The Queer Tokenism Of Albus Dumbledore

As a fat, brown, fledgling weirdo kid, Dumbledore ushered me into a fantastical world when my own strangeness proved too much.

September 3, 2019

Diana Valenzuela
wizardry
J

here are the lost boys today and how do they exist? Not the lost boys in the streets or the lost boys on hotline posters. Not the sexy vampires who scrambled around 1980’s Santa Cruz, led by the bleached-blond taunts of Kiefer Sutherland. Not the boys in your freshman homeroom who were plastered in cuts, bloody-knuckled and high. Not the real lost boys either — those who fled the post-independent violence of Sudan, orphaned or displaced.

Look instead for the paper-thin lost boys who drift as apparitions through films and fiction. The sallow boys who draw us into one-dimensional despair with promises of spilling a sweet secret — a secret with a plastic scent and sexlessly doomed.

These lost boys try to infect us with a taste for disastrous love, too. These lost boys are tokens, tossed into the backgrounds of stories to fulfill some meager diversity quota without achieving any real authenticity; this leaves viewers with the impression that queer desire is some combination of shallow, invisible, or invariably doomed. The vast varieties of nuanced queer desire rarely get to languish and bloom on screen.

Let’s get this out of the way: as a queer person, you are not a token bullied into the background of your own story.

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You’re authentic: your brain bulges with anxiety, your skin reeks of obsession and guilt. Even at your most lonely and misunderstood you entered an online relationship with an agendered boi from Perth. When you went to chat with your boyfriend on AIM you had to be wily and quick because of the layers of time difference, you sometimes spent your lunch period hunched in the library.

The chatter of typing sounded like a jittery mating call.

The lost boys cannot feel community about the cringe-worthy minutia of non-heteronormative adolescent relationships. They cannot indulge and luxuriate in the ugliness of true vulnerability. Of course, tons of artists, writers, and activists chip away at inadequate queer representation in media all the time. They build the community those boys lack, even as they try to lamely give it shape on a variety of screens. Any and each of these efforts matter, hugely.

But massively powerful, pop culture franchises insist upon churning out retconned — characters retroactively revised — token gays. Popular culture insists that our stories be smothered and doomed.

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Albus Dumbledore was “the greatest wizard of his generation” and the person who taught me how to use the word “Alas” when I was eight. As a fledgling freak and weirdo, he ushered me into a fantastical world that soothed me when my own strangeness proved too much for my physical surroundings. I was a fat kid, a brown kid, and a kid with very secret burgeoning queer feelings: a kind of reverse triple threat. Dumbledore accepted and encouraged of all children — especially the strangest, least privileged ones.

As a second-grader, Albus Dumbledore seemed like the most supportive, understanding adult a weird kid could encounter. He made me think of the magical world as something of a safe space, even though wizards have a rampant wealth of prejudices. He was a man who knew how to talk to children as smoothly as he could intimidate adults — a man of immense power who liked to fight evil and make himself look fabulous.

Readers first glimpsed him through the perspective of Harry Potter, a famously lovable yet clueless orphan. Albus Dumbledore dies before being able to explain his own backstory of orphanhood and cluelessness to Harry, so Harry delves into that mystery alone.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry discovers that Dumbledore — like a Cadbury egg — withheld a gooey mess of turmoil inside of his impeccably polished exterior. Harry is shocked by the revelation that teen Dumbledore sustained a friendship with a fascist named Gellert Grindelwald, thanks to the boys ending up as temporary neighbors one summer.

Harry learns how the two met: Grindelwald was kicked out from the wizarding school Durmstrang Institute for blatantly fascist hijinks. Afterward, his parents sent him to live with a relative in Dumbledore’s hometown. Dumbledore was stuck at home, supporting his family and moping about missing out on young adulthood in favor of looking after his odd little siblings.

In the text, the bond between Grindelwald and Dumbledore seems like a primarily intellectual friendship forged between deeply isolated, overly-precocious teenagers: Dumbledore’s younger brother, Aberforth, complains to Harry, “…my brother had an equal to talk to, someone as bright and talented as he was.”

The friendship dissolves due to a wizarding duel between Aberforth, Albus, and Grindelwald ending in the accidental death of Dumbledore’s disabled sister. Apparently, after the death, Dumbledore could no longer ignore Grindelwald’s already burgeoning reputation as a sadistic creep. Grindelwald runs off to terrorize Eastern Europe; Dumbledore never mentions the friendship again.

It could have ended there but did not: in 2007 J.K. Rowling profoundly complicated Dumbledore’s life in a spectacular Q&A session at Carnegie Hall. Albus was gay, she said. The love of his life was the teen fascist, she said. After that failed romance he gave up on dating forever. And in that moment Dumbledore became the token lost boy whose entire relationship to romantic love is weakly captured in a note that he sent to Grindelwald that summer.

The final, shy sentence of this letter goes:

“…if you had not been expelled, we would never have met.” These 11 words serve as a cage. The supposed great passion and romance that Rowling eludes to doesn’t manifest as anything greater than: “If you hadn’t done that sociopath fascist shit at your Eastern European wizard high school, then gotten kicked out, we wouldn’t have formed an unlikely, summer-long friendship through proximity and desperation.”

But there is Dumbledore’s love, splayed out and waiting to be picked over; this non-declaration of love would matter less if Rowling had given Dumbledore any sort of community. Dumbledore is the only gay wizard we meet in the books; we never learn if wizards hold prejudices against people of varying sexualities and genders, though we do know that they tend to enjoy dating one person of the opposite sex for the span of their whole lives. They’re big into straight, high school sweetheart-drenched true love and maybe there is some implied homophobia in that. It’s unclear.

This is the straight world’s approximate, gauzy gaze: it is textureless and vague.

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The only cure I have for Rowling’s type of straight-gaze-lost boy-is the cure for everything else: poetry. There are queers and misfits of all kinds who grew up isolating their own love from the world. Maybe they never fully grew into community, but they are still whole people with flaws and skin. There are ways for very guarded boys to come to life, too.

nne Carson’s novel-length poem Autobiography of Red focuses on a delicately lifelike lost boy named Geryon. His skin is bright red, he is winged, he loves photography and metaphor. He has no gay role models in his family or his town — there is only his monstrous older brother whose cruelty merges into sexual abuse. This trauma and other forms of markedness (the wings, the red skin, the small town origins) turn Geryon into a silent boy who loves quietly in the way that quiet love often manifests — with a burning desperation that is far sloppier and obvious than intended.

Like Gellert Grindelwald, Geryon’s first love, Herakles, is important because he gives Geryon the opportunity to have an equal: “They were two superior eels/at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics.” Like Grindelwald, Herakles will eventually betray their adolescent friendship: Geryon and Herakles’ love is based on a Greek myth that ends in Geryon’s death when “…hero Herakles came across the sea and killed [Geryon] to get his cattle.”

So the future dooms this love, too.

In Carson’s poem, however, the object of desire is not unrequited — Herakles gives Geryon a sexual awakening that can’t be relegated to subtext. Herakles relishes love callously, he says, “sex is a way of getting to know someone.” Their love also has ample room to grow; the boys take an unsupervised vacation to Hades (Herakles’ hometown), spending their days discussing the nearby volcano, and tagging the town with urgent and original messages like “capitalism sucks.”

Geryon clings to Herakles until Herakles not-so-politely and unsubtly tells Geryon to go back home because he’s decided they’re done getting to know each other. Geryon asks to stay but Herakles brushes that off with an assurance — “…you know we’ll always be friends” — which quickly becomes a lie. They don’t talk again until they run into each other by accident years later, in South America. During that chance meeting, Herakles and Geryon reconvene for an episode of graceless sex. The fey Herakles is turned off by his lover’s sadness and lack of spritely joy.

Geryon weeps and Herakles responds, “Can’t you ever just fuck and not think?’” Geryon can’t, so Herakles says, “…just another Saturday morning me laughing and you crying.” Carson uses their discordant personality differences to illustrate what she calls “the human custom of wrong love”; Geryon and Herakles are helplessly mismatched, but they love anyway.

However, despite the pain of wrong love, the reader understands why Geryon and Herakles’ wrong love persists. Geryon finds precious moments of community in that love. As a teen, he befriends Herakles’ sympathetic grandmother. As adults, Herakles introduces Geryon to a man named Ancash who takes Geryon high up into the Andes where they watch men bake bread in a volcano. Geryon and Herakles share a wrong love that creates errant sparks of joy. It seems to be worth it all — at least sometimes.

The Harry Potter series also plays with many iterations of right and wrong love. It makes some sense that Rowling wants the human custom of wrong love to be Dumbledore’s burden, too. But it’s odd that Dumbledore’s love story doesn’t have a kind grandmother, a bitter Ancash, or a big volcano full of bread. The wrong love languishes in tokenism.

The wrong love does not feel worth anything at all. There are the fiction-thin lost boys who are unable to give and there are the real lost boys whose gifts are so real they make you cringe. Typically, the boy best-suited to sulking in the background is the one who ends up playing the gay bestie in Sex and the City-derivative rom-coms. If the powers-that-be wanted, these blockbuster movies could still make queer-positive changes; they have the money, the talent, the time.

antastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie premiered last November. The film depicted a young Dumbledore; consequently, the movie could have given us a Dumbledore whose gayness is more than exactly nothing. Instead, precisely zero of the one hundred and thirty-three minutes of film explored the adolescent romance between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Instead, the two men spoke in generalized terms about the battle between good and evil. Neither of them mentioned whether or not their long-dead love had any bearing upon their rivalry. Some lost boys are hopeless, they should be left behind. I should be wary, hardened, without hope, and ready to abandon them.

But I have bundles of excuses and denial stacked all over my house and soon I will need a storage unit for this latent desperation because it multiplies with each passing year.

I am as naive as Geryon; when I run my hands over these small failures of culture it’s as if I’m standing alongside the red-winged beast at the lip of a volcano, holding my quivering, needy heart above a spout of fire. When I was eight, I respected and loved Albus Dumbledore because he oversaw a fantasy world that brought me immense comfort. Now, two decades later, all I want from him is some kind of recognition that his love life was as rich, complicated, and unique as Geryon’s or mine.

I want to know everything about the first time Grindelwald’s hand brushed Dumbledore’s. I want to know whether he felt his heart leap into his throat, whether it seemed as if all of his skin cells were dancing. I think I would feel a silky surge of childish, safe haven-y comfort if I understood the sound of his jittery mating call.

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