Leaky Interview with GLAAD (The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation)
Oct 24, 2007
Since Friday evening’s revelation that Prof. Dumbledore is gay, we’ve seen a lot of confused and oftentimes hurtful response and commentary on the topic. So, we called up GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, an organization that works specifically with the representation of gay characters and people in media, to help clarify some of the issues and talk about what this fact about Dumbledore means for our culture. A transcript of our interview with Sean Lund, the organization’s director of Messaging and Communication Srategy, follows.
(Please again be reminded that debate is welcome but disrespectful, name-calling, hateful comments are being routinely deleted.)
The Leaky Cauldron: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us. Can you tell us more about GLAAD and what you do?
Sean Lund: GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, is an organization that has at its core the fundamental understanding that words and images matter, that what people see in the media has a really important impact on how they view the people in the world around them and how they treat the people in the world around them.
I think we have a really great opportunity here to have a longer discussion about Prof. Dumbledore, about the characteristics and the qualiites that he embodies and to talk about the fact that one of the most beloved people in the Harry Potter series is gay.
TLC: What’s the reaction been like for you?
SL: Most of the reaction that we’ve been hearing from folks as we’ve been talking about it with various media outlets has been very positive. We’ve seen, as I’m sure a number of your readers have, some of the message boards at The Leaky Cauldron and elsewhere that have been largely very supportive of J.K. Rowling’s decision. There have been some of those who have seized on the opporutnity that the conversation provides to engage in some stereotypes and some slightly unkind behavior, but overall I think the conversation has been positive.
TLC: What do you think is the most important thing to urge people to remember as they are dealing with this revelation?
SL: I think it’s important to remember that Prof. Dumbledore is exactly the same wise, loyal, kind character that those of us who have been reading the books have always known. He still embodies generosity and integrity and courage and the importance of protecting others. Just because he happens to be gay doesn’t make him better and doesn’t make him worse. It’s just one of the parts of who that character is, which his exactly what being gay is in the real world: it’s just a part of what makes each of us unique and each of us different.
TLC: One of the things we’re noticing is that there are some real misconceptions out there about what it means when you say that somebody is gay. There is a bias toward, an unfortunate assumption that gay means other things, such as child molestation and pedophile. Is this common?
SL: I think any time you’re dealing with the misconceptions and myths and stereotypes about gay people you tend to be coming from a place of ignorance or more commonly fear about what it is like to be gay. I think one of the most important messages of the Harry Potter books is how fear, whether it’s fear of what’s different, whether it’s fear of losing power, whether it’s fear of change, can lead people to do and say things that are at best unkind and at worst sometimes even dangerous.
Some of the comments that we’ve seen about Prof. Dumbledore and some of the other comments that we’ve seen over the past several days relating to this story have kind of crept into those areas of stereotypes and misconceptions, and I think that the really valuable thing that folks like you and other folks that are really Harry Potter fans and other folks in the media are doing, is really raising the level of conversation so that those stereotypes and myths aren’t allowed to go unchallenged.
TLC: Can you remember a recent time when another fictional character has been revealed as gay that has had this kind of impact?
SL: I think that probably the one that springs to mind most readily is the character of Willow on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” back, I think it was probably about six years or so ago now when [the show’s creator,] Joss Whedon, who revealed in a very gradual way and in a way incredibly authentic for that character that she was gay and introduced her girlfriend Tara, and the two of them became a really wonderful couple on that show. That was a really perfect exmaple of how to do this sort of storytelling and how to create these characters right. When you take a look at how the audience reacted to that, there was such an investment in those characters and in that relationship. The Willow and Tara relationship became in some ways the moral center of that show.
I think very much with how J.K. Rowling has brought Dumbledore out, I think that sort of quality of maintaining the authenticity and maintaining the truth of the character really goes a long way in terms of making sure people stay invested in those characters, and in fact that people could keep even more invested and feel like they have additional points of identification with those characters.
TLC: The Willow comparison also touches on something else – we’ve been getting a little backlash from gay people as well, who complain that it’s yet another gay character killed or was lonely (Tara, Willow’s girlfriend is shot in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). Is this a common theme in gay culture as represented in the media?
SL: I think that we have definitely seen some of that criticism and I tend to think about the fact that for many people who have read these books since the very beginning – I happened to come in around the time book three was published – for many readers who are coming into these stories now, they are coming into a series of books where the character of Dumbledore will always have been known to be gay. There are other people who just finished the series with the release of Deathly Hallows who are now able to go back as readers have been doing since the books came out, and go back into the stories and view the characters through this new revelations that have been in the new book or in J.K. Rowling’s recent interviews and really come to a deeper and richer understanding of these characters.
J.K. Rowling’s revelations, could they possibly have happened in the books? I’m not sure, you’d have to ask her. What you’ll see is that she set the stage for all readers of these books, be they those who have already finished them and those who have yet to pick up even the first book, to have a deeper and richer interaction with these characters.
TLC: This is the largest, most popular fantasy series of all time, this is a huge and respected character. To make not just any character but Dumbledore, the kind brilliant professor, Dumbledore, gay – is there any way to quantify what this means to the way that gay people have been portrayed in the media or accepted in culture?
SL: At the heart of GLAAD’s initiative is a very simple idea, that words and images matter, and I think the idea that J.K. Rowling would reveal that Prof. Dumbledore is gay sends a tremendously important message. It sends a message that heroes and people who we respect, and people that we look up to, come in all different shapes and sizes. And I think for the readers of the books, for the people who will see the movies in the future, I think that’s a tremendously important message for them to carry forward.
TLC: Some parents are dealing now with children who are confused about what it is to be gay, and there are children confused because they are taught that it’s bad, and they don’t want to believe their parents who say that it’s bad. What do you suggest parents do, and what do you suggest children whose parents aren’t willing to talk to them, do to understand what this means?
SL: I think a lot of that ties back to what we were talking about earlier, which is that a lot of these stereotypes and myths and misconceptions about gay people really are borne out of a lack of knowledge and more specifically a fear of things that are different and people that are different. I think that when you look back at the Harry Potter books, one of J.K. Rowlng’s most important themes is about treating people with dignity and respect.
I think one of the most important themes of the Harry Potter books is J.K. Rowling’s message about making sure that we treat all people, whether they are the same as us, or whether they are different than us, with dignity and respect. If you think about it, one of the central conceits of the books is that there are purebloods, and muggles and half-bloods, and there is constantly some conflict among those, particularly among those who fear and hate those who are different, and in one very vivid example of that, would call them mudbloods. That’s the sort of unkind language, the sort of stereotypes and sort of misconceptions that really do lead people to mistreat and dehumanize others.
You think about Prof. Dumbledore. Even before any of us knew that Prof. Dumbledore was gay, I think that we can agree that his character would never have approved of mistreating or abusing others or thinking ill of others. Now that we know that he’s gay I think it’s a very important reminder that whether you’re straight or gay or are in the process of figuring that out, being the kind of person who treats others with love and dignity and respect, who looks out for other people, who stands up for them, and who protects them, is really what being a good person and good friend is all about.
TLC: What do you think the overarching impact of this revelation will be on the culture going forward?
SL: When a character like Prof. Dumbledore is revealed to be gay I think it has a tremendously influential impact of readers of all ages. J.K. Rowling’s decision to allow readers to see Dumbledore for all of who he is, and I think also as importantly, her determination to preserve the authenticity of his character both in the films and the books, is going to enrich the power of these stories for generations to come.
I think that this provides a really great opportunity to remind ourselves and for readers of the books to remind themselves about one of the key themes of the Harry Potter series, and that is how fear of what is different can really lead people to do things that are unkind or dangerous and also at the same time elevate the sort of person that people really want to be in terms of the way they treat others. When you hear someone on the playground say “You’re so gay,” or, “That’s so gay,” that’s a word that they’re using as an insult. They’re trying to hurt another person and make themselves feel bigger by making other people feel smaller.
Even before Ms. Rowling revealed that Prof. Dumbledore was gay I can’t imagine that his character would ever have approved of mistreating or abusing others. And now that we know he’s gay it really is an especially important reminder that whether you’re gay or straight, treating other people with dignity and respect really is one of the most important values that we all can share.