J.K. (About All That Queer Stuff) Rowling: J. Edgar Hoover, Queer Subtext and Fantastic Creatures & Where to Find Them

In his germinal essay “The Pink Herring and the Fourth Persona: J. Edgar Hoover’s Sex Crime Panic” in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, which is likely behind a paywall unless you’re on a university campus sadly, queer rhetoric scholar Chuck Morris writes about FBI head J. Edgar Hoover’s ambiguous queer identity and how he utilizes the persecution of other “known homosexuals” to shield his own personal life from investigation — while possibly also making a “wink and nod” to the queer community of the time, setting a standard for “acceptable” performances of queer identity. As Morris puts it:

For Hoover, as for many Americans sobering from Prohibition’s embrace of the pansy, this mischievous comment reinforced a vexing realization: the contours of masculinity had begun to blur at the same time that gender norms tightened. Presumptive silences were becoming audible, as audible as the sound of expensive shoes on a city sidewalk. To keep step with the passing crowd, one must not be caught mincing. At the time his mincing was exposed in 1933, Hoover had for five years been in a relationship with fellow bachelor and Associate Director of the FBI Clyde Tolson. Until then, Hoover and Tolson had been spared speculation about their sexuality by the prominent cultural presence of the pansy, whose dramatic features offered a code that relieved those who fell somewhere else on the rather fluid spectrum of male homosocial desire[…] Whatever other males might do sexually, their identity remained largely unquestioned because, given the pansy, most Americans “knew” a homosexual when they encountered one.

In other words, because homosexual men in the 1920s were assumed to fit a particular, narrow stereotype that Hoover and his possible lover did not, they were in the clear when it came to allegations of queerness — but societal norms began to become stricter, and the idea that men who did not display overtly, exceptionally effeminate performances of gender could still be queer became what we might now call a meme in society. Hoover, Morris argues, shielded his own sexuality from investigation by very openly denouncing homosexuals and taking very real legal steps to persecute queer people (and specifically gay men), labeling them as pedophiles seeking to convert heterosexuals (and specifically children) to their “perverted” behaviors. At the same time, for people “in the know,” Morris argues, Hoover signaled, basically, “yeah, I’m queer. Wink.”

The fourth persona, then, is a public performance of queer sexuality which is deniable, if noticed at all, by straight people. Within the wizarding universe of Harry Potter, the character of Albus Dumbledore seems to have lived his entire life performing the fourth persona: while rumors about his past relationship with dark wizard Grindelwald spread, and author J.K. Rowling confirmed years ago that this relationship was indeed sexual and that Dumbledore preferred the sexual company of men, this part of Dumbledore’s world was never depicted in the books or films in a direct way. When one reads Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the opening deals with the scandalous revelation by the tabloid press of recently-deceased Dumbledore’s ties to the Nazi-like Grindelwald, and certainly I recall at the time, prior to Rowling’s declaration of Professor Dumbledore’s sexuality, wondering if there might have been something more than friendship between Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald. But then, I’m queer — I tend to notice that sort of thing. Which is precisely the behavior the fourth persona was created by Professor Morris to describe — except, of course, that J.K. Rowling does not identify as queer, and the characters who are “winking” at us are fictional.

Rowling has been an outspoken ally, at least from her point of view, to the queer community, but has always also been a target of criticism from within it. When she announced a couple of years after Deathly Hallows was published that Dumbledore was gay, many fans wondered why she hadn’t simply put this in the book. After all, if anyone could get queer content into an ostensible children’s book (and come in, Deathly Hallows has the protagonists torturing as many people as Jack Bauer from 24), the then-richest woman in the world could. Today, with explicit queer relationships on Y7 children’s cartoons like Steven Universe and Adventure Time, it seems hard to argue that anything Rowling produces now needs to simply “wink” at queerness. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the prequel following the adventures of Newt Scamander, stars Eddie Redmayne, a man most recently recognized by the Oscars for his (according to many, myself including) insulting stereotypical portrayal of a transgender woman. It’s rated PG-13 and contains the physical abuse of children and, according to the script, abuse that has a sexual component as well. Yet actual expression of same sex desire is relegated to, in the film, subtext, and in the written script, a single line describing a victim of abuse feeling “attraction” toward his abuser, and later a neo-Victorian phrase about him longing for “human contact.” This article will discuss in detail the themes of abuse, metaphors of gay/transgender conversion therapy, and physical abuse of children in Fantastic Beasts. It also contains spoilers for the film’s twist ending.

Set during Hoover’s 1920s America, but in the parallel wizarding world, Fantastic Beasts’ ostensible villain, Colin Farrell’s Graves, is a clear parallel to J. Edgar himself — both in his fascist acts of oppression and his hidden homosexuality. Graves heads the criminal investigation division of the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA) and at one point attempts to summarily execute the protagonists for espionage and being agents of European terrorist Gellert Grindelwald. The twist, as I suspect most viewers guessed rather quickly, is that Graves is Grindelwald, with a magic hair dye job. Grindelwald’s motivation, as established in Deathly Hallows, was a Magneto-style war between wizards and Muggles, or as Americans apparently call them, “no-mags.” In Fantastic Beasts, Graves/Grindelwald seems much more sympathetic: he is hunting a dangerous creature, an Obscurus, which is produced by a child who has been forced to repress their magical nature. Grindelwald is aided in his quest by Credence, the adopted son of a conservative Christian who seeks to ban witchcraft (no doubt Rowling finally taking a swipe at the Harry Potter is Satan crowd). Grindelwald promises Credence that he can train him in the arts of magic, but also offers him human affection, something he’s almost entirely denied by his witch-hunting family. From the script:

Graves apparates into the alleyway [in front of Second Salem Church, Credence’s home]. Credence, startled, backs away, but Graves makes straight for him, his tone and manner urgent, forceful […] impatient but feigning calm, [Graves/Grindelwald] holds out his hand — suddenly caring, affectionate. [Credence’s hand] is covered in deep cuts, sore and bleeding.

Graves offers comfort and promises to help Credence put his “pain in the past” and “gently, almost seductively, moves his thumb across the cuts, healing them instantly.” He places a chain “bearing the symbol of the Deathly Hallows” around Credence’s neck, then draws “him in, his speech, quiet, intimate.” He tells Credence he is “different” from other non-mags, an “Credence is unsure, both nervous of and attracted by Graves’ behavior… Graves pulls Credence into a hug, which, with his hand on Credence’s neck, seems more controlling than affectionate. Credence, overwhelmed by the seeming affection, closes his eyes and relaxes slightly.”

The reference to attraction codifies that there is a sexual (but almost certainly nonconsensual) component to the emotional relationship between Grindelwald and Credence. When Graves is finally revealed to be Grindelwald, there seems to be little reason to doubt he would engage in same sex activity; he’s implied to have ended his canonical (but only by Rowling’s word) relationship with Dumbledore by this point, and who knows if they were ever monogamous to begin with. Of course, I immediately have to emphasize that of course not all, most, or even many gay men engage in predatory, near-pederastic (Credence’s age doesn’t seem to be established, but he’s certainly far younger than Grindelwald) domination of younger men. Yet this is precisely the image that J. Edgar Hoover spread of gay men as part of what Morris asserts is an effort to hide his own sexuality, and as I mentioned, the false identity of Graves bears a strong resemblance to Hoover as a historical figure.

Grindelwald is a villain, and we’ve recently seen some excellent fictional work dealing with the subject of sexual predators in fantasy and science fiction — notably, Jessica Jones was generally well-received by feminists for David Tennant’s portrayal of a psychic rapist who menaces his former victim again. Obviously, the existence of a homosexual villain isn’t automatically unacceptable, nor is it wrong to portray same sex sexual predation — these are horrible things that happen and should be dealt with soberly by media. I believe Rowling thinks she is in fact dealing with them in a sober way. However, I take issue with Fantastic Beasts because of two central problems with the narrative which fit a larger pattern of Rowling’s irresponsible use of a fourth persona (according to Morris, one can use the fourth persona without necessarily being queer themself):

  1. There’s no non-predatory, non-victim gay character; and
  2. The sexual component of the entire story is relegated to metaphor; despite the film’s PG-13 rating and effort to deal with the “adult” elements of the wizard world, and that Rowling has portrayed heterosexual sexuality fairly explicitly in books from Goblet of Fire onward, there seems to be a rather intense hypocrisy in Rowling’s desire to work in queer issues but also to not acknowledge them.

Credence’s manifestation of the monstrous Obscurus is a result of his stepmother’s cruel, physical abuse of him (although Grindelwald also beats Credence when he doesn’t get his way) in order to suppress his magical powers. The parallel with conversion therapy is clear and timely. But of course, queer kids who get conversion therapy tend to die and not kill thousands of others, as Credence does in the film’s climax, or to simply live with trauma. Definitely less murder though. By transforming suppressed queerness into a literal monster, Rowling is already playing with fire. (Yes, I’m assuming magic = queer. The use of two characters who are established to be queer by Rowling’s own words for this metaphor, and Rowling’s outspoken admission to use of queer metaphors in the past, such as equating Professor Remus Lupin’s lycanthropy with AIDS, makes this a fairly unproblematic claim.) What makes the narrative worse, and to me, downright insulting, though, is its climax: the Obscurus, and thus Credence, are blasted to pieces when our protagonists engage him and Grindelwald in combat and attempt but fail to “save” him. (People involved with the film have stated the character survived and will return, but this is far from clear in the film as presented, or in the script.) Furthermore, the climax takes place in the face of an oncoming subway that threatens to take the life of both villain and victim — raising uncomfortable parallels with The Matrix, where I’ve extensively argued that Neo’s defeat of Agent Smith on the subway tracks represents a rejection of queer suicidal ideation and is autobiographical on behalf of one of the actually-queer authors, Lana Wachowski. To in many ways restage this scene but end it with one queer character apparently killed and another exposed as a terrorist is insulting.

As I mentioned previously, this is a pattern for Rowling. It’s my suspicion that she always did intend Dumbledore to be read as gay, but felt that she couldn’t say s0 given the politics of publishing in 2007, when the last of the regular Potter books was released. I have no idea, honestly, if she was correct. However, when she released the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, she again teases a gay relationship, this time between Harry’s son Albus Severus and Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius. But again, she doesn’t affirm this, even in a stage play first performed in 2016. It’s certain, given the existence of Legend of Korra and Steven Universe that Rowling could have canonically portrayed an on-screen same-sex relationship between the pair, but she chose to wink and nod — again. Now this continues, even with a character who’s queer identity has been established by the author’s statement for more than a decade.

Rowling seems to want to address queerness in her work, but for whatever reason, she still feels it’s too risky to do so in ways that don’t directly recreate discourses of closeting. Given the parallels between Hoover and Graves/Grindelwald, I think applying the Fourth Persona theory helps explicate the holes in Rowling’s “allyship.”