I can’t say that I am especially surprised by this revelation. I am, however, disappointed. Revealing such details about characters outside of the books cheapens the books themselves. The questions raised by a book should largely be left unanswered and the desire to settle all such ambiguities is characteristic of the excesses of fan fiction. It seems to me that Rowling’s willingness to pander to such speculation about characters lowers the value of her work. One of the things that I most love about a good book is the manner in which it creates a space within which our imaginations can play, the ambiguities giving us the option of reading the book in many different ways. When an author settles ambiguities like this I feel cheated. It is Rowling’s task to write and it is our task to read; I wish that she wouldn’t do our part for us.
In an important sense the books ceased to be Rowling’s on the day they were published. The printed books are the canon; we have no desire for an authoritative oral tradition interpreting the books for us. I preferred it when such issues as whether Neville Longbottom would get married or whether Dumbledore was ‘gay’ were open questions and we were left with ambiguities concerning which we could make up our own minds.
Regarding Dumbledore’s sexuality, I did wonder about it myself when reading the books. There were a few suggestive hints here and there. There is also the fact that there are clear parallels to homophobia and ‘coming out’ stories at various points in the books (and Dumbledore would hardly be the first homosexual English headmaster, would he?). For this reason the content of the revelation did not surprise me, even if the fact that Rowling would reveal such details outside of the books disappointed me.
I am convinced that homosexual practice is wrong, but I can’t say that I find it easy to identify entirely with either of the two predominant reactions that I have encountered to this revelation. On the one hand there are those who rejoice in this revelation of Dumbledore’s sexuality as a triumph for ‘tolerance’. Rowling herself spoke of her books as a ‘prolonged argument for tolerance’. This troubles me. I want the stories that I read to be driven by such things as character and plot, rather than by political or religious agendas. While I appreciate finding Christian symbolism in stories, I don’t like stories that are obviously thinly-veiled propaganda for the Christian faith. If I feel this way about propaganda for Christian faith, I will obviously feel uncomfortable with thinly-veiled propaganda for political correctness, a cause for which I have considerably less enthusiasm. By making such revelations about Dumbledore’s sexuality in the context of the claim that the books are a ‘prolonged argument for tolerance’, I fear that Dumbledore is being made into a pawn in a political game. Something of the three-dimensionality of the character is lost in all of this. If Dumbledore is going to be gay I want Dumbledore to be gay because that is who the character is, not because the author wishes to be politically correct.
In addition to this, I feel uncomfortable about the outing of sexuality in general (not just homosexuality in particular) that is brought about by such revelations. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the authority figures of children to be thought of in a non-sexual way. I don’t want to be told that Dumbledore or McGonagall are straight or gay. Undoubtedly we are sexual beings, but our sexuality belongs, I believe, within bounds. There are parts of life that should be non-sexualized. This is part of what concerns me about many of the things associated with the ‘outing’ or ‘coming out’ of homosexuals. By defining the person too much in terms of their sexuality, sexuality in general is brought out of the contexts in which it belongs and starts to invade every area of life. I don’t like being called ‘heterosexual’ for a host of reasons, but one of these reasons is that, although I do possess a sexual nature, it is not something that I believe belongs in most contexts of discourse.
The outing of Dumbledore’s sexuality (no less than if we were told that McGonagall is ‘straight’ — and there is an important difference between knowing these things and being told them) risks sexualizing relationships that shouldn’t be sexualized, such as Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry, the teenager that he has long private conversations with and a special concern for. I also believe that this ‘outing’ of Dumbledore goes against the character himself. Although I can imagine a Dumbledore with feelings for Grindelwald, I cannot imagine a Dumbledore who would say: ‘I am gay’. While Dumbledore undoubtedly has a sexual nature, this sexual nature is generally quite marginal to the character as we encounter him in the books (in fact, there is still no claim — to my knowledge — that he ever engaged in homosexual activity).
On the other hand, there is the reaction of those who feel that the character of Dumbledore is now defiled. I also find it hard to identify with this reaction and fear that there may be an element of homophobia driving it. Although Rowling may have ‘outed’ him, Dumbledore did not come out about his sexuality in the books. In the books the character of Dumbledore is defined by far, far more than his sexuality. He comes across as a very human and a very noble person. As such a person, he is the sort of person who might truly wrestle with the complexities of human sexuality, without reducing himself to being defined by or purely driven by this sexuality. In fact, the Dumbledore that we encounter in the Harry Potter canon seems to be chaste and celibate. I see no reason why such a character should not appear in a book written for teens. There are many virtuous people who have struggled with homoerotic desire. Is a person defiled more than any other person simply because they have sinful desires? Is there any of us who doesn’t have sinful desires?
I am quite happy to think in terms of a Dumbledore who has homoerotic desires but refuses to be defined by them. In fact, we might end up with an even higher view of Dumbledore as we see his willingness to deny his desires for the sake of what is right (defeating the dark wizard). We might also begin to appreciate how Dumbledore’s personal struggle with such ‘abnormal’ desires enables him to become an even greater person than he would have been otherwise. It might be a good explanation for why Dumbledore is so attuned to the condition and so concerned for the wellbeing of the marginalized.
One of the strengths of Rowling’s characterization in the HP series is that she did not write ideal characters, but human ones. She presents us with a world in which the battle between good and evil occurs within each one of us and a world in which we must overcome certain desires, vices, character flaws and prejudices within our own selves. It is through the battle with our own selves that true and lasting character is formed. It is this account of human character and nature that enables us to understand how we might not allow ourselves to be defined by our desires (even, to some extent, our good desires), but might gain mastery over them. In such a world it is often the persons who have to wrestle most with the misleading desires of their own natures who emerge as the true people of virtue and character, rather than those who were so free from misdirected desire that they never had to wrestle with themselves in the first place.
As I believe that homoerotic desire is misdirected desire I do not believe that it should be portrayed as a good thing when we allow this desire to drive us. For this reason the idea of a ‘gay and proud’ Dumbledore saddens me. People who struggle with homoerotic desire are, I believe, struggling with a particular form of the compromised nature that afflicts us all as fallen human beings. I believe that true liberation for human beings with compromised natures (i.e. all of us) cannot be found in mere acceptance of the validity of our misdirected desires, but in the power to overcome our compromised natures, even though the struggle may never end here on earth. This is why any Christian refusal to justify homoerotic desire must be driven by the love for people made in God’s image that refuses to ‘tolerate’ these desires that lead to their being enslaved. How sad it is that Christians are often known for their homophobia, rather than for their strong affirmation of the one who struggles with homoerotic desire as a person made in the image of God, and for a love that refuses to stand idly by and see others being led astray by misdirected desires. For this reason I would be disappointed with a Dumbledore who was proud of his homoerotic desire, even though I like the idea of a Dumbledore who is able to recognize homosexual desire as part of his nature, but is enabled to wrestle with his nature in various ways. If anything, such a Dumbledore is more like the rest of us.