About a month ago the big news was that Albus Dumbledore, the loveable headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, was gay.
The cynics among us immediately figured that it was just a publicity stunt to grab more attention for an otherwise finished series. Frankly, when I was the first headline, I would have been inclined to agree, though I quickly realised it didn’t really feel like that was the case. Rowling didn’t issue a press release out of the blue. She didn’t bring it up herself. Somebody asked her about Dumbledore’s love life and she responded by saying that she always thought of him gay. And it seemed consistent with what was in the books—I had picked up on a little homoeroticism in that whole Grindelwald affair—even if it wasn’t explicit.
The reason I’m bringing all this up is that, following the outing of Dumbledore (or the outing of such a possibility, since you might argue that just because Rowling “thought of him as gay” doesn’t mean we have to, but I digress) there was an article published in Time that asked that Dumbledore be put back in the closet as he made a poor role model. An excerpt:
So along comes Rowling with Dumbledore—a human being, a wizard even, an indisputable hero and one of the most beloved figures in children’s literature. Shouldn’t I be happy to learn he’s gay?
Yes, except: Why couldn’t he tell us himself? The Potter books add up to more than 800,000 words before Dumbledore dies in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and yet Rowling couldn’t spare two of those words—”I’m gay”—to help define a central character’s emotional identity? We can only conclude that Dumbledore saw his homosexuality as shameful and inappropriate to mention among his colleagues and students. His silence suggests a lack of personal integrity that is completely out of character.
— John Cloud, “Put Dumbledore Back in the Closet“. Time. Monday, Oct. 22, 2007.
There are many reasons that this is completely ridiculous.
First, Dumbledore was never meant to be a gay role model for anybody. He was never meant to be a gay character at all, or else it would have been mentioned in the text. Having that as some kind of motivation for writing his character doesn’t mean it has to be explicitly explained, which goes for any trait an author sees in their characters.
What does it say about how we see homosexuality if we think it should always be explicitly stated? I would tend to lean the other way—the implication that any gay character should announce his sexual orientation to the world, as if it were a really important and defining aspect of his character, makes it sound like everybody has a right to know it, as if they should be warned before getting too friendly.
Should the two words “I’m gay” really “define a central character’s emotional identity” any differently from “I’m straight”? For someone as intelligent, wise, and experienced as Dumbledore, I would hope not.
Realistically, we might expect Dumbledore to remain in the closet simply because he grew up in the early 1900s or so, when (at least among Muggles) such things were kept secret. But, like Cloud says, this would be out of character for him. I agree with that much, but his not having disclosed that secret to, say, Harry Potter, doesn’t mean that he was ashamed by it. It’s just not something a headmaster needs to tell all his students! It’s perfectly plausible that other professors and colleagues knew, but again, the kind of conversation where that would come up simply didn’t have a place in the story both because of the situation they were in and also the kind of life Dumbledore had at the time. “Dumbledore! Lord Voldemort is on the move! And by the way; bang any boys lately?”
We should note, as well, that one of the major themes in the final book was how little Harry Potter actually knew about Dumbledore’s life. It was a source of conflict that tested Harry’s faith in his mentor and nearly ended the quest Dumbledore had sent him on. That Dumbledore had told Harry nothing of his history, including his family and his relationship with Grindelwald, was a significant point. Telling Harry that he was gay, which would have been out of place anyway, would have completely undermined the story.
Dumbledore is an amazing character. That he didn’t disclose anything about his sex life and romantic interests in past or present, straight or gay, doesn’t say anything about his integrity or whether he was ashamed by it. There was simply no need for it in the story. He makes a fine role model, whether you think of him as gay or not, and for all the same reasons.