J.K. Rowling has declared that one of the favourite characters in her Harry Potter books, Dumbledore, is gay. Asked in New York’s Carnegie Hall if Dumbledore found true love, she replied: "Dumbledore is gay", adding that he had fallen in love with Gellert Grindelwald, but that Dumbledore was "terribly let down" when Grindelwald became more interested in the dark arts than good, and so Dumbledore went on to defeat him in a duel. The listening fans, initially stunned by the announcement, soon started clapping and cheering. This reaction and counter-reaction is not surprising. Homosexuality is a difficult subject for people to deal with.
Christians often find it difficult. Only a couple of weeks ago an elderly couple in England became ineligible to foster children after they refused to sign a contract with the local authorities which would have required them to tell children as young as 11 that gay partnerships were just as acceptable as heterosexual marriages. This was a great pity, as they had fostered 28 children quite successfully. In the UK, at least, Christian churches are often criticised for being "homophobic".
Let us look for a moment at Christianity and homosexuality. It is not too easy to express the Christian attitude to homosexuality, partly because homosexuality has become a battleground in recent decades.
Christianity takes sexuality seriously but does not consider it the most important thing about human nature.
Christianity takes sexuality seriously but does not consider it the most important thing about human nature. Human beings are human beings: persons, first and foremost. They also have sexuality. But sexuality does not make them good or bad. What is important is the use they make, as free and responsible persons, of what God has given them, which includes their sexuality. When it comes to homosexuality, Christianity does teach that it is a negative factor, for the simple reason that, if it is given free rein, it leads to an unnatural use of sexuality. But, in saying this, Christianity is not writing off people with that tendency. Each and every one of us is made up of many factors, both positive and negative, talents and weaknesses. Furthermore, a positive factor, such as a high IQ, can be used negatively, to tyrannise over others. And vice versa: cancer sufferers can turn their misfortune into a way of serving humanity, raising sums for cancer research.
A consequence of this teaching is that it is wrong for people to make a virtue out of homosexuality, as it would be wrong to do so out of other shortcomings, such as deafness, blindness, weakness of character, bullying, irascibility, etc. So, Christianity does not encourage the present fashion of "coming out", and making an open declaration of one’s homosexual leanings. Especially, Christianity considers it wrong, a form of abuse, to force people to make such declarations. One thing is being sincere with oneself, and with those whom one chooses to open one’s heart to in spiritual guidance; another thing is broadcasting one’s defects. This could be a form of inverted pride (an inversion of the pride of telling everyone about one’s good qualities). To counter these tendencies, Christianity encourages the practice of the virtue of humility.
Coming more specifically to homosexuality, experience shows that men who have this tendency often have certain qualities, some positive, others less so: sensitivity, kindness, gentleness, a need to be appreciated, a certain tendency to get over passionate about things, or petulance.
While taking this into account, Christianity does not take the matter excessively seriously. It tells such people: "It’s no big deal. You have to fight, like everyone else does. You will have some areas in which you find the fight harder; in other areas which other people find difficult you may have no difficulty. Be of good cheer. Your strength is not in yourself, but in God." Perhaps it would be good to add that Christianity teaches clearly that virginity is a perfectly normal calling, and that men and women do not have to have sexual intercourse in order to be fully human. This teaching has been somewhat forgotten in a society that considers everyone must be given contraceptives because all are assumed to be "sexually active". In such a society, it would seem unfair to deny to homosexuals their right to sexual pleasure. But that is not the Christian view.
Now, coming to Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts school. If his author and creator tells us he is gay, what does this mean?
of all, is Dumbledore “gay”? A simple answer is, “Yes,
the author says so.” But it is not so simple. Until these
comments of hers we have had seven books in which Dumbledore has
played a prominent part and there has no been no mention that he is
gay. Now Rowling has told us he is. The evidence she gives is that he
had fallen in and out of love with Gellert Grindelwald. If we read
the relevant passages in the seventh book
of Harry Potter, Chapter Eighteen, we find
that the information comes from a suspect source, the notorious
scandal-mongering Rita Skeeter. (However it has to be admitted that
Rowling, despite having considerable misgivings about journalists,
does seem to use Skeeter as a way of transmitting sensitive
information or suggestions to her readers).
We are told that Dumbledore and Grindelwald had met as
teenagers (17 and 16 years old) when Grindelwald had come to stay in
Dumbledore’s village of St Godric’s Hollow. They “took
to each other at once”, both of them being precocious wizards:
“They got on like a cauldron on fire”. They plotted to
take over the world (a suitably teenage dream), but split up after
barely two months, when Dumbledore’s sister Ariana died and
Grindelwald “fled the country hours after the girl’s
death”. They never met again, and neither of them ever
“referred to this brief boyhood friendship in later life”.
Skeeter adds what could now be interpreted as a hint of something
else: “However, there can be no doubt that Dumbledore delayed,
for some five years of turmoil, fatalities and disappearances, his
attack upon Gellert Grindelwald. Was it lingering affection for the
man, or fear of exposure as his once best friend, that caused
Dumbledore to hesitate? Was it only reluctantly that Dumbledore set
out to capture the man he was once so delighted he had met?”
However, the obvious interpretation is (a) that
the scandal that Skeeter had in mind was the fact that Dumbledore had
been friends with one of the “Most Dangerous Dark Wizards of
All Time”; (b) that the intensity of their friendship is typical
of a phase which many young persons go through, and, in the absence
of other information, is not in any way indicative of homosexuality.
But, despite the lack of evidence, let us assume that Dumbledore is gay, since the author has told us so. In that case, the first thing we notice is that Dumbledore does not tell us about it. In this, his behaviour is consonant with Christian teaching. He keeps the matter to himself. He appears to be unmarried, but this does not mean he is homosexual. If one looks at the other teachers at Hogwarts, several of them seem to be unmarried – Professors McGonagall and Snape among them. The tradition of single teachers is a perfectly well known tradition and Hogwarts seems to be no exception.
Dumbledore is kind, he is thoughtful. He is trusting. He is discreet (for instance, he does not reveal that Sirius is an Animagus). He is forgiving and understanding, intelligent and talented. He wants to pass on his expertise to others. He is considered the best headmaster the school has ever had. The author has recently said that she sees him as having frailties, "quite a Machiavellian figure" and, in his hands, "Harry has been a puppet to an extent". It is not clear how much this actually comes out in the books. Certainly Harry frequently complains that Dumbledore has left him in the dark – but isn’t that a typical teenage complaint against parents and elders?
What is certain is that Dumbledore makes friends with Harry (as he has done previously with Hagrid) and is constantly protective towards him. But there is never the slightest indication of impropriety in their relationship. All this is consistent with a person with homosexual tendencies and, if his tendencies are under control, with good Christian behaviour. We see here how right Christianity is in not discriminating against such people. Dumbledore (if he is gay) curbs his tendencies in that direction, something we have all have to do with our own negative tendencies.
We can conclude that the information that "Dumbledore is gay", coming as it does after the last book in the series has been published, does not really add to or take away from our knowledge and appreciation of him as a person. In this sense perhaps it would have been better for the author not to have mentioned the fact. But, given that we have been told it, we should neither praise him nor condemn him for it. It is also doubtful whether it would be useful to delve into the seven books for clues of his homosexual tendencies. We should see him as he is (by and large a highly attractive character) and let this late information provided by the author remind us that people with homosexual tendencies can be very effective members of society, as Dumbledore is in leading the struggle against Voldemort. As Dumbledore might have said "What makes a person is not so much what qualities he has, as the good use he makes of them."
This positive approach to Dumbledore’s possible homosexuality needs to be put in context. It assumes there is no consented homosexual intercourse; because such activity (like all impurity) degrades both individuals and society. Nowhere does Rowling speak of such behaviour, while at the same time she is very good on friendship, one of the strongest attractions of the Harry Potter books. Friendship is not the same as homosexuality. Part of the problem of those who seek to promote homosexuality is a refusal to recognise the distinction and the hint that, in condemning consented homosexual behaviour, Christianity is condemning friendship. True friendship is a treasure.
Andrew Byrne is a Catholic priest in London.