In these days of debt crisis, we baby boomers are carrying a lot of baggage. But we also share some common cultural gifts. For example, ask us and we’ll wax rhapsodic about what it was like to experience Beatlemania.
After their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, we waited breathlessly for each new Beatles album. And as we grew older we copied their hair, their clothes and their free-to-be lifestyles. John, Paul, George and Ringo never disappointed, stretching the boundaries of music, art, fashion and thought throughout the sixties.
Decades from now, I suspect people young and old will feel the same way about Harry Potter. From the debut of the first of seven books in 2001 to the release of the eighth and final film last week, J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece of fantastical imagination has been a singular phenomenon.
A niece got me hooked at the outset, and I’ll be forever grateful. Especially in the books, Rowling creates an intricate and spellbinding world of castles, creatures and magical spells. But at lovingly rendered Hogwarts Academy, where Harry grows up and most of the action takes place, the politics are often more compelling than the potions.
Throughout the entire Harry Potter series, Rowling develops plot lines that resonate deeply, if not overtly, with LGBT readers. And their resolution is enormously satisfying. In fact, when the next generation ushers in a world of greater equality and appreciation for diversity as we know they will I dare say the Potter books will have been as influential on young minds as Will & Grace or Glee.
The politics in Harry Potter is mostly subtext, but it has not gone unnoticed by the Christian Right. Evangelicals have called the books esatanic and demanded that they be removed from public and school libraries.
The Harry Potter books are a threat not because they romanticize witchcraft and wizardry, writes commentator Michael Bronski, but because they are deeply subversive in their unremitting attacks on the received wisdom that being “normal’ is good, reasonable, or even healthy.
No wonder gays and lesbians have loved these books from the outset.
Rowling has never suggested that her books be read as an allegory for the gay experience. But Bronski describes the powerful and knowing ways that she introduces LGBT-supportive themes throughout the Potter series.
Possessed with magical powers that at first confuse and frighten him, Harry’s difference makes him an outcast in his makeshift family. He’s forced to live in a closet. At one point his uncle rants, I will not tolerate mention of your abnormality under this roof!
Indeed, the world of wizardry frightens normal people, so it is kept secret even while it surrounds them. As in pre-Stonewall days, elaborate codes, signals, rules of deportment and even an invisible map make it possible for the magical to find and recognize each other.
And it is a world more diverse than even our own, populated with dwarfs, giants, house elves, centaurs, mermaids and muggle-borns. Professor Remus Lupin, a sympathetic and admirable character, is a werewolf whose affliction mirrors both the gay and HIV/AIDS experience. At one point Lupin laments that parents would not want someone like me around their children.
And those outside the wizarding world? They are muggles, socialized to be and oblivious of the magic all around them. Throughout the books, it’s clear which world Rowling prefers.
In fact, Rowling more than hinted at sympathies and subtext in 2007, when she made the stunning admission that she had always imagined her most respected and beloved character Professor Albus Dumbledore as a gay man.
She explained, as though it was history she had uncovered, that Dumbledore fell in love with Gellert Grindenwald as a youth and for a time supported Grindenwald’s conquest of muggles. He lost his moral compass and became mistrustful of his own judgment in these matters, Rowling said, so he chose a celibate and bookish life.
Indeed, he became Rowling’s repository for wisdom, compassion, courage and loving goodness.
When challenged for creating this back story for Dumbledore after her books had been published, Rowling bristled. It has certainly never been news to me that a brave and brilliant man could love other men, she said. He is my character. He is what he is, and I have the right to say what I say about him.
The Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Thomas agreed, noting that Dumbledore’s underlying sexuality strengthened certain plot lines throughout the series. Others couldn’t resist pointing out Dumbledore’s flamboyant purple cloak and plumed hats. A writer for the Los Angeles Times observed that, While the anagram ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ is ‘I am Lord Voldemort’ (read the books), ‘Albus Dumbledore’ becomes ‘Male bods rule, bud.’
But the Christian Right was not amused. Will we allow our kids to believe it would be perfectly appropriate for the headmaster of any school to be homosexual? groused Mission America’s Linda Harvey. One can hear Rowling’s personification of rigid officiousness, Dolores Umbridge, mouthing the same words.
Throughout Harry Potter, Dumbledore champions diversity. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open, he says.
In the last book, when objections are raised over a marriage between a werewolf Lupin and a full-blooded witch, Professor Minerva McGonagall says of her dear friend, Dumbledore would have been happier than anybody to think that there was a little more love in the world.
The Beatles said pretty much the same thing.