Dumbledore Comes Out

by Leah G. 

In the Harry Potter community, J.K. Rowling’s announcement at the New York reading in October has been the talk of the town, with a lot of people reacting in ways I find disappointing. I’ll admit to being a bit shocked when I first read the news, less at the information and more that she would actually put it out there given its potential level of controversy — and the reactions seem to be confirming that expectation. There are several responses I really must address before I get to the meat of what this means for our understanding of Dumbledore. If readers are having any of these types of reactions, they lie in those readers’ own preconceptions, biases, and phobias about homosexuals, which are a bigger set of perceptions than I can hope to alter here. I’m more concerned with the intense reaction that insists the information is wholly inconsistent with his character and detracts from the figure we’ve understood him to be, and I will address this after I delineate the following more bias-based objections from the discussion.

First off, people saying this completely changes his relationship with Harry into one potentially based on a romantic or sexual interest. Why? When we thought he was straight, did we think he was leering at Hermione? Being gay doesn’t make him a pedophile, and it’s ignorant and offensive to make the insinuation. (If I hear this one more time I might scream.)

Also, I’ve read several sly remarks about how this alters how we should read every interaction he has with any male character in the books. Really? Do we read the way straight characters talk to members of the opposite sex based entirely on the fact that it’s biologically possible for them to get together? No. We don’t read Snape and McGonagall’s conversations with loaded sexual subtext. When Harry talks to the girls on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, we don’t read it as flirtation. We read it as conversation, because that’s what it is.

Others have been outraged, calling the content wildly inappropriate for a children’s book. I’ve read innumerable comments that this was an inappropriate announcement to make at an event where children were present and in regards to a children’s book because it would necessitate discussions about sex with prepubescent children. How does having homosexual characters force parents to discuss sex with their children any more than the scene in which Ginny pulls Harry into her bedroom for a snog in Book 7? When straight characters love someone in a book, does it make children ask about sex? As a child, every time I met one of my parents’ gay friends or co-workers, it never inspired me to ask “Right, how do they have sex?” The only exception was when one lesbian couple was having a baby, and knowing what I did about the reproductive process at the time, I had questions, and was told that a doctor was helping them have the baby because they wanted to be mommies. I think I was about seven, and somehow sex never had to find its way explicitly into the picture.

Does his being homosexual suddenly make us unable to believe him as a character that was powerful? Understanding? Self-sacrificing? Capable of leadership? Deserving of the respect and awe bestowed upon him? What in our own biases makes us unable to see certain qualities in a character who also happens to be gay?

Also, why do people seem to infer that because he loved Grindelwald, they were having sex or even that he felt the same way? And even if they were, it’s hardly the point. To love someone your whole life even after they have betrayed you and transformed themselves into everything you don’t want to be, even after you’ve seen that being with them makes you into someone you don’t want to be, that’s an emotional narrative which overrides the specific details of any physical relationship they may have had.

Being gay doesn’t mean that his sexuality suddenly becomes the overriding motive in all his actions and the primary defining characteristic of his character. It is another piece of our picture of him as a lonely and very brilliant man who often found that caring deeply for someone doesn’t necessarily make it easy to have a positive relationship with them. We knew that already. We see it again that he loves Harry very much, but that neither made it easier to guide Harry forward on the path he had previously determined nor to choose to protect him from that path. We know that he loved his family deeply, but that didn’t make any of those relationships any less complex, painful, or difficult, and they only became more so as time went on. He loved his brother and sister but felt trapped by their inability to understand and interact with him as intellectual equals. He was mentally isolated from that companionship.

This absence of an equal has been a constant shade to his character in all the books, and it has always added a layer of loneliness and sadness. I, as may other readers, can empathize strongly with that feeling of realizing that the people around you, the people everyone tells you are your developmental peers and with whom you are supposed to form friendships and connections, just can’t quite ever understand what’s going on in your head. And when you try to explain it you are either met with polite interest, adoration as an object more than a person, or simple exclusion. You can only connect mentally to people who are far older than you and who are thus, especially when you are a teenager, unable to really empathize with your emotional journey. You’re in many ways alone, and you lose the expectation that you will ever be truly understood by another person.

And then you meet someone who can operate on your level. Who can keep up and understand you and has been through the same feelings of isolation. And that feeling of connection is so wonderful and powerful and strange that it really doesn’t matter so much to you that it comes from someone who is not what you might have seen yourself looking for in a partner, whether it’s their gender or the ideas their equally agile mind generates. You try your best to empathize with those ideas. You translate them into your own world view so they seem much closer to your own than they might really be. Sometimes you just flat out make excuses and tell yourself that as they grow they’ll lose some of the rashness or extremity that separates their own take on the idea from your own. Sometimes you give yours up altogether or just ignore the parts that are different. You accept the isolation that comes from your connections, ideological or otherwise, because of the impact they could draw if presented to the world before it was ready to hear. You love this person as your first real equal, and they feel like a part of you, and you want them in your life.

And then they make choices that strike you deeply in the other parts of your life that matter most to you. They choose to go where you can’t follow, and either expect you to come along or never thought your allegiance was that important in the first place. And even when the real differences are laid raw, even when you see the things about them that you are unable to ignore or see in a different degree anymore, even when they begin to make choices that are out of line with who you believed them to be, even then, you love them. It doesn’t mean you can make yourself choose to sacrifice what you believe and what you know in your heart to be true about people and the world. But the irrationality of loving someone who has become the opposite of who you know yourself to be is really irrelevant to the powerful force of feeling so connected to someone, so intensely equally matched, and loving them so vehemently for being everything you have never had — an equal, a partner, someone you thought respected and truly understood you. By then your heart has already grown around them, no matter what your mind now decides is necessary. You can’t unmake that place in your heart, even as you watch them lose everything you loved about them and become what you never wanted for them and what you have dedicated yourself to opposing. You love them. It doesn’t really matter at that point whether they still reciprocate the feeling or whether they ever did. You love them, and now they are gone, and you cannot ever have them back without losing yourself entirely.

The absence of that connection, that equality, that partnership, is an ache that does not ever dull, but merely becomes so constant that you adjust to it. But to be asked to have that showdown, to once and for all choose what you believe over who you love, even if that person no longer bears any resemblance to your former companion, is an immense thing to be asked to do. To be asked to kill that person would truly be too great a thing to bear, and to have the confrontation be drawn-out over a long time or to constantly end in uncertain draws would be almost as bad.

But the aftermath of winning is also terrible, because there truly is no turning back. You know that hole in your heart will never be filled, and it is unlikely that anyone will ever come along again to inspire the same kind of connection, not when you still have to accept that most people cannot or will not ever mentally understand you completely. So all you can do is devote yourself wholly to the thing you chose instead, because it is really all you have left. And you do it alone, because the partner you thought you would have is gone, and you have already made your choices. You have already sacrificed the one thing you can never get back. What other sacrifices demanded by that cause, even your own life, could ever be as difficult to make?

None except one — when you must ask someone else for whom you care deeply to make such equally massive sacrifices for that cause. And in the end even that sacrifice is worth making, no matter how painful it may be.

So does it matter, in the end, what gender that love was for Dumbledore? On the whole, I find it much more important to filling in his character that he had loved at all. We don’t know the extent to which homosexuality would have been a social taboo because Jo hasn’t explained the wizarding world’s views on the subject, either today or in Dumbledore’s youth. However, assuming that it was, it only adds to the sense of accepted isolation that has always been a part of his character. Dumbledore being gay doesn’t detract from the character we “thought he was.” It only enriches the complex character the books have always shown him to be.