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Queer Representation and Harry Potter

For many of us growing up with Harry Potter, it is very easy to say that our lives have been shaped by the books, the series, the fanfiction and the behind-the-scenes additional information.

Years of waiting, nights of staying up late under the covers with a book with the fear of your mother catching you, whole summers of online roleplaying and endless bookmarks of essays, articles, fanart, fanfiction, headcanons, the wonderful, enchanting world that was given birth by the talented J.K. Rowling and was then enlarged and developed with the creativity and insight of the fans.

I was given the first Harry Potter book when I was six, and for more than fifteen years, Hogwarts, the magical universe and all the characters have been an irreplaceable extension of me. I don’t know how to explain what the series has meant to me and I probably don’t need to, since many people my age – as well as my forty year old aunt and my thirteen year old cousin, so not only my age – have daydreamt of walking among the streets of Hogsmeade , or sleep-dreamt of fighting Voldemort and saving the world.

Just to hand out some examples, I remember, when I was seven and my dad told me that being so obsessed with Harry Potter was unhealthy, threatening him ever-so-dramatically that for me to stop he’d first have to kill me and bury my ashes in the box of the Sorcerer’s Stone VHS.

When I finished the second book I made ice cream and hosted a Harry Potter sticker party for my grandma and my aunt. When I bought the Prisoner of Azkaban DVD I verbally greeted Emma Watson appearing on the screen like an old friend, causing my parents to actually worry.

When I was sixteen I dyed my hair magenta so that I could look like a bit like Tonks. And finally, the most treasured childhood memory I still carry with me, was reading the Prisoner of Azkaban while I was out shopping with my mother, and spotting a big black dog on the street.

Harry Potter has been a huge part of my life, and it has shaped not only me but most people my age, to the people they are today. It has taught us acceptance, love, friendship, it has given us courage and enlightened us from a very young age in social issues like discrimination, prejudice, financial and social inequalities, the dangers of a totalitarian government, of greed, hatred, stereotypes and social indifference.

There are studies that show how Harry Potter fans are less likely to vote for Trump in the US presidential election and Pride signs referring to Dumbledore’s sexuality. The Harry Potter series has resulted to social change. In fact, it could have the potential to result to it on a much bigger degree.

Having been an active member of the Harry Potter fandom for the two thirds of my life, I have come to the conclusion that such inordinate success in Harry Potter’s receptivity and impact has two sides: the incredibly talented author, J.K. Rowling, and the fandom itself. People usually tend to diminish the power – both creative and critiquing – of the fans, by laughing at fanfiction or demeaning their needs and demands. What the – extremely diverse – Harry Potter fandom has done, actually, is remarkable.

Not only have people given life to, and extended the universe with all kinds of insightful essays, articles, researches and criticisms, but they have also appropriated parts that are important for different identities and social situations through headcanons, discussions, meta, fanart and fanfiction– of incredibly high quality at times, with remarkable writing I would pay to buy in print – resulting in an even more diverse universe that represents our extremely complex muggle society, its problems we have to face every day, the social and cultural exchanges within it, and issues that found a wonderful, allegoric way to be discussed.

That’s not to undermine J.K. Rowling’s world-changing impact in our growing up, by creating from scratch all those amazing characters and coming up with such spectacular universes, tropes and plots. No one could do that. But somewhere during the process, extremely loyal fans who have actively contributed to making Harry Potter so amazing, have felt betrayed, and I do believe that we have the right to express these feelings, especially when it comes to a series that had so big a potential to change the world and the people in it.

The fandom is not doing trivial job when depicting Harry and Hermione as non-white, to an extent that it’s taken by now as a thing that’s almost canon in most fans’ minds. I’ve seen dozens of Tumblr posts explaining why this is so important for fans who grew up without any other kind of representation whatsoever, how life-changing and empowering this has been for them. And seriously, it makes much more sense that way. It’s realistic.

Our diverse societies consist of people of all skin colors, genders, sexualities and religions. Having an all-white, cis/heteronormative magical universe, while diverse in terms of blood status and creature species, is not realistic in itself.

In fact, especially considering that new, exciting additions still occur in the Harry Potter story, what with the Pottermore material updates, the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trilogy, the revelations about the characters’ backstory on J.K. Rowling’s Twitter, and the Cursed Child play, there is a feeling that Harry Potter’s author has left way too many chances of important, realistic representation of diverse identities go amiss.

Rowling is still putting much work in additional content that has the purpose of expanding the magical universe, without investing nearly enough effort in trying to represent a current complex world she seemingly always used to allude to, and failing to include the experiences of a diverse fandom.

The explicit references to people of color are very few, yet the cast of Fantastic Beasts would be, once again, all-white, if it weren’t for the black woman casted as head of the American ministry of magic, as a result of the complaints within the fandom, and the insight given on History of Magic is North America, in the movie’s promo backstory, is particularly problematic when it comes to the representation of Native Americans. The biggest problem is that, even when there is actual representation, it usually is off-screen, leading many fans to perceive it as tokenism.

Such is the case of the revelation of the existence of one minor Jewish character within the entire series, and the promises for more in Fantastic Beasts, or even of gay Dumbledore, and the way his sexuality was announced after the whole series was over.

Rowling announcing that Dumbledore was gay in 2007 at Carnegie Hall was something the importance of which, and ten years ago, should not be undermined. Many will argue that the author of Harry Potter has done many supportive things for LGBT+ people, such as defending Dumbledore’s sexuality and gay people on Twitter and responding appropriately to complaints made by Westboro Baptist Church about the same thing.

However, a 2007 interview, shows that Rowling’s way to adaptation of LGBT+ issues in the Harry Potter series is trodden with ambiguities: she stated that being gay isn’t a major issue in the wizarding world, compared to other prejudices and forms of discrimination, such as blood status, while at the same time she presents dozens of relationships in Harry Potter and all of them are straight.

There are so many different complex characters, but all of them in heterosexual relationships. There is at least one man who loves muggles, Arthur Weasley, but not even one man – stated explicitly, apart from Dumbledore – who loves other men. There are werewolves, vampires, centaurs and banshees, but not one trans person, or even a gender-non-conforming person, aside from Tonks, who ended up being called by a more feminized ‘Dora’ by Remus after they married.

Other than that, Rowling received backlash for presumably confirming that Sirius Black is not gay and, even after denying doing so stating that there are “no news” regarding his sexuality, and she also answered, to a question about Charlie Weasley’s sexuality, that he’s just more interested in dragons than women.

All that, added to the announcement about Dumbledore – to whom not many teenage kids can relate and who, let’s be honest, while having been in a relationship with a super evil wizard, Gridelwald, and being the only representation, is not the best representation we can have – shows that, it’s not that Rowling is homophobic or has shown she’s got an issue with LGBT+ people, but she simply hasn’t felt the need to grasp on the chances that have been given her to easily and harmlessly represent them.

So here’s what seems to place all this responsibility on Harry Potter and the types of representation in the magical universe: what has always made the series so special, ever since the publish of the first book, was the inimitable opportunity it gave young readers to escape from a millennial world full of inequalities, expectations, anxiety and pessimism, in a world where they could be someone else from the person they were assigned to be, where they could apparate, turn their bully into a weasel and transform into an animal at will, find a place within the magic even if they were the outcasts or the weirdos.

Having these attributes, the Harry Potter series, for many, didn’t meet up to the expectations of kids being othered for their race, sexuality and gender. The amount of “slash” fanfiction, or even the amount of fanfiction with canon characters headcanoned as trans, shows how intense this need was among millennials, and how it eventually did not get catered for.

Speaking of fanfiction, one thing that was quite overwhelming for Harry Potter fans reading or watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was that they could actually identify several fanfiction tropes in the plot, writing, and character development, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We are hungry for fanfiction references and tropes in pop culture – let’s remember the Moriarty-Sherlock kiss – and The Cursed Child managed to weirdly balance some characteristics that catered to that impression, and were downright different from what Harry Potter fans have been used to.

This article sums up the points perfectly well: Delphi’s character with the cool hair and the whole Voldemort’s daughter thing going on for her, appearing out of the blue, the language in which the characters spoke, Hermione and Ron’s romantic time-crossing backstory, the undead Zombie-Robot-Killer-Guard Trolley Witch and, of course, the ever so discussed romance between Harry and Draco’s sons, Albus and Scorpius. Because, let’s face it, it was a romance, and even if that’s not confirmed in canon, it had all the elements that romances written in the Harry Potter universe do, with a similar – if not more realistic and intriguing – background build up.

Albus and Scorpius have been one of the strongest ships in the fandom already after their brief appearance – and zero interaction – in the last chapter of The Deathly Hallows. Imagine the fans’ excitement when the two characters’ deep, complex relationship, started being unraveled before them as they turned the pages, in ways that left little space for doubt when it came to the nature of the feelings the boys shared. Even I, who never experienced any particular interest for the next generation fics, was absolutely thrilled when I saw where it was going… or, as it turned out was going to go, but lost its way somewhere in the last few pages.

Because you see, the thing is that Albus and Scorpius’ relationship was one of devotion, teenage jealousy when it came to one of them showing interest in a girl, and an awkward, hardly believable twist in the end, that left a bitter “no-homo” taste when Scorpius’ attention turned to Rose Weasley – who spent the entire book practically hating him and doing her best to let it show – that felt forced and definitely not quite right. Albus and Scorpius are left devastated when McGonagall separates them, Scorpius feels odd when Albus spends time with Delphi, and romantic vibes are scattered literally everywhere in the subtext, leading even to Albus being the material for Scorpius’ patronus against dementors to be produced.

With all this hope building up while we read the book – feeling that this was certain, it was heading there, queer young Harry Potter fans would finally be represented in the way they deserved – we actually found ourselves in a state of low-key shock when we realized that this was, for once again, not the case. Apparently it was too much for two young boys sharing a relationship with all the elements of a romantic one to be anything more than friends. This denial gave off the same old feeling: that even for people who seemingly support LGBT+ rights, a queer relationship between two boys is not deemed as natural enough, inoffensive enough, secure enough to be put in mainstream teenage –yet dark and mature enough –  literature (or in West End). Yet, for people who are hungry for the representation they can’t easily get, this was significant. It was not just another story which “happened” to have straight characters. It was a reaffirmation that they’re not accepted therefore they should not demand to be visible.

Jack Chellman, Writer and Student at the University of Virginia, writes in his moving and respectful letter to J.K. Rowling: “You wrote a gay romance. You pulled us along by the power of that romance. And then you told us it was unacceptable. The more-than-friendly magnetism between the boys felt real. The strictly straight conversation at the end felt false, contrived. But the script sides with the straight, and in doing so it tells us that there’s a way things are done in this world. That whether you buy into it or not, heterosexuality is what’s normal and natural and inevitable.”

What is described here is called queerbaiting, and it is thought to be a disease that affects most mainstream media, books and stories that young people love and lay their expectations upon. Queerbaiting is the writing trope that gets fans hooked by “baiting” them (aka generously handing out to them all the queer romance/or just the overall queer identity elements they’ve been craving for – always in the subtext) but never actually confirming the existence of such feelings in canon, usually twisting the plot somewhere towards the climax or the end of the series, to have the main characters settling down for love interests of a different gender.

Another occasion that has felt as queerbaiting – or queer erasure in general – is that of Remus, Sirius and Tonks’. Even academically speaking, werewolves are often compared to gay men because of the marginalization parallels, and lycanthropy is often alluded to as a metaphor for the HIV/AIDS virus and the social stigma that surrounds it, an allusion that Rowling herself has confirmed to be true in the case of Remus Lupin. Remus and Sirius’ queerness are ideas strongly applauded by the fans and, even though the subtext supporting their relationship may not be as strong as that supporting Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy’s, it’s still strong enough to make the ‘Wolfstar’ ship one of the most popular in the fandom, rendering it the perfect opportunity for Rowling to give us some representation even if that wasn’t her initial plan – which, spoiler alert, she eventually didn’t.

When (my absolute favorite) Nymphadora Tonks appeared in The Order of the Phoenix – and, to be fair, many a fanfiction appeared shipping her with Lupin even before their relationship was confirmed in The Half Blood Prince – many fans felt threatened by her, led to even misogynistic comments. However I see this case as somewhat different. Remus and Tonks’ relationship doesn’t have to invalidate the presumed queerness of either. Instead, this was actually some excellent opportunity for some bisexual representation, when it came to Lupin, something that of course is not likely to be confirmed as canon anytime soon, since Rowling has already stated in Pottermore in 2013 that Remus had never been in love with anybody before Tonks.

What’s more, Tonks’ character has a number of elements that allude to a stereotypically queer-read young character – from the shifting appearance and colourful hair, to her stereotypically un-feminine attitude and choice to be called by her gender-neutral surname. In fact, Tonks – as well as, according to many fans, hers and Remus’ son, Teddy – are often depicted as not identifying with a binary gender identity. Instead of that being played out though, before and during Tonks’ relationship with Lupin, we see her suddenly being called “Dora” after they marry, as well as being expected to stay back at home – brief reminder that Tonks is a powerful auror in the Wizarding World – with her kid, while the Last Battle is taking place.

The aim of this entire discourse is not to blame the Harry Potter series, since the criticism is being made by extremely loyal fans who reached the point of feeling personally affected and disappointed by staying in the dark, twenty years after the birth of the story, with effort constantly being put in the updates, through Pottermore, The Cursed Child, the Fantastic Beasts sequels and, of course, Rowling’s personal active social media. The issue here is not to demand something extreme, like every single character to be queer. On the contrary, it is actually asking for something to see realistic, in a series where the existence of some very real people is simply erased. It’s not the specific case of Scorpius and Albus, of Dumbledore or Sirius; it’s not just about Remus’ potential bisexuality and the possibilities that open for the fluidity of Tonks’ gender.

It’s the general bitter aftertaste this all leaves. It’s a series of crushed hopes and expectations from something that we held dear to our hearts while growing up. It’s all these put together, all the possibilities that could have effortlessly served as amazing, well-rounded forms of representation to questioning, closeted and anxious kids all over the world. As it is stated in this Vox article, all stories, sequels, remakes and behind-the-scenes information on Harry Potter, are keeping the protagonists strictly at European-centric, white, cis, straight standards, in a world that is changing and presenting all kinds of social issues that should not allow for its representors to be limited to that.

All these concerns are still phrased with love, and for specific reasons: towards the very story that taught us to question Umbridge’s authority and translate that to a wider skepticism towards any kind of oppression, especially towards marginalized social groups, while still being ten years old. Towards the story that taught us to hope instead of giving up, even when the world seemed at its most hostile around us.

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