Saturday, February 3, 2018

Dumbledore's Closet

Picture by Karen Roe via WikiMedia Commons

Albus Dumbledore is gay.

That is a revelation that was given by author JK Rowling after her famous book series had ended.  It came as a shock to many readers of the children's books and added another layer to this important character.  But the series was over and there was nothing in the stories that explicitly mentioned the head-master's orientation.

But now there are new stories coming out.  The sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be coming out soon.  And this time we will see Dumbledore as a young man helping in the war against his old companion Grindelwald.

Recently, director David Yates was asked if the movie would be exploring Dumbledore's sexuality at all in this story.  His response was:

“Not explicitly,” Yates replied when asked if the film makes it clear that Dumbledore is gay. “But I think all the fans are aware of that. He had a very intense relationship with Grindelwald when they were young men. They fell in love with each other’s ideas, and ideology and each other.”

This has led to a number of people online complaining that Dumbledore is having to remain in the closet.  And on websites like io9, the frustration is palpable.

I think before anything else is said, it is important to understand the frustration, justified or not.

Dr. Peter Kreeft once spoke about an encounter he had with a gay man.  The gay man listened to Kreeft's talk on how the Church's teachings about homosexuality was clear and true.  Kreeft said that anything which promotes a homosexual lifestyle was wrong and should be discouraged.  But he also said that all gay people must be treated with love and respect and dignity.

The gay man asked Kreeft posed to him this thought experiment:  imagine if someone told the professor that any public expression of his faith (wearing a cross, going to mass, etc) was immoral and should be discouraged, but that despite his faith being shunned that he should still be treated with dignity.  The gay man said that if that feels like a contradiction, then that is how it felt for him to be told that he had dignity but any expression of his homosexuality was a sin.

I bring this up because sometimes I think we react to things we see in the popular culture without first giving thought to all points of view.  I know that I am certainly guilty of this at time, but it is something about which we should be vigilant.

The frustration of many homosexuals is that they do not see anything immoral with their lifestyle, so the suppression of their expression puts them back in the metaphorical closet.  What they desire is to see homosexuality to be as commonly accepted as heterosexuality in the culture.  Anything that does not push this agenda forward is seen as backwards-thinking.

But I think that this is wrong hill to die on.

Dumbledore is gay.  He is gay in the Harry Potter books.  He is gay in the upcoming movie.  The director is not denying his orientation.

One of author JK Rowling's strengths as a writer was allowing a rich unseen backstory inform the present actions of her characters.  Did you know that Professor McGonagall lives a celibate life because she had an affair once with a muggle that ended badly?  That is her backstory but it never comes up in the Harry Potter books.  And yet you can see much of her personality shaped by events like these.

Simply because something is not explored specifically in a story does not mean that it isn't important or that it is non-existent.

As I wrote when Rowling first revealed Dumbledore's orientation, I find it to be an interesting insight into his character.  There is a loneliness to Dumbledore that pervades a lot of his personality, and this facet of who he is made me appreciate him more.  I found nothing objectionable about this revelation as a Catholic.  We believe that all people must be treated with dignity, as Dr. Kreeft said.  And we call Catholic homosexuals to live out the call of celibacy, as Dumbledore apparently did during the entire Harry Potter series.

But the main reason I think that it is a mistake to be outraged by this is that it is a disservice to the character.  When it comes to the writing of gay characters, one of the problems I find is that the writers define the character by their orientation.  In other words, the writer decides to write a "gay character."  But that already puts a label on this character and boxes them in.  A good character should feel three-dimensional and multi-faceted.

Dumbledore is a fascinating character.  He is at times whimsical and at others woebegone.  He has the weight of the world on his shoulders and yet often presents himself as not having a care in the world.  He engaged in a war with evil that had him do terrible things and yet he embraced love as the highest of all ideals.

Part of Dumbledore's mystique was that there was so much that went on just beneath the surface.  We knew there were depths that we never could or would see.  Dumbledore was not a character who let people behind the curtain too often.  It's one of the reasons Harry has a such a contentious relationship with Dumbledore's memory in the final book.

But it is a disservice to the character reduce his person to his orientation or as the io9 headline says, "Let Dumbledore Be Gay."

Instead, Dumbledore's gayness is just one part of who he is.  There are so many things that could be explored in depth in the upcoming movie.  The fact that his homosexuality is not going to be one of them simply reminds us that Dumbledore was someone who had a deep, complex story that he held on to so privately.  But that story informs the rich character that he is.

So instead of saying, "Let Dumbledore Be Gay," we should clearly say, "Let Dumbledore Be Dumbledore."

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