A decade after J.K. Rowling revealed that she “always thought of [Hogwarts Headmaster Albus] Dumbledore as gay,” LGBTQ fans of Harry Potter and their allies are still waiting to see themselves truly reflected in the Potter franchise’s stories.
The latest film set in the Potter universe, “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” will feature a young Dumbledore (played by Jude Law) leading the charge against dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). As teens, Dumbledore and Grindelwald connected passionately. They were inseparable as they plotted their rise to power, and Rowling has intimated that their relationship was more than a platonic friendship.
However, according to director David Yates, the new film will “not explicitly” acknowledge Dumbledore’s sexual orientation. Why? Perhaps because Yates has an eye on international ticket sales in less LGBTQ-friendly countries. Perhaps because gay leads still tip films into a niche too small to justify their $200-million-plus budgets. Or, perhaps, simply because this film takes place after Dumbledore’s teen years and during a war, in which romance is far from everyone’s mind. With three more Potter prequels on the horizon, there may be a deeper exploration of Dumbledore’s identity in the works. But the message Yates is sending with this film is all too familiar to many LGBTQ people: It’s OK to be gay, just don’t make a big deal of it.
Potter fans immediately expressed their dismay, accusing Rowling of making promises she wouldn’t keep. One fan tweeted, “JK Rowling: Oh yeah, Dumbledore is gay! Just didn’t put it in the books. Us: Ooh! Maybe they’ll do better in the Dumbledore-centric movie— Director: No, he’s just gay off-page and off-screen. He’s gay in your hearts.” Rowling curtly chided her disappointed fans, many of whom have grown accustomed to her regular tweets in support of the LGBTQ community. So far, Yates has remained silent in response to fan criticism.
What does it mean that Dumbledore is allowed to be gay in our collective imagination but not in the books or on the big screen? What message does that send to the devoted fans who still excitedly await any new Potter installment? It means the Harry Potter franchise joins a long line of films in which queerness is relegated to the realm of the implicit.
For decades, mainstream media have reduced queer stories to subplots and made jokes at the LGBTQ community’s expense. Everything from the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to homophobic jokes on hit sitcoms has told queer people to be a little less visible: a little more discrete in their love, a little quieter in their truth. Minimizing Dumbledore’s sexuality sends a similarly subtle but strong message: You don’t belong in this story.
The Potter films themselves acknowledge the cruelty and danger of that message. The first film in the new franchise, “Fantastic Beasts,” hauntingly portrays how the suppression of one’s true nature corrodes, warps and obliterates. After years of torture at the hands of his adoptive mother as punishment for his magical abilities, Credence Barebone seethes with explosive rage and self-loathing. The repression of his magic creates an Obscurus, a dark parasitic energy that eventually consumes him and a large chunk of New York City. Under the pressure of social stigma, his magical abilities, which could have been used to connect and create, became deadly and destructive.
The power of representation, of seeing your story reflected back to you, cannot be underestimated. Representation is a beacon of light in the darkness. Representation is the clarion call of “You are not alone.” For LGBTQ people, 74% of whom have hidden their sexual orientation for fear of discrimination, representation is still frequently a matter of life or death.
Furthermore, representation is not merely about doling out equal seats at the table and ensuring everyone has their moment in the spotlight. As Credence’s story highlights, it is essential to the health of our whole society that all people are seen and accepted as who they are. At a time of increasing polarization and identity-based isolation, our collective growth depends on our capacity to tell more nuanced stories that do not sugarcoat, edit or erase other’s truths. When fans react angrily to Yates’ and Rowling’s waffling on their portrayals of Dumbledore, they are speaking from a place of fear and vulnerability. They are asking to be seen and to be granted full acceptance, not conditional love.
In choosing to portray Dumbledore as only implicitly gay, Yates has opted to keep queer fans in the shadows. And in dismissing fan criticism, he and Rowling missed an opportunity to make those fans feel seen and heard. Rowling could have responded with empathy and clarity: Yes, Dumbledore was gay. Yes, these films will chronicle the whole truth of his life. And, yes, she understands that LGBTQ stories matter and hopes her work contributes to telling them. As Dumbledore himself said, “Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” Rowling, of all people, knows that her words have the power to build worlds and to undermine them.
The team behind “The Crimes of Grindelwald” has the opportunity to do just that: to tell a nuanced story about a queer hero. When we head to theaters in November, I hope we see a Dumbledore who is exploring who he is and how he might realize his dreams. I hope we see a Dumbledore who is working to make sense of himself in a wizarding world that perhaps lacks the language to describe his queer experience.
The Dumbledore readers met over a decade ago taught younger fans, and reminded older ones, what it is like to be young and in love with both a person and with the world they seem to open up for us. He risked opening his heart and learned that the people we dare to love are always our greatest teachers, even when we don’t have a happy-ever-after ending. That’s a lesson that queer fans, just like straight ones, need to see on screen.
We don’t need to see Dumbledore proclaiming his unequivocal love for other men and donning a rainbow-plumed wizard’s hat (although that would be fun!). But queer Potter fans ― all Potter fans, in fact ― need a Dumbledore who is wholly himself at whatever point in his journey we encounter him. We deserve to see an authentic portrayal of a person navigating love, power and his role in building a better world. Yates, Rowling and their team are not responsible for solving the deficit of LGBTQ representation. But they do have the opportunity to tell a bold, honest story that allows all of us to learn a little more about what it means to be our whole selves.
Aaron Rose is an educator, writer and cultural steward who teaches and writes about identity, conflict transformation, empathy and all things LGBTQ.