Harry Potter and the Importance of Representation

Allie George expounds on the ever-arising issue of being LGBTQIA+ at Hogwarts.

The Harry Potter series are, arguably, the defining literature of the childhood of Western Millennials. Rowling has, however, come under considerable criticism for a lack of diversity in many areas – pertinently, LGBTQIA+ representation. None of the seven tomes make any overt references to any of the characters being anything other than cisgender and heterosexual. Rowling has since declared Dumbledore to be gay – though his sexuality exists only as a ‘word of God’, with no evidence in the text that readers can determine for themselves.

And whilst people might argue that we occupy the same understanding of Harry – who is admittedly a tad oblivious – and why exactly would Dumbledore come out to Harry, we must remember two things: firstly, this is fiction – an incredibly carefully controlled world created by Rowling and thus, any choices are not down to Dumbledore and Harry, but Rowling. Secondly, we must note the plethora of revelations of other characters’ sexualities; namely, their other-gender attractions. Clearly, there is ample opportunity, not least in Rita Skeeter, a journalist who takes an almost Richard Littlejohn-esque delight in outing others.

Understandably, Rowling’s declaration that Hogwarts is ‘of course’ a safe space for LGBTQIA+ students has angered many. Hashtags such as #TransatHogwarts show the gaps in Rowling’s world-building, as well as the potential benefits the wizarding world might have for transgender students.

Young LGBTQIA+ fans – and their supporters – have, after all,  found ample opportunity for headcanons about a range of characters. It’s not such a stretch to imagine an alternate Harry Potter universe in which Harry and Ron end up together; Luna, with her open-minded acceptance and refutal of societal constrictions, is often considered to be agender; Charlie is often regarded as asexual – even Rowling confirms that he is ‘more interested in dragons than women’; fans discuss Ginny as a trans woman being allowed up the stairs to the girls’ dormitory (which turn into a slide when boys set foot upon them), with a delighted Mrs Weasley declaring she has always wanted a daughter.

But for many, the most notable error in representation is Remus Lupin. Rowling has confirmed that “Lupin’s condition of lycanthropy (being a werewolf) was a metaphor for those illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDs.” There is, unsurprisingly, anger from LGBTQIA+ communities that Rowling still makes no allusion to LGBTQIA+ identities, nor examines the link between the stigma of being LGBTQIA+ and the stigma of being HIV positive. The disease’s early discovery was among groups of gay men, and was known as “the gay plague,” an attitude which meant that HIV and AIDS were widely ignored by the government.

“The wizarding community is as prone to hysteria and prejudice as the Muggle one,” remarks Rowling, and Lupin’s treatment at the hands of other wizards highlights this: the wilful ignorance from the wizarding government mimics the denial of medical research (and thus treatment) is shown via Wolfsbane potion – which represents the drugs used to suppress AIDS – allows Lupin to avoid a violent transformation, and yet the potion is time-consuming and complex to make. As it is not widely available through St Mungo’s, Lupin is left reliant on Severus Snape – the very man who ultimately outs him. Furthermore, Lupin is denied job security – even at Hogwarts, his job is only secure whilst his condition is secret; once outed, despite producing results even Wiltshaw couldn’t scorn, he is forced to leave.

Lupin is, then, the “good” werewolf; attacked as a child, he does not deserve his condition or his suffering. He shuns the company of other werewolves until he is forced to spy on them for ‘the  greater good’. And what little discussion there is of other werewolves, however, is alarming when we pursue the ‘werewolves as HIV positive’ metaphor. Even if we accept Lupin as not being part of the LGBTQIA+ community (which many do not, as will be discussed later), we simply cannot  refute the probability that a significant proportion others will be. And yet their characterisations are, at best, unsavoury: willfully shunning society (with little exploration of how society has shunned them) and literally animalistic: Lupin’s biggest fear, as shown by a boggart in The Prisoner of Azkaban, is the full moon – converting without the aid of Wolfsbane potion. When he does convert in such a fashion, our plucky heroic trio is placed at considerable risk: as readers, our concern is almost never directed at the plight of werewolves, but towards the suffering they can cause to ‘innocents’. Perhaps tying into one of the more malicious notions about LGBTQIA+ people is Fenrir Greyback, the werewolf who attacks maliciously, targeting children exclusively.

But in creating the HIV/AIDS-lycanthropy metaphor, Rowling unwittingly formed the backbone of one of the most popular ‘ships’ (non-canonic relationships) in the Harry Potter fandom: Sirius and Remus.

Rowling’s generational parallels are clear: the Marauders clearly represent the golden trio – with Neville Longbottom tagging on for good measure. Harry’s stag patronus alone reflects how he is meant to be the next-gen James ‘Prongs’ Potter, though we are further assured of this by his prowess at Quiddich and his scruffy hair. Lupin, as the calmest, most intellectual Marauder is the predecessor to Hermione; further parallels can be drawn when we examine their roles as members of oppressed groups (Hermione as a Muggle-born witch is canonically a target of racism, and is often depicted by the fandom as a woman of colour). Sirius then, is Ron: a little hot-tempered, sometimes cruel in his humour, and deeply, fiercely loyal.

Like their later counterparts, the differences between the two characters are stark – to the point where Lupin would eventually beg their friends not to trust Sirius as secret-keeper, (incorrectly) believing him to have followed his family’s dark footsteps. And yet, like Ron and Hermione, the surface differences ultimately cannot hide their underlying shared values. Rowling rather drives this home: the canine similarities – one wolf, one dog, not only in their transfigured forms but in name (no happy accident: names in Harry Potter typically have great significance, and Rowling admits to having spent much of her Classics and French degree reading Dickens instead) – serves to underscore this point.

Their shared histories also lend a sense of permanency to the relationship often lacking in LGBTQIA+ YA stories. ‘Shipping’ of these characters tends to exist in two timeframes: pre-Harry, either when the men were students at Hogwarts themselves or just after – before things soured to the point that Lupin believed his ex-boyfriend to have become a Death Eater. Later imaginings take place in the universe readers know, after Sirius’ escape – the world in which the two men are shunned by society and take solace in one another; the world in which they send Harry a joint Christmas present. This endurance is key in refuting ‘it’s just a phase’ rebuffals. And this is even more crucial in The Half Blood Prince, when Lupin becomes canonically involved with Tonks.

For some, this mixed-gender relationship spelled the end of the Sirius/Lupin, more so than Sirius’ death ever could. Others argued that the grief-stricken Lupin used Tonks as a decoy – a ‘beard – possibly drawn to her due to her similarities to her deceased cousin. But neither part of the history – implied or canon – needs be erased: reading Lupin as bi allows for both relationships to be considered valid.