I was asked to write a piece for a newly launching website on Harry Potter and its relation to a particular branch of literary theory. This is what I came up with.
If discussing homosexuality and queer theory in relation to a cult text is risky at the best of times, it becomes downright dangerous when talking about Harry Potter. When JK Rowling announced that Albus Dumbledore was gay the reaction varied hugely, from support all the way through to disgust. The acknowledgement had huge ramifications for those with any interest in Harry Potter and (queer) literary theory – it confirmed that homosexuality is not only something that exists in the world of the novels, but is something that was part of one of its central characters without any of us ever realising. It’s worth highlighting now that this essay does not aim to have a hard conclusion – in it, I will explore Remus Lupin and Sirius Black as manifestations of the male homosexual figure, but in no way do I plan to ‘prove’ that either character is gay.
“Please, sir. An animagus is a wizard who elects to turn into an animal. A werewolf has no choice in the matter.” Immediately, a distinction is drawn between the two men in that Sirius has control over his transformation and Remus doesn’t. There are a several reasons why I began to consider the transformation process as a metaphor for homosexuality, but the following are particularly key in my mind. The first is the fact that werewolves are tied to the moon – this is feminising in that the lunar cycle and the menstrual cycle have long been associated. For a long time, gay men were viewed as being inherently feminine and it’s difficult to shake this historical association. Another is that David Thewlis, who portrayed Lupin in the Harry Potter films, recently revealed that Alfonso Cuaron (director of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) advised that Thewlis play Lupin as a ‘gay junkie’. As soon as allusions to homosexuality and drugs are made, it becomes difficult not to read wolf-Lupin’s scrawny body complete with patches of hair missing as reminiscent of the bodies of gay AIDS victims that were splashed across the mass media in the late twentieth century.
Because so much significance is placed on the fact that Lily and Severus have the same patronus, I find it difficult not to read into the fact that Lupin and Black transform into the same type of animal. Admittedly, they change via a different method and into a slightly different biological family, but the similarity is still interesting. Although Sirius is a bold, confident character, he also dresses like (and shares a moustache with…) Freddie Mercury – with all that velvet, he can come across as a little camp. And just like Lupin, who is ostracised and forced to resign from his job because of the stigma that comes with his condition, Black is cut out of his own family because he doesn’t (wait for it…) share their beliefs about whom it is appropriate to mate with.
Just as Lupin and Black represent different manifestations of the canine form, they can also represent different manifestations of the gay male body. While Lupin’s ‘condition’ is torturous and uncontrollable, Black’s is controlled and, to some extent, enjoyable – Sirius remarks that ‘James suggested making the change permanent. The tail I can live with, but the fleas – they’re murder.’ In this regard, Sirius represents a new breed (excuse the pun) of gay man – his confidence and ease contrast sharply with Lupin’s self-loathing. While I’m tempted to read this as being evident of a temporal shift (with Lupin representing the closeted, victimised, pre-1980s homosexual figure and Sirius as the post-1980s gay man, more widely accepted by society), this issue is complicated by the fact that Sirius is wrongfully imprisoned in Azkaban. However, there is still some mileage in the argument that the two men represent shifts in the perceptions of homosexuality. Lupin voluntarily discharges himself of his post at Hogwarts because he knows that the parents will not accept him, something altogether different from Black’s imprisonment. While Lupin’s actions are self-imposed and are the result of intolerance, Black’s destiny is forced on him by society because of fear.
Although the fact that Nymphadora Tonks marries Lupin and fathers his child complicates a queer reading of Lupin this can be countered by the fact that Tonks is a metamorphagus – if she can turn into a pig and a duck, surely she could also turn into a man. Someone also pointed out to me that the Remus/Tonks relationship might be a nod to the dynamics of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – neither Lupin nor Tonks can be with Sirius, so they displace their feelings of desire onto each other to be closer to him. However, as I said at the outset of this piece, I never intended to ‘prove’ that Lupin and Black are gay. I’ve always found queer readings of both men to be frustrating in while they are compelling, they will always be inconclusive. Both men meet with violent ends, as does Dumbledore after his relationship with Grindelwald (something hinted at by JK Rowling but never really made clear). It’s tempting to read this as a warning against homosexual behaviour, but it’s probably worth remembering that plenty of straight characters die too.
For me, the most compelling point that emerges from this discussion is the reading of Black and Lupin that it facilitates – both men are loving father/uncle figures to Harry, are kind to their friends and are unwaveringly courageous. Their ‘conditions’ don’t change any of that. Not even a little bit.