JK Rowling and the Minority Representation

Last year we hosted a discussion night on the topic of ‘Harry Potter and feminism.’ It was our first discussion event so we didn’t really know what to expect; it ended up lasting for over four hours, and it’s still up there in my top 5 favourite events that we’e ever run.

The discussion inevitably opened up to not just the representation of women in the series but of other minority groups, especially the LGBTQ+ community. People were defending JK Rowling for not including any queer characters in the series, for a few reasons – they’re children’s books, she was writing in the 1990s, the books wouldn’t have been allowed to be published in certain countries if they had gay characters, and so on. All totally relevant points, and very likely the reasons why she didn’t include any queer characters in the books. But something was annoying me about it, and it took me until the very end of the discussion to figure out why.

Yeah, JK Rowling is a white, straight (presumably) woman, so issues of LGBTQ+ and racial representation didn’t affect her personally while she was writing the books. (She did represent the working class and issues of poverty in the story, as well as depression – because these things personally affected her life at the time.) Yeah, it was the 1990s, when diversity in the media wasn’t as humongous a topic as it is these days. Yeah, the books probably wouldn’t have been published in China if they had gay characters.

It’s all true… but my overwhelming feeling about these things is, so what?

Studies have shown that minority kids who don’t see themselves represented in the media suffer as a result, and that those who do have representation are much better off. I’m sick right now as I write this, and I wrote four academic essays this week, so fuck it, I’m just going to be blunt; when it comes down to it, more media representation for minorities means that less kids kill themselves.

We all know that no one is born prejudiced and that it’s instilled in us by our environments – since childhood. That’s why children’s media is actually the perfect place to have minorities represented. We’ve all seen the Vines of kids who are like “So sometimes boys can love boys, and girls can love girls? Oh, that’s cool, can I have ice cream for dinner?” I don’t understand it at all when people say that queer characters would be ‘inappropriate’ for children’s literature. Why do people act like anything queer is inherently sexual, anyway? Ron and Lavender can snog the faces off each other, but Seamus taking Dean as his date to the Yule Ball would have been too much? (Seamus Finnigan is my gay Irish son and you’ll have to pry that headcanon out of my cold, dead, queer hands.)

Ultimately, for me, media representation for minorities is the top priority. It’s one of the most powerful and beautiful features of literature: giving a voice to the voiceless. It’s literally life-saving. Of course things were different 19 years ago, and it’s not surprising that there are no explicitly queer characters in the books. (Before you say it – yeah, maybe it would have been inappropriate for Dumbledore to discuss his sexuality with Harry, but you can’t tell me that Rita Skeeter wouldn’t have been all over that shit after her interview with Bagshot.) Coming from a 2016 perspective, though, representation is just so much more important than all of those other factors.

This was basically what I realised at that discussion. ‘Minority representation in Harry Potter would have been amazing, what a shame.’ But what I’ve realised since then is – it’s not over. The Fantastic Beasts movies are coming out later this year and Rowling is writing the screenplays. The Cursed Child play is debuting just before that, and Rowling has been heavily involved in production. And it’s 2016.

No pressure, JK Rowling, but this is your chance. No more metaphors or subtext. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all great writing and fun to unpack, but it’s not enough anymore. We need explicit representation and we need it now.

From what I’ve seen so far, I’m optimistic. Not just because Rowling plays ‘minority Hogwarts student bingo’ on Twitter every now and again (bless her, she means well, and her Twitter account is amazing). There was a queer character in The Casual Vacancy (which I desperately need to re-read); Rowling has strongly voiced her support of POC Hermione for Cursed Child; and from the Fantastic Beasts trailer, it looks like the leader of the magical government in the US is a woman of colour. I do think that becoming more active on Twitter and engaging directly with the fanbase has had a big impact on Rowling’s approach. The Fantastic Beasts trailer says, “In 2016, writer JK Rowling invites you to return to the wizarding world.” I personally never left, but now that Rowling is back again, I can’t wait to see what the expanded wizarding world is going to look like.

Thoughts, (hopefully) 9 days from Marriage Equality

(This is a post I published on my Tumblr account back in May, little over a week before the Irish Marriage Equality Referendum, reposted here in what is probably a more appropriate format.)

As many of you know, the citizens of the Republic of Ireland will be asked to vote on Marriage Equality on May 22nd 2015. If the referendum passes, the Irish Constitution will be amended to state that “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

Unsurprisingly, the referendum has been the most major topic of conversation over the past few months, and has received an enormous amount of media coverage. I have personally attended numerous events in support of the Yes campaign and have discussed the vote endlessly with my friends, queer and otherwise, and certain family members. With only nine days to go, I feel an overwhelming mix of pride, exhaustion, anxiety, hope and distress.

The discussions around the referendum have been made (cough, unnecessarily, cough) extremely complicated because of the expanse of issues that have been raised, and inevitably I have A Lot of Thoughts about it and I think it will make my head clearer to set them out.

I don’t mean this to be a ‘this is why I’m voting yes/why you should vote yes’ post, and I haven’t really explained too much about the circumstances because this is more for me to organize my thoughts. To that end, if anyone has any questions stemming from what I’ve said below, or any comments, feel free to inbox me and I’ll be glad to discuss.

On democracy
Many people – mostly straight people – have said this should not be something we should even be debating or voting on. That same-sex couples should have the right to civil marriage and that there should not be a chance that this could be voted down. While I agree that, in an ideal world, this should never have been an issue, we do not live in an ideal world. The Constitution currently does not allow for same-sex couples to marry. In order to amend our Constitution, a country-wide referendum needs to take place. This was the case with divorce and will likely be the case with abortion (again) in the coming years. The fact that there has been such demand to amend the Constitution in the first place, and the fact that the government have acknowledged the demand and put the amendment to a referendum, is significant. However we may feel about our right to marry being debated and voted on by everyone in the country – and I’m not jumping for joy about it myself – it is important that we recognise this as a positive move.
Of course, the country being a democracy means that its citizens are free to vote either way and campaign either way. While I am much less than delighted that people can freely claim that a relationship of mine may be less worthy of marriage than that of an opposite-sex couple, they are allowed to do so, and as we’ve seen, they’ve gladly embraced the opportunity.
The tearing down, defacing and vandalism of their campaign posters is not something that I support, and I am disappointed in these actions and in the hate and threats that certain No campaigners have received directly from supporters of the referendum. Firstly, this is playing right into their hands and allowing them to easily dismiss the Yes campaigners by painting us as immature and bullying. Secondly, it has opened up a painstaking dialogue about the No campaigners’ ‘right’ to vote no, and has caused them to play the ‘many No voters are afraid to admit that they are voting No and doesn’t that undermine equality??’ card. And thirdly, and worst of all, directly sending a person hate and threats is an unacceptable thing to do in any situation. Full stop, no excuses, no wiggle room. I know it hurts that they are campaigning against our right to marry, and to be fully protected under the Constitution. It hurts me beyond anything I can explain. But sending hate and threats is never acceptable.

On ‘Every Child Deserves a Mother and a Father’
This was a curveball which took a lot of us by surprise upon the debut of the No campaign posters (which was about as modest as a slap in the face), especially young people such as myself who were born after the decriminalization of homosexuality in Ireland in 1993, and so had never experienced until now any publicized political debates and campaigns in Ireland concerning members of the LGBTQ+ community. But after I got my head around the fact that this was their chosen angle, in a referendum which so obviously concerns something else, I then had to ask myself how I felt about this argument. It was something that I had never thought over before, and I decided to take time to consider it thoroughly. This is what I have come up with:
I reject this outright. I reject outright the notion that every child is entitled to a mother and a father. I reject outright the suggestion that children need one parent of ‘each’* (*according to the gender binary) gender in order to be raised properly. I realise that the statement is also highly offensive to single-parent families, and opposite-sex families who avail of surrogacy and adoption, whom I will touch on later, but these are not the families against whom the No side are campaigning first and foremost. The No campaign clearly display here their view that in order for a child to be whole it needs to be raised by two parents, both its biological parents, one man and one woman, and the posters place a significant emphasis on the child’s biological mother. This perpetuates all sorts of misogynistic ideas which present (cis)women as inseparable from their abilities to bear children and suggests that it is a woman’s duty to raise any child she bears; that by a woman deciding not to raise her biological child, even if she passes it to the care of a loving family, she is somehow doing the child an injustice. The idea that a child needs two parents, of one gender and one sex each (i.e. one male who is a man and one female who is a woman, the latter of whom birthed the child), reeks of the gender binary system, and is exclusive of transgender, genderfluid, and intersex parents.
The overlying statement, however, is that a same-sex couple is simply not good enough to bring up a child; that the child needs the presence of both a woman parent and a man parent in order to be raised properly. Aside from this being, once again, a very gender-binary-centered notion, it is extremely offensive to same-sex couples. To same-sex couples who have raised or are currently raising children, it tells them that they have not been enough for their child. To same-sex couples who wish to raise children in the future, it tells them that they will never be enough. That these couples’ parenting skills and the love that they have for their children are not good enough. And lastly, it tells every single queer person in Ireland that they are not fit to be parents because of their orientation.
I reject this outright.

On everybody’s deathly fear of being called homophobic
I have lost count of the amount of claims I’ve seen – from both Yes and No camps – that voting No does not make one homophobic* (*in this case I use ‘homophobia’ as a blanket term for all queerphobia as this is the term more widely used by the Irish public). It’s clear that people will go to drastic lengths to avoid being called homophobic. People can be quick to judge and throw around labels, but homophobia has recently become a subject whose touchiness is on par with racism. The lengths that homophobes have been going to to justify their homophobia are quite amusing. But I really do feel that this is the bottom line: the belief that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples (whether one is concerned with ‘the children’ or otherwise), and the belief that they should not have equal Constitutional protection, is homophobic.
I do not mean to say that all people with these beliefs are horrible people without hearts who should be cast out of society. Quite the opposite: I believe that these people have been socially conditioned in the same way that I was and that every person in Western society is. I believe that these people are simply at a different stage than myself in the process of un-learning the beliefs that we have all been internalizing for the entirety of our lives. We are all homophobic to a certain degree because homophobia is present in all aspects of our society and we have all internalized it. The sooner we stop seeing ‘homophobic’ as a grievous offence, and acknowledge that it is an unavoidable symptom of the current Western culture, the sooner we can start to reverse the damage done by social conditioning.

On the negative impact of the referendum
I do not know what the result of the referendum will be. However, I do know that a Yes majority will not fix the irreparable damage that has been done to many Irish people throughout the course of this referendum.
Before we even consider the queer community, there are many individuals who have been and will continue to be affected by the ‘Vote No’ posters. Single-parent families are the most obvious group. Parents who have managed to get themselves and their children away from dangerous or abusive situations are now being told that they have failed their children by denying them their father/mother. Opposite-sex couples who have adopted or availed of surrogacy are being told that they are not good enough for their children. People whose spouses/partners have died are being reminded every day that their children have been left lacking. Children at vulnerable ages who come from backgrounds such as these are seeing the posters and feeling inferior because they do not have a traditional family unit. The posters are making them resent their single-parents or their step-parents.
I am a 19-year-old woman who identifies on the bi/pan spectrum. My entire family is Irish and I have lived here since I was 2 years old. I am fortunate enough to be in my second year of attending an excellent university which has a fantastic LGBTQ+ society, in which I have become more involved this year. I am over 18 which means I can get into nightclubs. I have spaces in my life which are exclusively queer. Having these spaces and meeting other members of the Irish LGBTQ+ community over the last two years has changed my outlook on my sexual identity and on my life in general. Even so, the referendum has taken its toll on my mental health and outlook. The old feelings of shame and discomfort, which never leave fully, have been extremely prominent again. There is a large amount of people in my country who believe that a relationship that I may have with a woman is less valid than an opposite-sex relationship, and that I would not be a fit parent were I with a woman. I do not know just how large this amount of people actually is and I live in fear that they might turn out to be the majority. This hurts me more than I can say.
There are young queer people in Ireland who are not in university and who are not old enough to go to nightclubs (safely), and who thus do not have exclusively queer spaces. There are also many older queer people in Ireland who have been living in isolation their entire lives and who also do not have exclusively queer spaces. I worry so so much for the mental health and wellbeing of these people, because if I am affected this badly even in the favourable position that I am in, how badly must they be affected?
Seeing posters all over our homes, in our cities, in my beloved Dublin, which declare our inability to parent, which declare us undeserving of the Constitutional protection that marriage would afford us, is endlessly hurtful. The hurt caused by the No campaign will not be repaired magically by a Yes majority vote. The relief, the pride and the gratefulness will be indescribable, but the hurt has already been caused.

On this being a positive step forward, but only that: a step
I will close this long-winded post by stating my belief that, while this is an extremely positive step forward (and I’ll most likely be off my tits in Pantibar on the 23rd if/when the Yes vote prevails), this is not the be-all and end-all of issues within the LGBTQ+ community. This referendum has done nothing to strengthen the visibilty of non-gay members of the community and nothing to highlight issues of intersectionality. While this was not the job of the Yes campaign, it certainly won’t help the people like me who are a minority within a minority group. Terms like ‘gay community,’ ‘gay marriage’/’straight marriage’ have been widely used and are exclusive of LGBTQ+ people who are not gay or lesbian. There are still all of the issues that there always have been and they will not all end with civil marriage. However, it’s a damn good place to start.

Looking forward to partying with you all on the 23rd,
Le grá agus beannachtaí,
Orna