expressed frustration with the situation, arguing that this is the second of a five-film franchise, and hasn’t even been released yet, which suggests – but as ever, never “explicitly” states – that Dumbledore’s sexuality will be represented in further films.
Without judging too early, I hope that this is the case – but I won’t be holding my breath given Rowling’s concerning track-record with queer-baiting.