Sirius and Lupin and Queer Readership

by Hope R.

This editorial originally appeared as a blog post. You can check out the rest of Hope’s blog here.

First, some critical background:

The Harry Potter fandom is a many-splendored and yet frightening thing – a thing of beauty and of terror. For me, it was the one reliable source of joy and angst throughout adolescence. Although I long ago gave up reading and writing HP fanfiction, I ‘shipped’ the characters of Professor Lupin and Sirius Black for a decade of my life. Second only to my love of Ron/Hermione, they were my favorite couple of the series, and I actively believed that it was a canon ship for almost half of my time on this planet. From 2003 until July 31, 2013, when Pottermore released JKR’s Lupin backstory, I was fairly hardcore about convincing other people that it was intentional subtext, that it added depth to the Marauders’ backstory, that it was the best and most tragic relationship you could read into the series – sadder even than Grindelwald/Dumbledore. To have been wrong about that is of course not a huge deal in the big scheme of things, but that whole story was a huge part of my love of the series, and after its death at the hands of author notes, I want to pay ample tribute to what it was by contextualizing why I am grieving the story I thought I knew.

So I wrote what was supposed to be a summary of my feelings, and it mutated into a schizoid essay on the nature of literature and pretty much everything I love about it. Throughout it, I channeled my 14-year-old self in order to get at the heart of the matter; that story is below.

Remus Lupin’s bio on Pottermore reiterated that he is an immensely tragic and heartbreaking character with a completely heartrending backstory, partly because I spent about a decade of my life believing (and trying to convince others) that J.K. Rowling had written his character as intentionally queer. There is the AIDS allegory, present in his lycanthropy, and the allusions in the film version of Prisoner of Azkaban that easily conflates fear of his “condition” with homophobia: “parents don’t want someone like me teaching their children.” Alfonso Cuarón famously described the character as like your gay uncle who does smack.” In fact, my analysis of his character at age fourteen and subsequent immersion into the web-based Harry Potter fandom that dominated my teenage years – very much including MuggleNet – was essentially sparked by this belief in a text beneath the text, which led to a decade-long self-education in what the academy calls queer literary theory. It was the theory that his character possessed “queer” literary traits – and a concomitant subtext between his character and Sirius’, that actually is part of the root reason I studied English literature at Oberlin College, and things I learned about authorial intent, post-modernism, and extra-textual analysis in Harry Potter fandom served me incredibly well over the years.

I feel a profound sense of loss and, to a lesser extent, a modicum of (admittedly irrational) betrayal, because for ten years, I truly believed J.K. Rowling was writing more “minority” (non-heterosexual and/or non-white) characters than she actually was. It’s tough for me to accept the possibility that I may have given her too much credit in that area, because it’s an area I care about, and I love the series on its own terms so dearly. When, in 2007, she revealed in a fan Q&A that she’d always imagined Dumbledore as gay, it actually seemed to me to validate the idea that there were minority characters included in the books even when it wasn’t evident from a strict reading of the text (fans of Lavender Brown will understand what I mean here – for a long time many readers thought that character was of African descent, and in the first few movies, black actresses were credited as “Lavender Brown.” She was then re-cast for HBP). To then find out, through the extra-textual resource of Pottermore, that not only was Professor Lupin’s queerness a misreading of the text but that its very author couldn’t even permit room for ambiguity or alternate readings of the kind that have been going on for years already in the spaces left for a queer story to assert itself (through a constructive reader’s initiative) – was heartbreaking in the most serious literary sense for me.

J.K. Rowling, in her biography of Lupin, couldn’t even let Sirius’ “queerness” alone. She actually included dialogue that precludes all non-heteronormative assumptions and constructions of that character’s backstory, as well – and the thing is, she didn’t have to. Readers had gone on with their interpretations, debates, and discussions of the validity of Sirius/Lupin in the six years since canon actually had Lupin marry and impregnate Tonks since it seemed possible that both relationships could have existed in backstory at different times during the series.

Sure, there was a glorious three or four year period between the book releases of Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince in which a hefty portion of the fandom actually convinced itself Sirius/Lupin would become explicit canon— later, that hope mutated into a years-long desire for J.K.R. to even tacitly acknowledge what a huge portion of the fannish online community believed it to be a valid, book-based relationship. People, myself included, began reading into such events as JKR’s first fansite award, which was given to Immeritus, a Sirius Black fansite that catered to a huge and obvious slash community. We read such moments as “coded” allusions to her quiet approval of the activity. To watch all of that get so handily ignored and dismantled after years of creative fan output on the subject in a single paragraph from the woman many believed to be, after all, more inclusive than she in fact turned out to be is a little devastating.

I am genuinely in mourning for the decades of fan discussion, debate, fic, art, etc. that will be shuttered as a consequence of that Pottermore bio. I am still experiencing cognitive dissonance between the Sirius and Lupin readers met and loved in Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix, and the Sirius and Lupin we get in the Pottermore bio.

For years, it seemed as though “Wolfstar” shippers were the most accepted and acceptable slash pairing in all Potter fandom. After the J.K.R. announcement that canonized Dumbledore’s homosexuality, Wolfstar was demoted to #2 most likely canon slash pairing and enjoyed a modicum of respect from non-shipping readers and canon-relationship-only shippers alike. It existed in a subtextual gray area, not unlike the other famously, ambiguously gay couples of British literature: Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, Jeeves and Wooster, Oscar Wilde characters, and basically all the public school/Oxbridge boys in Evelyn Waugh and E.M. Forster novels. There is a literary tradition of this, after all – hence so many experienced readers possessing a sense of an incomplete narrative, an unspoken tendency, a telling preference, a missing scene. These are the same feelings that drive college literature professors to wax poetic about Horatio and Hamlet, or Brick and Skipper from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The idea that a Sirius/Lupin relationship existed at the fringes of canon was borderline legitimate, and its fans fought valiantly to remove that adjective. I was one of them. In 2011, when I co-taught a class about Harry Potter to fellow appreciative and deeply thoughtful nerds, we spent whole classes discussing this theory (mostly at my persuading and occasional begging).

Am I embarrassed by all of that now? Well, that’s a hard emotion for me to admit to at the best of times, and I am feeling a little vulnerable in the wake of this Potter news. The answer is yes, partly, though not as much as some who know me might deem appropriate. I learned so much from my forays into literary theory as a direct consequence of that pairing, of organically reading that story into the books I loved regardless of their often flawed romantic subplots.

I usually can’t stand any argument whatsoever that critiques J.K.R.’s skill at her craft – after all, who has comparable success and devotion, and who therefore is coming from a background prepared to take on the Potter series? (The answer is no one. Maybe Stephen King. And he loves her.) However, facing up to this fleshed-out backstory as canon actually involves, for me and other shippers like me (as my dear friend and co-teacher Alanna pointed out), facing up to a flaw in J.K.R.’s universe, a world that, since childhood, I have used as a compass for telling good from evil. That flaw is her predilection for giving characters the most trite and traditional happy endings since Shakespeare’s comedies.

All of the “good” characters who survive until book seven and after are given heterosexual marriages and children as a reward for their brave and fiercely intelligent youths. How is this fair, and moreover, is it the best message children receive from these wonderful books? I don’t think so.

So many of the really good political, empathetic, social, and ethical lessons of the series come before characters have “settled down,” or from the adults who chose alternatives or were tragically alone (Hagrid, Sirius, Dumbledore, McGonagall, Snape). How can an author who so creatively demonized suburban desires and entrapments with the family example of the Dursleys then so easily pair off all of the beloved heroes of the story into bland, heterosexual, procreative adulthoods? I find it uncompromising and narrow. I love and respect J.K.R., her life, her vision, and as a consequence, I am giving her the benefit of the doubt when I posit that she granted these fictional people the happy ending she craved (and attained) for her own life. Problematically, however, there are very few female heroes who are not also, by the epilogue, wives and mothers. Sure, they are all sorts of wives and mothers, but wives and mothers they still must be, in order to be fulfilled and happy in this universe. The same is essentially true of the male characters, with the possible exception of Neville.

J.K.R. has been on the planet some twenty-four years longer than me. In fact, this year, I am exactly half her age. She may know, more clearly than I do now, what constitutes joy, love, and a happy ending. I understand her desire to unite her beloved characters with the best lives she can think of. Yet I maintain my right as a reader and a fan to find that vision lacking and exclusive. The unmarried adults are ALL either evil, tragic, dead, or (more often) some combination of those three. Sirius, Dumbledore, Hagrid, McGonagall, Moody, Pettigrew, Voldemort… even Luna Lovegood, the most quirky and unconventional of Harry’s generation, is given a husband and twin boys in Rowling’s extra-textual epilogues. There is not an exceptional role model for children who don’t want (or can’t have) spouses and progeny of their own one day.

As such, there is a horrifyingly homogenous subliminal message at the end of a series that really is about worldview and life choices (“It is our choices, much more than our abilities, that make us who we really are“). The series that gave us so many unique individual characters with such brilliant backstories, flaws, motivations, gifts, and perspectives equalizes them all in the most narrow fashion at its most critical departure. This, I find harmful. This will always challenge my love of these books because it fundamentally erases one of the qualities I love in them so dearly. I wanted so badly for Harry Potter to be more inclusive and broad in its end than was promised at its beginning. I can only wonder at how the Deathly Hallows epilogue – and Pottermore backstories – of the characters could have shifted, how they might have read if J.K.R. didn’t herself remarry and have more children during the course of writing the later installments. Would Hermione have left Ron to become a badass writer on her own in the world? Would Tonks have even had kids? Would Molly have faced single motherhood? These are the alternative – and realistic – thoughts that cross my mind when I think of the series I know and love. Are its socially conservative ends just incidental to its politically progressive substance? I wish I knew. I wish someone could have that frank, respectful, and in-depth conversation with J.K.R. But as the lady herself has asserted, she can give in and give of her storytelling, give us mounds of detail and backstory and epilogue, and it will never be enough for fans like me. I accept it. I give her all the credit in the world for what she created, the worlds she built inside the books and inside her readers. I know that, literarily, I am allowed to parse and re-frame and subvert the text to my heart’s content, as are you all. But I never wanted it to be that way; I had hoped for the creator’s blessing, and even more than that, her participation. No author “owes” representation to her readers, and J.K.R.’s readers, for the most part, recognize that. I had my hopes too high.