Author J.K Rowling has revealed that Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School in the much loved Harry Potter books, is a homosexual character. The news was met with gasps and then applause on October 20th, in the Carnegie Hall, New York, one of many venues hosting Rowling on her first US book tour since 2000.
This announcement has triggered a positive response from gay rights activists such as Peter Tatchell, who has been quoted by the media as saying, “It’s good that children’s literature includes the reality of gay people, since we exist in every society.” Undoubtedly true, the successful author has the power to promote attitudes of tolerance and equality through their fiction. And we cannot deny that Rowling is in a stronger position than most to influence the attitudes of the youth of today. The Harry Potter phenomenon is unique in its global ferocity and at its heart Albus Dumbledore is a character who plays a pivotal and cherished role. This development may become one more factor in the normalisation of homosexuality for children growing up in the UK, where an attitude of tolerance and acceptance towards homosexuality is being fostered by legal reform such as the introduction of the Civil Partnership Act in 2005, which allows same sex marriage and subsequently, adoption by same sex couples.
Yet the significance of this event lies deeper than the obvious implications it has for promoting tolerance towards homosexuality. The same gay rights campaigner as previously quoted also told reporters: “But I am disappointed that she did not make Dumbledore’s sexuality explicit in the Harry Potter book. Making it obvious would have sent a much more powerful message of understanding and acceptance.” A compelling point, when we consider Rowling’s personal belief that her books are a “prolonged argument for tolerance”. There is much in the series to support this ideal, but in relation to the homosexuality of Dumbledore the link seems tenuous, as the books themselves give barely any indication of its existence.
For me the most striking thing about this whole event is not the debate surrounding the purpose and impact of this announcement, but actually the power Rowling displays in making it. She is able to manipulate the essence of her work long after the printing ink has cooled. The global obsession with Harry Potter has a Creator with whom it can interact, and through whom it can extrapolate meaning far beyond that found in the world of its pages. The connotations this has on the role of authorship are quite powerful, Harry Potter may only be a children’s book, but it sweeps aside all theoretical debate regarding the ‘death of the author’ once the work has been completed and placed into the hands of the reader.
Rowling’s joking response to the delight of her New York audience displayed at this character development was, “I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy.” And it can’t be hard for her to joke; she is a billionairess whose most recent publication has become the fastest selling book in history, at eleven million copies in the first twenty four hours. On such occasions as this book tour, the fans come to her, eagerly gagging for the more titbits of information about their beloved magical world, and she urges them to “question authority” even as she feeds their authorial addiction, one morsel at a time.