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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.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
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MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
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SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.