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The Harry Potter universe still can't translate its gay subtext to text. It's a problem.

Best friends Scorpius Malfoy and Albus Potter are the main characters of the new play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. But many fans wish they had been more.
Manuel Harlan/Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In October 2007, at a rare appearance at a packed Carnegie Hall, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling casually tossed off one of the biggest announcements in the history of her landmark fantasy phenomenon: Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor and the greatest wizard in the world until his dramatic death in book six, was gay.

The audience immediately leapt to its feet and roared its approval. Rowling seemed surprised. "If I had known this would have made you this happy," she said, "I would have announced it years ago."

In the year 2016, however, nearly a decade after the outing of Dumbledore and almost 20 years after the publication of the very first Harry Potter book, the world of Harry Potter still looks and feels exactly like it did when Harry first entered Hogwarts: nearly all white and rigidly heteronormative. With the most recent installment in the HP franchise, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, fans have buckled down on their criticism that Rowling and her collaborators haven’t done enough to bring modern progressive representation to Harry’s vast magical world.

Harry Potter and the fans who grew up without him

The Harry Potter universe has spawned an international legacy of fans across three generations: adult fans who enjoyed the books and movies as they came out, the children who grew into adults alongside Harry and his friends, and newer fans who are just discovering the series today.

But to many of these fans, the stagnation of the HP world has become harder and harder to ignore. The millions of children who grew up with the books, learning a doctrine of love, kindness, and tolerance from its pages, are now adults trying to apply that doctrine to an increasingly complicated world: A recent study found that Harry Potter fans are far less likely to vote for Trump in the US presidential election. Teenage fans, meanwhile, thrive in a tech-infused, diverse reality that increasingly diverges from the one Rowling wrote.

Meanwhile, over the past several years, Rowling has begun actively and regularly expanding the HP universe through factoids on her Twitter account, new stories on the Pottermore website, the Fantastic Beasts films, and the new play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (written by Jack Thorne and directed by John Tiffany, who collaborated on the story). But this joyful return to the wizarding world doesn’t seem to have actually diversified or complicated it all that much — and the result is a growing gap between Rowling’s fans and her writing.

The latest rumble in this schism is the central relationship in The Cursed Child. The friendship between Harry’s son, Albus, and Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius, in the play has drawn much media commentary that’s minced few words in criticizing the way the script spends its time building evidence for a canonically queer relationship between the two boys, only to brutally yank it away at the end with a flimsy "No Homo" excuse. Daily Dot reporter Gavia Baker-Whitelaw used this logic to reject comparisons of the play to fanfiction, pointing out that if actual members of the Harry Potter fandom had written this story, Albus and Scorpius would have been queer and in love.

The fandom’s anger over Albus/Scorpius is especially potent right now because many fans have already spent years being angry at Rowling for her treatment of other queer characters in her books. At this point, the abundant straightness of the wizarding world is the most damning evidence of the Harry Potter universe’s failure to evolve.

Harry Potter fandom and the never-changing wizarding world

The recent focus on the queerness of Albus/Scorpius is part of a larger cultural shift in fandom toward nuanced representation and a desire for diverse characters and worldbuilding.

The online Harry Potter fandom — the transformative, critical, markedly progressive branch of the fandom — has spent years adapting Harry’s reality to be more like our own. This has taken many forms, including queering certain characters, expanding the universe through fanfiction and fan films, and, especially within the last two years, a fandom-wide shift among fan artists toward interpreting Harry and Hermione as people of color. This last reading has become so pervasive in fan art on Tumblr that in some communities, depictions of Harry as a person of color are almost as frequent as depictions of him as written in canon.

By contrast, in the last year alone, Rowling has endured backlash for her tone-deaf treatment of Native Americans in her new history of American magical society; for the notably all-white main cast of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the casting of a black woman as head of the American ministry of magic was announced and emphasized only after controversy arose within the fandom); and for attempting to, as many fans saw it, "take credit" for writing a black Hermione into canon despite explicitly describing Hermione as a white character multiple times in the books.

The thread linked above is a revealing one. Though there are plenty of unquestioning fans celebrating Rowling’s embrace of the concept of black Hermione, there are many more fans challenging her for what they view as a mix of hypocrisy and failed intentions. Again and again, HP fans aggressively reject Rowling’s attempts to position herself and her view of the HP world as a progressive one.

True, in 2014, Rowling revealed that at least one character — a minor, barely present Hogwarts student — was Jewish, and Fantastic Beasts promises at least one more. And true, we have gotten a black Hermione onstage in Cursed Child. But these gestures, independent of any indication that the wizarding world is diversifying as a whole, feel increasingly like tokenism.

What’s puzzling about all this is that Rowling has shown a willingness to deploy sharp and pointed social consciousness in her other fiction work, specifically the overlooked Cormoran Strike mystery novels written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, along with her novel The Casual Vacancy. Those books, which are written for adults, all contain diverse casts and scathing social commentary on everything from class issues to homelessness and homophobia.

Even more baffling on the subject of queer identity is that in a 2007 interview, Rowling herself made it clear she doesn’t think it’s a major issue to be gay in the wizarding world:

If we’re talking about prejudiced people within the wizarding world, what they care most about is your blood status. So I think you could be gay, pureblood, and totally without any kind of criticism from the Lucius Malfoys of the world. I don’t think that would be something that would interest him in the slightest. But, I can’t answer for all witches and wizards, because I think in matters of the heart, it would be directly parallel to our world.

To queer HP fans and allies, this logic is paradoxical: Rowling has paved the way for more queer characters and already knows it would make us happy. So why, almost a decade after the outing of Dumbledore, is the world of Harry Potter still, for all intents and purposes, 100 percent straight?

Albus/Scorpius and the heteronormative wheel of time

The central relationship of Cursed Child’s time-travel-heavy plot is the deep intimacy between Harry’s son Albus and his best friend Scorpius, the son of Harry’s rival, Draco Malfoy.

Albus/Scorpius has been a major fandom "ship," or theoretical romantic relationship, since Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows was released, and Thorne and Tiffany have filled their play’s script with references to their potentially queer relationship. In the play, the two boys are utterly devoted to each other. They exchange long, sensual hugs. They’re jealous of competing relationships and unwilling to be separated from one another.

When Scorpius sees Albus talking to a girl, the script informs us, "part of him likes it and part of him doesn’t." At one point, a character notably compares Scorpius’ love for Albus to the canonically romantic feelings that Snape had for Harry’s mother Lily, and Scorpius is emotionally informed, "You two belong together." It’s hard to read any of that as an endorsement of their platonic relationship.

Yet that’s exactly what we’re told all these moments mean. Throughout Cursed Child, sexual subtext hovers at the edges of Albus and Scorpius’ interactions, as they make awkward overtures into exploring their sexuality with girls. Again and again, the poorly written women of the play are used as shameless props for the giant, flashing "NO HOMO!" sign that the play hangs over the two boys’ heads. Albus and Scorpius’ interest in girls seems to be added as an afterthought, wedged in throughout the play in underdeveloped, unconvincing moments.

Rose Granger-Weasley, the daughter of Hermione and Ron, shows up throughout Cursed Child to deliver plot exposition and serve as a target for Scorpius’s romantic overtures. At the end, without any development of their relationship whatsoever, she finally responds semipositively to his failed attempts to ask her out. By itself, this is a troubling version of the "wear the girl down" trope; coupled with the play’s homoerotic subtext, it’s a train wreck.

In fandom, there’s a well-known term for this mechanism of dangling subtext in front of the audience and then withholding it in the text: queerbaiting. As a concept and in practice, queerbaiting is universally loathed by fans who want meaningful, well-developed, and happy queer relationships in their storytelling.

Queerbaiting is seen as an exploitative tactic used to draw in fans ("baiting" them), and then further marginalize them through textual denials of the subtext the narrative deliberately cultivated. This process usually plays out through serial media over time, rather than in a very long two-part play. But fans haven’t shrunk away from expressing their anger at what they viewed as deliberate queerbaiting within The Cursed Child.

Recently, the Guardianwhich, ironically, argued in 2007 that Dumbledore’s outing was shoddy lip-service to the issue of queer representation — took the polar opposite view toward Cursed Child. In response to fandom complaints of queerbaiting, Ilana Masad argued that fans’ anger was misplaced, and that allowing Albus and Scorpius to be straight male friends who shared deep, unrestrained intimacy was still a form of progress.

But Rowling’s wizarding world is already rife with intimate straight male friendships: Again and again, her plots turn on male camaraderie, male rivalry, and, often, betrayal among male friends. Harry and Ron have a deep and intimate friendship for seven books. What they don’t have is queer subtext: no repeated moments of charged physical contact, no repeated speeches of how much they love each other and can’t live without one another’s friendship, no instances where seeing their friend’s romantic interest in a girl inspires a rush of jealousy. In short, they have none of the specific homoerotic hallmarks of Albus and Scorpius’s relationship.

That’s not to say, however, that the Harry Potter series has no queer subtext at all. On the contrary, it has plenty.

Dumbledore and the curse of offscreen homosexuality

Though the outing of Dumbledore made many fans happy, plenty of criticism followed Rowling’s choice to out Dumbledore after the fact. (The seventh and, as far as we knew at the time, final installment of the series had been released several months before.)

Many fans felt that Rowling’s choice to wait until the series was over was too little, too late. By outing him after his death, Rowling effectively placed Dumbledore within the longstanding, problematic "dead gays" trope, instead of showing him living out his queer identity — or, even better, giving kids examples of queer characters Harry’s own age that they might be able to more effectively relate to than a 150-year-old sock-loving school principal.

Not only that, but outing Dumbledore outside of the books meant that there would be fans without access to the immediate news cycle who might never get the memo. To those fans, Dumbledore would never actually be representative of anything.

But to other fans, this not-quite-representation was nothing new. By the time Rowling outed Dumbledore in 2007, queer Harry Potter fans had already spent many years critiquing the books' queer subtext and lack thereof. In a 2007 documentary called J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life, Rowling responded in the negative to a fan’s question about whether Charlie Weasley was gay: "It’s just, he's more interested in dragons than women." Other subtextual readings of queer characters in the books throughout the years have included Percy and Ginny Weasley, Dean and Seamus, and, of course, Harry himself.

In general, fans who were already frustrated by the general lack of textual representation in the Potter books were also likely to be frustrated by Rowling’s treatment of Dumbledore. Fans have spent years noticing and calling out this absence. "If approximately 5-8% of people are LGBTQ, and there are approximately 900 characters in the series over all, that’s 45-72 characters," wrote one frustrated fan in 2012, "where are they?"

Remus, Tonks, and the erasure of queer subtext

By far, the most focal characters in these interrogations by queer fans have been Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Tonks the shapeshifter. In the books, Rowling used Lupin’s werewolf condition as a very deliberate metaphor for the HIV virus and the pervasive social stigma around AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s when she was writing the books. Many fans extrapolated from what was an obvious allegory in the books that Remus himself was a queer character.

The nature of Remus’s relationship with his longtime best friend Sirius seemed to lend itself to that reading. Fans famously celebrated the news that the pair had given Harry a joint Christmas present in the fourth book; what could be more symbolic of a gay partnership than giving their surrogate kid a present together?

For many years, the widespread assumption within the Harry Potter fandom was that Remus was a canonically queer character. (So pervasive was this belief that one early fanfiction archive that otherwise rejected a wide range of pairings allowed Remus/Sirius on the site because the moderators viewed it as canonical — that is, as a textually established element within the series.)

But this assumption wasn’t shared by Rowling herself. With the advent of book five, a complication came along in the form of Nymphadora Tonks, a shapeshifter whose spiky pink hair and punk aesthetic caused her to present as a butch lesbian to many fans. Add in her insistence on being called by her gender-neutral last name and her ability to change genders and appearance at will, and many fans saw her as a canonically genderqueer or genderfluid character.

Admittedly, these queer readings of Tonks and Remus were never made explicit anywhere in the text of the Harry Potter books. But queer fans have spent decades culling clues from the appearances, contexts, and subtexts of characters and stories in order to glean queer icons wherever they can get them. These intentional clues on the part of writers and actors arose within the context of Hollywood’s homophobic "celluloid closet," and became a subterranean practice of "coding" characters as queer.

It’s this decoding of plot and aesthetic clues that has allowed queer fans to read the intentionally deployed homoerotic subtext that makes up films like Ben Hur and Rebel Without a Cause. To queer fans familiar with this practice, it made complete sense that a clever writer like Rowling would insert subtextual clues to queer her kid-friendly books while avoiding outright controversy. And to those fans’ credit, that’s exactly what Rowling did do — she just did it for Dumbledore instead of Remus and Tonks.

Instead, Rowling took a totally different, discordant route: She had Remus and Tonks fall in love. By the end of the seventh book, Rowling had fit Remus and Tonks within a well-established pattern: They were married, with children, and had each apparently undergone a Total Hetero Makeover. Tonks, in particular, had become a softer, gentler, more gendered Tonks, letting Remus feminize her as "Dora," a name she’d previously hated, and pining away for Remus, growing physically ill with worry over his safety.

The outrage over this development among Remus/Sirius fans was deep and bitter (and often misogynistic), but many persisted in continuing to read Remus as bisexual, since there was nothing to indicate Remus hadn’t been in love with Sirius prior to his relationship with Tonks. But then, in 2013, after fans had spent years adapting Remus and Tonks as bisexual characters, Rowling denied even the possibility of Remus as queer. In a story published on Pottermore, she explained that before his relationship with Tonks, Remus had never been in love before.

Upon realizing that Rowling never intended Remus to be read as a queer character, many fans argued that she had knowingly exploited a major issue within the queer community without allowing for any actual queer representation in her books. In essence, many fans believed Rowling had taken the two queerest characters in the series, de-gayed them, and stuck them together in a child-producing heteronormative union.

J.K. Rowling and the warping of reality

Rowling’s world is one where it’s quite common to marry your school-days sweetheart at an early age and then stay married forever. Long-term marriages of this type abound in the HP world: In the books we see unions that formed early and permanently between many parents of the previous generation, including Harry’s parents and Ron’s parents. Plenty of students from Harry’s generation continue the pattern: Harry and Ron marry their school girlfriends soon after leaving school; Draco, Neville, and Luna all marry soon after leaving school and stay with their partners indefinitely. As far as we know, only three divorces exist in the entire universe, and these were all minor details gleaned from Pottermore rather than the books themselves.

In Cursed Child, Scorpius and Albus’s relationship is the textbook example of the kind of romance that gets cultivated at Hogwarts and then evolves into marriage after school. They’re primed to have a fairy-tale happy ending — or would be, if their relationship were the typical straight one.

Instead, fans are asked to accept that theirs is a fairy-tale friendship. But when there are no queer people anywhere in the entirety of the Harry Potter universe, there’s nothing progressive, or even particularly meaningful, about maintaining the status quo of straight relationships between two male characters. That one of those characters is named after Albus Dumbledore — thus far the only not-quite-canonically-gay character in the entire wizarding world — is the final dollop of irony.

It’s puzzling that despite this professed attitude of tolerance among wizards, Rowling, Thorne, and Tiffany didn’t immediately leap at the opportunity to create a game-changing queer romance between the Potter-Malfoy progeny.

One could argue that perhaps it just didn’t occur to any of them — and for an author less conscientious than Rowling, this might be a valid argument. But Rowling, who has continued to contribute new canonical material to the Harry Potter universe on her Pottermore website, clearly spends an enormous amount of time thinking about the wizarding world. If Rowling honestly hasn’t thought about how she could incorporate queer characters into the wizarding world’s ever-expanding future — well, why not?

This question isn’t just about Rowling's failure to consider queer romance in a single play. It’s a rhetorical indictment of Rowling’s consistent reluctance to allow her series to evolve in meaningful ways.

The Harry Potter franchise has established itself as a truly international phenomenon, touching fans across every possible cultural and ethnic background, of every possible gender and sexual orientation. But Harry’s story, and now the stories of Newt Scamander before him, and Albus Potter after him, are all stories about straight, cisgendered, European white men. In 2016, to many Harry Potter fans, that’s simply not an acceptable view of the wizarding world.

At one point in Cursed Child, Hermione explains that since the defeat of Voldemort in 1998, the wizarding world has enjoyed 22 years of peace and prosperity, with virtually no conflict. This pronouncement comes despite Rowling’s final book leaving the community dealing with the fallout from a genocidal war, tensions between multiple factions of wizards and Muggles, and numerous groups of magical creatures.

To brush all of that aside with no attempt at reconciling any of these conflicts feels willfully naive on the part of the Cursed Child writers. For fans attempting to place the Harry Potter universe within the larger context of the geopolitical tensions of our own Muggle world during the last two decades, it seems almost bafflingly at odds with reality. And Harry Potter fans are at the front lines of a culture shift among geeks who insist that the genres of fantasy of sci-fi should, at a bare minimum, be reflective of reality.

Ironically, many Harry Potter fans learned how to critique, challenge, and reject outworn and dated storytelling narratives because of this series that they themselves are now critiquing and challenging. But the real message fans are sending through their criticisms is that when the wizarding world won’t change to reflect the increasingly diverse world we live in, they feel increasingly disconnected from a world they once passionately loved. Their rebuttals of Rowling don’t bear the signatures of entitled fans thinking they know better than the creator, but rather the hopes of fans trying hard not to outgrow their first, best love.

Still, the one good thing about Rowling’s continued interest in the Harry Potter universe is that more canonical updates mean more chances to inject some nuance into her literary world. At the very least, the love that keeps Rowling perpetually returning to her magical world is the same love that keeps fans pressuring her to make it better.

And as the Harry Potter series tells us: Where there’s love, there’s always hope.

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