Dumbledore? What does Dumbledore have to do writing (or not writing) queer characters into fictional worlds? Isn’t Dumbledore canonically gay? Why don’t you look particularly happy? Are you …. cry-laughing into your drink? Should you really be writing as an imaginary person you are talking to?
Those are all excellent questions (and not just because I came up with all of them) and short answer is, besides telling you all to head below the “read more” cut, that Dumbledore is a familiar, well-known, and thus easy to use example who also encapsulates a lot of the problems with leaving queer existence to after-the-fact author confirmation and the imaginations and creative outputs of fandom.
But, oh beloved, feline-loving scholar-authoress, how can you not love that J.K. Rowling gave us a canon gay character? Don’t you care how important the Harry Potter series was and is to a lot of people, including ones who grew up with it? What about the ones who grew up with it and then found out there was canonical queerness?
I am so glad you asked because – guess what? You are talking to one of those baby queers who grew up with, and eagerly anticipated each new installment of, J.K. Rowling’s literary baby. And guess what? What she gave us is not good enough. It just isn’t.
Something is better than nothing in the way that both one drop and an entire eight ounces count as having water in a glass, especially when you are thirsty. And when you are queer and looking to see yourself in the world (or don’t even know yet or aren’t entirely sure or don’t have the words and so could extra benefit from seeing a plethora of options), you are always thirsty. Always.
Without even getting into what it’s like to be young and queer, and young and queer in the variety of situations where access to materials can be very limited and school libraries and book fairs are some of your only, or best, not to mention safest, options (you can always read a book in pieces without actually checking it out and, well, if a book is at the official school book fair, why would your family look at it closer?), the world of fiction is a world where, by and large, we as queer people do not exist. At all.
One character after the fact does not erase creating, for example, an entire modern planet Earth where no queer people exist in narrative. Not one happy married couple busy raising the next generation and hoping for a better world than they had. Not one awkward adolescent or teenager being awkward about flowers and school balls and formal robes while trying to study and pass exams. Nothing about the school (maybe even the school itself as a magical entity) realizing that separating dorms by “gender” was a terrible and unenforceable idea.
It is far from just Harry Potter that has these issues, and another problem is that when we do show up canonically, in the text itself, we tend to die. Terribly and painfully. And then non-queer people have Feelings about us. Or don’t, since we also make good canon fodder for racking up a body count without distracting the audience too much with feelings for the victims (especially trans people. and especially when queerness intersects with race, class, disability, and occupation – and, yes, I mean sex workers when I say occupation).
We actively, violently, painfully exist in a world that wants us dead and gone. Even if it’s not intentional, time and time again the people creating novels and tv shows and comics and other fictive media, and the ones who decide which works get to blossom into existence, actively create versions of the world where that is true. Where queer people simply don’t exist and never have and never will. Except that maybe, maybe after the fact one or more of those creators will tell us that oh yes there was One Single Queer In The Universe. There’s no real basis for it and it’s not actually in the work or series itself but look at what we gave you and now won’t you please be quiet and not disrupt our popularity and sales?
I am not here to talk about Bury Your Gays (especially as I find the term very non-inclusive for who all ends up on the body pile), since that is its own vast discussion, but I will say this – you are doing us no great favour in comparison to that when you craft a world where we do not exist at all, and slapping one (because, more often than not, it is one and only one queer character who gets added) queer character on after the fact does not erase the fact that you erased our existence from the world.
Dead or disappeared are not viable options.
Someone, especially at different points in their life and in different locations, may not personally know any other queer people but other queer people always actually exist in the world.
Stop, read that, and read that again and again. You will be a better creator and a better person if you remember that we as queer people are always, have always, and, despite what people want and attempt and succeed at (and, yes, I mean murder), will always be here. Even if we are not always “obvious,” whatever that means, and even if we are not always in contact with other queer people. We. Are. Here.
We belong as much in your historical fiction about Western Europe in the Middle Ages and your dragon-riding fantasy set in a fictional simulcra of the Middle East and your modern urban fantasy set in London and your angsty werewolf and vampire love triangle saga of young American love as every non-queer person does and you need to put us there.
Let us be exceptional, not just exceptional-adjacent. Let us be chosen for wizard school. Let us be the chosen one, the sarcastic detective, the kooky writer who gets up to hijinks and to a romance with one of the detectives. Let us pilot puddlejumpers and rise to the heights of the best (or at the least the highly popular and well loved, which really isn’t least at all) of science fiction and fantasy and horror and detective fiction and any other of the many genres popular media can take.
Dumbledore may fill my eyes with fire nowadays, but that is because fiction can and should do better and we as queer people deserve better (and oh, how low the bar is set for “better”) and because Dumbledore exemplifies the problem so well that he himself has become a term for media creators to use when baiting and teasing and placating us. Or, even, teasing us the very idea of getting to be placated with a Dumbledore.
That is not good enough. One character after the fact, no matter how good and how exceptional (and I have no interest in debating either of those about Dumbledore here. Not. Relevant.), is not good enough, and even if it were not after the fact – one queer person in the entire universe and only one? And one, no matter how amazing, who is near always adjacent to but not the main character (or not one of the main characters when the work has a set up like the Golden Trio in the Harry Potter books)?
And not even pulling a Dumbledore but just continuing to tease a Dumbledore for years and years after your tv series is off the air and has no chance of a movie to wrap up loose ends? You are offering nothing of value and you are a coward if you cannot throw your queer fans even the slimmest of scraps after the fact. And having a character who isn’t even quite canonically queer because all their queerness was left on the cutting room floor, their involvement in a multiple romance options storyline for a person of their same gender was nixed, and they were killed off after appearing in only a few episodes does nothing to help that.
I do not think this discussion can ever truly be done or truly cover everything and this is the first post in a series but I will just leave you with the fact that, in a series where the thing that proves, time and again, to have the most power and to save the days and to save lives and to triumph at the end of line when everything could be lost is love in all its many many forms, there is only one queer character, who is only established as queer after the fact (after the fact meaning when they are dead and when all seven books and five of eight movies are done) and who only loved once, as a young adult, and never loved again during their long, long life because they (one-sidedly) loved and had to eventually defeat and imprison this fictional, wizardly world’s version of Adolf Hitler.
Notes: I am really hoping no one tries to get into a facts argument fest to distract from what I’m actually trying to say, but if you still want to – a) please, please reconsider b) it is all actually there, in the text of the Harry Potter novels themselves and in the many many Q and A sessions and other sources of extra-textual info J.K. Rowling has participated in. She has been very, very clear about her choices (and the fact that they were intentional) with regards to Grindelwald and his period of activity and the year in which Dumbledore defeats him (the same year in which Hitler was defeated). It is what it is and I have already stated my feelings on it.
On a lighter note, I did not put in my usual paragraph break images, but I still did use some images, so the credits go to the 1977 Rankin/Bass The Hobbit film adaptation and issue #42 of Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye, written by James Roberts, art by Alex Milne, colours by Joanna LaFuente, and letters by Tom B. Long.
This series is now complete (masterpost, second, and third), so enjoy! And if you enjoy and are able, a one-time donation or Patreon support would both be fabulous. My yearly site renewals are up in July, besides my continued needs to eat and pay bills (so I can write very involved, long-form content like this on a regular basis again!).