J. K. needs to stop Harry Potter queerbaiting

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J. K. Rowling is at it again with her revisionism of her own books. In an interview added to the blu-ray edition of The Crimes of Grindlewald, she said that longstanding characters Dumbledore and Grindlewald had a 'love relationship ... with a sexual dimension'.

J. K. Rowling attends the UK Premiere of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald at Cineworld Leicester Square on 13 November 2018 in London, England. (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images)This is far from the first time Rowling has been called out for taking credit for representation she never actually included in her books or the movies that were based on them. There are many elements about this that annoy me.

I'm angry on behalf of a younger self who would have so valued an openly gay character in one of my favourite book series. There's also the fact it seems that Rowling essentially wants to be praised for queerbaiting Harry Potter fans, and for creating a character who would've spent his entire life closeted.

But as a queer writer, what perhaps annoys me the most is that this comment reignites the debate about subtext that is or isn't there in the original Harry Potter series and associated Harry Potter media, while at the same time there are so many brilliant queer books that don't get nearly as much time or attention as they should.

Though there is definitely a rise in LGBTQ+ novels and people who want to hear more LGBTQ+ voices, queer young adult fiction can sometimes face gatekeepers, particularly when the author themself is queer.

This gatekeeping can happen at various levels. Chain and department stores that won't stock or promote books that are 'controversial'. Editors who ask for characters to be straight or to tone down the queerness. Parents and other adults who won't buy queer books for their kids.

Public and school libraries that won't stock a book with queer characters, and educators who won't be put queer books on the curriculum or on reading guides. Schools who won't ask an author to talk about their work or, in the case of Will Kostakis, cancel his talk because it was deemed 'inappropriate' after he came out on his blog. And in extreme cases, around the world books are still being challenged or banned.

 

"What I want now is for Rowling to use her platform to shine a light on queer authors while accepting her own books' place in history as flawed texts."

 

On top of all that, it's not uncommon to hear that queer authors will self-censor their works in fear that their books won't succeed because of these gatekeeping tactics.

While the internet has mitigated the effect of this gatekeeping somewhat, many young people find new books to read at their schools and libraries, so books aren't going into the hands of young people that need them. There is also the financial reality that a large part of the money authors earn in Australia comes from their books being borrowed in libraries and from talking at schools.

And that's just in the present. When Rowling first started publishing Harry Potter books in the UK, section 28 was still in effect, which banned local authorities and schools from 'promoting homosexuality', meaning libraries were often afraid to stock LGBTQ+ books. Including an openly gay character in a book for children in 1997 most likely would have been a hard sell to a UK publishing house since this law wasn't repealed until 2003.

Of course, that didn't stop people from writing young adult books with queer characters in them during that time. In the UK, Aidan Chambers wrote Dance on my Grave and Postcards from No Man's Land. There was also The Shell House by Linda Newberry and Sugar Rush by Julie Burchill.

This context, for me, makes it hard to swallow that Rowling still wants it both ways — all of the kudos for representation that she never explicitly included, with the benefit of no actual risk. Back then, having an openly gay character would have been taking a decided stand. But now, in 2019, a straight author winking at queerness is just not good enough.

Even if Rowling didn't want to take the risk when she was writing the original Harry Potter series, she had the power and ability to include actual representation in follow-ups such as Crimes of Grindelwald and The Cursed Child, and she still didn't do it. While it's possible there might be an explicit demonstration of Dumbledore and Grindelwald's relationship in an upcoming movie, it feels far too late for me.

What I want now is for Rowling to use her platform to shine a light on queer authors and accept her books' place in history as flawed texts that sparked a generation of empathy, but were also mostly white and very heterosexual.

This is the last time I'm going to talk publicly about J. K. Rowling for a while. Instead, I'm going to give my time, money and energy to authors like Will Kostakis, Malinda Lo, David Levithan, Alison Evans, Erin Gough and Jacqueline Woodson, to name just a few. To support those who are actually doing the hard work, not just talking about it.

 

 

Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Main image: J. K. Rowling attends the UK Premiere of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald at Cineworld Leicester Square on 13 November 2018 in London, England. (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter, queer writers, LGBTQI+

 

 

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Although a favourite author of one of my children, and one of my grandchildren, speaking for myself I haven't read any of J K Rowling's books. I know she is a best-selling author and so has a great impact on her many readers. Three of my favourite authors are Robert Dessaix, Colm Toibin and David Malouf, all gay men. In a description of Malouf's writing, David Marr (a gay man) said "He has little to say about sex. It is entirely his choice to make, but Malouf is the least confessional of gay men. He doesn't apologise and he doesn't explain. He leaves sex to fiction." We may want authors to follow our agenda but sometimes it doesn't work out too well.
Pam | 22 March 2019


I really object to the use of the word 'queer' when referring to LGBT people. 'Strange, odd' is one definition. I know the dictionary now gives 'homosexual' as well, but I'm so old that 'queer', to me, just means 'strange' and I feel uncomfortable when I read it. (I have two gay grandchildren)
Pauline Power | 22 March 2019


Novelists tend to write the book they want to write, regardless of the wishes of those who'd like them to write to a social agenda, however worthy. Like Pam, I'm a great fan of Robert Dessaix, Colm Toibin and David Malouf, and I'd add Sarah Waters as a writer of very successful novels, some of which have lesbian heroes. Their novels succeed because of the usual combination of genius and very hard work, as well as the writers' humility in accepting the services of skilled editors. They don't succeed because of a social agenda they follow. As for children's books - back in the 19th century most novels written for young people included a strong element of social conditioning. Many of them were extremely successful, but some succeeded only with parents - they didn't affect the young readers' attitudes. (The girls who read Susan Coolidge's books, especially the later novels in her very long 'Katy' series, grew up to be stroppy feminists, rather than the gentle, well-behaved and conforming heroines that Susan Coolidge's publisher pushed her to promote. My conclusion - the real purpose of a novel is subverted by deliberate attempts to use it as a vehicle for anyone's social agenda.
Joan Seymour | 22 March 2019


Is there something wrong with reading a book for entertainment without reading behind and between the lines looking for propaganda.
fred | 22 March 2019


Thank you very much for this excellent article Neve. You have pointed out very clearly just how disingenuous Rowling has been and still is - I also wonder whether this is also connected to another underlying economic agenda - to get people to buy more books (or re-read them) to work out whether there is any evidence that this relationship was bona fide, as she has suggested? Thank you again.
Christine Nicholls | 22 March 2019


When I read the Harry Potter books to my children, I was struck by how conservative, almost reactionary, Rowling is. (Also by the threadbare writing and tedious repetition, but that's another matter!) There is not one word in any of the books to suggest that Dumbledore is gay - we don't want to lose sales in the Bible Belt, now do we! Yet Rowling has the gall to claim, years after the books were published, that she is some kind of pioneer, that she was socially and ethically ahead of the game by including a homosexual character in a children's book series. The fact is, she was too conservative (or cowardly) to actually write a gay character into her stories. I say a pox on your rank hypocricy and shallow virtue signalling, JK!
Uncle Monty | 22 March 2019


J.K. Rowling is a fantastic, successful writer. She may put down on paper whatever she wants. To have anyone try to intrude on the writing process which involves so much of her own judgement and primacy of conscience, is simply interference. You may not control anyone's thoughts, because it isn't possible. Also, no one may control what a text may mean to the reader and that includes the writer. We each bring different prior knowledge to our own reading and truly this means no one reads the same book. This also means, because we are always learning, no one can read the same book twice. We are never the same person.
Mercedes Michalski | 23 March 2019


Speaking as a queer male, I have a daughter who is an artist and who is also queer. She has a relationship with another queer artist. Their use of this sobriquet is to identify the upside-down lenses through which they see and interpret the world, especially of intimate relationships. My daughter was drawn to reading through her appreciation of the work of Rowling. It opened a new world for her, part of which, I assume, became an awareness of her own queerness. I'm pleased that Neve appears to have been born with this awareness; but for many of the rest of us, it's a matter of coming to terms with ourselves, and not simply a case of being closeted. Rowling has Catholic associations, as do my daughter and I, so, like us, she may well have been engaged in the process of finding a voice for the complexities of identity that people like us face. These processes have to be negotiated rather than forced; and, for some, that takes time. I admire and support Neve's powerful and articulate evangelical streak, but the freedom to decide when to come out may not entirely depend on financial and other external societal hindrances.
Michael Furtado | 24 March 2019


Such a well written article - feel exactly the same. I adore the work JK Rowling has created for us, but feel she is absolutely taking credit for something she never actually did.
Melissa | 25 March 2019


This seems like a huge case of damned if you do and damned if you don't - but, really, why should only gay niche writers be allowed to write about gay characters? Let's stop being so precious! I'm a gay male and sometimes read homoerotic undertones in the gospels - especially about Jesus relationship with John "the beloved on" and all the "reclining at table" etc they did together. Am I queerbaiting? Maybe, bit maybe it's not a bad thing. Neve, if being queer is such a good thing (which I believe it is?), how can you resort to such a defensive, negative interpretation of Rowling's motives?
AURELIUS | 25 March 2019


I think J K Rowling magically hit on a writing formula which netted her a fortune. The Harry Potter books are pure escapist fantasy, and, as far as I am concerned, that is all they are. The major characters, like Harry and Hermione, are not really shown to develop psychologically at any depth as they age. Sexuality, of any sort, just does not come into it. A bit like the Famous Five and various boys' stories. Many boys' stories written for those annuals of the 1950s and 1960s show Ginger or Roger punching a bag or participating in other manly sports. Their female counterparts in the girls' annuals, Jane and Dulcie, were either playing hockey or planning jolly japes against the awful Miss Pratt. Of course, as you grow into adolescence your develop physically and that, obviously, affects you sexually. Sex is usually not mentioned in young adult fiction. Perhaps this is a hangover from the Victorian era, but it also has commercial overtones. The British middle class traditionally had a very long mental adolescence. Sex was to be sublimated. A headmaster or headmistress, if unmarried, was supposed to be celibate. In the books that is exactly as I saw Dumbledore.
Edward Fido | 26 March 2019


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