Why J.K. Rowling's revelation is a rare positive sign at a particularly bad moment to be a gay consumer of pop culture
Michael Gambon
Credit: Murray Close

Dumbledore’s outing: Why it matters

Now she tells us? When I first heard that J.K. Rowling had revealed the homosexuality of Professor Albus Dumbledore, esteemed headmaster of Hogwarts, before a packed congregation of children and adults at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 19, my reaction was half appreciation, half annoyance. Ten years, seven books, 4,000 pages, and it never occurred to her to mention this before? At least she didn’t make the gay character a fairy (or a troll), so we’ll be spared those jokes, I thought. Rowling’s announcement felt almost too strategic, a gotcha! she conveniently withheld until the multibillion-dollar revenue stream had had years to flow. And why bother? The outing of Dumbledore doesn’t seriously reshape any plotline in the Harry Potter novels, nor do the books ever drop the kind of hints that would inspire questions from readers. Also, the saga is over, and Dumbledore’s, you know, dead, so, like that infamous moment on Law & Order when viewers suddenly learned that one of the show’s main characters was a lesbian literally 10 seconds before she left the series, it all seemed a bit easy.

It’s not. Rowling is shrewd, but she’s not an opportunist or a coward. One simple fact overrode my skepticism: She didn’t have to do this. Not now, not later, not with two movies pending, and not in a roomful of kids. And make no mistake: All of these were choices, including her unveiling of a romantic backstory for Dumbledore, lest anyone think she was either joking or throwing a gratuitous pride-parade Patronus at the tiny band of flat-earthers whose shrieks that her books promote witchcraft were long ago drowned out by the world’s giggles.

So why now, and why Dumbledore? The answer has much to do with the universe Rowling has created, in which easy assumptions about a character’s motives, past, or inner life have, in book after book, been proven wrong, and with her own progressive and humane politics. It’s often said that if every gay person in the world were to turn purple overnight, homophobia would disappear: In other words, fewer people would be inclined to vilify other human beings if they woke up one day and discovered that they’d been aiming stones at their college roommate, their aunt, their grocer, or their grandson. Statistics bear this out: People who have a gay family member or friend have more enlightened attitudes about homosexuality than those who don’t. What Rowling has done, brilliantly, is to turn Dumbledore purple. She didn’t reveal his sexuality in order to unlock a new way of reading the books, or as a provocation. She simply told the world that a main character in the best-loved books of the last 10 years is homosexual, and asked her audience to contend with it — and with the fact that it shouldn’t matter. And her choice to make a beloved professor-mentor gay in a world where gay teachers are still routinely slandered as malign influences was, I am certain, no accident.

In addition to the braying of hatemongers, there’s already been some umbrage taken at the appropriateness of Rowling’s decision to uncork this news in front of children, a brand of sanctimony for which I have no patience. At least one out of 25 of those children will eventually self-identify as homosexual. The other 24, having made their way through an epic series that includes multiple murders, demonic possession, and the psychic toll of having mentally ill parents, will, I imagine, be able to handle the bulletin that some people are gay, and will likely benefit from the richer understanding of the world that such knowledge provides.

This is not a great moment to be a gay consumer of pop culture. In mainstream movies, gay characters are almost nonexistent — we are, once again, the 98-pound weakling who needs Adam Sandler to reassure the straights that we’re just plain folks. And on television, gay people are, like, so five years ago. Now that we’re no longer the flavor of the month, it’s easier for networks and studios to leave us out of the recipe altogether. The EW article linked above is correct in pointing out that the networks are more gay-friendly than Hollywood studios, but a recent survey by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation showed that only 1.1% of characters on scripted network series are gay, and not a single one is on CBS, The CW, or (shocker!) Fox. That’s a drastic underrepresentation of our presence in the population, and a failure of decency and nerve on the part of the people whose job it is to reflect the world back to us in entertainment — including the tremendous number of gay producers, writers, and executives who sacrifice their convictions so they don’t look too ”strident” or ”political.” J.K. Rowling’s announcement about Dumbledore isn’t a plot twist. It’s a challenge to look at the world — even a world of wizards and magic — as it really is. Kids are more than up to meeting it. I wish I could say the same about grown-ups.