TW: Homophobia, transphobia, conversion therapy, purity culture.
J.K. Rowling’s 2008 proclamation that Albus Dumbledore was gay is usually contrasted with her trans-exclusionism, in the video essays and articles I have consumed on the topic, though her resistance to showing him as such in the Fantastic Beasts is seen as part of her journey to the dark side. In hindsight, I think rather the tragic celibate gay man should have been foreshadowing of her queerphobia, given the parallels with homophobic propaganda in conservative christian spheres.
Let us use this character as a magical introduction to the key role queer people are made to play in their own oppression, within purity culture. And why asexuality may serve as a long-awaited Finite.
I have read Harry Potter more often than I’ve read the bible. As a teen, I could quote the books the way serious bible-thumpers could pull out a verse for every occasion. It is our choices that make us who we are was the millenial confession of self-determination in the face of our elders’ overwhelming expectations. I bought paper and printer cartridges with pocket money so I could print out my favourite epic slash fiction to read on vacation, back when wireless internet was rare and smartphones were for adults. So my heart soared, along with millions of others, when Word of Rowling came down that, yes, canon contained a gay character, our beloved quirky mentor.
But on the threshold between 2020 and 2021, Albus Dumbledore reads like a conservative gay young man who fell for charismatic fascist Gellert Grindelwald. His ‘weakness’, same-sex attraction, led directly to the tragic death of an innocent maiden, his sister Ariana Dumbledore. After failing his family, he repented, too late, and forever after led the life of an eccentric celibate bachelor who guides bright young minds to lead a better life than he did. He denounced all sexual activity in order to focus on working for the greater good.
At the end of his life, he personally mentors a promising, powerful young man, Harry Potter, who was mistreated because he was different, because a similar young man, Tom Marvolo Riddle, that he ignored, became an evil terrorist like his one-and-only love. So he guides Harry Potter into a life of heroic sacrifice that will kill the evil inside of him. Harry survives to live in middle-class bliss with a wife and children. Harry himself mentors his son Albus Severus Potter who is also, y’know, different, away from his best friend in the whole world, Scorpius Malfoy, in the sequel. Albus’ legacy lives on.
A queer person who grows up in purity culture today will be told they aren’t evil. No! Instead, God gave them a great challenge to overcome, same-sex attraction or maybe the feeling of being born in the wrong body. They might hear Jackie Hill Perry, (a queer woman of colour, sarcastic exclamation mark!) from Gay Girl, Good God give the testimony of how she chooses to live a heterosexual life. An older queer christian might point them towards therapy or offer informal counseling that, yes, is indeed a form of conversion therapy.
As Albus Dumbledore guided Harry Potter to nobly sacrifice his life to kill the horcrux inside of himself, that evil embodied by Tom Riddle, queer Christians only need to sacrifice their queer selves so they can live happily-ever-after. Every church will tell a queer person they are welcome. Most say so in the belief that welcoming the queer person is the first step in changing them ‘for the better’. This approach is codified in the doctrine Love the sinner, hate the sin. The repentant queer person has the starring role, as both road map and trojan horse. Save the person, kill the gay (or trans), and be granted the blessed living death of never coming out and never transitioning.
Looking back, Albus Dumbledore reads a lot like J.K. Rowling’s trying to give an ex-gay man a redemption arc like he needs it. He even kills the innocent white woman in his care, the capital crime in western literature. He – as the sole queer character from Harry Potter – sure looks like a precursor to Rowling’s transgender serial killer in that light. The difference being that Dumbledore was portrayed as (debatably) redeemed, and saving other ‘different’ young men from a life of evil. Finally victorious, posthumously, in Harry.
In all this, note that celibacy, or the not having (queer) sex, has become the crowning mark of salvation for the queer person, to modern purity culture. Note, too, that virginity, the not having of sex, is the more traditional mark of the virtuous young white woman. Abstinence, the not having of extra-marital sex, is the gold standard for the heterosexual person. The central conceit of purity culture is that lust is the most powerful force of evil and thus controlling it, by strict rules, lifestyle and yes, choice, leads to the eponymous purity. The intra-marital sex is the (heterosexual) reward this side of heaven.
Asexuality undermines that central conceit. It queers sexual attraction – lust – by making a spectrum of orientations for it. It centers consent and attraction in the choice to have sex. One’s attitude towards sex becomes a matter of feeling favour, indifference or aversion. Sexual ethic is framed as being positive or negative towards sex happening in general. Sexual activity is based on whether you choose to engage in that intimacy, on what feels good, on whether you’re trying to have children, on what you’d like to try, to see how it feels. Y’know, while safe, sane and consensual. Sexual violence is just violence, no excuses or titillation. It even questions the necessity and quality of that holiest-of-holies, intra-marital sex. People cannot be pure or fallen, only agents of good and evil. Our choices make us who we are.
Us asexual transgender people sure make a lie out of J.K. Rowling’s idea that we’re predators chasing after them innocent white ladies. I only wish for queer-platonic cuddles with consenting ladies. And other persons. Of all skin tones.
Finite incantatem. The illusion is broken.
Ariana was never the virginal victim of Albus’ sin, but a young woman whose life was cut short before she could become sexually active. Albus’ implied celibacy, after his one crush on Gellert, is only the mark of a deeply closeted conservative gay man who had a deeply traumatic experience, but who ought not get to dictate how we live our lives.
Honestly… I’m glad Dumbledore’s homosexuality is never portrayed in the Fantastic Beasts movies. Considering our luck, his making moon-eyes at Grindelwald would immediately be followed up by Ariana’s dying, with a clear causal relation. Representation as good as Castiel’s instant trip to Superhell after coming out, with none of the meme potential.