Guest Post: Gay Dumbledore a Platonist

Lindsey Morgan, a student in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, sent me the following thoughts about Dumbledore’s homosexuality and love in light of Plato’s Symposium. I asked for and received permission to share them with you; please be generous with your comments and criticism!

Why is Dumbledore Gay?

To answer this question I must first put forth the parts of the Symposium that I think are important to this topic. Also I will point out some remarkable parallels in the Symposium to the alchemical imagery used in the Harry Potter novels. Then I will be able to give an explanation stemming from these two sources for Dumbledore’s homosexuality, clarifying that it not only makes sense, but that it fits almost beautifully.

Socrates stated in his speech that, “love is wanting to possess the good forever.” For this reason, we desire immortality along with goodness. Birth or reproduction is our way of achieving immortality according to Socrates. But this reproduction is not always physical. It is ideal for a man to give birth to “many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories,” increasing in wisdom and the knowledge of beauty, until finally, he sees Beauty itself. Socrates says of the man who beholds true Beauty, “if any human being could become immortal, it would be he.” The first step to achieving immortality was for a man to love one person. In order to achieve immortality through giving birth to ideas rather than giving birth to babies, it was thought that having another man as a lover was ideal. An older man would take a young beautiful man as a lover and impart to him his wisdom.

The relationship between Dumbledore and Harry could have been modeled after this formula put forth in Socrates speech. Dumbledore could be the older, gay man, who is imparting wisdom to his young lover, Harry. The only problem with applying this formula is that there is really nothing coming close to sexuality in their relationship. The only thing that really matches up is that Dumbledore is gay and he is in an authoritative position over Harry.

However, later on in the Symposium, Alcibiades, a young lover of Socrates, relates how Socrates rejected his offer for sex. He was beyond sexual love. Physical things no longer had any affect on him because he had moved on to love Beauty itself, instead of physical representations of it. Dumbledore, if we apply Socrates’ explanation of love, must be beyond the physical love as well. Thus I would argue that in the Harry Potter series, he is more non-sexual than homosexual, because he is beyond the sexual kind of love.

Eryximachus’ speech is also relevant to understanding Dumbledore’s sexuality and the rest of his character as well. He says that good, proper love is all about resolving discord and producing harmony in opposites, such as cold and hot, wet and dry, etc. Crude, improper love on the other hand, produces “death and destruction.” At this point it becomes helpful to look at the fascinating parallels in the Symposium and the symbolism of literary alchemy. Together, these two things will shed light on the sexuality and character of Dumbledore.

My knowledge of literary alchemy is limited to how some of it plays out in Harry Potter. Even though I am not very qualified to write on the subject, I believe that what I do know is worth pointing out and comparing to the ideas in the Symposium as I apply both to Dumbledore.

The end purpose of alchemy is to produce the Philosopher’s Stone, which gives immortality and transforms lead into gold. The creation of the Stone was achieved by “the action of contraries- feminine alchemical mercury and masculine sulfur- resolving the impurities of a substance,” according to John Granger. When this is translated into the literary symbolism, the Philosopher’s Stone becomes personified in a being who is the resolution of contraries or opposites. This being is often a hermaphrodite or androgyne because of the resolution of male and female in one person.

Dumbledore is one of these beings who in his person resolves contraries and strives for resolution in the world around him. His resolution of male and female within himself is symbolized by the fact that he is not sexually attracted to women. His goals in life prove his role as a resolution of contraries. For example, one of his goals is to unite the divide between the Slytherin and the other houses in Hogwarts. Another is to reconcile the various magical creatures with each other and end prejudice and subjection. Another is to bring the magical world and the muggle world into harmony.

Now, to relate this back to the Symposium, I must point out that the resolution and harmony Dumbledore strives after is the exact definition of Love according to Eryximachus – love is resolving discord and producing harmony in opposites. Also, the end result of the resolution in the alchemical work symbolized by Dumbledore is immortality, just as in Socrates’ assertion that the object of our love, and end result of proper love, is immortality. Therefore, the character of Dumbledore simultaneously embodies ideas of love from the Symposium and the alchemical process of purification. He loves all creatures and strives for harmony, and loves his students with whom he gives birth to ideas. Thus he attains immortality symbolically through the work of resolving opposites, and in reality through the ideas of his students.

Now back to the fact that Dumbledore is gay. Socrates’ model of giving birth to ideas requires, at least, homosexual love and, at best, love that is beyond sexual. Likewise, the alchemical imagery of a being in whom male and female are resolved requires a similar result. Therefore, the homosexuality of Dumbledore is perfectly fitting, and should not be otherwise, unless he were to be completely non-sexual, which I would prefer, but according to J.K. Rowlings, that is not the case.


  1. Just some preliminary comments. It’s been awhile since I’ve read the Symposium but what has been stated about it above sounds very close to what I remember of it.

    I think, though, that the whole argument hinges around something extratextual. Would anyone know Dumbledore is gay outside of a comment made by the author who seemed like she wasn’t going to say anything about it until a particular exchange with a fan brought it out? Pretty tenuous grounds for basing a whole structure of ideas around Dumbledore’s homosexuality. You can do it, of course, but again did anyone really suspect that Dumbledore was gay before JKR actually said anything about it? I don’t remember anyone really arguing that point before Jo’s revelation. And the fact that it was such a shock & surprise to people seems to indicate that not too many people were thinking along those lines. Which would seem to also indicate that his homosexuality really means very little to the point of the HP stories. I think comments by JKR have indicated this as well, that Dumbledore’s sexuality or lack of it was not a primary concern of hers.

    I’m also confused by the author’s statement, “His resolution of male and female within himself is symbolized by the fact that he is not sexually attracted to women.” Uh, how does the fact that he is not attracted sexually to women resolve the male & female within himself? Wouldn’t that rather be a denial of the female?

    The author seems to have done a good amount of research from the Symposium & to have connected the dots, so to speak, in order to show how Dumbledore fits this Socratic model of “giving birth to ideas.” But, of course, the next question to follow would be, “Is Socrates on the mark or is he off the mark or deficient in his view of the matter?”

    All in all, though, a very thoughtful posting. Requires a lot more dissection. I look forward to hearing others thoughts on it.

  2. Fascinating article, Lindsey!

    In the Adeel Amini interview posted here some time back, Rowling is quoted as saying Dumbledore “lost his moral compass completely when he fell in love and I think subsequently became very mistrusting of his own judgement in those matters so became quite asexual. He led a celibate and a bookish life.”

    She says in the same paragraph that Dumbledore’s falling in love with Grindelwald was her way of explaining how he, being inherently good, managed to get involved in something so evil. Of course, as John has often pointed out, Rowling doesn’t spoon-feed her hidden meanings to her audience and fandom tends to take everything she says as the final word on any subject. I haven’t read Symposium myself, but from your arguments it seems highly possible that she had Socrates’ model in mind; or, if she did not, that the symbolism fits as if she had. In fact, if I may work forward from your last paragraph, I would say that Dumbledore began with homosexual attraction and transcended that into asexuality.

    John, I have to admit that the Rebis is the part of alchemy which makes the least sense to me–maybe because I’m a straight, western, very Catholic girl. 🙂 Is the hermaphrodite consistently the ideal product of the alchemical process in literature? (I’d be curious, for instance, about the Director in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.) And is there an extended purpose to the figure beyond single-being resolution of the male and female poles? I don’t want to derail the conversation here … I’m just wondering.

    Hopefully this makes sense… It’s getting late here!

  3. Arabella Figg says

    I’m, alas, unfamiliar with the subject of the Symposium, but feel I have been educated in something basic here. However, I’ll not comment on that, except to say that this is a most interesting essay and I look forward to comments from those more familiar with the subject.

    However, what jumped out at me was Tom Riddle and the strikes against his attaining the immortality he so craved and schemed for.

    Strike One: “The first step to achieving immortality was for a man to love one person.” Tom could love no one but himself from childhood on.

    Strike Two: “love is wanting to possess the good forever.” Tom loved power, not good.

    Strike Three: “It is ideal for a man to give birth to “many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories,” increasing in wisdom and the knowledge of beauty, until finally, he sees Beauty itself. Socrates says of the man who beholds true Beauty, ‘if any human being could become immortal, it would be he.'” Tom, of course, gave birth to hideous, self-aggrandizing ideas, destroyed that which was beautiful, and desired that others fear rather than love him.

    Just a thought about contrasts. I do believe Lindsey Morgan has something here about Dumbledore and how his story fits with the Symposium (as explained) and alchemy.

  4. Red Rocker says

    Agree with revgeorge above: hard to see how being gay resolves the masculine and feminine within Dumbledore; it seems rather to accentuate the masculine.

    The whole Greek idea that an older man having a younger lover increases either the elder’s appreciation of Beauty or the younger’s Wisdom has always struck me as one of those pseudo-profundities people put forth to justify their otherwise unjustifiable behaviour. Most young people do not like to have sex with older people, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation. The beautiful Alcibiades notwithstanding, most young people don’t crave sex with older people in order to benefit from their wisdom (their worldly goods, perhaps, and power and prestige, but not wisdom). So the formula doesn’t work, regardless of sexual orientation.

    As well, I don’t think that Harry was particularly “beautiful”. If Dumbledore had sexual feelings for him (and that is a big if) it wouldn’t be his beauty that he was attracted to. I have toyed with the possibility that there was some kind of attraction. The nearest I could figure is that if DD was attracted to Harry, it was because Harry was his type, his type being young, brave and impetuous, rather like Grindelwald.

    I think that all teachers must dream of achieving immortality through the work of their students. Dumbledore would not be unusual in this, if this is what he hoped for. However, I think Dumbledore – as well as all of his students, his peers, friends and alllies – had a more pressing issue to deal with: survival. I’m not convinced that it was one of DD’s goals to unite the houses any more than he wanted to reconcile the different races: these were all a means to an end, the end being the defeat of Voldemort.

    In this scheme, Harry was one more pawn. An important pawn, admittedly, the Chosen One, the champion, the only one who could win the battle against Voldemort. But that was Harry’s main significance to Dumbledore.

    Now of course Dumbledore loved Harry – and I could be persuaded that he was almost in love with him – but he saw this as an unfortunate event, a problem, something which could make him act less ruthlessly than he needed to. And in the end, he didn’t let it make any difference.

    Quest for harmony, immortality, quest for Beauty or even simple lust, they are not things you worry about when the world is about to end. In this story, Dumbledore’s love for Harry was only an inconvenient footnote in his need to use Harry as his greatest pawn.

  5. When I first read the description of the young Grindelwald in Deathly Hallows, I thought he sounded like a beautiful young man who might be attractive to a gay man. Here is the description of the photo of the young Dumbledore and Grindelwald that Harry first sees when he looks at Rita Skeeter’s book in Umbridge’s office: “two teenage boys, both laughing immoderately with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Dumbledore, now with elbow-length hair, had grown a tiny wispy beard that recalled the one on Krum’s chin that had so annoyed Ron. The boy who roared in silent amusement beside Dumbledore had a gleeful, wild look about him. His golden hair fell in curls to his shoulders.”

    At first this description brought to my mind Milton’s description of Eve in Paradise Lost, “Her unadorned golden tresses wore/ Dissheveld but in wanton ringlets wav’d” (Book IV, lines 305-306) which I remembered from a long ago lit class. However, when I went back to examine the broader passage from Milton more carefully, immediately preceding those lines Adam is described as ” . . .and Hyacinthin Locks/ Round from his parted forelock manly hung/ Clustring, but not beneath his shoulders broad :/ Shee as a vail down to the slender waste/ Her unadorned golden tresses wore/ Dissheveld but in wanton ringlets wav’d” (Book IV, lines 301-306). Thus Grindelwald’s description brings to mind a melding of both Adam and Eve, with Eve’s golden curled hair, but falling only to his shoulders like Adam’s. And Dumbledore’s hair is closer to the length of Eve’s but, as we were told in HBP (hyacinth? I’m not sure what color that is; probably white or “albus”). And the tiny wispy beard implies a rather weak or insecure sense of manliness. If JKR had read Paradise Lost, which had an enourmous influence on literature for the next century or so after it was published in 1667, and which relates to many of the themes addressed in the Potter series, or if she was at least familiar with the general passage which I believe is one of the more famous ones, I think she might have been trying to subvert, or invert Milton here, because the passage quoted above comes right after the famous line that made every female student in my lit class cringe: “Hee for God only, shee for God in him.” (Book IV, line 299). I expect that JKR would have delighted in turning that around or at least in making us confused as to who is he and who is she. (I’ve been contemplating whether that line is inverted in another Potter context, as in “She (Lily) for God(ric Gryffindor), he (Severus) for God in her” along the lines of Lily as Dante’s Beatrix discussed previously on this site, but that’s a complete tangent and I don’t really have it worked out yet.)

    And I’m not trying to paint Grindelwald as an innocent Eve seduced by the serpent; the later description of Grindelwald as the thief stealing Gregorovitch’s elder wand is “and there on the window ledge sat perched, like a giant bird, a young man with golden hair.” This description sounds like Milton’s description of Satan when he leapt Eden’s wall: “Or as a Thief bent to unhoord the cash/ Of some rich Burgher . . ./ . . ./In at the window climbes . . ./ So clomb this first grand Thief into Gods Fould:/ . . ./ Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,/ The middle Tree and highest there that grew,/ Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life/ Thereby regained, but sat devising Death/ To them who liv’d, . . .” (Paradise Lost, Book IV, lines 188-197).

    I don’t claim to be a Milton scholar by any stretch of the imagination but I thought this was interesting. Gotta sign off now or I’d try to round this off a little better.

  6. Red Rocker says

    About that Greek idea (ideal?) of older men taking younger lovers so they can give birth to ideas while sharing their superior knowledge, there are two more thoughts I want to add.

    First off, all of my comments above apply only to cases where the younger partner is above the age of consent. Anything younger, and we’re talking about paedophilia, or more accurately, hebephilia, which is having sex with adolescents. To the extent that the Greek ideal was about men having sex with boys, then the whole trading Beauty for Wisdom thing is a bunch of bs to justify systematic sexual abuse. It was the social norm, you say? So was slavery and female infanticide. My point? You can’t draw an analogy between Dumbledore’s feelings for Harry and the Greeks’ sexual practices without making Dumbledore look very bad indeed.

    And to be fair to Dumbledore, there was never anything in his behaviour that he had, let alone wanted to express, sexual feelings towards any of his students, including Harry. To argue that he had sexual feelings but sublimated them, and that somehow makes those feelings noble is both fallacious – normal people don’t want to have sex with children – and not at all supported by the canon.

    And to be fair to Socrates, he never said any of the things attributed to him. It was Plato who put those words in his mouth in his Dialogues

  7. Nice piece, Lindsey! I really need to get to reading the Symposium soon…

    All this talk about gay Dumbledore, especially in light of what Lindsey’s explicated, just seems to further my initial feelings about what Rowling really means by “gay.” She obviously doesn’t mean “parades and commitment cermonies gay” (no offense intended, of course) but something a little quieter, a little less conscious and free, a little more disordered.

    I think there is a principle in every human (at least, every adult) which is capable, in greater or lesser ways, of being attracted to someone of the same sex. This sort of attraction does not start as a physical or sexual one, but it is a bone fide attraction to the qualities the person posseses. It is natural that we should be attracted to those qualities, and want to emulate them. We cultivate (or perhaps lament the lack of) those some qualities in ourseles, chiefly by being close to them. Its very easy for friendship between two of the same gender to slip into a romantically tinged attraction (at least on one partner’s account), nearly as easy as it is for two friends of the opposite to do so despite perfectly sincere intentions otherwise, especially in a 21st-century context wherein *all* relationships are seen as potentially sexual (despite age, gender, race, and all other boundaries).

    I think this is what Rowling means by Dumbledore’s being “gay,” and if we take this along with Lindsey’s commentary, I think that his retreat into a celibate existence is a perfectly understandable and perhaps laudable reaction. I have yet to figure out how this relates to the men I’ve met who are in seminary, and what they call in formation the “integration” of their sexuality. I do think there’s something in the parallel, though, between Dumbledore and at least a minority of those who are religiously celibate.

  8. I just reread my comment above and I’m afraid it rambled around a bit. I got interrupted and posted rather than lose what I had typed in. There is a lot for thought in Milton’s work and what the Potter series may draw from it (a lot more than I mentioned above). One could probably write an entire Senior Thesis on it in fact, but I probably tried to cram too much into one post, and not in the most organized fashion.

    Getting back to the question of gayness. Dumbledore being gay certainly is not necessary for any surface (first level) reading of HP and perhaps is not “necessary” at all, but JKR seems to have subtly hinted at it, even absent her public statement. I think Dumbledore does love Harry deeply, not really in any physical sense, but for the spiritual beauty of Harry’s self-less love, self-sacrifice, and courage and for his ability to withstand the blandishments of evil. The comments Dumbledore makes to Harry at the end of each book and the discussion and descriptions in the Kings Cross chapter of DH certainly suggest this.

    They may have been in a war and Dumbledore may have been Machiavellian in manipulating Severus, Harry, and others, but Harry was more than a mere pawn and more than the Chosen One. The final goal was always not only the final defeat of Voldemort, but ensuring Harry’s survival with an untarnished beautiful soul that is wholly his own, free of its parasite. From the very beginning, Dumbledore devises ways to shepherd Harry through this process and to collect evidence of Voldemort’s horcruxes so that they can be destroyed. As far back as GOF there is a gleam of triumph in Dumbledore’s eye when he learns that Voldemort has taken some of Harry’s blood, and thus Lily’s protection, into his veins, which seems to mean that Voldemort cannot kill Harry (actually, I’m not sure why Harry has to not defend himself for the protection to work, but that’s another topic).

    Certain passages in King’s Cross and the final scene in D’s office are rather physically/spiritually suggestive, as well. At the end of King’s Cross, Harry and Dumbledore both stand and look for a long moment into each other’s faces (right before Harry asks whether this is real or inside his head). DH p.722. Later, in Dumbledore’s office, “Harry had eyes only for the man who stood in the largest portrait directly behind the headmaster’s chair. Tears were sliding down from behind the half-moon spectacles into the long silver beard, and the pride and the gratitude emanating from him filled Harry with the same balm as phoenix song.” DH p.747. The physical closeness at King’s Cross, the eyes only for each other, and the indelicate mental image of what actual balm might resemble are all subtly suggestive on one level, but of course the spiritual level is more important, as the balm of phoenix song has always been a source of courage and hope for Harry. Harry goes on to repudiate (Dumbledore’s) Elder Wand, to repair his original wand with it (“He picked up the holly and phoenix wand and felt a sudden warmth in his fingers, as though wand and hand were rejoicing at their reunion.” DH p.749), and to tell Dumbledore that he is putting the Elder Wand back in his tomb . Dumbledore has been “watching him with enormous affection and admiration,” He “nodded. They smiled at each other.” Ron, still not getting it, asks Harry if he is sure. Harry says the wand’s more trouble than it’s worth” and then turns away from the painted portraits. Of course, sometimes a wand is just a wand, but I do think the wording and imagery are rather suggestive (and if you want more suggestive wand imagery, recall that Dumbledore was buried holding the wand beneath his hands, clutched against his chest and that when Voldemort pulls it from Dumbledore’s grasp, “a shower of sparks flew from its tip, sparkling over the corpse of its last owner,” DH p.501). Dumbledore has imparted his wisdom to Harry and shown his love and affection. One reading of this section is that Dumbledore is gay, but Harry is not. Harry is returning to his own wand and to Ginny. If the Symposium is relevant at this point, it would seem that JKR is denying the supremacy of gayness in the pursuit of truth and beauty, implying instead that neither gay nor straight has a particular advantage over the other.

  9. Arabella Figg says

    Lily Luna, as to colors of hyacinth, they’re usually blue, pink or white. Encarta says:

    lily with spikes of flowers: a cultivated plant of the lily family. Flowers: fragrant pink, white, or blue. Native to: northeastern Mediterranean. [Mid-16th century. Via French and Latin< Greek huakinthos “plant sprung from the blood of Hyacinthus”]

    AskOxford (Compact Oxford English Dictionary) says:

    • noun 1 a plant with a spike of bell-shaped fragrant flowers. 2 another term for JACINTH.

    ORIGIN–named after Hyacinthus in Greek mythology: Hyacinthus was a youth loved by the god Apollo but accidentally killed by him, from whose blood Apollo caused a flower to grow.

    Don’t know if this adds anything.

  10. Perelandra says

    I don’t think that “hyacinth” as a classical description of hair refers to its color but to its all-over thick, curly texture.

    One culture that had special (and homoerotic) esteem for beautiful young men with long curly blond hair was Renaissance Italy which is also a time and place with enthusiasm for Hermetism and alchemy.

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