Queering Harry Potter




T

he
publication of


Harry
Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

this summer marks another
media triumph for author J.K. Rowling and her boy wizard. More than
200 million copies of the first four Potter titles are already in
circulation and 8.5 million copies from

Order of the Phoenix’s

first print run (5 million of which sold the first day) are now
being shipped in the U.S. alone. At that rate, there could be 300
million Potter books in circulation quicker than a Nimbus 2003 broom
at a championship Quidditch game. With the Potter movies—and
myriad spin-off products such as Quidditch rule books, talking hats,
flying brooms, board games, action figures, and magician robes—the
Potter madness that began shortly after the first book was published
in 1997 shows no signs of abating. Even the Vatican, which generally
stays above the fray of popular culture, went out of its way to
praise the Potter books. A Vatican spokesperson claimed, “They
help children to see the difference between good and evil.” 


Everybody,
it seems, loves Harry—except for a growing number of evangelical
Christian groups, including individual congregations and national
publications. As the series success has grown over the past five
years, so has the fury of these evangelicals, who think Potter’s
popularity poses a decisive threat to children. The Harry Potter
books, they argue, glorify sorcery, celebrate the occult, and encourage
witchcraft—all of which turns impressionable children away
from true salvation through Jesus Christ. Focus on the Family’s
publication

Citizen: Family Issues in Policy and Culture

has run several articles decrying the Potter books, most notably
John Andrew Murray’s “The Trouble with Harry” in
June 2000. Baptist.org, “the homepage for all Baptists,”
was more strident in a two-part August 27, 2001, article titled
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Why It Is Truly
Satanic.” Even the more mainstream

Christianity Today

ran a piece in its October 26, 2000 issue called “The Perils
of Harry Potter” and

Christian Parenting


Today

,
in its September/October 2000 issue, claimed that Harry was “pure
evil.” Many of these groups also sell their own anti-Potter
books. Ankerberg Theological Research Institute sells a videotape
featuring founder and president John Ankerberg titled

What Christian
Parents Should Know About Harry Potter

and will send you articles
like “Bewitched by Harry Potter” for a small donation. 


These
evangelicals have continued the offensive by demanding that schools
and public libraries remove the Potter books from their shelves.
They have been implicated in several high-profile legal cases, the
most recent resolved on April 23 when a state judge ruled that Arkansas’
Cedarville School District had to put the books back into general
circulation after sequestering them on a special “parental
permission” shelf. Even more frightening, the Potter books
have been publicly burned on at least a dozen occasions. On March
26, 2002, the Reverend George Bender of the Harvest Assembly of
God Church in Butler County, Pennsylvania, received national attention
when he gathered his congregation around a bonfire to burn copies
of the Rowling books. The campaign against the Potter series is
so persistent that the American Library Association’s anti-censorship
task force reports that for the past four years—1999 to 2002—there
were more attempts to ban Potter books from libraries than to ban
any other title or author. 


That
may sound ridiculous to most, but for the first time in its public-moralizing
career, the Christian Right just might be—at least partly—right.
The Harry Potter books are a threat to normally accepted ideas about
the social welfare and good mental health of American children.
Not because they romanticize witchcraft and wizardry, but because
they are subversive in their unremitting attacks on the received
wisdom that being “normal” is good, reasonable, and even
healthy. 


The
Harry Potter books are, in a word, queer. As used today, “queer”
means “homosexual,” but it has larger connotations too.
The word also suggests a more generally deviant, nonconformist,
renegade identity. In its oldest, original sense, queer means “deviating
from the expected or normal; strange” or “odd or unconventional
in behavior.” 


When
the series begins, we find orphaned Harry trapped in a house with
his aunt Petunia, uncle Vernon, and cousin Dudley, none of whom
loves or understands him. He is grappling with feelings and physical
reactions he doesn’t understand, which he and others find frightening.
Harry is different and condemned to live in the world of normal
people. As Rowling puts it, Harry’s relatives—the Dursleys—
are emphatically normal: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four,
Privet Lane, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank
you very much.” The Dursleys wear their normality as a badge,
but they wear it defensively, for although they “had everything
they wanted…they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was
that somebody would discover it.” The secret is that Harry
is the son of Mrs. Dursley’s late sister, Lily, and her husband,
James, an extraordinarily talented witch and wizard couple, and
is, indeed, a wizard himself. The Dursleys are terrified of the
non-normal, the queer, and the magical. In the witch-wizard world,
non-magic people are called Muggles—an evocative word that
summons images of those who are unimaginative, dull, ordinary, repressive,
afraid, and blind to the endless possibilities of the world—
people rather like the evangelical Christians now trying to censor
the Potter books. 


So
much of the basic Potter plot is identical to the traditional coming-out
story. Harry’s differentness makes him an outcast in his own
family. He is physically, emotionally, and mentally mistreated by
the Dursleys. Their cruelty is calculated and dangerous. He is,
in essence, repeatedly queer-bashed by them. As in so many coming-out
stories, Harry is confused by his secret desires (although here
they are driven by secret powers such as telekinesis and the ability
to talk to snakes). Harry begins to understand when his true nature
is explained to him by Hagrid—the trusty Keeper of the Keys
at Hogwarts, the world’s most important school of magic, and
a close friend of Harry’s parents—who explodes in anger
when he discovers that the Dursleys have done everything in their
power to keep this information from Harry. As Hagrid says with righteous
fury, “It’s an outrage. It’s a scandal. Harry Potter
not know his own story….” 


Rowling
has never stated or even implied that the Potter books are gay allegory,
but her language and story effortlessly lend themselves to such
a reading. In the first book, Mr. Dursley keeps noting that wizards
and witches dress in purple, violet, and green clothing—all
colors associated with homosexuality (green being the color no one
wore to school on Thursday; purple and violet being variants of
lavender). More tellingly, the language Rowling has the Dursleys
use to discuss Harry’s mother and her wizard husband, referring
to “her crowd” and to “their kind,” mirrors
that often used to invoke homosexuality. Once Harry discovers the
nature of his difference, the Dursleys demand complete silence and
total concealment. In

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

,
the second volume of the series, Harry is continually reprimanded
for his use of the “M” word (magic). His uncle—a
petty, mostly ineffectual tyrant who lives in fear of any deviation
from the norm—explodes: “I warned you. I will not tolerate
mention of your abnormality under this roof.” 


Sure,
all this may seem like “reading into” the novels—which
is, after all, what literary criticism does. But what are we to
make of the fact that Harry, before he learns of his true identity,
is forced to live in a closet? Or that before he learns of his acceptance
to Hogwarts, he is preparing to go to Stonewall High School? 


In

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

, Rowling seems
to play more openly with a gay reading of the books. During an argument
with Harry, the obnoxious Dudley mentions that his cousin spoke
in his sleep about someone named Cedric, lashing out, “Who’s
Cedric—your boyfriend?” In the ensuing argument, Dudley
seems to have a homosexual panic attack when Harry takes out his
wand: “Don’t point that thing at me,” he says repeatedly.
Much has already been written about Harry’s physical and psychological
maturation in

Order of the Phoenix

and, consistent with that
change, the young wizard’s wand is also described in more phallic
terms. When a high-ranking witch discovers that Harry can produce
a fully formed, corporeal creature (a Patronus) from his wand, not
just “vapor and smoke,” she is amazed: “Impressive…a
true Patronus at that age…very impressive indeed.” As Harry
gets older and the subject of sexuality becomes unavoidable, it
will be interesting to see where Rowling goes with it. 


Even
more intriguing is how Rowling has structured the double world in
the Potter books. Since the world of wizardry scares non-magic normal
people, it must be kept a secret. But secret-keeping goes both ways.
Witches and wizards know that, for their own safety, they must remain
secret—closeted—as well. As a result, the world of magic
surrounds Muggles, but they are unable to see it. Often in the Potter
books, little glints of magic life— flocks of owls, too many
shooting stars—are noticed by Muggles but, by and large, they
are unable to interpret or understand them. Sometimes they have
an inkling of another reality. As Hogwarts professor McGonagall
notes in

Chamber of Secrets

, “Well, they’re not
completely stupid”—yet for the most part they are clueless. 


The
interplay between the world of magic and the world of Muggles in
the Potter books is identical to how queer historians and sociologists
describe the interplay between the closeted gay world and the mainstream
world, particularly in the days before the gay-liberation movement.
Homosexuals were everywhere, yet heterosexuals usually could not
see them. Gay bars looked just like straight bars from the outside.
Gay people invented elaborate codes, often in language, dress, and
deportment, so they could recognize one another but not be seen
as abnormal by the heterosexual—Muggle—world. In his book

Gay New York

, historian George Chauncey writes of the “invisible
map” that exists in all cities, which enables queers to find
fellow travelers and assembling places: people and places usually
invisible to the unknowing heterosexual. This is precisely the situation
in the Potter books, where Hogwarts, Diagon Alley (where the magic
shops are), 12 Grimmauld Place (the meeting place of

Order of
the Phoenix

), Azkaban Fortress, and even magical buses and trains
that run out of major terminals exist in the middle of large cosmopolitan
cities and yet remain invisible to Muggles. 


It
would be lousy literary criticism to claim that the Potter books
are “gay”; they can obviously be read in myriad ways.
But they are profoundly queer in the broader sense of the word.
They are—with their flagrant, loving, and complicated celebration
of magic and the unusual—an embodiment of the medieval idea
of Misrule. The concept of Misrule runs throughout all Western civilization,
and means something like “the world turned upside down,”
a phrase used by the prophet Isaiah in the King James translation
of the Hebrew

Bible

. It implies that the world has gone mad,
topsy-turvy: left becomes right, night becomes day, sin becomes
salvation, male becomes female, and abnormal becomes normal. Misrule
threatens when traditional values are turned on their heads, whether
it involves men wearing their hair long in the 1960s, women demanding
to be treated the same as men, and, most pertinent today, gay people
demanding the right to marry. 


In
the Middle Ages, some holidays were clearly marked out for Misrule—usually
around Christmas—during which gender roles were sometimes reversed,
sexual license was permitted, nobles served dinner to peasants,
and the Lord of Misrule, usually portrayed as a fool, was crowned
king. These holidays survive in some form today—think of Mardi
Gras. They have always been contained and regulated, however, for
the fear of real Misrule is indeed great. 


The
Harry Potter books play with the idea of Misrule. Magic reverses
what we consider normal. Portraits talk, mythical animals live,
cars fly, enchantment spells work, talking hats make decisions for
us: it is the world turned upside down. It is not surprising that
medieval enactments of Misrule often broke down regulated sexual
behavior and gender roles: controlling the most intimate aspects
of life, such laws of “civilized” conduct were the most
pervasively mandated. In these reversals, men didn’t have to
act like “men,” women didn’t have to act like “women,”
and sex was for love and pleasure, not for reproduction. This is
a nightmare for Muggles, for as frightening as Misrule is, it also
offers an excitingly seductive break from the humdrum reality of
everyday life and the enforced regulation we are told is necessary
to sustain civilization. 


The
Potter books celebrate a revolt against accepted, conventional life—against
the world of the Muggles, who slavishly follow societal rules without
ever thinking about whether they are right or wrong, if they make
sense or not. They are at heart an attack on the very idea of normalcy.
When we read these books, with whom do we identify? Harry and his
friends at Hogwarts? Or the dim-witted, violence-prone Dursleys
and their fellow Muggles? The Harry Potter books tell children that
being normal is dull, unexciting, unimaginative, and deadening. 


Children,
before they are completely socialized, have vibrant imaginations
and often a very finely tuned sense of alternative possibilities.
They have to be taught how to become “civilized.” Socialization
involves mastering table manners and politeness, but it also concerns
learning how to conform to the world’s most terrible ways.
Children have to learn racism—to hate or fear certain people
because of how they look; they have to be taught that work is far
more important than play and that pleasure is always suspect; they
have to be taught that there is only one correct way to worship
God and everyone else is going to hell; they have to learn that
heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of sexual behavior,
and that some forms of sexual pleasure are wrong. They are taught
to be normal—whatever that may mean—within the terms of
the prevailing culture. They are taught to be Muggles. Is it any
wonder evangelical Christians find the Harry Potter books threatening? 


Actually,
the real question is, why do so many people think the Harry Potter
books are good for children? The answer surely has something to
do with the sad fact that—to a large degree—children and
their interests are not taken all that seriously in our culture.
In a world where many parents regard television as a babysitter
and video games (except for the extremely violent ones) as useful
ways for kids to pass time, reading Harry Potter looks downright
cultured. But just what are they reading? The irony is that Rowling
often displays a fairly sophisticated political sense, yet her views
are lost on most parents. One of the themes running through all
the Potter books, which comes into full flower in

Harry Potter
and the Order of the Phoenix

, is a clear attack on racial purity.
Some wizards believe that only full-blooded wizards should have
power and refer to wizards without an impeccable “blood”
lineage as “mudbloods.” Yet you hardly ever read popular
commentary on the Potter series that discusses their race politics,
just as  Christian critics can’t see beyond a myopic vision
of sorcery promotion. 


The
question raised by the evangelical attack on the Harry Potter books
is this: do we dismiss their complaints as yet another example of
right-wing craziness or do we invest the time, the thought, and
the empathy to listen to what they are saying? Obviously, banning
the Harry Potter books is absurd and wrong. But the anti-Potter
frenzy might prompt us to examine the deeper, more serious reasons
why children love these books and the complicated and disruptive
precepts on which they are based. If Harry Potter presents children—and
the rest of us—with a tantalizing vision of Misrule and the
world turned upside down, let’s try to understand why we don’t
like parts of the world in which we live now. If we don’t want
to be Muggles—at least not all the time—maybe being queer,
in the broadest sense, might be a lot more fun. This means reconceiving
the very structures of what we call society, civilization, and freedom. 



 





Michael Bronski’s
lastest book is



Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age
of Gay Male Pulps.