Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final chapter in JK Rowling’s wizarding saga, was published in July 2007. In that book, through a gossip columnist’s tell-all biography, Rowling hints at a scandalous past for Albus Dumbledore, the powerful, brilliant mentor of Harry Potter and headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The implication is that Dumbledore is gay. His sexual orientation was not explicitly stated in Hallows, but astute readers were able to read between the not-so-subtle lines.
Those who failed to catch on with the gayness of Dumbledore needn’t worry, though. Within months of Hallows hitting shelves, JK Rowling herself was addressing the topic. She stated in October of that year that Dumbledore was indeed gay.
Rowling elaborated on the subject by detailing the nature of Dumbledore’s relationship with a fellow wizard named Grindelwald, a school-aged friend turned deadly enemy of Dumbledore.
Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was. To an extent, do we say it excused Dumbledore a little more because falling in love can blind us to an extent? But, he met someone as brilliant as he was, and rather like Bellatrix he was very drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him. Yeah, that’s how i always saw Dumbledore. In fact, recently I was in a script read through for the sixth film, and they had Dumbledore saying a line to Harry early in the script saying I knew a girl once, whose hair… [laughter]. I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter, “Dumbledore’s gay! If I’d known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!”
This statement, in 2007, was no small piece of news. The end of the book series was a monumental moment in publishing and reading. International media trumpeted the announcement that the beloved old wizard was gay all along. Not surprisingly, a lot of people were pissed to learn that the wizard they loved was also gay. But to many readers, the news that Albus Dumbledore was a gay man was joyfully received. Such a revelation gave an explicit window of entry to the queer themes that Rowling had woven through her story. And though Rowling never brought queerness out of the realm of subtext, readers have been able to take comfort ever since in the truth about Dumbledore.The above quote from Rowling, especially her enthusiasm for readers’ enthusiasm, is important to remember today, in the aftermath of an interview with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald director David Yates. When asked if Dumbledore, to be played by Jude Law, would be gay in the upcoming film, Yates answered: “Not explicitly.”
Yates continued: “But I think all the fans are aware of that. He had a very intense relationship with Grindelwald when they were young men. They fell in love with each other’s ideas, and ideology and each other.”
The film, according to Yates, will continue the subtextual nature of gayness in the wizarding world, keeping Dumbledore’s sexual orientation in the realm of innuendo. He’s out to the audience, sure, but not to the world in which he inhabits. So, that’s that.
It’s possible the decision to keep Dumbledore’s sexuality out of the Crimes of Grindewald may be the decree of Warner Bros. They have movie tickets to sell, after all. It also may be David Yates’. Yates directed Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2, and neither were interested the headmaster’s queerness, on an explicit or subtextual level.
But the most likely decision-maker on the matter is JK Rowling. She’s writing the Fantastic Beasts series, after all. And importantly, Rowling is the ultimate arbiter of all things Harry Potter. If it was her wish to make explicit that which she has on many occasions claimed to be true–that Dumbledore is gay–then it’s hard to imagine anyone at WB would be empowered to keep her from doing so.
The response to Yates’ remarks about Dumbledore in Crimes of Grindelwald received swift and vehement opposition online. Fans showed dismay at Yates, Rowling and WB’s reluctance to embrace the gay, so much so that JK Rowilng herself took to twitter to respond.
She added this gif:
Obviously, Rowling is correct about the Beasts’ story. No one has read the script; no one knows whether Dumbledore’s identity will be made explicit in future installments; no one knows anything about movies not yet completed, released, and viewed. And even if, in some later installment of Fantastic Beasts, Rowling does make explicit the nature of Dumbledore’s sexuality, we’ll never know if she planned to do so before this wave of criticism.
But here’s what we do know. We know that queer characters are excluded, erased, or made “not explicit” in big budget, franchise filmmaking time after time after time. We know that Hollywood gatekeepers are interested in LGBTQIA+ stories only rarely, in films that cost little or carry awards potential, primarily. When it comes to fantasy and science-fiction, we know that Hollywood is happy to provide metaphorical diversity and representation as a way of avoiding the real thing. Metaphorical queerness, like any other representation via fantasy, is crucial for understanding humanity. But it’s not a substitute for actual, embodied on-screen queer identities.
We also know that the biggest franchises in motion pictures aren’t making progress. Marvel has not yet brought an LGBTQIA+ character into their cinematic universe. There was some talk about the bisexuality of Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnorak. She was claimed as the first queer character in the MCU, but evidence of that queerness remained only on twitter.
She’s bi. And yes, she cares very little about what men think of her. What a joy to play! https://t.co/d0LZKTHCfL
— Tessa Thompson (@TessaThompson_x) October 21, 2017
YES! Val is Bi in the comics & I was faithful to that in her depiction. But her sexuality isn’t explicitly addressed in Thor: Ragnarok. https://t.co/hmb5lYN5to
— Tessa Thompson (@TessaThompson_x) October 23, 2017
Star Wars has wandered around the edges of bringing LGBTQIA+ characters into their films. In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, there’s reason to believe the relationship between Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and Baze (Jiang Wen) to be a same-sex romantic coupling. They are paired, apparently exclusively, with each other. They quote argue like a married couple end quote. And SPOILER, when it comes to the death of a partner, they embrace and caress as intimate partners. But reading them as gay remains only that, a reading. There are many ways to read their relationship outside of queerness, too. Because explicit their relationship is not.
Elsewhere in Star Wars: some are hopeful that a gay relationship is in the works in new trilogy, with Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) being considered possibly gay (Finn’s storyline with Rose in Last Jedi makes this seem less likely). Again, though, that’s all in the realm of potentiality. J.J. Abrams has claimed that he wants to see LGBT characters in Star Wars, but until someone (you are the director, Mr. Abrams!) actually does it, such hopes are of little value.
Only Star Trek, the thinking person’s SFF series, has embraced explicit queer characters (Sulu, in the rebooted films; Lieutenant Stamets on ABC All Access’ new series, Star Trek: Discovery), but only recently.
With this singular exception, explicit LGBTQIA+ characters are almost completely absent from the biggest 21st century Hollywood franchise series. Of the 10 most successful film franchises, only James Bond has portrayed queer characters, mostly for the satisfaction of the straight male gaze (Pussy Galore was bi…). The old 4-quadrant excuse still stands: If you want to make your money back on a $150 Million+ picture, you have to sell that movie to every ticket-buyer in every region of the United States. And there are still many places that don’t want queer wizards in their fantasy movies.
But still. If any franchise is poised to breakthrough this barrier, it is Harry Potter. Because Harry Potter is already…well, Harry Potter. The best selling series in publishing history and the third most successful film franchise ever brought to audiences surely has the temerity to weather whatever criticism might follow. The wizarding world already means so much to so many millions of people–including no small amount of queer fans who grew up on the books. The fandom, represented by groups like Harry Potter Alliance and Dumbledore’s Army, is streaked with progressivism and inclusive politics. In part because they read Harry Potter, an act that has been shown (with science!) to make readers more empathetic to others.
Which is why the introduction of young Dumbledore in Fantastic Beasts represented such an important moment for LGBTQIA+ representation in the movies. We know Dumbledore is gay. We were excited to see it become explicit. Instead, fans got defensive snark from Rowling, telling them to be quiet or she’ll mute them.
There’s no excuse for abuse on twitter, or anywhere else, and creators are free to tell the stories as they desire. But this is about as bad as the moment could have gone for WB, Yates, and Rowling.
Maybe Rowling, Yates and Warner Bros. have more in store for Dumbledore, including a portrait of his gay identity in the films. Rowling’s tweet suggests as much. But there is no need to chide fans, Ms. Rowling, for expecting you to bring us that which you told us to be true.
And for that, for her tweet, for Yates’ comments, and for the fact that such a remarkable character as Dumbledore is getting hidden, again, in innuendo, I say the disappointment in Fantastic Beasts should be made explicit.
Accio Gay Dumbledore. Until then, JK, go ahead and mute us.
–Christopher Zumski Finke