the gay headmaster

My inbox has been lively for the past few days: a number of my fellow Christians want to know what I, a vocal celebrant of the Harry Potter books, think about Joanne Rowling’s recent announcement that Albus Dumbledore, the wise old Headmaster of Hogwarts, is gay. Though what she actually said is rather more interesting: “I always thought of Dumbledore as gay.” It’s a nice little insight into the ways that authors can construct backstories for their characters that they don’t make explicit in their books. Several people have asked me why I think she made the announcement now, once the series is over. I suspect that’s because Dumbledore’s sexuality was not a part of the story as such. I mean, what could that revelation have contributed to the story? (Presumably this was Rowling’s thought, anyway.)

One person, a stranger to me, wrote to inform me that he had only read the first book in the series because he found Melville “infinitely superior” — an odd comment, by the way. Is Melville the only writer who is infinitely superior to Rowling? If not, then what if this fellow came across someone he thought superior to Melville — Shakespeare, say, or Homer? Would he then have to give up on Moby Dick and “Billy Budd”? And have you ever tried reading Pierre, or, the Ambiguities to a nine-year-old? In any event, several of the emails had this tone: “I always knew that the Harry Potter books were morally suspect / artistically contemptible, and this proves it!” I confess that I find these sentiments impenetrable. Are all books that have gay characters to be repudiated by the Christian reader — even if the books themselves never say that the character is gay? Are writers who fail to condemn homosexuality whenever they encounter it unworthy, on that ground alone, of our attention? I’m at a loss to know how to respond to these messages.

More significantly, I am dumbfounded that there are people who are shocked by Rowling’s announcement. Does anyone really expect that an educated British woman, shaped by mainstream European culture as much as the average member of her generation, would have any other attitude towards homosexuality than Rowling’s affirming tolerance? These days, in the West, moral disapproval of homosexuality is pretty much confined to conservative forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Since Rowling is quite obviously not a member of any of these religious groups, on what grounds would anyone be surprised by her views on Dumbledore’s sexuality?