24 October 2007

Credit Where It's Due

J. K. Rowling's recent statement that her character Albus Dumbledore is gay has produced a chorus of wishfulness. I've seen people wishing that Rowling had been clearer in her intended clues about Dumbledore, that she had depicted him as more open, that she had identified other adult characters as gay, that her Hogwarts students had keened about same-sex pairings as loudly as they do about opposite-sex pairings. Basically, these critics wish that Rowling had written different books.

But let's not neglect the books Rowling has written and what she's now said about them. What other children's fantasy writer has been as explicit about a beloved, admired character being gay?

Sure, there's now a fair amount of contemporary fiction for teens about being gay or having gay friends or relatives, as well as some in which homosexuality is present but not central. But Rowling has "outed" an authority figure and beloved mentor in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, a book for and about eleven-year-olds. Dumbledore is a major character in an ongoing series of multimillion-dollar movies, with his own articulated action figures (shown above, courtesy of The Collector Zone). Has any other children's novelist come close to giving a gay character that positive exposure?

Wikipedia's "List of LGBT characters in modern written fiction" now includes Albus Dumbledore. What other characters from children's literature does it include? What other children's author has contributed to that list?

Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence, Marion Dane Bauer's 1994 anthology, contains stories by Bruce Coville, Jane Yolen, Gregory Maguire, and other fine fantasists. Coville's Skull of Truth from 1997 has what Wendy Betts calls "a fairly minor subplot" about a gay uncle (which was still enough to get it removed from school shelves in one Illinois town). But a targeted anthology and a subplot just don't have the heft of Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of his age.

I've written about the close relationship of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman in L. Frank Baum's The Tin Woodman of Oz, and about Glinda the Good's appreciation of female beauty and lack of interest in men. But Baum would have surely disavowed any interpretations of his characters as homosexual (or sexual, for that matter).

I've noted the same-sex couple who mentor the kids in Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard, a portrayal of a relationship that's less fraught with tragedy and cliché than Rowling's. But according to Tsukara, Duane's response to questions about Tom and Carl's partnership is: "It's their business, so why should it matter to you?" Rowling has certainly not been that coy.

Only in comics have I seen writers do more to include gay characters in fantasy stories meant (at least in part) for young readers. And of course those efforts are far from bullet-proof against criticism.

For the people who have complained that Rowling wasn't forward enough in portraying gay characters, who among children's fantasy writers is ahead of her?


Libby said...

Do you mean besides the gay angels in Pullman's HDM? Or are you looking for characters who are more central?

J. L. Bell said...

Angels being angels, I think they're hard for human readers to relate to. Specifically, they have quite a different physical existence. Pullman does a good job of depicting their separate existence, both greater and (in some ways) lesser than humans.

I think Baruch and Balthamos offer an interesting comparison to Dumbledore given their role as adult mentors and protectors for a young protagonist. Baruch's death offers a particular parallel. But, as you suggest, neither seems as central to the heroes' lives as Dumbledore is to Harry's.

Anonymous said...

Hey, JLB!

I completely agree: Rowling was doomed to be accused either of sensationalism or timidity.

On the other hand, I do think it's worth pointing out that homoerotic romance is one of the staples of the British boarding school novel, one of the genres Rowling draws from frequently. You write (in your prev. post) that same-sex romance doesn't seem likely at Hogwarts, because "coming out" doesn't typically occur until the end of the teenage years," according to THE ADVOCATE, and because "Hogwarts is drawn as a tradition-bound school in a traditional segment of British society." But this is a fundamentally American understanding of homosexuality.

The American homosexual model in fiction is the "coming out" novel -- one of repression or covert activity during the teenage years dissipating later on with a firming up of a unitary homosexual identity.

The British "public school" model, on the other hand, was a period of homoerotic and perhaps even homosexual interest during the teen years, with a shift in the late teen years towards heterosexuality. This is particularly true for the last decades of the 19th C (when Dumbledore would have been in school) and the first half of the 20th C, the period that produced the boarding school novel. Quite frequently, these boarding school novels have explicit homoerotic focii, for ex. Ernest Raymond's TELL ENGLAND or E. F. Benson's DAVID BLAZE. The plot tends to be something like boy-meets-boy, boy falls in love with boy, boy gets killed on the Front ... or boy meets boy, boy falls in love with boy, boy meets boy's identical twin sister and gets happily married, ta da. Though these romances are often sexless, they are often explicitly called "romances," "first love," etc. It may seem somewhat alien to modern readers as an affective model, but clearly made sense in the context at the time. And in the thirties and forties, there was a rise of similar novels about "pashes" at girls' schools.

Far from being in some way restricted by the "tradition-bound" institutions, these romances were fostered specifically in those institutions, and formed one of the main plot-lines of the fiction about these institutions. While the slow erosion of single-sex education diminished the apparent incidence of boarding-school homoeroticism in the late 20th C, it remains a common joke in England, still part of the national consciousness. (And still part of literary fiction for adults -- in Hollinghurst's SWIMMING POOL LIBRARY, say, or Simon Raven's FIELDING GRAY.)

What Rowling inherited, therefore, was a setting that was already infused with that possibility, far more than we might realize in the U.S., where there is a different narrative of homosexual development.

Having said that, her choice to exclude homoerotic romance among her young heroes is her own, and I completely agree with you that really, she'd be getting shit no matter what did. Too little, too much, too late, too soon ...

Oh well.



J. L. Bell said...

I agree that Rowling drew on the strange and marvelous tradition of the British public-school novel. However, she seems to have consciously left behind those books' same-sex communities. Hogwarts was founded by two men and two women, and all the houses seems to have enrolled both boys and girls from the beginning. (In that respect, Dumbledore would have had the same experience as Harry.) Both girls and boys play the same sport, quidditch (and each team apparently has one locker room).

The only areas of sex segregation at Hogwarts seem to be bedrooms and bathrooms (the "chamber of secrets"). And even those separations don't seem to matter to the characters. Harry and friends repeatedly sneak into public areas after hours and into other houses. But do he and Ron ever sneak into the girls' rooms? Do they ever feel that sneaking is necessary for snogging?

Of course, some of the venerable public-school novel tradition does surface, and not just in sneaking out to the village or the Big Game. “Boy meets boy, boy falls in love with boy, boy meets boy's identical twin sister and gets happily married, ta da”--except for the "identical twin” part, isn’t that pretty much what Harry does with Ron and Ginny Weasley?

Anonymous said...

Well, except for the falling in love part, which is what's at issue. (Disclaimer: I'm going on the movies and synopses of most of the books. For all I know, Harry and Ron might walk arm in arm on the battlements, reciting love-poems by Theocritus to each other by moonlight in fine Edwardian style!)

I don't think we're actually in disageement, but just pointing out contrary halves of the same excisions.

Anyway, what the books lack in this department, YouTube's compilers of slash-romance have made up in spades!


J. L. Bell said...

No poetry recitals, to be sure. Ron and Harry are jocks of the Tom Brown or Mike Jackson ilk.

They do spend the hols together whenever they can and pout if one feels insulted and decides to stop talking to the other.

But I agree, their relationship doesn't get into all the corners of homoeroticism, and fans seem to know it. A Google search for "Harry/Ron" and "slash" brings up a mere 137,000 hits. "Harry/Draco" plus "slash" offers 259,000.

Anonymous said...

just an aside about Oz-- let's not forget Ozma the tranny!