A Werewolf by Any Other Name

June 26 marked the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter, which aside from making me feel achingly old, prompted me to re-examine my relationship with the series. I want to love it, and some small, childlike part of me does love it, and always will. There's just too much about it that I can't walk away from, because it's so tangled up in every aspect of my childhood and my identity. And that's why I am so thoroughly and truly hurt by the way the Harry Potter series treats one of the most vital parts of my identity—namely, the queer bits.

This is not a piece about Dumbledore. I think just about everything that could ever be said about Albus Dumbledore and the Retroactive Queer Canonization has been said, (and could be collected into a book of essays with that exact title), but about something more subtle and insidious—the characterization of Remus Lupin.

For some context: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the first book in the series I read because it was on hand and I didn't understand serialized novels, being six years old at the time. I was introduced to Lupin when I was young, and immediately liked him, because readers are supposed to like him. He's a wonderful teacher and a great man, but he's also an ugly example of the nastiest kind of queer coding.

This isn't apparent at first: he is presumed heterosexual for a large chunk of the series (and shunted off into a hasty marriage to a woman half his age for the sake of proving it), but again, that's not the subject here. He’s a werewolf, and for whatever reason, Rowling decided to make her werewolves a Metaphor for AIDS. It's pretty blatant: a disease transmitted through physical contact that requires constant consumption of medicine to maintain, otherwise the victim will transform into a wild animal that attacks anyone and everyone it comes into contact with, intent on "infecting" them. It's not like it could have been completely accidental, either: The Prisoner of Azkaban was published in 1999, so the AIDS epidemic in the US was still fresh in the Anglophone consciousness, and the HIV epidemic in Sub Saharan Africa was still happening.

So, what's the big deal? Lupin is a heroic character, and when he's driven from Hogwarts for having what is basically Magic AIDS, it's meant to be a sad thing, so it's not homophobic, right? That's debatable. But what isn't debatable as homophobia is the backstory we got 10 years later about the werewolf that turned him, Fenrir Greyback. He's a werewolf who prefers to turn children into werewolves and raise them away from their parents to hate humans, and have them infect as many other wizards as possible with lycanthropy so that they can eventually replace wizards with werewolves, which is outlined explicitly in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: "Greyback specialises in children... Bite them young, he says, and raise them away from their parents, raise them to hate normal wizards."

It might not be as common in 2017 to see people pearl-clutch at the thought of homosexuals Converting the Youth, but it was the go-to for homophobes for decades, with short films like Boys Beware! being produced to warn children about the dangers of the adult homosexual, who in these types of narratives, would abduct children to convert them into their "homosexual lifestyle," because they could not produce children of their own.

I cannot stress enough how many people truly thought that queer people brainwashed and converted children into being gay, like it was some sort of cult. It wasn't an extreme position, but the norm not half a century ago. And there are still people who believe this. Fenrir Greyback's character, beat for beat, echoes that concept, and he is very clearly not a sympathetic, tragic figure like Remus Lupin, whom Greyback converted into a Magic AIDS metaphor.

Lupin, in contrast, is a sympathetic character portrayed as tragically laid low by having been bitten by a werewolf when he was young. It's not his fault he's a werewolf, but rather that he was converted by a werewolf that deliberately seeks out children to bite and turn against Wizarding society, which for their part shuns and outcasts people with lycanthropy.

I feel like now is also a good time to also mention that Newt Scamander (Remember him? He was the subject of the latest Harry Potter movie, Fantastic Beasts in an All White Harlem) is credited in-universe with, among other things, creating a registry of werewolves overseen by the Ministry of Magic. You know, the werewolf registry! That thing that's totally legal and not a violation of anyone's human rights, because the Wizengamot apparently never voted on the Magna Carta.

Dumbledore is a pretty explicit Tragic Gay stereotype—he never marries, he remains celibate, he had a horrible lover in the past who betrayed him and turned evil—but Remus Lupin's characterization is subtle enough that most people I know who did end up coming out later in life remembered having strongly identified with him but didn't know why.

Even in a fandom where most of the ship wars were focused on hetero ships, Remus with Sirius Black was one of the few popular and readily apparent gay Harry Potter ships the fandom wrote about and discussed at length, and I can't help but feel like the queer coding of Lupin had something to do with that phenomenon. I'm sure plenty of younger queer readers identified strongly with that subtext, and I don't want to discredit that. Much of my own media experience as a child is colored by the vague recognition of queer coded characters as being "like me, but…"

I will, however, argue that it was silly of Rowling to write a werewolf AIDS metaphor and not only disingenuous but dangerous to write a full-blown predatory homosexual conversion plot line into Lupin's backstory almost 15 years later. If we keep trying to pretend that Harry Potter's contribution to queer representation was more than trite, ham-fisted metaphors that ended up being more insulting than empowering, we tell publishers that this is all the queer representation we deserve, and all they should bother with. When in fact, they have barely even scratched the surface.

on July 13, 2017

Nonbinary toys, comics, television, and games fan with a background in animation history!