Harry Potter author JK Rowling made some waves by confirming speculation that Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster at Harry’s school, was gay:
She was asked by one young fan whether Dumbledore finds “true love.”
“Dumbledore is gay,” the author responded to gasps and applause.
She then explained that Dumbledore was smitten with rival Gellert Grindelwald, whom he defeated long ago in a battle between good and bad wizards. “Falling in love can blind us to an extent,” Rowling said of Dumbledore’s feelings, adding that Dumbledore was “horribly, terribly let down.”
Dumbledore’s love, she observed, was his “great tragedy.”
This has lead to some pooh-poohing on both sides of the aisle. On the right we have conservative Catholic Ross Douthat:
A writer confident in her powers wouldn’t feel the need to announce details like this after the fact, and a writer who understood the strengths and limitations of her creation would recognize that trying to smuggle this level of psychological realism into the Potter series is a fool’s errand that can only diminish her achievement…
And someone from the left in his comment section replying:
For a set of novels all about diversity and driving home the message of tolerance to not have an openly gay character, or deal with the issue at all, was a significant lapse and an act of either willfull, or ignorant, omission.
Personally, I think Rowling handled it exactly right.
(As a disclaimer, I am pretty liberal on the subject of gay rights. Though I respect the American right to condemn behavior that they find immoral, I personally support gay rights up to and including gay marriage. Once again, I’m just getting my biases out there for context.)
I’ll start with explaining why I agree with Rowling’s decision to leave Dumbledore’s sexuality out of the book. It’s pretty simple: it doesn’t belong there. The insertion of homosexuality in a book would only serve as a lightning rod which would detract from story for a significant portion of its readership. Even supporting Rowling’s view on the subject, it would have been analogous to the Very Special Episodes of sitcoms that detracted from the humor by hammering home some social issue of the day. Let sitcoms be sitcoms, and let children’s books be children’s books.
Further, those points that Rowling was trying to drive home she was doing with allegory. The notions of tolerance, morality, and egalitarianism are expressed through half-breeds and muggle-borns, not by making an issue of the Patile twins’ Indian heritage. There’s no grand point in bringing real-world issues into a story that is looking at things in a fantastical setting. No doubt that the commenter feels that homosexuality shouldn’t be an issue because it would be settled… but if that were the case than the omission wouldn’t be a big deal, either (Almost none of the Hogwarts faculty’s romantic histories were discussed).
On the other side, contrary to Douthat’s speculation that Rowling did it to try to emphasize something that her book (in his view) was not, she was simply answering a question. If anything, her recent talk about her faith and the religious allegory is more along the lines of his accusation of self-importance on Rowling’s part, but that either met with Douthat’s approval or at least did not garner his attention. The fact is that in Rowling’s mind Dumbledore is gay and the homosexuality was there when Rowling was writing it whether she mentioned it or not.
As a fiction writer, I would expect Douthat to understand how that works. I guess it works differently for him. When I’m writing fiction, for every fact I put in about a character and his or her backstory, there is a fact or more that I leave out. For instance, I can tell you how each of my main characters vote. I can tell you what their religious views are. Whether or not I put it in is a combination of whether there is the place to put it in and how it will come across. If a character’s atheism is likely to make the character less sympathetic to a large swath of the audience, and his atheism does not come up in the normal course of the story, I’m not going to bring it up. Less controversially, even if I know in my mind who a character’s first kiss was I’m not going to mention it unless I have reason to. I come up with a character’s backstory before I write the story and I am not going to jam everything in there, but after having written it if anybody asks I’ll be glad to answer. But that I withhold it from the story or answer it after the story is written and read is not necessarily indicative of any grand agenda on part.