Introduction and Framework
“If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that no one should live in a closet”.[i]Harry Potter fans and social activists alike have applied themes of J. K. Rowling’s series to gay rights. Rowling’s seven book series contains many political themes and allegories, such as fascism, racism, and genocide. Prejudice, discrimination, and advocacy are themes in Harry Potter strikingly relevant to the fight for the equality of the LGBTQIA community. In his psychological case study “Reading Harry Potter: Popular Culture, Queer Theory and the Fashioning of Youth Identity,” David Nylund explores how Rowling’s texts help with social and behavioral therapy, a discovery that started with Nylund’s gay and adolescent patient Steven.
Steven was a seventeen-year-old living in foster care, because as a toddler, his parents were both killed tragically in a car accident.[ii] Throughout his time in foster care, Steven struggled with abuse and homophobia; when Nylund “asked him who he might imagine being one of his antihomophobic allies, he surprisingly replied, ‘Harry Potter!’”.[iii] The isolation and abuse Steven experienced in foster care resembles Harry’s troubles at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This discovery lead Nylund to use Harry Potter in Steven’s therapy to help him better understand and navigate his life, thus demonstrating the deep, personal connection readers have with this beloved series
On a wider scale, Rowling’s work also has the ability to promote social change. In a broader psychological study, Loris Vezzali and other researchers found that “reading the novels of Harry Potter is associated with improved attitudes toward a stigmatized group such as homosexuals among a sample of high school students”.[iv] Vezzali’s study also demonstrates how the series similarly aids to fight racism and xenophobia, and thus frames Harry Potter as a considerably progressive text. Both communally and individually, Rowling’s work promotes the acceptance and support of outsiders, especially for the LGBTQIA community.
When looking at the texts themselves, however, such an inference can appear perplexing. The original seven novels only contain one confirmed gay character: Albus Dumbledore (albeit only after the publication of the final novel). Although critical queer readings of subtext abound, it is difficult to understand how Harry Potter connects concretely with this specific community. Many readers decry the series for its lack of representation, whereas other children and young adult series—such as The Mortal Instruments, The Heroes of Olympus, and The Raven Cycle—have made strides in crafting queer characters.
This conversation only grew more contested when looking outside of the original series. Popularity of the Harry Potter series saw tremendous resurgence over the 2015-2016 period. Much of this revival comes from new, canonical texts, such as the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and noncanonical, as with Rainbow Rowell’s satire of Rowling’s series and its influence, Carry On.
This ‘Potter Renaissance’ I describe takes place only after Western nations have made strides in the promotion of LGBTQIA rights. Thus, themes and representations of homosexuality and queerness in Rowling’s original work as well as her next texts deserve more exploration. These themes are present throughout the Potter Renaissance and have consequently changed the series. Whether these themes prove better or more problematic to present gay identity politically, socially, and narratively will be examined.
Harry Potter: Prejudice, Dumbledore, and Other Queer-ies
Establishing how a queer reading should operate is important here, because studying queerness in texts has many implications. While a queer critical reading explores alternative sexualities and gender expressions, this tool also applies to a relationality between queerness and the non-normativity exhibited in narratives. Therefore, this critical lens applies to themes and subtext as much as it does to alternative expressions of gender and sexuality, and proves to be especially intriguing in fantastical texts. Works of low fantasy are fundamentally based in alternative representations of reality and thus reframe conflict outside of our world. Consequently, Harry Potter has the potential to present us with new understandings of queerness in our own world.
Harry Potter establishes itself as a considerably queer text in its first installment. Though the series follows the adventures of a boy wizard who attends a magical boarding school, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone declares in our reality:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense[v]
In a series about witchcraft and wizardry, Rowling portrays the Dursleys as a clear embodiment of normativity and its strict enforcement. Though Harry is initially unaware of his magical power, his discovery of this queerness naturally challenges this, presenting himself as non-normative, or rather queer. To the Dursleys, Harry “was another good reason for keeping the Potters away; they didn’t want Dudley mixing with a child like that”.[vi] Naturally, when Harry becomes a part of their lives, they work to insulate themselves by hiding him away in a broom closet. Living at Privet Drive, Harry awakes and notices the spiders around him, but he “was used to spiders, because the cupboard under the stairs was full of them, and that was where he slept”.[vii] Harry’s life has some clear queer undertones, since the Dursleys literally put him in a closet out of shame and fear. Naturally, this parallels the experience of “being in the closet,” or hiding one’s sexuality. According to this dynamic, being a wizard in a muggle environment is the equivalent of being gay in a heteronormative environment. It is no wonder that in Nylund’s case study, Steven so easily relates Harry’s oppressive home to his own homophobic one.
The Dursleys attempt to maintain this closeting, as they prevent Harry from reading letters pertaining to his magical education, even if this eventually proves futile. After meeting Hagrid who reveals his magical identity, Harry begins contemplating, “Now he came to think about it…every odd thing that had ever made his aunt and uncle furious with him had happened when he, Harry, had been upset or angry”.[viii] Harry begins to realize his queer, wizardly status, which transmutes his realization into a wizarding equivalent of the traditional coming-out narrative. This queerness empowers Harry onwards. In just sixty pages, Rowling has already established a distinctly queer subtext to Harry’s story, with a clear moral stance against strict definitions of normativity and their harsh implementation.
Rowling clearly explores morality in each installment of Harry Potter. Much of these moral conflicts arise early in the series with Draco Malfoy, a character notorious for his elitism and prejudice. In Sorcerer’s Stone, he publicly identifies Ron as a Weasley because they “have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford,” and warns Harry to not “go making friends with the wrong sort”.[ix] In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Draco’s bigotry grows explicitly racist, as he calls Hermione Granger, a muggle-born witch, a “filthy little mudblood”.[x]
Vezzali et al. find that these scenes of bullying fight against prejudice, writing, “The world of Harry Potter is characterized by strict social hierarchies and resulting prejudices, with obvious parallels to our society”.[xi] Rowling’s solution for this is to make Harry “the main positive character, who fights against social inequality and injustice”.[xii] We see Harry’s moral integrity in his response to Draco’s warning about the Weasleys, declaring that he “can tell who the wrong sort are for [himself], thanks”.[xiii] Ron also takes up this mantle when he attempts to curse Draco for his remarks against Hermione.[xiv] Though his curse backfires to his embarrassment, Ron later establishes the morality through his response: “It’s a disgusting thing to call someone…. Dirty blood, see. Common blood. It’s ridiculous. Most wizards these days are half-blood anyway”.[xv] Harry and his friends actively work throughout their schooling to fight prejudice and discrimination in the Wizarding Community. With such a strong moral compass, it is easy to see why in Nylund’s study Steven saw Harry as a potential activist and ally in the face of homophobia.
Despite these apparent virtues, morality in Harry Potter appears somewhat soured when looking at the queer elements in later parts of the series. Same-sex attraction is mostly absent from Rowling’s writing. One of the few—if not only—direct addresses of homosexuality occurs in the series’ final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Before the trio embark to break into Gringotts Wizard Bank, Harry comments on Ron’s physical transfiguration, “Well, he’s not my type, but he’ll do”.[xvi] The only time our hero Harry addresses homosexuality and its presence in this world is as a gay joke. Harry’s heroic, moral position and casual homophobia combined with the book’s lack of queer representation is dangerous. William Irwin writes on this lack in his essay “Authorial Declaration and Extreme Actual Intentionalism: Is Dumbledore Gay?” He comments that the absence of same-sex attraction from the series “makes the world of Harry Potter seem more intolerant than the real world”.[xvii] Rowling’s deep, diverse, and complex world manages to span thousands of pages. Yet by erasing same-sex attraction, the series manages to further marginalize an already stigmatized community, presenting it as something more severe than abnormal. Though Rowling’s series keenly explores racism and discrimination for children and teens, it selectively condemns prejudices.
Granted, there is an argument for literal and canonical homosexual representation in the series. Rowling rattled her readership when she revealed in a 2007 interview that she had “always thought of Dumbledore as gay”.[xviii] This bombshell sent readers scrambling back to their copies, searching for evidence they may have missed in their original reading. Many have come to believe that the relationship between Dumbledore and the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald to be homosexual, or at least an infatuation from Dumbledore. Rowling supported this interpretation herself, saying in an interview “It is in the book. He had—it’s very clear in the book…I think a child will see a friendship and a sensitive adult may well understand that it was an infatuation”.[xix] As the author of Harry Potter, it is easy to take Rowling’s words as fact. However, exploring Dumbledore’s implied sexuality does not align with her suggestion. William Irwin remains skeptical of Rowling’s authority to define her work, as he explains, “A person’s declaration of intention is not always sufficient to establish that intention”.[xx]
Rowling’s comments on Dumbledore’s implied homosexuality, nonetheless, deserves consideration, especially with the series’ intrinsic queer themes. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows explores much of Dumbledore’s yet unknown past. In an obituary, Dumbledore’s old friend Elphias Doge praises the late headmaster, with only a brief reference to Grindelwald in describing his duel with Dumbledore in 1945.[xxi] Most of the revelations about Dumbledore come from the book The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore by Rita Skeeter, a notoriously ruthless and biased reporter in the Harry Potter series. We, like Harry, are expected to take Skeeter’s gossip with a grain of salt, as she spent much of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix deliberately perpetuating falsehoods about Harry. She describes young Dumbledore and Grindelwald as “[taking] to each other at once” to form “a close friendship”.[xxii] She mentions how the two of them flirted with ideas of Muggle oppression and the dark arts, later detailing that this friendship lasted approximately two months.[xxiii] This is all that Rowling provided regarding Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship. Despite Skeeter’s general untrustworthiness, Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth confirms Dumbledore’s dark past she relays.[xxiv] When discussing the inevitable confrontation between Dumbledore and Grindelwald in 1945, Skeeter rhetorically asks, “Was it lingering affection for the man or fear of exposure as his once best friend that caused Dumbledore to hesitate?”[xxv] As far as implying Dumbledore’s homosexuality, that is the most explicitly Rowling writes. Because this implication is nearly invisible in the original text, it begs the question that the presentation of Dumbledore’s affections may only be Rowling’s later authorial invention.
If Skeeter’s implications about Dumbledore are to be believed as Rowling would have, then there is far greater danger in the text’s minimalistic representation of its singular queer character. In an interview with Skeeter, she suggests “there is no question that Dumbledore took an unnatural interest in Potter,” characterizing the relationship as “unhealthy, even sinister”.[xxvi] Much clearer than Rowling’s suggesting Dumbledore’s infatuation is Skeeter’s implying that Dumbledore is a pedophile, an implication which recalls a dangerous and incredibly damaging history of association of pedophilia with homosexuality. Yet by Rowling’s logic, we have just as much reason to believe all of Skeeter’s implications. As far as concrete queer presence in the series, Rowling crafts each moment with microaggressions, archaic associations, or complete erasure. Thus, we should shift our critical eye from the texts to Rowling herself.
Tison Pugh and David L. Wallace share a similar cynicism about the representation of Dumbledore as gay in, “A Postscript to ‘Heteronormative Heroism and queering the School Story in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series”. If Rowling intended for Dumbledore to be gay, then readers must recognize “it was J. K. Rowling who put Dumbledore in the closet, and she now receives credit for taking him out of it”.[xxvii] While Rowling attempted to recognize the existence of gay characters after the publication of her novels, this perspective does not include challenging homophobia but rather is complicit in maintaining heteronormativity.
The Cursed Child, Masculinity, and Homophobia
The announcement of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child marked both a continuation of and clear departure from the Harry Potter series. Fans spent nine years lamenting the end of the books and five years without seeing a major film adaptation. Rowling made many comments on events which took place after the books through Twitter and Pottermore, a constructed multimedia center for the Potter fandom, but neither sated the world’s appetite. To many, Harry Potter was over, but Rowling rekindled her magic. June of 2015 saw the announcement of Cursed Child, the touted “eighth story”.[xxviii] This came a few years after the development of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was publicized in September of 2013.[xxix] It seemed Harry Potter returned. Fans would experience a new era of Rowling’s universe during the Potter Renaissance, but would engage with these texts in new, unfamiliar ways.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child splits its narrative between Harry and his son, Albus. The play starts where the epilogue of Deathly Hallows ended, at King’s Cross, the Hogwarts Express, and Albus trying to make new friends. A familiar narrative in the series, but Thorne twists these Potter hallmarks. The first new element comes when Albus is placed into Slytherin by the Sorting Hat, which Thorne describes as having “A perfect, profound silence. One that sits low, twists a bit, and has damage within it”.[xxx] Many students are distraught by the sortment, proclaiming, “Whoa! A Potter? In Slytherin,” clearly realizing “This is not how it’s supposed to be”.[xxxi]
Here, we see the queering of the Potter narrative. The series has always aligned readers with Harry and by extension the house of Gryffindor. By placing Albus in the house of Gryffindor’s rival, Thorne introduces this play as a starkly non-normative experience. Albus’ experience only worsens as he struggles with magic and faces alienation from his peers and family. In an argument with his father Harry, Albus expresses his frustration, “So what would you like me to do? Magic myself popular? Conjure myself into a new House? Transfigure myself into a better student? Just cast a spell, Dad, and change me into what you want me to be, okay? It’ll be better for both of us”.[xxxii] Albus’ language is particularly reminiscent of gay, coming-out narratives, whose vernacular similarly stress an inability to change in response to parental rejection. However, its expression is more open and direct than in Sorcerer’s Stone. He has different experiences than those around him, particularly his family. This difference leads to Albus’ isolation from and conflict with his father, who futilely wishes his son to be different. This conflict operates the same way a queer child exists in a suffocating, heteronormative environment.
A distinct departure from the series’ portrayal of friendship and masculinity comes from the depicted relationship between Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. Their friendship already breaks new ground, given the tumultuous history between Harry and Draco Malfoy, Scorpius’ father, which connotes their relationship as star-crossed. Despite the attempts of both fathers to separate their sons, the emotional intimacy between Albus and Scorpius grows. Albus freely proclaims his admiration to Scorpius when he says, “In fact, you’re probably the best person I know”.[xxxiii] This unabashed expression of affection would feel out of place in a male friendship like that of Harry and Ron. Not only is their relationship deeply woven, but it builds upon and seems to correct some of the earlier, prejudicial elements. Although Draco was a racist, elitist bully, his son Scorpius exhibits opposite characteristics.
Later in the play, Scorpius uses a time turner which accidentally leads to Harry’s death and Voldemort’s reign, thus erasing Albus from existence. Scorpius implores the now present Severus Snape to help him restore the original timeline. Snape comments, “You’re a king…think about Albus. You’re giving up your kingdom for Albus, right?”.[xxxiv] In this timeline, Scorpius assumes a similar role to his father Draco, living atop a social hierarchy with considerable power and influence. Despite his new position, the series’ stress on the power of empathy and compassion causes Scorpius to choose his love for Albus over great personal gain. The intimacy between Albus and Scorpius is noticeable to secondary characters also. In conversing with Scorpius, Delphi Diggory observes, “Albus needs you, Scorpius. That’s a wonderful thing…. You two—you belong together”.[xxxv] Scorpius and Albus’ friendship is distinct in its depth and its non-normativity. Their intimate relationship breaks down previous forms of masculinized friendships, clearing way for new, queer possibilities.
Although the entire play builds from this friendship, Albus and Scorpius never progress beyond this point in queer representation. Rather, the play retreats to the series’ original homophobia, reinforced with rushed, heterosexual pairings in its conclusion. Despite the thoroughly explored depths of their friendship, the two boys do not know how to consider physical contact between each other. After suffering a long break away his father and Scorpius, Albus greets Scorpius with a firm hug, to which he replies, “Hello. Um. Have we hugged before? Do we hug?”.[xxxvi] The line appears out of character, given their previously free verbal affection. The clear discomfort reinforces traditional masculinity, dispelling any possibility that these characters are homosexual. This isolated moment holds little purpose past evoking awkwardness and discomfort.
Thorne later reinforces heteronormativity through these otherwise queer Harry Potter characters. In the final scene involving the two boys, Scorpius recounts his failed attempt to ask Rose Granger-Weasley on a date, proclaiming, “I planted the acorn. The acorn that will grow into our eventual marriage”.[xxxvii] This line presents an incredibly rushed, unmotivated romantic pairing. Scorpius and Rose occupy few scenes together and share fewer exchanges of dialogue. The sudden expectation of the audience/reader to accept this new romantic possibility is baffling. Thorne spends 300 pages building the relationship between Albus and Scorpius, only to have any hope of a romantic outcome squashed in a single line. He decides to end their final scene together with another hug and yet another moment of quasi gay-panic as Albus protests, “What’s this? I thought we decided we don’t hug”.[xxxviii] It’s ironic that Thorne and Rowling worked to craft such a queer, non-normative experience of friendship only to squander progressive representation in a series lacking in diversity. Thorne ends the story of Scorpius and Albus in a moment of protective masculinity, a moment which otherwise could have been new ground for Harry Potter.
Fantastic Beasts and Queering Magic
As Rowling built on the Wizarding World lore, the scope of her themes of prejudice has grown. Whereas in earlier entries Rowling displays compassion, activism, and prejudice in the daily lives of her characters, her later, darker novels politicize these conflicts. This politicization appeared as the power of the Ministry of Magic and Daily Prophet in Order of the Phoenix or as Voldemort’s fascist regime in Deathly Hallows. Rowling’s screenplay Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them further evolves her political narratives. In tandem, the queer subtexts also undergo this politicization.
The screenplay takes place in 1920s New York City, and explores social and political fears of that time and in the context of a fantastic narrative. We see magic differently here than in the original series. Whereas magic causes joy, excitement and wonder for both Harry and the reader, Rowling suddenly introduces a world where magic causes overwhelming anxiety, panic and danger. Much of this scare comes from No-Maj hysteria embodied by the Second Salemers, an organization bent on exposing the magical threat plaguing New York. The leader Mary Lou holds several rallies to instigate this fear, once proclaiming, “But where there is light there is shadow, friend. Something is stalking our city, wreaking destruction and then disappearing without a trace…We have to fight”.[xxxix] Her militarized rhetoric recalls the language used by the religious right during several moments of the American gay rights movement. Specifically, unrelenting fear causes No-Majs to blame the paranormal just as the heterosexual population scapegoated the gay community during the AIDS epidemic, only serving to further insight fear, perpetuate ignorance, and worsen fatality. This intolerance in Fantastic Beasts feels even more grounded in our reality coming from Modesty, one of Mary Lou’s adopted children, who recites:
My momma, your momma,
gonna catch a witch,
My momma, your momma,
flying on a switch,
My momma, your momma,
witches never cry,
My momma, your momma
witches gonna die![xl]
Modesty exhibits an indoctrinated fervor containing notes of religious fundamentalism, whose rhetoric has been especially used to dehumanize the queer population. Here, however, Modesty’s rhyme perpetuates the otherness of the Wizarding Community. By implimenting such familiar language of hate, Rowling works to deconstruct the prejudice in Fantastic Beasts, allowing the audience to understand (but not to identify with) these ultimately fearful No-Majs.
The paranoia culled by the Second Salemers applies to other forms of oppression. The group’s violent, dehumanizing language mirrors that used per homophobia, a narrative which Rowling identifies as queer by the Wizarding World’s reaction to this paranoia. Responding to the rising number of magic-related killings, Madam Picquery, President of the Magical Congress of the United States (M.A.C.U.S.A.), meets with her advisors to form a plan of action in the Wizarding Community. She warns, “It’s terrorizing No-Majs and when No-Majs are afraid, they attack. This could mean war”.[xli] Though Rowling has previously explored the Wizarding World’s sense of superiority, community, and even protective attitude towards the non-magical population, here she introduces us to a surprising sense of fear. The threat of the No-Majs feels especially surprising since they are usually subservient or absent in Rowling’s series. However, it is a fear that develops from cultural attitudes into concrete law. Newt Scamander, a British wizard and Magizoologist, comments on the reactionary legislation of the American Wizarding Community, criticizing, “I know you have rather backwards laws about relations with non-magic people. That you’re not meant to befriend them, that you can’t marry them, which seems mildly absurd to me”.[xlii] Newt’s commentary ultimately aligns with Rowling’s in the disapproval of this insulation. Whereas the Dursleys were the ones who closeted Harry, this community closets itself out of fear of persecution and violence. The mention of backwards laws regarding marriage especially feels reminiscent of the recent fight for marriage equality. This demonstrates Rowling to be keenly aware of evolving social attitudes coupled with the maturation of her own writing. As far as queer themes, she graduates from subtext to a direct parable of contemporary bigotry on a national scale. Whereas much of the queer subtext is implied in Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts shows Rowling implementing queer themes with far less uncertainty.
In the narrative Rowling shows the dangers of closeting her characters, by providing the twist that Credence, a Second Salemer, is a wizard, who suppresses his own magic. He shares the fears of the American Wizarding Community, like receiving hatred and abuse (in his case, from his adopted mother Mary Lou).[xliii] In reading his character queerly, Credence’s sexuality is suggested. When Credence meets with M.A.C.U.S.A. Auror Percival Graves, he “rests a hand on Credence’s arm. The human contact seems to both startle and captivate Credence”.[xliv] But in keeping with the temper of the American Wizarding Community, Credence hides and internalizes his magic, a process which turns him into an Obscurial. Newt describes this form of magic: “when we were still being hunted by Muggles, young wizards and witches sometimes tried to suppress their magic to avoid persecution. Instead of learning to harness or to control their powers, they developed what was called an Obscurus”.[xlv] Tina comments, “It’s an unstable uncontrollable Dark force that bursts out and—and attacks…and then vanishes…. Obscurials can’t survive long”.[xlvi] Credence’s concealment, Rowling reveals, is the source of the rampant killings and ensuing paranoia. Frankly, the same relationship applies to Rowling herself, as her concealment and erasure of queer characters has resulted in new criticism of the series. This would seem to imply a clear, political, and distinctly queer message. Closeting oneself promotes fear and hatred, and the only solution to find peace and break barriers is to live openly. Applying this sentiment to Rowling’s writing, her simple solution is to directly address the suppressed queerness of her work.
Unfortunately, Rowling’s screenplay does not end on this note. Credence rampages across the city, causes massive destruction, and is ultimately killed by Aurors, keeping in the archaic narrative tradition of killing-off queer characters. Although producer David Heyman has gone on record revealing Credence in fact survives in a deleted scene, its lack of inclusion cements Rowling’s reluctance to challenge her own status-quo.[xlvii] Unfortunately, this easy disposal of queer characters continues in the following moments of the story. In the screenplay, Rowling reveals Graves to be Gellert Grindelwald in disguise. He mourns Credence’s destruction, and directly addresses the present members of the M.A.C.U.S.A. about the current political state of the American Wizarding Community:
A law that has us scuttling like rats in the gutter! A law that demands that we conceal our true nature! A law that directs those under its dominion to cower in fear lest we risk discovery! I ask you, Madam President…I ask all of you…who does this law protect? Us?...Or them?...I refuse to bow down any longer[xlviii]
Grindelwald’s condemnation of this concealment is perfectly justified by Credence’s death. This speech is akin to many of those made by heroes of Harry Potter, as it both challenges authority and advocates for openness. However, Grindelwald, as we know from Deathly Hallows, is one of the greatest dark wizards in wizarding history. Concerningly, Grindelwald is a character who advocates for values associated with gay rights, and—as he was previously close with Dumbledore—could be a queer character. Even the earlier, physical intimacy he demonstrates with Credence as Graves hints at a direct representation. Consequently, Rowling creates another potentially queer character who fundamentally rejects concealment, yet whom the audience should decry for his villainy. Rowling frames his arrest as a triumph, but for a queer reading it feels like the opposite. By attributing this queer philosophy for acceptance with such a character, Rowling gives little reason to celebrate Grindelwald’s valid arguments. The screenplay reinforces this in its resolution. Although several No-Majs witnessed the destruction, the incident ends with Newt and M.A.C.U.S.A. obliviating the entire city. The wizarding community returns to its position in the shadows, and the audience is expected to see this as a happy ending. In doing so, Rowling manages to sabotage any message of acceptance, tolerance, and openness, thus demonstrating her painfully slow progress as far as queer representation: two steps forward, one step back.
Carry On and Utopia
At the end of Rowling’s explorations of the Wizarding World, strong, positive queer characters are still unfound. Rowling presents subtexts, side-commentary, and baseless assertions on queer identities unsuccessfully. However, some of Rowling’s shortcomings are understandable. Harry Potter began in the mid-1990s, when gay visibility was cause enough for international headlines, as was the case with Ellen DeGeneres’ coming-out, and ended in the mid-2000s, when the fights for marriage equality and hate-crime legislation saw major progress. Regardless of time, her novels have received strong criticism from the far right. Danielle M. Soulliere writes about this difficult position in “Much Ado about Harry: Harry Potter and the creation of a Moral Panic.” She defines moral panic as “a period of heightened concern over some issue in which the societal reaction is disproportionate to the actual seriousness of the event,” which in relation to Potter she defines as the religious right’s anxiety over the series’ depiction of the occult.[xlix] It is this same group she credits as creating a moral panic around “a variety of social issues including homosexuality and same-sex marriage”.[l] She also cites Catholic writer Nancy Carpentier Brown, who suggests that the series is fundamentally Christian in its themes of redemption.[li] Perhaps there was an appeasement to satisfy this audience. William Irwin questions this from a liberal perspective, writing “she may have said that Dumbledore was gay in an effort to please secular readers and distance herself from a conservative worldview,” which is a naturally safer move to make after the publication of the final novel.[lii] But as explored with her depiction of Dumbledore, authorial intention has little weight on the operations of the literal text.
Harry Potter extends beyond Rowling’s writings. Fanfiction for instance proves a great source for fans wanting to return to Rowling’s world. One of the most popular forms of fanfiction is called slash fanfiction. Catherine Tosenberger thoroughly explores this literary medium in relation to Harry Potter. She defines slash fanfiction as “concern[ing] a romantic and/or sexual relationship between characters of the same gender”.[liii] Per Harry Potter, popular pairings are Harry/Draco, Seamus/Dean, Remus/Sirius, and Ginny/Cho. Yet that the pairings and the writing which explore them are so explicitly non-canonical proves troubling. Tosenberger writes on the transgressive potential of these pairings in her essay “Homosexuality at the Online Hogwarts: Harry Potter Slash Fanfiction.” In fanfiction’s relation to canon, she writes “the insistence that slash must transgress the existing canon rather troublingly assigns to the canon a heteronormativity it may not necessarily possess.[liv] Rowling’s canon has considerable queer subtext, though explicit representation lacks. The series contains heteronormativity, which Tosenberger mentions, in expressing masculinity and homophobia, thus making its attempts to be otherwise feel trivial. Thus queer Harry Potter fanfiction is important in relation to the series canonical attitudes. Ruminating on this potential, Tosenberger writes, “in a homophobic culture that attempts to police or censor expressions of non-heteronormativity, any depiction of queerness, especially a positive, sympathetic depiction, qualifies as [transgressive and subversive]”.[lv] This slash fanfiction demonstrates that queer characters coexist with canon, and shows the ease with which they are created.
One of the most celebrated and widely-read slash fanfictions of the Potter Renaissance, Rainbow Rowell’s novel Carry On, has a complicated history with Harry Potter. The main characters of the novel, Simon Snow and Baz Pitch serve as stand-ins for Harry and Draco, respectively. This novel notably portrays a same-sex relationship between Simon and Baz. Although archenemies, the two realize their mutual attraction, as the growing sexual tension between the two results in Simon and Baz sharing a kiss. Baz attempts to make sense of this act, asking himself, “Is this a good kiss? I don’t know. Snow’s mouth is hot. Everything is hot. He’s pushing me, so I push back”.[lvi] The explicit description of this kiss does not only contrast with Rowling’s original work, but generally with the t young adult fiction. Tosenberger argues that, “While YA literature has gradually allowed itself to become more sexually explicit, there is still a strong imperative towards pedagogy—inculcating ‘correct’ attitudes about sexuality to an audience deemed in need of education”.[lvii] We see this transition in Harry Potter, which gradually introduces elements of romance and relationships as Harry grows up over the series, but excludes sexuality. Carry On, however, establishes itself as more explicit than the Potter series, as it includes a same-sex romance and explicitly describes its moments in a detail.
As a piece of fanfiction, Carry On provides commentary on Harry Potter and the state of young adult fiction. Baz describes another kissing scene between himself and Simon: “[Simon] held himself up on all fours above me and made me reach up for his mouth—and I did. I would again. I’d cross every line for him”.[lviii] Baz expresses the ease with which he would cross lines for Simon, echoing the lines of explicit language and sexuality Rainbow Rowell freely crosses in her world that Rowling will not in hers. Rowell crosses these lines so freely because she normalizes such intersections and diversity in identity. She reconsiders and normalizes non-normativity in a way Rowling has yet to accomplish. Simon and Baz end the novel openly in a relationship, although Simon has completely lost his magical powers. He expresses this concern to his boyfriend Baz: “I can’t keep up with you. I’m a Normal”.[lix] Though Rowling depicts magic as a boon, wizards like Voldemort or Draco see normal, non-magical Muggles as lesser beings.
Rowell explores non-magical individuals differently. For instance, Simon is not upset because he is suddenly lesser, but because one of the defining features that made him special that made him non-normative and queer is lost. This recalls not the racist ideology of supremacy that some witches and wizards in Harry Potter, but rather the unselective celebration of differences. In line with this idea, Baz rebuts Simon, saying, “Simon. You have a tail”.[lx] This line represents Rowell’s approach and sentiment toward diversity and inclusion. She shows the value of all differences, even of Simon’s tail, which by extension also show the value of his same-sex attraction to Baz. Rowling’s work shares a similar approach to the pointlessness of enforcing normativity, as demonstrated with the opening pages on the Dursleys. Yet Rowell’s novel accomplishes the same goals by being inclusive of queer characters. Rowell creates a queer utopia, where individual traits like race, gender, sexuality, and magical ability can all coexist in one narrative world equally. Rowling has failed to accomplish the same feat across the seven-book series, a stage play, and a complete screenplay that Rowell achieves in one novel. Though both Harry Potter and Carry On are fantastical works full of diverse possibilities, Rowell’s work is limitless. Whereas Rowling reserves themes of sexuality, gender and race to subtext, Rowell gives them equal narrative attention, apprising the reader of the possibilities inherent in Rowling’s Wizarding World.
Carry On is a young-adult bestseller with explicit moments of queer sexuality, so why has the threat of moral panic not been nearly as troubling for Rowell? Though incredibly successful, it is difficult for any contemporary writer of youth literature to inhabit the stage of immense popularity and scrutiny that Rowling does. Perhaps its more limited audience allows it to be more transgressive of traditional if outdated social norms without much opposition. Yet this only stresses the importance of the potential of Rowling’s work. Because of the unprecedented literary phenomenon of Harry Potter, Rowling has a greater obligation to promote social equality through her writing. Although she continues to fall short, she has an ideal example to follow in the work of Rainbow Rowell.
Conclusion: Where from Here?
Harry Potter and its related texts prove themselves to be progressive yet problematic in their representations of the gay experience. Rowling’s original series provides queer subtext, but when critically examined, the series is deeply troubling in its queer representations and lack thereof, despite Rowling’s authorial claims. The Potter Renaissance tires to fix these problems, as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child explores non-normative within the Wizarding Community. However, that stage play unfortunately succumbs to rigid masculinity and homophobia in its depiction of male relationships. Rowling’s screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them politicizes the queer subtext of her original series, but once again fails in its representation of gay characters and themes. One point of solace is Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, which celebrates queering and non-normativity by using defined gay characters who take the spotlight. Despite the virtues of Rowling’s work, her explorations fall short at best and dangerously misguide at worst. Her muted rhetoric and homophobic expressions of masculinity counteract her work’s queer themes, and thus subvert its otherwise praiseworthy messages of acceptance and condemnation of prejudice. To find positive queer representation within Harry Potter, one must look outside of the beloved series. If this is the case, then where does Harry Potter go from here?
As far as the community surrounding Rowling, the situation is fine. Through similar texts or fan appropriation of characters and themes, Harry Potter has a progressive path ahead as far as representations of queer characters. As for Rowling and the canonical Harry Potter, there is much potential ahead. On the future of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, Rowling revealed, “You will see Dumbledore as a younger man and quite a troubled man…. We’ll see him at that formative period of his life. As far as his sexuality is concerned…watch this space”.[lxi] It is a vague promise, but it sounds like she may finally deliver a gay Dumbledore in coming installments. As fans, we hope she stays true to her word and learns from both fans and critics alike.
Elliott, Gina. “Rowling Reveals Harry Potter Secrets.” Time. Time Inc., 20 Oct. 2007. Web. 05 Dec. 2016. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1674073,00.html.
“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a New Play by JK Rowling, Will Hit the West End in 2016.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 26 June 2015. Web. 05 Dec. 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-news/11700410/Harry-Potter-prequel-to-hit-West-End-in-2016.html.
Irwin, William. “Authorial Declaration and Extreme Actual Intentionalism: Is Dumbledore Gay?” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 73, no. 2, 2015., pp. 141-147doi:10.1111/jaac.12158. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=aph&AN=102274497&scope=site.
Nylund, David. “Reading Harry Potter: Popular Culture, Queer Theory and the Fashioning of Youth Identity.” Journal of Systemic Therapies, vol. 26, no. 2, 2007., pp. 13-24doi:10.1521/jsyt.2007.26.2.13. http://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jsyt.2007.26.2.13?journalCode=jsyt.
Pugh, T. & Wallace, D. L. “A Postscript to "Heteronormative Heroism and Queering the School Story in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series’.” Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 33 no. 2, 2008, pp. 188-192. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/chq.0.0009. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/237889.
Ring, Trudy. “LGBT Students at Hogwarts? ‘But of Course,’ Says J.K. Rowling.” The Advocate. Here Media, Inc., 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2016. http://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/2014/12/18/lgbt-students-hogwarts-course-says-jk-rowling.
Rowell, Rainbow. Carry On. London: Pan Macmillan, 2015. Print.
Rowling, J. K. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, an Imprint of Scholastic, 2016. Print.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: A.A. Levine, 2000. Print.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: A.A. Levine, 2007. Print.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: A.A. Levine, 1998. Print.
Setoodeh, Ramin. “Dumbledore Could Be Openly Gay in ‘Fantastic Beasts’ Sequel, J.K. Rowling Says.” Variety. Variety Media, LLC, 10 Nov. 2016. Web. 05 Dec. 2016. http://variety.com/2016/film/news/fantastic-beasts-dumbledore-gay-jk-rowling-harry-potter-1201915037/.
Soulliere, Danielle M. “Much Ado about Harry: Harry Potter and the Creation of a Moral Panic.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, vol. 22, no. 1, 2010., pp. 1. https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-238178966/much-ado-about-harry-harry-potter-and-the-creation.
Tartaglione, Nancy. “Warner Bros, J.K. Rowling Team For New ‘Harry Potter’-Inspired Film Series.” Deadline. Penske Business Media, LLC, 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 05 Dec. 2016. http://deadline.com/2013/09/warner-bros-j-k-rowling-team-for-new-harry-potter-inspired-film-series-585122/.
Thorne, Jack, J. K. Rowling, and John Tiffany. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2016. Print.
Tosenberger, Catherine. “Homosexuality at the Online Hogwarts: Harry Potter Slash Fanfiction.” Children's Literature, vol. 36, no. 1, 2008., pp. 185-207doi:10.1353/chl.0.0017. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/237810.
Tosenberger, C. “‘Oh my God, the Fanfiction!’: Dumbledore's Outing and the Online Harry Potter Fandom.” Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 33 no. 2, 2008, pp. 200-206. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/chq.0.0015. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/237891/pdf.
Vezzali, Loris, et al. “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 45, no. 2, 2015., pp. 105-121doi:10.1111/jasp.12279. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=aph&AN=100952798&scope=site.
Wakeman, Gregory. “Fantastic Beasts Ending: A Key Scene That Was Cut, And Why.” Cinema Blend. Gateway Media, 21 Nov. 2016. Web. 05 Dec. 2016. http://www.cinemablend.com/news/1586630/fantastic-beasts-ending-a-key-scene-that-was-cut-and-why.
[i] Trudy Ring, “LGBT Students at Hogwarts? ‘But of Course,’ Says J.K. Rowling.” The Advocate, Dec. 18 2014, http://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/2014/12/18/lgbt-students-hogwarts-course-says-jk-rowling.
[ii] David Nylund, “Reading Harry Potter: Popular Culture, Queer Theory and the Fashioning of Youth Identity.” Journal of Systemic Therapies, vol. 26, no. 2 (2007): pp. 16-17. http://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jsyt.2007.26.2.13?journalCode=jsyt.
[iii] Ibid, 17.
[iv] Loris Vezzali, et al., “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 45, no. 2 (2015): pp. 112. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=aph&AN=100952798&scope=site.
[v] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: A.A. Levine, 1998), 1.
[vi] Ibid, 2.
[vii] Ibid, 19.
[viii] Ibid, 58.
[ix] Ibid, 108.
[x] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (New York: A.A. Levine, 2000), 112.
[xi] Vezzali, “The Greatest Magic”, 106.
[xii] Ibid, 107.
[xiii] Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 109.
[xiv] Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 112.
[xv] Ibid, 116.
[xvi] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (New York: A.A. Levine, 2007), 523.
[xvii] William Irwin, “Authorial Declaration and Extreme Actual Intentionalism: Is Dumbledore Gay?” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 73, no. 2 (2015): pp. 142. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=aph&AN=102274497&scope=site.
[xviii] Gina Elliott, “Rowling Reveals Harry Potter Secrets.” Time, Oct. 20, 2007, http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1674073,00.html.
[xix] Catherine Tosenberger, “‘Oh my God, the Fanfiction!’: Dumbledore's Outing and the Online Harry Potter Fandom.” Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 2 (2008): pp. 201. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/237891/pdf.
[xx] Irwin, “Authorial Declaration”, 142.
[xxi] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 20.
[xxii] Ibid, 356.
[xxiii] Ibid, 357, 25, 358.
[xxiv] Ibid, 561-8.
[xxv] Ibid, 359.
[xxvi] Ibid, 27.
[xxvii] T. Pugh, and Wallace, D. L., “A Postscript to "Heteronormative Heroism and Queering the School Story in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series’”, Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 2 (2008) pp. 191. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/237889.
[xxviii] “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a New Play by JK Rowling, Will Hit the West End in 2016”, The Telegraph, June 26, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-news/11700410/Harry-Potter-prequel-to-hit-West-End-in-2016.html.
[xxix] Nancy Tartaglione. “Warner Bros, J.K. Rowling Team For New ‘Harry Potter’-Inspired Film Series”, Deadline, Sept. 12 2013, http://deadline.com/2013/09/warner-bros-j-k-rowling-team-for-new-harry-potter-inspired-film-series-585122/.
[xxx] Jack Thorne, Rowling, J.K., and Tiffany, John, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (New York: A.A. Levine, 2016), 21.
[xxxii] Ibid, 27.
[xxxiii] Ibid, 143.
[xxxiv] Ibid, 193.
[xxxv] Ibid, 134.
[xxxvi] Ibid, 51.
[xxxvii] Ibid, 300.
[xxxviii] Ibid, 302.
[xxxix] J.K. Rowling, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay (New York: A.A. Levine, an Imprint of Scholastic, 2016), 11.
[xl] Ibid, 52.
[xli] Ibid, 42.
[xlii] Ibid, 64.
[xliii] Ibid, 119.
[xliv] Ibid, 88.
[xlv] Ibid, 150.
[xlvi] Ibid, 151.
[xlvii] Gregory Wakeman, “Fantastic Beasts Ending: A Key Scene That Was Cut, And Why”, Cinema Blend, Nov. 21 2016, http://www.cinemablend.com/news/1586630/fantastic-beasts-ending-a-key-scene-that-was-cut-and-why.
[xlviii] Rowling, Fantastic Beasts, 255.
[xlix] Danielle Soulliere, “Much Ado about Harry: Harry Potter and the Creation of a Moral Panic”, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, vol. 22, no. 1 (2010): pp. 4, 7. https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-238178966/much-ado-about-harry-harry-potter-and-the-creation.
[l] Ibid, 7.
[li] Ibid, 22.
[lii] Irwin, “Authorial Declaration”, 142.
[liii] Tosenberger, “Oh my God, the Fanfiction!”, 200.
“Homosexuality at the Online Hogwarts” 187.
[lvi] Rainbow Rowell, Carry On (London: Pan Macmillan, 2015), 342.
[lvii] Tosenberger, “Homosexuality at the Online Hogwarts”, 188.
[lviii] Rowell, Carry On, 364.
[lix] Ibid, 507.
[lxi] Ramin Setoodeh, “Dumbledore Could Be Openly Gay in ‘Fantastic Beasts’ Sequel, J.K. Rowling Says.” Variety, Nov. 10, 2016, http://variety.com/2016/film/news/fantastic-beasts-dumbledore-gay-jk-rowling-harry-potter-1201915037/.