Harry Potter: ‘A prolonged plea for an end to bigotry’

JK Rowling’s revelations about the sexuality of the most powerful wizard in the Harry Potter series have made headlines around the world. I have read comments from disappointed parents, complaining that the books ‘promote homosexuality’ — maybe they also promote the ability to fly and the sporting of long grey beards? Others feel forced by the author to discuss sexuality with their children ‘too soon’. But is the fact that Dumbledore is gay really relevant?

Dumbledore’s newly revealed sexuality, after the initial shock headlines, may seem by now to be settling into irrelevance, both to young readers and to the story itself. It illuminates to a certain extent the story of his life, the pivotal relationship and fight with the wizard Grindelwald in his youth, and no more than that.

It seems to me, however, that with Harry Potter still a global phenomenon — and in some parts of the world and communities a controversial one — JK Rowling has, however incidentally it slipped out, used the power of her story in a very constructive way. Waiting until Dumbledore became loved by all as the God-like figure, Harry’s father figure, or moral centre of the books, she then shows in the final book his feet of clay, without actually dethroning him, before finally revealing him to have a characteristic which, according to some powerful elements in society — for example, the Christian right wing in the US — should automatically dismiss him as a moral authority. The revelation is all the more powerful for not having been mentioned in the books, so Dumbledore cannot be dismissed as a token gay figure.

I have read comments from disappointed parents, complaining that the books ‘promote homosexuality’ — maybe they also promote the ability to fly and the sporting of long grey beards? Others feel forced by the author to discuss sexuality with their children ‘too soon’. I would argue that if the child is old enough to understand the books, they will certainly not approach sex as a totally foreign concept. And talking about sexuality should be on a level which is appropriate to the child’s development and circumstances. Presenting the fact that “some men love other men and some women love other women just like Mummy and Daddy love each other” doesn’t seem too frightening a prospect, or does it?

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Here in Poland where I live, anti-gay attitudes seem inscribed in the national psyche, etched deeply into the church, the government, the education system, the family, and the sense of the nation. The ‘Equality marches’ of the last few years in various cities have been banned, or have taken place in an atmosphere of threat and violence that the police did nothing to dispel. Many gay people have simply emigrated, rather than live in fear of what would happen if their bosses found out. Although with the election results of this week, there is every reason to hope that the institutionalised nature of prejudice will lessen, at a grassroots level it is going to be around for a long time.

The main problem I believe fundamentalists have with the Harry Potter series is that it promotes magic, paganism, is anti-church. The extra dimension added by Dumbledore’s revealed sexuality is bound to add fuel to the fire of those who see the books as a threat to their religion as they understand it. Maybe it is indeed subversive to suggest that the children in the book have their own ideas about right and wrong and harness their own power in order to fight evil.

As JK Rowling said in the question and answer session after her reading in New York’s Carnegie Hall, and we can read in the transcription here, “The Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry, and I think it’s one of the reasons that some people don’t like the books, but I think that it’s a very healthy message to pass on to younger people that you should question authority and you should not assume that the establishment or the press tells you all of the truth.”

This anti-authoritarian, pro-tolerance stance is appreciated by her many different readers on many different levels. The revelation about Dumbledore was greeted with such applause that JK Rowling said, “If I had known this would have made you this happy, I would have announced it years ago.”

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