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Back in October of 2007, Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling did something amazing: She told the world that Dumbledore was gay. What makes this remarkable is not that she chose to write Hogwarts' wizened headmaster as homosexual, but that she broke a firm fantasy stereotype by taking Dumbledore out of the closet. David Yates, the director of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as well as the upcoming Deathly Hallows has said, "He's a wonderful character, Dumbledore -- graceful, wise, powerful, quirky, terrific sense of humor, loves knitting. There's a jumble of things in there and his sexuality is just another thing." Meaning that rather than defining him by his sexuality, the books and movies let Dumbledore exist as a complete person. Not so in most other fantasy movies, where gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered characters tend to fall into one of two traps.
GLBT Equals Evil
Red Sonja (1985) -- According to the narrator, what is it that makes our heroine (Brigitte Nielsen) recognize Queen Gedren's (Sandahl Bergman) evil ways? Is it the pillaging of the landscape? Perhaps the slaughter of her entire family? No. It's that Queen Gedron thinks Sonja is hot. Now, see if you can follow this logic path: Evil Lesbian Queen Gedron kills Sonja's family, therefore Sonja hates all men. She's only whole again when she lets herself love a man at the end. Interesting argument.
300 (2007) -- Now, you might say that Red Sonja is a product of the times, so let's jump forward 20 years to 300. Meet Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro): He's evil, and part of the way you can tell that is because of the "perverse" way he dresses, with piercings and useless fashion accessories. Contrast the Persian ruler with the hypermasculine hero Leonidas, and you get a sense of the movie's stance towards homosexuality. Now, understand that I'm not saying gay characters can't be evil, but if the only representation of homosexuality is one of evil then the movie has made a statement, whether it wants to or not.
GLBT Equals Funny!
Mannequin (1987) -- Among the many things that makes this movie not good is the portrayal of Hollywood (Meshach Taylor), an overtly gay man who's played strictly for laughs (because, you know, being gay is funny). What's astonishing is that the script doesn't seem to have had the plan to draw Hollywood as horrifyingly broad as he is. The main character, Andrew McCarthy (Jonathan Switcher), doesn't even notice that Hollywood is gay. When another character makes a verbal slam, Andrew calls him a bigot. This is good to see, but it's a shame that the actual movie falls into the trap of setting the gay man up as comic relief.
Stardust (2007) -- Jump forward twenty years, and my how time stands still. Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro) is either gay or a cross-dresser -- either way he is firmly in the closet because he believes it will ruin his reputation. His fear, sadly, is an accurate reflection of the Western world view that affects a lot of people. The real problem is that his cross-dressing is played for laughs. Why? Because the idea of Robert De Niro, the quintessential guy's guy, in a dress is inherently funny. A woman in man's clothing doesn't generate laughs, but swap the genders and it becomes a riot. Emasculating someone in fantasy removes their strength and makes them a subject of ridicule.
You'll notice I've only touched on four movies. The reason is because there are very, very few fantasy flicks that even have GLBT characters in the first place. Go ahead and try to find one that doesn't fall into one of these two stereotypes.
I can point to exactly one, besides Dumbledore: A 2008 indie, Were the World Mine, which is a musical adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In it, a gay high school student discovers the recipe for Cupid's love potion. He runs around town making everyone fall in love with the first person they see. It raises questions about tolerance and acceptance. It also looks at the morality of forcing someone to change their sexual identity.
So if Dumbledore -- one of the most powerful fantasy figures next to Lord of the Rings' Gandalf -- can be "no big deal" gay, why can't the rest of the genre follow suit? Perhaps the homophobia can't be overcome until it's dealt with in a more honest and forthright manner. Or perhaps Dumbledore will herald a new era in fantastical gay pride. Ask me again when the Red Sonja remake comes out in 2010. I'm not holding my breath.
Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey is being published by Tor in 2010.