We Need to Talk About Queer Representation in Harry Potter

Right, let me start off by laying my HP credentials right out on the table. I was introduced to J.K. Rowling’s great works by my mum, who read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to my brother and me on an 8-and-a-half-hour journey to the South of France for a caravan holiday. We soon replaced her with the Stephen Fry audio books, of course, but I credit my mum with introducing me to my first ever love. I read the books until I could quote them. For my eleventh birthday I sent invitations out on yellow paper and in green ink. And, still, my proudest moment to date is the time when my dad helped me dress up as a 4ft Hagrid for a village. I won a bouncy ball in the shape of a snitch, it lit up when you bounced it. It wasn’t a completely carefree relationship, though; I did not like the first film when it came out. To be fair, none of my friends did, either because thought it left out too much. So, we wrote our own script (by taking every word of dialogue from the book) and forced the reception students at our Primary School to watch us perform excerpts every lunchtime.

I do also feel obliged to admit that I did, technically speaking, go through a phase were I denied my fandom. In my first year of university, I pretended I had outgrown it (to my shame.) I was a bit of a prat, in general, though – I now put my poor form down to attempting to navigate a complicated relationship with my gender and sexuality. Which brings us nicely round to the objective of this (somewhat) self-indulgent piece.

I have read dozens of essays explaining how the Harry Potter series is a metaphor for coming out the closet. I’d wager more than I can think of witty alternative titles for this piece. I sympathised with all of them, thought they had a point, too. That is until I remembered that there are no queers in that universe. Oh, sorry, there are two. (No women though, you can’t be a lesbian AND a witch, stop being so ridiculous.) I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about J.K. Rowling’s announcement, from 2007, that Dumbledore had been gay the whole time. I remember seeing a news piece not long after about this guy who had just had a massive Dumbledore tattooed on his arm and how angry he was because all his friends now called him “bender” or “bender-lover” (which is somehow worse). The more that I thought about Rowling’s decision, the more angry I was – I felt that she was trying to capitalise on the pink pound, after the fact, when the market research was in and showed that closeted teenagers across the country were craving for merchandise. I then felt terrible for assuming the worst of someone who was so important to my childhood and convinced myself that, instead, I should be grateful for the representation. Beyond that confusion, I felt hopeful that there might be more LGBT+ characters in her writing.

How wrong I was.

When the Cursed Child came out, I was incredibly excited. My girlfriend sat online all day to get us tickets and standing in the queue made me feel exactly as I did, aged 10, waiting for my copy of the Order of the Phoenix from Waterstones. The play is actually fantastic. The characters aligned perfectly with how I had imagined them, the magic was beautiful, and there was enough ridiculousness in the plot to fill a lifetime’s worth of pub chats. But, by the end of Part 1, I was most excited about the relationship between the two protagonists, Albus and Scorpius. It was so clear that they were gay. So. Clear. And I thought, “this is it, she’s only bloody done it”. But, she hadn’t, because they’re “just friends” and one of them “gets the girl”. I was genuinely livid walking out of the theatre after Part 2. It seemed impossible to me that the portrayal of their relationship was anything but deliberately misleading. This was queerbait for the HP fans who love to write about forbidden LGBT+ romances (a practice that I do wholeheartedly support).(4)

This anger was, once again, accompanied by a swathe of guilt. I had still enjoyed the play, Rowling was only a consultant, maybe I had actually imagined the whole thing. (Sorry, guys, but if they’re not in love with each other, why does Scorpius explicitly refer to Albus as his Lily?) Taking a step back, there were a lot of other things going on; I saw the play in the wake of the Orlando shooting, on the day of J.K. Rowling’s unfortunate tweet1, I was in a particularly overprotective frame of mind. I decided that I needed to distance myself a bit and start trusting her judgement again (by rereading tCoS).

Which brings us to Fantastic Beasts, the muse for this (growing ever more) self-indulgent essay. I went into that movie with high hopes and the best intentions. These were crushed.Lo and behold, our first openly queer character in a Harry Potter film is a child groomer and most likely a molester too. This means that, if you have been named as gay in the franchise, you have a 50% chance of being a sexual predator2. Not on. Whilst I recognise that it is wildly unfair of me to presume that Albus and Scorpius’ relationship in the Cursed Child was intentional queerbait by a marketing team who prioritised the fanfiction writing fanbase over the LGBT+ community, I have no such self-restraint for whomever is behind the writing and direction of Grindlewald. I struggle to see how it was not intentional to develop the character in that way and believe there is no excuse for not taking a step back and contemplating how upsetting it might be for LGBT+ fans to have their lack of representation flaunted in such a way.

I have heard every excuse in the book for the lack of LGBT+ representation. And, I honestly sympathise with a lot of them – if Rowling had written openly gay characters or same sex relationships into books 1 to 5 they likely wouldn’t have been allowed in school libraries. But, it’s 2016 and google is awash with rumours that Dumbledore and Grindlewald’s relationship will be “explored” in the movies. Our representation in this most beloved of worlds is no better than fifteen years ago, some could say it is worse. I, for one, have had enough of it. And by that, I don’t mean that I will stop loving the series (obvs), but I am done with the idea that Rowling is an ally3 and I no longer have any expectation for there to be LGBT+ characters in the future films.

 

  1. K. Rowling tweeted about one of the victims from the shooting. She tweeted about him because he worked on the Harry Potter ride at Universal studios. Many people thought her tweet was heartful and moving, I felt that it was an appropriation of other people’s grief, particularly because her phrasing implied she would not have known his name had he not been tangentially related to her franchise.
  2. The probability increases if you take a more cynical view of Dumbledore and Harry’s relationship than I do.
  3. I find the woman so confusing. On the one hand she is a boss at Twitter and does use her platform to stand up for LGBT+ individuals and she’s lost her billionaire status because of the sheer amount of money she donates to charity. But, that just doesn’t give her a free pass. She is not immune from criticism because of how much respect I (or anyone else) has for her and I think we need to start telling her that she needs to be less crap. Mostly, because I think she might actually listen.
  4. A small addition to clarify somethings in view of what people have said after reading this: There are lots of same-sex friendships in Harry Potter, and they are real friendships with ups and downs and trust issues and flaws and other explorations, that’s one of the main themes of the series. There are also many relationships between male and female characters given lots of space to develop differently.
    There are no same sex relationships.
    This is a big deal because it makes it hard to see oneself in the universe as a queer person (at least for me). As a result, when I came out, my relationship with the books changed in a way I really didn’t want it to. Because HP was such a big part of my childhood it felt like my sexuality had changed who I was, which was sad (I’m not saying every LGBT+ fan has had the same experience, I’m just trying to explain why representation matters so much to me).
    When watching CC, the disappointment of the protagonists’ relationship being platonic was crushing. A huge part of that was because I felt like it had been dangled in front of me, on purpose, and I felt incredibly foolish for believing their would be queer characters.
    I don’t think that I 1) would have been so desperate for their relationship to not be platonic nor 2) cared as much about it if there were other (casually) queer characters in other parts of the franchise.
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