The Tragedy Dumbledore Represents

Sunday, 21st October 2007 at 12:00 UTC 7 comments

Like many people, I was surprised to read about JK Rowling’s announcement, when I picked through today’s news. So, Dumbledore is gay. What concerns me isn’t that a key role-model character in modern children’s literature is gay, but the fact that an announcement to that end could make headlines, and beyond that, be the most popular news story of the day on the BBC News website. This says a lot about the so-called victories of the LGBT movement.

Of course, its great that people now see fit to write gay characters into major works of fiction. And its great that JK Rowling has been able to come out about having done so. The tragedy, to my mind, is that this is such a big deal. Its kind of like when you see two gay men kissing in town and lots of people are turning their heads and staring; its great that they feel confident enough to be public, really saddening that this is enough of a deal for people to take any special notice.

Not for the first time do I find myself disagreeing with Peter Tatchell. In the BBC’s report, he’s quoted as saying “It’s good that children’s literature includes the reality of gay people, since we exist in every society. But I am disappointed that she did not make Dumbledore’s sexuality explicit in the Harry Potter book. Making it obvious would have sent a much more powerful message of understanding and acceptance.”

I agree totally with his opening words: this is great news for the literary world. But the way this has come out, without it being heavily underlined in the books, is what I find most inspiring. He was not The Gay Headmaster, he was Dumbledore, he was Headmaster, and he happened to be gay. Its not that people shouldn’t take pride in being Gay, its more that it shouldn’t become the one thing that stands out about them.

Its great to know the truth; a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude is hugely damaging, but I don’t think that making it more obvious would have made for a better message of understanding: why does it matter that he’s gay, surely we should have assumed that some of the characters in the books, on simple statistical grounds, must be gay, and gotten on with it.

I suppose in a way the tragedy is the shock, the sudden appearance of the story as the most read story of the day. It shows that, while people are kind of OK with the idea, its still an unusual idea. In many ways, being openly gay has become a kind of ‘acceptable weirdness’; it is certainly nowhere near the status of ‘normal’ that those in the LGBT movement supposedly want it to be.

Someone told me recently that they thought the LGBT movement had served its purpose; I think this is jumping the gun massively. Sure, the Gay community will always want its own fiction, but the sad fact that Gay figures in literature are still mostly confined to specialist writing and to token characters shows that integration has still only gone so far. What we call in the world of posh academic terminology “heteronormativity” is still the order of the day (and if that sounds like a bizarre term, wait till you have “mono-hetero-patriarchal normativity” to deal with!).

LGBT people are still the jarring, head turning, ‘did you hear’, ‘each to their own’ exception in society. I myself sometimes find myself falling into this trap. I’d like to think I’m sexuality-blind, but my head turns, I make a big deal of it (particularly when its Christians) and when a man chats me up I feel somehow bad about it, when in fact I know I should find it flattering and be really chilled about it. I know its not a deal, I just have a habit of making it one.

I like it when people (appear to) feel comfortable just saying “my boyfriend” or “my girlfriend”, and I find myself disgusted at myself if I even stop to think “oh, didn’t know they were gay”. Its really a lot like thinking “oh, I thought they were normal, but it turns out they were different from the rest of us”. Really, it should just be natural, after all, gay people “exist in every society”.

The lack of progress over the last couple of years on the issue of gay marriage in the UK is perhaps a strong sign of apathy setting in within both the LGBT movement and the political establishment. As a straight person I find it all too easy to forget the pain which Civil Partnerships represent: we’ll recognise your relationship, but we’ll treat it differently, push it into a corner, and keep marriage as the boy-girl thing it always was.

Yes, key human rights have been won. But employers still concern themselves with people’s sexuality (and their gender) when its really none of their business in that capacity as the employer. And gay people are stilled denied normal marriages. And they’re still seen as a bit different, something to turn and stare at in the street or the pub. Gay people kissing isn’t something weird, its not something special, its two people kissing for heavens sake! If they were straight, one probably wouldn’t even have noticed!

This whole situation has, to my mind, only underlined the extent to which this is seen as weird in our society. Society still hasn’t changed, LGBT people are still on the margins (T people even more than LGB people) and the need for a strong LGBT campaign seeking societal transformation and the breaking down of heteronormativity is as acute as ever. And I need to stop assuming people are straight, and being surprised when it turns out that they’re not.


Entry filed under: Culture, Gay Rights, Human Rights, News, Politics, Sexuality.

Civil Disobedience vs Direct Action Issues with issues

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Sunday, 21st October 2007 at 16:03 UTC

    Information is the resolution of uncertainty. Unlikely events tell us more, and are better worth noting. People take notice of gay kisses or gay headmasters, not necessarily because they’re homophobic, but because it’s different. I’ll walk past the same beautiful bed of flowers or painting every day with hardly a glance, but if it’s changed, I’ll stop and take note. If I ever see a red squirrel I’ll stop and look as well, not because I like them any less than grey squirrels, but because they’re not the norm.

    When people dress in outrageous costumes, they’re asking people to look at them by making themselves different. That exploits the same characteristic, and it’s basic human nature – interest in the different. We take more notice of something slightly unusual than of the same-old same-old. And while I’m not convinced heterosexuality is quite so normative as you believe, it’s still definitely the norm. There are way more straight people around than gay. My head turned at the news that Dumbledore was gay, but it’s because I’ve been reading Harry Potter for ten years and this was a surprise. And why shouldn’t it be surprising? It was a fairly unlikely occurrence. This is just a “Man bites dog” situation, and there’s nothing wrong in that.

  • 2. Jonathan  |  Sunday, 21st October 2007 at 18:07 UTC

    I agree with Greg.

    one unfortunate side-effect of the (thoroughly positive) movements against racism, homophobia, etc. is a feeling among many that to notice something different about a person is automatically to pass judgement on them. so, for example, in a room of thirty white people and one black person, many would feel uncomfortable describing that person as “the black one” out of fear of being seen – or seeing themselves – as latently racist. as a consequence, the thoroughly natural impulse to mentally index people based on what makes them distinctive in your experience becomes an unpleasant checklist to make sure you’re not reducing them to a particular characteristic, with a twang of guilt over supposed prejudice if one does.

    that isn’t to say these things cannot be a sign of prejudice, of course. I have no doubt that for many, if Dumbledore was openly gay in the books, he would be known as “the gay one” rather than identifying him with the characteristics which make him significant – his position in the school, his relationship with Harry, etc.

    what I have a problem with is statements like the following:

    I find myself disgusted at myself if I even stop to think “oh, didn’t know they were gay”.

    why should you feel disgusted with yourself? if you’re not passing judgement on them, not treating them badly, not thinking badly of them, but simply noting that they have a particular characteristic which you weren’t aware of – how is that even an issue, let alone something to be “disgusted” by?

    when I was first getting to know a good friend of mine, one night we were chatting and he happened to mention he was a pagan – Druid specifically. since I don’t know many people who identify as pagans, I happened to pick up on it and we ended up having a chat about it. that doesn’t make me a bigot, or anti-pagan, and I’m not in any way disgusted with myself by it – it’s simply noting something unusual.

  • 3. Helen  |  Sunday, 21st October 2007 at 21:20 UTC

    You’re really a cynic at times, Graham.

    Of course, its great that people now see fit to write gay characters into major works of fiction. And its great that JK Rowling has been able to come out about having done so. The tragedy, to my mind, is that this is such a big deal.

    It’s not tragic, it’s just… well, a sign of changing times. There was a time, for instance, when if an MP was outed as gay they’d be kicked out straight away. Then there was the big thing of the Labour MP Chris Smith coming out and being hailed as a hero. Nowadays the response would probably be a big “so what?” or “Oh, I didn’t know Chris Smith was gay…” Private Eye did an amusing piece about one of the previous Lib Dem leadership candidates (I forget who) entitled “Yes, I am a Liberal Democrat, admits Gay MP”.

    I’m trying to think of gay characters in mainstream fiction, particularly aimed at children, and I can only think of a couple. The only one I can think of right now is in a book called “I’m Alice (I think)” in which there is an obvious “gay” character who wouldn’t have worked if he’d been straight (whereas Dumbledore could be either since he never has to indulge in any stereotypical sexual behaviour). So perhaps it is a big deal, as much as future generations will probably think, “what was all the fuss about?”

    Yes, it’s still seen with fascination, as “a bit weird”, but there haven’t been BBC debates condemning JKR for her perversion and people have been excited rather than upset. Of course I’ sure there will be a backlash but one much smaller than there might have been years ago. The world isn’t all as enlightened as you are, so cut them a little slack 🙂

  • 4. Greg  |  Sunday, 21st October 2007 at 21:41 UTC

    Helen, try Aidan Chambers. He’s more teenage than at least the first half of the Harry Plopper books were, and obviously not as popular, but he may be the author you’re looking for. I’ll lend you a book if you like.

    Graham, I think I’ve been sounding even harsher on you than normal of late, so I may as well say that I really like your post and the point that Dumbledore just happening to be gay is actually quite good. One request, though. Could you post something that will get me and Jonny at each other’s throats next time? I’m getting rather worried by the amount we’ve agreed lately.

  • 5. Helen  |  Sunday, 21st October 2007 at 22:06 UTC

    Aidan Chambers… didn’t he write “Postcards from Nowhere”? I do remember a gay character in that. Though I remember thinking that it felt like he’d deliberately written a story for teenagers that discussed sex rather than writing a story that just happened to have sex in it… I must have been about the right age group when I read it, too.

    Then again I’m more liberal than I was so maybe I should reread it.

  • 6. Greg  |  Sunday, 21st October 2007 at 22:28 UTC

    Postcards from No Man’s Land. It won the Carnegie. And yes, it was rather a story that discussed sex rather than one that happened to have sex in it. And there was more than one gay character in it. I’ve read a couple more of his (Dance on my Grave, which has a character discovering his gay side as one of the major themes, probably the central one. Then there’s Now I Know, which has a bit of sex in it, all straight if I remember correctly, but is mostly an exploration of faith with a sort of ‘Jesus de Montreal’ feel to it. Chambers is an angry ex-monk, if you didn’t know.

  • 7. James Philip Clayton  |  Tuesday, 23rd October 2007 at 13:00 UTC

    I’m not sure that you’re not reading too much into this, Graham. I find inferring something grand about the progress of the LGBT movement from coverage of a Harry Potter story hard, for the simple fact that any news story about Harry Potter would probably have been the among the most read of the day. Even a non-story consisting entirely of stuff we already know would probably have got attention. “Hermione Straight” or “Rowling Confirms No More Potter Sequels”, for instance.

    So, it’s not that I don’t think you make some good points here, just that I’m not sure this really illustrates them.


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