. . . not that there's anything wrong with that

So this week, J. K. Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay. (Old news, I now, but I have been crazy-busy grading and report-writing this week, so I haven't had a chance to actually post anything about this until now.) No fewer than seven people asked me when I was going to blog about it, which I suppose makes some sense given my habit of cloaking myself in a Dumbledore-esque comportment when talking about the University College program and my role in it -- I even tend to think of myself as the Headmaster of the program. So on that score, a revelation about Dumbledore might seem like something I ought to post about.

But I don't really have a lot to say. Dumbledore's sexual orientation matters as little to me as his mother's middle name or what kind of music he likes, because none of these things really seem to make much of a difference to what he does during the course of the Potter novels. Yes, I know that according to Rowling Dumbledore's sexual orientation explains why he was so taken with Grindelwald, and thus ought to be relevant to the plot . . . except that Dumbledore's fascination with Grindelwald was perfectly well explained in the books without introducing that kind of attraction, which makes the detail about Dumbledore's preferences in partners rather irrelevant. (What sweets Dumbledore likes is, however, a relevant issue, given his proclivity for making the names of those sweets into the passwords used to access his office.)

I find it fascinating that so many people thought that I ought to have something to say on the matter. I also find it fascinating that Rowling herself waited until after the novels were completed before revealing this bit of information, as though (and according to what one can read between the lines of her public comments) she were expecting people to be uncomfortable with that fact. Certainly some people might be, particularly those who think that homosexuality is some kind of mortal sin, but most of those people probably aren't reading Harry Potter in the first place, given the conservative religious opposition to the whole series. As far as Rowling's avid readers go, I'd say that for most of them sexual orientation is as uncontroversial and ultimately as irrelevant as shoe size. They're like Harry, through whose eyes the books are largely written -- and Harry couldn't care less about such things.

Whether this is a good development or a bad development depends on your perspective, though. For some people, the absence of explicit markers of differences in sexual orientation constitutes a form of erasure: the lack of explicit identification of difference means that difference is being elided and a universal norm is implicitly being proclaimed in its place. For others, the disappearance of identity-categories like "gay" as critical pieces of information, particularly for fictional characters, constitutes a form of progress. Tough call -- and probably looks very different depending on whether you are self-consciously a part of the group not being explicitly portrayed.

Indeed, I suspect that part of the reason why the question of Dumbledore's sexual orientation doesn't seem all that important to me is that I am not interested in claiming him as a fellow-member of a group on that basis. Were I interested in identifying powerful gay male characters in literature, then it would probably bother me that we only have the author's post facto comments to go on. And I suspect that I might even be bothered by the fact that Dumbledore is not explicitly portrayed as a gay man anywhere in the books -- nothing about his experience really seems to have much of anything to do with his sexual orientation. Does this hetero-normalize Dumbledore? In a way, I suppose, in that opportunities to disrupt the reader's sense of the ordinary are foregone. But Harry Potter isn't about disruption, since it's a piece of myth or legend; rather, it's about re-establishing continuities and sustaining themes. It is not, in that sense, political: like Star Wars, its aims are to do something to the basic structure of how we engage with the world rather than to affect any specific changes within that world. And I am firmly convinced that not every work of literature -- heck, not even every work of social science or social theory -- has to be narrowly political (or, to use the term of art for political science, "policy relevant") in order to have value. I don't read the Potter novels looking to advance a political -- even an identity-political -- agenda, so the fact that the novels are very poor sources for such a thing doesn't bother me at all. A different agenda might make me considerably less sanguine about the whole thing, but I rather like the mythical (or maybe "meta-political") agenda I have and I think it would get very boring and frustrating to always evaluate everything in terms of its portrayal of some specific identity-category.

At the end of the day I suppose I agree with the position that says that when writing fictional literature one ought to reveal those aspects and details of a character's life that are actually relevant to the story. Is Obi-Wan gay? (The potential answer changes if you read the expanded universe novels, because in those novels he falls in love with a female Jedi apprentice named Siri Tachi.) Who cares? Would it matter to the story if he were? I can't imagine that it would. That being said, does the complete absence of any openly gay characters from the Star Wars universe subtly reinforce the heterosexual norm? Yes, it does. But the point of a piece of fictional literature is to tell a story, not to advance a specific political agenda. Losing sight of that is what makes for preachy novels, like (for example) every piece of fiction that Ayn Rand ever wrote -- contrast those to the works of Robert Heinlein, who had roughly the same set of values but was less a propagandist than a writer, so his stories work as stories.

So: Dumbledore's gay and I really don't care. It changes nothing.

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