On Dumbledore and the Sexuality of Wizards

Everyone on the planet (and Harry Potter readers in the asteroid belt) has heard by now that Ms. Rowling has publicly declared that Dumbledore was gay. While this does in fact show some amount of support for GLBT issues, it does not, after all, do near as much as if she had shown the character as gay in the books themselves.

Here’s a particularly good analysis by Columbia Law Professor Michael Dorf at Findlaw linking the intention of fiction authors to the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution:

These principles may seem obvious enough when considering the relation of a fiction writer’s intentions to her text, but they are highly contentious when it comes to legal documents. In the balance of this column, I will explain why James Madison is no more of an authority on the meaning of the U.S. Constitution, than J.K. Rowling is on Dumbledore’s sexual orientation.


In the end, though, an author of a work of fiction is, at best, first among equals in interpreting that work. Her intentions do not control the meaning of the text.

Just in case anyone wonders. Every character I ever wrote in my books is gay. Also handicapped. And a woman. No matter what the books say.

And finally, from Andy Borowitz at the Huffington Post:

Just days after Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling revealed that the popular professor character Albus Dumbledore was gay, President George W. Bush told the nation that he would seek a ban on fictitious gay weddings.

18 thoughts on “On Dumbledore and the Sexuality of Wizards

  1. Thanks for clarifying why the whole “Dumbledore is gay” thing is annoying me so much. If I didn’t see it while I was reading the book I DON’T CARE! He could just as easily been incestuous, ewwwh.

  2. When Rowling answered the question she seemed to be in the same camp as Dorf. She said specifically, “I always saw Dumbledore as gay.”

    I think it’s an honest response and a recognition, conscious or not, that since the books don’t explicitly say so, it’s only what she thought. I have a lot of sympathy for her, actually. It’s so hard to write, and so hard to think characters through clearly. I speculate on a lot that never reaches the page. Given what it has done in the press, I think if she had said so in the books, it would have unbalanced the public reaction to them.

    I find it astonishing that it’s front page news everywhere.

  3. Once Rachael pointed out the whole Dumbledore / Grindewald thing in the last book, while we were reading it together, it was completely obvious. I’m amazed that people are amazed.

    I understand Dorf’s take on it, but disagree. You can always say that the text says what you want it to say, as a reader or critic. And ambiguity can indeed rock hard. But the author knows what the text means. They own that world. You’ve just been invited in as a guest.

  4. Let me clarify some things: I also am sympathetic with Rowling. As Maureen right points out, her phrasing is specifically expressed as her own viewpoint. “I always saw Dumbledore as gay.”

    I wish there had been an explicitly gay character in the series but it’s not my series and, sadly, it probably wouldn’t have done as well if there were.

    My reaction is more to the huge amount of coverage this has gotten and the privledging of the author’s experience over the reader’s experience.

    Here I have to disagree with Rory. Sure, the author created a world, but this is not the same world the reader also creates. Every piece of fiction is mediated by the reader’s own life experience and viewpoint and it’s not the same world.

    The text is as the text is. I may have an impulse to depict a character or institution or other noun-like object in my fiction in a certain way but that doesn’t mean I’m going to realize my impulse in the text. Or that other people might take it a completely different way, even if the text does support my original impulse.

    We can point to the text and argue, but saying it’s a certain way because “that’s how I intended it” smacks of the hundreds of times I’ve heard writing workshoppers explain that a critique was wrong because they, the writer, intended something different.

    Intended, but did not achieve.

  5. Rats. This is turning into a juicy discussion about what’s there and what isn’t, and author’s intentionality. I have some thoughts on the subject, but am deeply fried from work today, and about to leave to try to take care of a private client. Will check back in on this when I have some more brain…

  6. When I write, there are all sorts of things I know about the characters that never see the light of day. It’s possible that that knowledge infuses the story, but I don’t need to get explicit unless there’s a reason to spell things out for the reader. I had a number of teachers growing up who, I realize years later, were gay. At the time I was focused on them as teachers, as nemeses, as mentors; if I thought at all about their sexual orientation–well, I didn’t. (I mean: ewww.) Even the one who I was pretty certain was gay…it had nothing to do with me, I didn’t think about it. I worried more about what time rehearsal for the senior play was scheduled.

    I will admit, since the whole flap started, that I have had more than one Airplane-style flashback to the book:
    “Harry,” Dumbledore said with a twinkle. “Do you like gladiator movies?”
    Harry looked blankly at the headmaster. “Do I like–”
    Dumbledore nodded encouragingly. “Gladiator movies. Or perhaps…Harry, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”

  7. And by that I mean, I care about Dumbledore’s sexuality in the same way I care about anyone’s… I don’t care until they make an issue of it. And then, there better be some damn juicy details. I never once gave Dumbledore’s sexuality a thought because it just wasn’t germane to what was happening.

    However, if Rowling wants to write the pre-Potnarian history of Dumbledore with naughty bits and boy-on-boy action, I would probably buy it.

  8. I kind of saw the whole Dumbledore/Grindlewald homosexuality as obvious as… oh say, The Picture of Dorian Gray? Not specifically stated, but pretty hard to miss.

    I wrote this on my LJ as soon as we finished the book:

    “Dumbledore describes himself as being passionate about Grindelwald. They write letters back and forth in the middle of the night. They spend all of their time together for two months and are terribly pleased at finding each other to have equal brilliance and ambition. Dumbledore even ignores his family wanting to go off on an adventure with Gellert.

    Furthermore, everyone but Albus expected Gellert to leave after Ariana’s death. AND Dumbledore did not want to duel Gellert later once Gellert had become powerful, put it off for years, even. When he finally realized it would shame him not to duel, Dumbledore didn’t even kill Gellert.”

    Nobody gives Oscar Wilde crap for not outright saying “Dorian has sex with young men!” No, just “intimate friendships.”

  9. My reaction is more to the huge amount of coverage this has gotten and the privledging of the author’s experience over the reader’s experience.

    The series was a social phenomenon. There were a lot of trend-followers buying the books. At least they read something, and it gave them the chance to have a reader’s experience. Even then they might not value their experience as much as that of a perceived authority. And hey, “authority” starts with “author”.

  10. Excellent piece in tomorrow’s Entertainment Weekly by Mark Harris about the Dumbledore flap.

  11. Excellent! Matches a lot of my feelings, plus other things I hadn’t thought about.

    A first, signed hardcover edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone just sold at auction for $ 40,000+. Whoa.

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