One of the biggest controversies surrounding Harry Potter is whether or not Dumbledore was canonically, in the books gay. As you may remember, in October 2007, about three months after the final Harry Potter book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published, author J.K. Rowling informed readers that Dumbledore was gay. Since then, people have argued back and forth about whether he was identifiably gay in the books or whether it was just a publicity stunt.
To be honest, the evidence in the book is scanty. Most people can only point to three pieces of evidence: 1) Dumbledore’s changed demeanor after his battle with rival and lover Gellert Grindelwald, 2) his ornate robes, and 3) Dumbledore telling Tom Riddle that he knew what it was like to be an outsider. These three pieces are ambiguous at best, and remind me of how the writers of shows like Supernatural, BBC Sherlock, and Hannibal constantly queerbait their audiences, forming “are they/aren’t they” relationships between (usually) male characters. Had JK not explicitly told readers that Dumbledore was gay, I doubt that people would have made so much of those three pieces of evidence.
But the fact of the matter is that JK did say Dumbledore was gay and, as the writer, she has final say. So, whether there is contextual evidence for his sexual orientation or not, the fact of the matter is that Dumbledore is gay. That’s indisputable.
What is still disputable is whether or not JK actually wrote Dumbledore as gay or whether she 1) declared him gay after the fact or 2) deliberately left him in the closet. When you bring this up to people, especially hardcore Harry Potter fans, the most common response is, “These books were written for kids. Of course they wouldn’t know Dumbledore was gay,” swiftly followed by, “He was their teacher! Do you just expect him to sit down next to them and say, ‘BTWs, I’m gay’?” And then that’s that.
Recently, however, I’ve reevaluated these two positions and their validity, and I’ve come to the realization that they are, at best, inaccurate. At worst, they betray a subtle but deep-rooted homophobia that the person might not even be aware of. More on that later.
The reason for my reevaluation is that I had the absolute pleasure to read One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Educators Speak Out About What’s Gotten Better… and What Hasn’t, edited by Kevin Jennings (2015). This book is divided into three sections, Signs of Change, Unexpected Journeys, and The Struggle Continues, and contains first person accounts of queer people’s time as teachers. Some are high school, elementary, or special education teachers. Others are administrators and tutors. A handful are transgender though most are cisgender gay or lesbian. A couple come from out of the country. There are even a few high profile cases. All of them are open and honest and willing to share their time as closeted and out educators and how their sexuality affected their families, their jobs, and their students.
Besides reaffirming my belief that teachers are the hardest working people on the planet, the book gave me actual perspective into what life is like as an LGBT+ teacher. Almost every writer expressed concern that they could be fired or accused of misconduct if they came out, and almost every one of them needed the support of their union or administrators to have a successful career. They told stories about not being able to help closeted gay students because they were too afraid to risk their career and spoke candidly about how the act of staying in the closet (either in their orientation or gender expression) caused physical and psychological pain. In order to be truly happy, healthy, and effective, all the teachers agreed that they needed to be able to come out.
However, “coming out” didn’t necessarily mean dressing in drag and doing a strip tease with a rainbow flag at assembly. Yes, this is a hyperbolic example that conflates queer people with exhibitionists and drag kings and queens, but when you talk about a teacher coming out, people’s minds go to strange places. They don’t seem to understand that coming out is not about suddenly adopting every stereotype about the queer community and shouting, “I’m gay!” at the top of their lungs to passing strangers. Rather, coming out is simply refusing to misrepresent yourself, even if it can make your life easier. It means that you will, like any straight teacher, put a picture of your loved one on your desk and when someone asks about it, you’ll simply say, “That’s my husband.” It means that when someone finds out you’re married and misgenders your spouse, you’ll quietly correct them in answering their question. It means that when you tell an anecdote in class, you don’t say “my friend” or “my roommate” instead of “my wife” or “my partner.” That’s all coming out is. It does not require you to answer personal questions about your level of intimacy, genitals, or sexual history. It simply allows you to be authentically you.
Coming out as a teacher also doesn’t require that you tell everyone your orientation or identity. You can come out officially to your union or supervisor and learn what the district will do to protect you. You can come out to all the staff at a work conference. You can come out to a club that you advise. You can come out by wearing LGBT+ symbols, advocating for LGBT+ rights, and then simply confirming your orientation or identity when directly asked, avoiding the subject otherwise. You can also just come out to a close work friend. There is no “right way” to come out, and it’s different for every person. As it should be.
People’s stories also made it obvious that, even when teachers didn’t officially come out, many people seemed to guess. Sometimes, the guesses would be because they did something that seemed stereotypically gay like having a lisp or being very masculine. Mostly, it was just a feeling that people got spurred on by the fact that the teacher never mentioned a husband or wife and seemed very, very private. And it wasn’t just coworkers or parents that guess; it was students too. Often, an LGBT+ kid would seek the teacher out, knowing instinctively that they might commiserate with and help them. Sometimes, the teacher couldn’t, too worried about their own safety and too insecure to help them, but other times the simple act of a queer kid asking for help convinced them to be more open, which helped both of them in the long run.
Which brings me back to Dumbledore and why people don’t think it would be appropriate for the kids at Hogwarts to know his sexuality. In the west, we often have a puritanical view of sex and think it’s something that we should keep from kids. We equate having sex with a loss of innocence and the physical signs of puberty with becoming a sexual being. It’s so virulent that we think that just telling kids the biological processes of sex could destroy them for life. And it’s even worse for queer people because, for some horrible reason, we equate being queer with being a sexual deviant/sexual predator.
Don’t believe me? Think of the parents that pull their kids out of class when they learn their child’s teacher is gay. Think of the anti-gay protestors calling gay people pedophiles and predators. Think of the people that want to know who in the neighborhood is gay and have them categorized – like a sex offender. Think of the people that don’t want to share a locker room with a gay person because they’re worried the gay person will hit on them. Think of the transgender people who get fired for just being transgendered. Think of the people that call transgender people “she-males” or “he-shes.” Think of how often people ask transgender people about their genitalia – even if they’re strangers and have no business asking anyone about their genitalia. Think of the fact that we think it’s inappropriate for a teacher to frankly tell their students that they’re gay. All of those instances indicate that many people don’t think of queer people as normal people. Rather, queer people are odd, weird, deviant, sinful, and dangerous – or so the wrongful thinking goes.
This thinking persists because we as a society deliberately try to keep queer people in the closet. Yes, the United States made marriage equality the law of the land, and in western countries being homosexual is no longer a crime (In the UK, consensual same-sex activity only became legal in 1967 for England and Wales, 1981 in Scotland, and 1982 in Northern Ireland.), but that still doesn’t mean these societies are accepting and tolerant of queer people. Look at the recent conflict in Rowan County and how hateful to gay people some of Kim Davis’ supporters are. Look at Brett Bigham, who became the 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year and was consistently harassed and closeted by his school. Look at Duran Renkema of Rotterdam, Holland who in 2011 was almost fired by his employer when his family outed him (Both of this stories are present in One Teacher in Ten.). Only 23 US states have any kind of non-discrimination laws, which means a happy same-sex couple can go out, get married, post it on their Facebook page, and then be fired the next day. We may know there are queer people in the world. We may personally know queer people. But that doesn’t mean we as a society think they should live harassment free and authentically themselves.
So while it was indeed important that JK Rowling outed Dumbledore, it would have been much more meaningful if he’d outed himself. He was the most powerful and respected wizard of the age, capable of Apparating in Hogwarts and flouting the Ministry when they became too tight-fisted. He was weird and outspoken and delighted in riling up his other teachers. He was also compassionate, especially with kids who had lived hard lives and felt like outsiders. Wouldn’t he have taken some kids aside and let them know that he knew how they felt and here’s why? Wouldn’t Draco, that little shit, have tried to use his sexuality against him only to be silenced by teachers and students that cared about him? Kids are actually very perceptive and notice silences, discrepancies, and pictures – they would have known he was gay, and since the Harry Potter books took place in the 1980s in a world very similar to our own, being gay, out, and proud would have been noticeable. And, as a writer in the 1990s and early 2000s who consistently tried to write accepting and loving books, JK Rowling should have known how noticeable and important a gay, out, and proud character would be. The Harry Potter books are about growing up and finding yourself: having an out and proud gay character would have fit in perfectly.
So we can keep arguing about whether or not the textual evidence supports Dumbledore’s orientation; that’s fine, and it’s what book lovers do. But I would ask that you stop taking it for granted that teachers shouldn’t be open about their sexuality in front of their students, I would ask that you stop criminalizing the concept of a teacher being out, and I would ask that you give One Teacher in Ten a read. Even if you’re queer or an ally, it would help solidify how important it is that queer people get to be authentically themselves and how important it is to kids when they see that. And for any author out there reading this? Remember, it’s okay to let your queer character be queer. You don’t have to shove them in the closet or conveniently gloss over their relationships. Just let them be their queer selves. It’s important.