In 2007, J. K. Rowling revealed in a speech that Dumbledore was gay. While this news was greeted with everything from celebration to condemnation, I was saddened by the notion of an opportunity lost. Rowling’s sly wink toward inclusion bothers me more than the fact that she kept Dumbledore closeted. In any case, since Dumbledore stayed in the closet, kids both queer and straight didn’t get to see his complicated, positive, and fully realized character. Somebody decided that Dumbledore’s coming out just wasn’t worth it.
It is now 2014, and I am amazed by gains the queer movement has made. As an educator, it moves me to see books that embrace and celebrate the existence of queer families. I marvel at the proliferation of gay YA lit and coming out stories written and posted online. However, I have questions that may be difficult to answer and that point toward a larger discomfort we have in imagining queer youth. The “Dumbledore Question” persists.
Where are the books for middle-grade readers? What happens to queer representation in books between preK readers and YA? Where are representations of their reality?
These aren’t esoteric questions. The average age for coming out has dropped from 25 to 16 in the last twenty years. One need only read some of the New York Times’s stories about coming out—such as “Coming Out in Middle School,” “Coming Out,” and “‘Coming Out:’ Gay Teenagers in Their Own Words”— to hear true stories of trailblazing young individuals and their allies.
Note that “coming out” represents a public expression of queerness, not a personal awareness of one’s attractions. That occurs much, much earlier. The fact that kids are coming out younger reflects their courage and desire to live authentic lives. I wish more fictional protagonists were as brave. If Dumbledore can’t come out to his readers, who can?
As I write this, I am aware of a number of books with positive queer role models. One of my favorites is A. C. E Bauer’s No Castles Here (Random House, 2007). However, for the sake of pushing this conversation forward, I am talking Dumbledore levels of involvement. Major protagonist, positive model of possibility, widely distributed book for kids between second and sixth grade.
Consider these well-worn story elements. A third-grade boy has a crush on the kid down the block. A fifth-grade girl daydreams about marrying her favorite pop star. These narratives become educational hot potatoes when the interactions are of the same gender.
On the flip side, pop culture is saturated with crushes, boy-girl dynamics, and other training-wheels models of heterosexuality. I often encourage students to play a game of “flip it” to help expose natural-seeming social constructs. Suddenly, the dutiful husband/father stays at home while the wife fights a zombie outbreak. Black cops confront a drug dealer in a dangerous white neighborhood, and a straight couple wonders if it is safe to walk through a queer neighborhood while holding hands.
We become so accustomed to our own cultural biases that we have to look at their inverse to reveal them. I like to tell my students, “It’s hard to be what you don’t see.” Hard, because you have to recognize that an absence exists. Hard, in that you may equate a lack of representation with lack of value. The argument over whether or not one character should be queer masks a reality that everyone else is straight.
The struggle for bookshelf inclusion has been tough for queer youth. Historically, cultural anxieties regarding the corruptive influence of adult queerness left kids without positive role models. Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree (Scribner, 2012), calls this a “horizontal identity.” Unlike other forms of inherited or passed-down diversity, such as racial characteristics or religious beliefs, horizontal identity does not have an immediate reference for information, comfort, and affirmation.
For example, I had my parents to guide me through nasty incidents of anti-Semitism, but I didn’t have the same network for my queerness. In general, queer kids may not have the support of their families or communities. And while I appreciate that more books are being published about ballerina boys and wrestling girls, we have to be careful not to equate these stories with those of queer youth. Our mixtures of masculinity and femininity are independent of our attractions, jobs, and interests. However, perceived gender “rules” can keep straight guy who loves ballet and the queer Nascar driver in their respective closets.
I wish Dumbledore could have been a model of possibility for queer and questioning youth. Time will tell. But fortunately, I think that time is coming soon.
Adam Shecter is a technology teacher at Allen-Stevenson School, a K-9 boy’s school in New York City. He is also a member of the school’s Community Life + Diversity team. Adam dedicates this article to the memory of his grandfather, Albert “Sunshine” Schwartz.