Emma Teitel: Why a gay Dumbledore — closeted or out — would be groundbreaking
His persona as the ultimate protector of young people flies in the face of the odious but popular assumption among homophobes that gay men are predators.
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When J.K. Rowling outed Albus Dumbledore in the late 2000s, informing a crowd at Carnegie Hall in New York City, that she “always thought of” the Hogwarts Headmaster “as gay,” many Harry Potter fans rejoiced, while others (namely those who spent their evenings writing steamy fan fiction about Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall) cried into their Butterbeer.
I did neither because I took the author at her word. After all, she said she “thought of” Dumbledore as gay, an admission I interpreted to mean she suspected he enjoyed the company of other warlocks, but she couldn’t say so for certain.
I liked to think about the author’s bombshell statement in “maybe he is, maybe he isn’t” terms because doing so made Dumbledore read like a real person to me, one who exists outside the confines of J.K. Rowling’s imagination and control. But of course he doesn’t. And this month, Rowling learned this the hard way.
More specifically, she learned that when an author retroactively reveals a truth about one of her central characters, fans demand to see that truth portrayed wherever and whenever that character reappears. And they get very angry when it isn’t.
Case in point: when news of Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, came to light, a film that depicts a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) facing off against dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), many fans expected that the young Dumbledore portrayed on screen would be openly gay.
They also expected that Dumbledore might even become romantically involved with Grindelwald because, in the same Carnegie Hall interview, Rowling said that she imagined Dumbledore having been in love with the dark wizard.
But those fans were grossly disappointed when Fantastic Beasts director David Yates revealed the following in a recent interview. When asked if Dumbledore would be openly gay on screen, Yates said “not explicitly.” Not explicitly, meaning, no, there likely won’t be any snogging between Law and Depp in the film (scheduled to premier this fall). Not explicitly, meaning a romantic connection between the wizards might be hinted at but it won’t be depicted in the film. Cue the backlash.
After Yates’ interview, diehard Potter fans took to social media to criticize Rowling herself for what they saw as a betrayal — the whitewashing of a gay character. Rowling, who wrote the screenplay for the movie, responded to her critics on Twitter, noting that the film is only one instalment in a “five-movie series.” Which is to say, we may see a gay Dumbledore at some point down the road.
But the question I’m interested in is: why do so many assume that he will be out? The headmaster clearly wasn’t openly gay in the books or in the original films. And while Rowling said Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, she didn’t say that he made that love known or that the wizards had a passionate affair. Personally, I think the idea of Dumbledore as deeply closeted as opposed to out and proud makes more sense in a magical society where, as far as we know, there are no out gay characters.
Despite Rowling’s many odes to love and tolerance in her books, the British wizarding world, when you get right down to it, is a pretty backward one. It’s a world where people are segregated from early childhood into four drastically opposed groups. You know the ones: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff. However they may as well be called: “Good,” “Evil,” “Smart” and “Nice, but a little on the slow side.”
It’s a world where, despite a history of terrorist attacks committed almost exclusively by members of one group (Slytherin) at the expense of all the others, nobody ever thinks to suggest at a Hogwarts school board meeting: “Hey, maybe it’s a good idea to mix up the kids. Maybe some of the Evil ones should bunk with some of the Good ones, and some of the Smart ones should bunk with some of the Nice but not so bright ones.” (Full disclosure, according to the official sorting hat quiz online, I am a Hufflepuff.)
In other words, it’s a simple world, similar to that of Star Wars. It deals well with absolutes, but it struggles with complexity and difference.
But I do hope it gives the latter a try. I do hope we see a gay Dumbledore, whether closeted or flaming like his pet phoenix, Fawkes, at some point in the Fantastic Beasts franchise, because a gay Dumbledore makes history for reasons beyond the fact of his homosexuality.
He makes history because he is mentor to and a guardian of kids. He is an old man whose closest confidante is a young boy (Harry Potter) and there is nothing unsavoury about this; there is no hint of predation or manipulation in his affection for Harry.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Albus Dumbledore was the most trusted character in the human imagination. To whom would you rather leave your kids if you thought they were in danger? Nobody.
A gay Dumbledore is groundbreaking, then, because his persona as the ultimate protector of young people flies in the face of the odious but popular assumption among homophobes that gay men are predators who should not be around children. It’s a shame that movie audiences around the world packed with kids and their parents will, for the time being, be deprived a gay guardian and a chance to shed their prejudice.