(Updated below/Updated again)
In a Q&A at Carnegie Hall two days ago, J.K. Rowling revealed that, in her view, Dumbledore was gay. The audience reacted with surprise and pleasure, and the chatter from her fans began immediately. “One more reason to love gay men,” read one particularly inane blog post.
I’m interested in this from two angles: as a supporter of gay rights, and as a literary critic. (My interest as a Harry Potter fan is basically negligible, for reasons I’ll get to.) From the standpoint of gay rights, was this a useful statement on Rowling’s part? On the whole, I’d have to say: sure. Any prominent figure speaking cavalierly about homosexuality does a little bit of good, and for the world’s most prominent children’s book author to do so about the world’s (arguably) second-favorite children’s book character is certainly beneficial, giving parents a good chance to talk about homosexuality and tolerance with their kids, and giving adolescents, sensitive to the prejudices of others, evidence that homosexuality is okay—especially useful for gay adolescents.
However, I also believe that it would have been more useful for Rowling to actually make Dumbledore gay. How do you make a character gay? The same way you make them Jewish, or freckled, or anything else: you put explicit or implicit signs in the work that the character is (gay, Jewish, freckled, etc.). You do not do it just by saying something plausible about a character after the fact. When Marge’s sister Patty came out of the closet in an episode of The Simpsons, it was plausible that she “had been gay all along,” as (unlike sister Selma) she hadn’t had any heterosexual relationships; however, she wasn’t a gay character until the show actually signaled this. By contrast, Smithers was/is a gay character almost from the beginning of the show, even though no character (to my knowledge) has ever explicitly said so. (“Something gay, no doubt?” doesn’t count.)
So the reader has to ask, not just “is it feasible that Dumbledore is gay?” but also, “In this text, is Dumbledore given to us as gay?” I went back and reread parts of Deathly Hallows following Rowling’s revelation, and I have to say, it just ain’t there. By my count, Dumbledore’s time with Grindelwald (the dark wizard with whom, according to Rowling, Dumbledore fell in love) is recounted four times—ranging from hagiography to muckracking biography—and none of the characters give any indication that there was anything between them besides intellectual admiration. If anyone can find a more definitive passage that I’m overlooking, by all means let me know. Interestingly, I see one or two phrases that could be stretched to imply a homosexual relationship between Dumbledore and his old, somewhat fatuous friend Elphias Doge, but nothing at all in the Grindelwald angle.
(For what it’s worth, I think Rowling was right to dissuade the screenwriter who gave Dumbledore an attraction to a girl in his past. It is significant that Dumbledore never had a romantic relationship that we know of, and giving him one in the film changes his character. But being a bachelor is different from being gay.)
Some might object that Rowling is not free to put a clearly gay character in the book, given the youth of her intended audience and the need to appeal to a broad readership. Yet in the same book it is implied that one character was raped or sexually molested; the event is simply put in vague enough terms that one wouldn’t have to confront a child with this traumatic idea. That kind of equivocation has a very distinguished history, and is different from the Dumbledore case, where there simply isn’t anything in the text to suggest what Rowling told her fans. In any case, Rowling seems to be trying to have it both ways by giving out information which isn’t available in the books, only to those in the know. One character expressed this well in a sarcastic comment on The West Wing: “Why not say that we’re against affirmative action and let on to our friends that we were just kidding?”
“That’s how I always saw Dumbledore,” Rowling told the crowd; however, it is obvious that her job isn’t just to see Dumbledore, it’s to make us see him. This is why I say that her “revelation” isn’t relevant to my views of Harry Potter: the text, and my interpretation of it, hasn’t changed at all, because it’s just as mum about Dumbledore’s sexuality as it was before. In a sense, Rowling outed Dumbledore in this Q&A, but in another sense she closeted him: turned him into a secret kept not only from the other characters but also from her readers. She’s free to do this, of course, but I don’t think it’s worthy of any particular admiration.
Update (10/23): This Salon article touches on the same subject and delves into the interesting question of whether it’s a good idea in general for an author to keep making pronouncements about a book after it’s concluded. The author, Rebecca Traister, buys the “gay Dumbledore” angle much more than I do—signs which I take as merely indicating friendship, like a picture of Dumbledore and Grindelwald ” “laughing immoderately with their arms around each other’s shoulders,” she takes as “clear” evidence of Dumbledore’s homosexuality—so I’d be curious to know what people think.
Update II (10/30): Kugelmass was kind enough to link to this post in a Valve discussion of this topic, which comes in the context of a number of other Valve conversations about author intentionality. Valve readers: welcome. Tomemos readers: visit the Valve post to see more opinions on this from Bill Benzon, Rich Puchalsky, Yours Truly, and others.