Harry Potter and the Closet of Secrets or How JK Rowling Failed In Giving The World an Epic Gay Hero

In 2007, JK Rowling announced that Albus Dumbledore, the beloved patriarch of the Harry Potter series, was gay. Her series had always spoken to misfits and outsiders, including those in the LGBTQI+ communities, and that surprising, but largely welcomed, revelation earned her a heaping of rainbow credit.

Since then she has become a troubling figure for many LGBTQI+ folk over her transphobic statements. I know Potter fans who have been stuck in a fierce struggle, trying to reconcile their cooling feelings for the author with their connection to a world they loved.

I’m not among those struggling. I’ve not read any of Rowling’s books. I’ve never been more than a casual fan of the Potter films. I’ve never idolised their author. And I never thought she should be given any rainbow credit for Dumbledore’s homosexuality because Dumbledore is not gay.

It’s true that Rowling announced that he was gay. Dumbledore is also a key character in the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them series. Director David Yates, when asked by the press if Dumbledore would be shown as gay in the second film, replied “not explicitly”, but did provide secondary confirmation by a key creative that he was, in fact, same-sex attracted.

But no, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore is not gay.

He is not gay in the seven volume Harry Potter book series.

He is not gay in the accompanying eight party movie series.

He is not gay in the two Fantastic Beasts films.

None of these contain any evidence that Dumbledore is gay.

You can, of course, be gay without there being “evidence” per se. And after Rowling’s landmark initial announcement, some dug back into the source material for clues.

The confirmation they found included mention of the fact that the stylish Dumbledore wore a “flamboyantly cut suit of plum velvet”, that his pet Phoenix was described as “flaming”, that Dumbledore was known for being sensitive and open, and that he loved knitting.

Hindsight being 20/20, it does look like Rowling was ploughing gay stereotypes into Dumbledore’s subtext.

But, subtext, no matter how fierce a shade of plum, is just subtext.

We live in a hetero-normative world. If you don’t confirm you are something other than straight by word or deed, then you are presumed heterosexual. You don’t need to have gay sex wrapped in a rainbow flag while singing I Will Survive to prove your gaiety. But simply being kind and interested in knitting won’t confirm it either.

The most compelling evidence for Dumbledore’s homosexuality in-world has come in that second Fantastic Beasts film—The Crimes of Grindelwald—where we are shown a scene of Dumbledore and the titular villain performing a hands-entwined-blood-bonding ritual that I am sure was intended to look deeply homoerotic but instead looks unintentionally homoerotic and thus deeply awkward. It certainly isn’t explicitly gay, to paraphrase director Yates’ infamous words. However, it’s explicitly derisory. When the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name goes unspoken it leaks out in these undercurrents, in a nudge-nudge wink-wink fashion that I had hoped had completely fallen out of fashion.

Ms Rowing might have always known in her head during the writing of the Harry Potter series that Dumbledore was homosexual. The Fantastic Beasts filmmakers may believe that Dumbledore is gay. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s on the page or screen and, at the time of writing, nowhere in-universe has Dumbledore categorically confirmed to be gay.

However, this is JK Rowling’s sandpit, so let’s play by her rules. Dumbledore is gay and was gay all along. He was gay, but we have never been decisively told or shown that in-universe.

That means for seven books and ten films, that ever since his introduction in 1997, that with every opportunity Rowling has had to show us Dumbledore is gay, she has chosen instead to hide his sexuality.

The final book in the Harry Potter series—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—was released in July 2007. Rowling announced Dumbledore’s sexual orientation in October 2007. The timing here matters because it conveniently comes after the point his homosexuality could be established in-book-world.

The context matters also. When asked whether Dumbledore had ever found love, Rowling replied that she “always thought of Dumbledore as gay”.

The immediate reaction was positive and Rowling further noted that, had she known that would be the response, she would have revealed her thoughts on Dumbledore earlier. Which begs the question, why did she think homosexuality was a popularity contest? Those of us who are gay exist whether public opinion is with us or not.

Although the book series was concluded, in 2007 several of the original Potter movies were still to be produced—the final was released in July 2011—so there were opportunities and time for Rowling to make good on her announcement, to give us conclusive confirmation in-world that Dumbledore is gay.

But the core Potter movie franchise ended and Dumbledore remained presumed heterosexual. Two Fantastic Beasts movies have come and gone and still there has been no solid affirmation of Dumbledore’s sexuality.

JK Rowling is on record as saying she hoped her Potter books were a “prolonged argument for tolerance”. Her real world statements and actions surrounding trans people have darkened that fond wish but again, let’s take her at her word. She wants her work to be an example of inclusivity and acceptance.

So why, if she knew Dumbledore was gay, did she choose to announce it only after it was too late to make it canon in the original book series?

Why is it not expressly included in one of the later Potter movies? Or in either of the first two Fantastic Beasts films?

There’s a subtext that can be read into this. That being gay is something to hide, which in turn means it’s something shameful, a dirty secret.

Subtext is open to interpretation. It is suggestion, not confirmation. Those of us who still navigate coming out in our daily lives know it’s best to cut through any potential subtext, because it invariably leads to awkward assumptions—that our wedding rings or mention of children confirm us as “straight”. Assumptions are easily clarified. We mention our husbands or simply say “I’m gay”. Easy. Quick. Simple.

You would imagine that a writer keen to confirm a character’s sexuality, a writer that cared about cutting through the uncomfortable subtext and supposition they witnessed had sprouted up around that character, might find time to clear up any lingering question around their sexuality. Especially if they had several movies in which to do it. Especially a writer whose works is a “prolonged argument for tolerance”—you can’t tolerate homosexuality if it doesn’t exist. Yet here we are.

There is no doubt that Rowling has completely mishandled Dumbledore’s sexuality. Her initial announcement of his gayness was hollow given the fact she had just published seven novels without once mentioning it. Not even once.

Worse, her words and deeds then and subsequently make it appear she is embarrassed of his homosexuality.

What words? When she “outed” Dumbledore, this is how Rowling did it. “Falling in love can blind us to an extent”. And she added that Dumbledore’s love was his “great tragedy”.

Rowling has stated that Dumbledore and his paramour Grindelwald—yes the Fantastic Beast’s Big Bad is homosexual!—had a “sexual dimension” to their relationship. “I’m less interested in the sexual side—though I believe there is a sexual dimension to this relationship—than I am in the sense of the emotions they felt for each other,” Rowling says, “which ultimately is the most fascinating thing about all human relationships.”

As a gay man, these words are immensely troubling to hear from an author writing a gay male character.

First, there are stereotypes across fiction that portray gay characters as more tragic than the straight ones around them. While Dumbledore doesn’t neatly fit the famous bury your gays trope, it is telling that Rowling used the very words “great tragedy” to describe his only relationship. In any event, with the principle—only?—same-sex relationship in the Potterverse being one seeped in misfortune, the tragic stereotype is confirmed—being gay will bring you pain.

Grindelwald himself is potentially an example of another trope, that of the depraved homosexual. His intense and handsy interactions with young male characters in the first Beasts two films drip with creepy gay-man-as-sexual-predator vibes of the kind seen in 1950s black and white stranger-danger PSAs.

Second, we are now a very long distance from the 2007 celebratory “Dumbledore is gay!” headlines. Rowling can’t be blamed for people attaching a pride parade to her words but I’m surprised at her surprise over how much excitement her outing of Dumbledore would attract.

Those of us who grew up never seeing ourselves in fiction tend to cheer when we finally do pop up. Especially when we’re gifted a brave, intelligent hero in the world’s best-selling fiction series. Rowling had to know of the impact she was making and so her surprise is worrying at best and disingenuous at worst.

Equally, as the years have passed, she had to know of the effect of not following through on the promise that came with her announcement. The longer this has gone on, the more concern many of us felt for how Dumbledore’s homosexuality would be portrayed by Rowling. The Crimes of Grindelwald movie is evidence that our fears were warranted.

Third, look at the subtext in Rowling’s words explaining Dumbledore’s sexuality. “I’m less interested in the sexual side—though I believe there is a sexual dimension to this relationship”. The dismissal of the sexual side as not interesting. The use of “sexual dimension” which makes sex sound clinical. Not organic. Unwanted. “Sexual dimension” is a phrase typically used in a negative context. It sounds like something from a professional conduct investigation about an inappropriate relationship between a therapist and a patient.

There is an underlying ignominy in Rowling’s statement. It appears she is afraid of his homosexuality and thus reduced to describing it as though she was writing a legal brief. In fiction gay characters are often over-sexualised or, in Dumbledore’s case, so under-sexualised that their homosexuality can be disregarded and denied.

Of course, Rowling isn’t finished with Dumbledore. He may yet be shown to be “explicitly gay”. He may get to be shown to be a happy homosexual.

Will it be good to finally get in-world confirmation of Dumbledore’s sexual orientation? That’s something, yes? Gays are under-represented in popular culture, so we’re very good at accepting the “somethings” that come our way.

But, equally, we deserve more than just “something”. We deserve more than being left out of the original story, our sexuality retconned with a “Homo-Him Revelio” pronouncement by the author who, in the 14 years since announcing a key character’s homosexuality, has still never officially acknowledged it in-world.

In any event, this eventual outing will not matter. The damage is done. The narrative surrounding Dumbledore is not he-is-gay. It’s he-is-secretly-gay. He’s secretly, unfortunately, sadly, tragically gay. Instead of being a great gay hero, Dumbledore has become a great gay embarrassment.

Rowling is to blame for this.

She’s the one who chose not to show Dumbledore as gay on the page in the original series.

She’s the one who decided his homosexuality was such an insignificant part of him that, after announcing it, she has not prioritised officially confirming it, despite many, many, many opportunities to do so.

She’s the one who chose to précis Dumbledore’s gayness as a “sexual dimension” that lead to “great tragedy”.

Worst of all, Rowling is the one who left Dumbledore to languish in the closet. The closet is a dark, lonely, cruel place. I don’t wish it on anyone, not even a fictional character.

If Dumbledore was a real man experiencing such a tortured and protracted coming out, I would tell him that it gets better. However, given the messy history that has already defined his gayness, and the ham-fisted signs for the future evident in the Fantastic Beasts series, I suspect it’s only going to get worse.

Edited on 23 September 2021 to add: The release date and title of the third Fantastic Beasts film has just been announcedThe Secrets of Dumbledore. The immediate reaction from the public consisted of no small amount of sniggering about what this “secret” would be, along with some contemplations usually found in Potterverse slash fic. In short, there were a lot of Dumbledore-being-fucked-in-the-ass jokes. A lot.

The Secrets of Dumbledore is a title every bit as problematic as the named character’s in-and-out-of-universe history. Whether it refers to Albus or not (it may be about his younger brother) doesn’t matter. Albus is the character we know best and the public automatically connected him with the “secrets” mentioned, and assumed one such is secret is his homosexuality.

That’s not an unfair assumption, but it’s an unfortunate one, yet another unfortunate assumption this character has been saddled with.

The linking of homosexuality with secretiveness isn’t new. Western society long held the idea that it is something that should be hidden, disguised, left unmentioned. I know this well. As a gay man born in the late 1960s I went from needing to keep my sexual orientation to myself (because homosexuality was illegal in Aotearoa until 1986) to, today, having married my husband.

But we are decades past  the time when being gay was a dirty little secret for most of us. Therefore, I remain baffled, and dismayed, by Rowling’s treatment of Dumbledore. Even in 2021, writing a gay character over a seven novel series and now three films, she is still reinforcing old stereotypes.

Perhaps Rowling intended this title to be provocative. Perhaps she wanted all to create the type of dismay I’m feeling, have us wondering whether she’d really go that far to poke the LGBTQI+ bear, most of whom has abandoned her. If so, sincerely, that’s cruel.

Perhaps she was unaware that the title might cause some of us further hurt. If so, sincerely, do better.

Perhaps, having outed Dumbledore all those years ago, market forces have conspired to neuter Dumbledore’s gayness.

I understand that Hollywood is still muddied by conservatism around gay male homosexuality. But while gay male desire is often lacking in mainstream movies, openly gay characters at least do exist.

But, let’s not forget, it wasn’t Hollywood that left Dumbledore in the closet originally. Sure, the studio might have told Rowling to go easy on the gay stuff, but she was M.I.A. on this issue long before the first Fantastic Beasts film.

No matter Rowling’s state of mind, or what commercial handcuffs may be on her, in all this I continue to feel for Albus Dumbledore, apparently gay but still inexorably tied to words like “secrets” with all the murkiness that brings. Thanks to the title he’s become the butt of even more jokes, including a legion of jokes about his butt. It did get worse after all.