It’s a coincidence that last week I happened to come across a notice of the death of British actor Richard Griffiths (most recently and best known for his role as Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon Dursley) on the same day I finished reading Edmund White’s 1988 gay classic, The Beautiful Room Is Empty. But that coincidence set my mind in motion.
In the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling tells us, “For years, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had hoped that if they kept Harry as downtrodden as possible, they would be able to squash the magic out of him. To their fury, they had been unsuccessful, and now lived in terror of anyone finding out that Harry” was a wizard.
That rang a bell. All at once, after nearly a decade and a half, I realized one of the reasons why I connected with Harry so much. Harry’s being magical is like our being gay. We know gay people who have parents trying to get them to stop being gay and are terrified that relatives and neighbors will find out what we are.
Toward the end of the second book of White’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, the hero summarizes what his quest has been about.
“I wanted to be heterosexual, or so I told myself. As a budding writer, I knew I’d never be able to give a convincing account of marriage, birth, parental love, conjugal intimacy, the spicy anguish of adultery – none of the great occasions – until I’d rid myself of this malady which was so narrowing. O’Reilly [his psychiatrist] had warned me that homosexuality would condemn me to an embalmed adolescence, that I’d never grow out of a stale narcissism.” And a bit later, “Homosexuality did not constitute a society, just a malady, although unlike other maladies it was a shameful one….” (pp. 148-9).
Harry was on his way from a loveless but necessary relationship into an alternative universe where he really belonged, with people his own queer type. White took a long time to adjust to his queerness, whereas Harry felt at home for the first time once he got to the magic castle. Harry found a magical society from the first day learned he was magical. It took White a lot longer to find that there is a homosexual society available.
From the age of twelve to about twenty-eight, White tells in precise detail how desperate and futile were his efforts to squash the homosexuality out of himself. What he apparently lost, on the last day of the story, however, was not his homosexuality but his self-loathing and concern about being a non-conformist.
So that’s why I resonated with Harry.
If one were to transpose “gay” for “wizard” we have all the dynamics of our own sub-culture in Harry Potter’s story: heroes, villains, monsters, saints, sleaze, government incompetence and suppression, misunderstanding by outsiders, insider slang, and special ways of surviving and relating.
Of course, the parallels are not exact. Rowling was not writing an allegory, nor was she thinking about the gay life, but rather about adolescent life, neither affirming nor denying it might have homosexuals in it.
Nevertheless, “the Dursley Solution” is one thing we run across in the LGBT village.
White says that the summer after he finished his first year at the University of Michigan his father put him “on a strict regime of yardwork.” “When my stepmother finally arrived, she revealed that my father thought he would drive the queerness out of me through manual labor.” (pp. 48-49)
That did not work, of course.
White tells what ought to have worked. In a short visit with a graduate psychotherapist the fellow asks, “ ‘Why are you going to a shrink at all?’ ‘I want to change.’ ‘Change what?’ ‘My object choice.’ He looked at me intently in the eye and now I could see that he, too, must be homosexual. ‘But people don’t really change,’ he said. ‘It’s useless to try. It’s more a question of adjusting, of learning to play the hand you’ve been dealt.’ ‘Oh, no,’ I said, angry. ‘I am changing. I must change.’” (p. 152)
Although deprivation is all the Dursleys could come up with to squelch the inherent magic in Harry, there was a larger but equally useless arsenal available to use on White. Years of psychotherapy failed. The summer of labor at least ended without homicide, although it may have been contemplated. The step-mother confessed, “At first your father was so angry I was afraid he would kill you.” Medical incarceration was hinted at. Of course, the time-honored sure-cure of hetero-sex didn’t work either.
White’s narrative does not say that the hero was reconciled to his parents. By the end, however, he was out to them and had freed himself from their control and from dependence on them.
In Harry’s case, finally, by volume 7 the Dursleys have to come to terms with Harry’s magic. The result is sort of a stalemate in which Harry doesn’t have to forgive them for their misguided abuse of him and they don’t have to thank him for saving their lives. They do, at least, recognize the reality of each other by the end.
Their parting scene resonates with many LGBT people whose relationship with family has been rancorous.
“Then Dudley held out his large, pink hand… ‘See you, Harry.’ ‘Yeah…’ said Harry, taking Dudley’s hand and shaking it. ‘Maybe. Take care, Big D.’ …Aunt Petunia … stowing her wet handkerchief into her pocket said, ‘Well – goodbye’ and marched towards the door without looking at him. ‘Goodbye,’ said Harry. She stopped and looked back. For a moment Harry had the strangest feeling she wanted to say something to him: she gave him an odd, tremulous look and seemed to teeter on the edge of speech, but then with a little jerk of her head she hustled out of the room after her husband and son.” (pp. 40-41)
It’s not the best-case scenario, but far from the worst. These are times when 40% of the kids living on the streets in America are gay, homeless from the day they come out to their parents.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.