The Age of Not Believing…

I’ve wanted to articulate this for a very long time as a lot of people (some total strangers and others far closer to me) have asked about my recent apparent dislike for a certain author ‘Oh but you used to love them!’But you were their biggest fan?!’. An author whom I acknowledge, I used to view as an inspirational figure and one who’d had both a deep formative influence in my childhood, it turned I was connected to them in more ways than I’d initially realised…but whose recent actions and statements over the last few years have revealed an ugly prejudice which sadly has utterly tainted both love of their work and in my humble opinion their overall cultural worth.

I am referring of course, to J.K. Rowling.

I am writing this to explain both why I admired and felt so close to that author and her series, and why their continued insistence on abusing their global platform to spreading misinformation and bigotry which is actively increasing prejudice and hostility against an already marginalised minority community – is inhumane and unforgivable.

Anyway this blogpost is my own very personal and in all likelihood it will be a long winded explanation as to my feelings on all things Potter, but this is an attempt to explain that there is nothing knee-jerk or arbitrary about my decision to turn my back on a once beloved universe forever.

The Wizard and I…1997-2000.

To start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). My relationship to the aforementioned author began in 1997, with the publishing of the first book in HP series Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone it was bought for me by my Mum because with my terrible bottle-top glasses masking my brightly green-hazel eyes, an awful unruly mop of brunette hair I bore a strong resemblance to the boy of the front cover. The personal connection I experienced with the book was instantaneous and felt almost rarely unique (little did I know that although one of the first fans of the books I’d become one of millions).

And although I wasn’t an orphan (or even an only child being raised in a cupboard under the stairs) my family was going through its most tragic of dysfunctional spells – another reason I’d been bought the first book was as distraction to fill the gaping chasm of grief that was threatening to engulf me after the death of our Father. Said death led to yet another cross-country move (I joined my fifth school of eight in the Autumn of 1997) which left me with no friends but my remaining family who loved me and we were all lost in our own personal islands of grief. So as a friendless new kid again, I leant in to my defining personality traits of ‘books and cleverness‘ in order to survive and some books and book series became extremely important forms of escapism.

The first three books in the HP series were released on an annual basis each summer meaning that for the first three years of our shared existence Harry Potter and I were the same age* (*as in we were the same age in number of years old/same school year, JKR eventually retconned Harry’s DOB to 31st July 1980 six years earlier than Harry would’ve been to be 10 turning 11 in the summer of 1997).

This similarity in age coupled with Harry’s struggles with being bullied by others and fight to find his place in the world along with the constant comparisons people would make to Harry’s striking resemblance to his dead father (really the most double-edged of comments from well intended but misguided elders you can make to someone who has lost a parent, ‘oh but you look the spit of them’!). So it’s perhaps unsurprising that I found the series particularly resonant, as I grew up so did Harry and his best friends who became an enormous comfort to me.

And I didn’t learn this until much later but in 2000 JKR published Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is actually dedicated in part to a distant relative of mine (Susan Sladden) “who helped Harry out of his cupboard”, I have never communicated this publicly previously but it used to warm my closeted gay kid heart to know that my first-cousin (twice removed) had helped bringing something so marvellous into the world in whatever capacity…

“Too Gryffindor to function” 2001-2005.

During my seventh and penultimate school, I encountered some of the worst bullying in my life after having made the mistake of entrusting my big secret (that I knew at fifteen that I was most definitely gay), to one of my new “friends”. After I told this friend in confidence she decided to tell her loose-lipped boyfriend who deliberately shared the news around the school which I’d only been attending for approximately 9 months. Which led to instant notoriety as a relatively anonymous and historical-friendship-group lacking new kid nerd was easy to bully, but a gay new kid nerd in 2001 while English schools were still under the oppressive grip of Section 28?

I was an insecure bully’s ideal target – I even lived in a neighbouring town from my secondary school so there was little chance of any of the bullies’ actions ever coming back to bite them and that’s before we get into the School faculty’s insistence on either turning a blind-eye to what was happening or persuading me “not to worry my mum with it” (mum was an successful and prominent Principal of a neighbouring FE college connected to the secondary school at the time. It wasn’t out of concern for her but fear of her reaction that they hushed things up) and those were the more supportive staff, some actually believed that Section 28 authorised them to ridicule, mock and bully me themselves (well they weren’t promoting it were they?).

Rather than crumple under the onslaught of homophobic bullying I became the campest / bravest version of myself I knew how to be at the time. Which often meant retorting to bullies who falsely accused me of wanting to perform sex acts on them as insult that I’d only consider it if they stopped being such a tease a dropped their trousers and got on with it because I was such a popular, busy boy. Wise? Definitely not, but by embracing my identity and being unapologetically brave and unspoken about it I learned and grew up a lot (I also got good at hiding bruises, ignoring insults and standing up to bullies).

By this stage HP wasn’t just that book I’d been given because I looked like the boy on the cover, the series was a global bestselling children’s book phenomena on a scale unlike any seen before (though still not quite at its zenith) and a firm favourite for readers of a certain age. A few years later in 2004 one of my best friends introduced me to my future ex-boyfriend with “don’t mind Nick getting fiery and political, he’s great but too Gryffindor to function sometimes”.

Dumbledore’s Army and Awkward Truths 2005-2020.

Gradually the books of the HP series became longer and more spaced out (by this point the WarnerBros film franchise was fully ascendant and the Potter publishing phenomenon was in full force), and my love for them was obviously shared by multiple generations. Other weird quirks emerged which made me love the series more, I didn’t even mind when some Potter pals jokingly called me Tom Riddle or Voldey/Voldemort after Joanne decided to allocate the Dark Lord my own birthday (New Year’s Eve) to just rubber stamp his innate mid-winter wickedness.

By the time the final book in the series published, I was working for a languages college as an events co-ordinator and actually took a group of the older teenage students to the Waterstones’ in Hastings for a midnight launch of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows so that we could all enjoy it as so that we could all savour the last instalment together. Soon after the buzz and bestselling chart dominance of the finale began to wane, J. K. Rowling elaborated on multiple aspects of the Harry Potter universe (prior to the launch of what would become Pottermore and the Wizarding World) including revealing the non-shock subtext that Albus Dumbledore, despite presenting as an almost wholly asexual figure throughout the series was in fact a closeted homosexual.

Many, less bias and better readers than I called this out as a wholly cynical and unhelpful form of representation – Albus Dumbledore whilst ostentatiously one of the greatest wizards who ever lived, is also also an incredibly problematic and complex figure. Not only is Dumbledore’s sole and entirely subtextual romantic partner the wizarding equivalent of Hitler (interesting choice for your gay representation Joanne), but he is clearly both hugely invested in Harry Potter and inappropriately reliant on him, constantly blurring the lines between headmaster student, father figure, surrogate son and friend. What I’m saying is there’s clearly no decent Ministry of Magic department concerned with the safeguarding of Wizarding children…

I would love to say that I recognised all of this problematic content immediately, that however would be a lie. I had always believed that Dumbledore was gay, which might have been connected to the fact that his initial appearance in the HP series was wearing purple crushed velvet spangled with gold stars a look so extra Oscar Wilde would blush. However, I felt comforted that Dumbledore to me was clearly gay and while yes he was completely romantically unfulfilled only being able to find a hot problematic wizarding Twink of his very own (we’ve all been there Albus, hun…)

But there were other comments, such as the likening of Lycans/werewolves to HIV and the AIDS crisis which did worry me, a then self-professed Gryffindor and proud Harry Potter Super fan they seemed both grossly insensitive and almost alarmingly prejudiced. I heard many whisperings from friends who didn’t like the HP series that they contained casual racism, classism, stereotypes and a lot of intentional cruelty which at the time I couldn’t begin to reconcile myself with as bearing any semblance of truth. Now as you may have guessed, I feel rather differently about those comments.

Despite my discomfort over JKR’s “ret-con inclusivity”, I would re-read the Harry Potter series from start to finish on multiple occasions, whenever I was stressed and struggling as I began my career in the publishing industry it became a reassuring relaxation technique to depend on the nostalgia of Hogwarts to cheer me up and protect me by bolstering my faith in humanity its ability to overcome prejudice and hate movements.

I even once joked with a book industry colleague as we competed and compared our Harry Potter Superfan credentials (I often wonder if that woman in the industry now shares a similar perspective to mine). To my great shock and surprise as you can find elsewhere on this website in 2016 I worked directly on the Harry Potter brand on its officially licensed colouring books, delivering an experiential marketing campaign which exceeded expectations and led to me being interviewed on the joy of Harry Potter on BBC News.

Then in 2018 JKR appeared to like a string of unpleasant and highly contentious tweets like many of her concerned fans in the queer community at the time I was convinced this must be some innocent mistake?

Perhaps Jo’s finger had slipped, and she’d like that by accident? Was her account hacked? Or maybe she didn’t know what it meant? That must be nothing to worry about still the same wonderful caring inspiring person who believe in kindness, courage and protecting those at risk from harm.

The Age of Not Believing 2020 – present

Which brings us to the more recent and jarring contemporary era, where JKR has decided a pros whatever warped logic to undo her positive cultural contribution and throw it all on a great pyre of a wholly flawed crusade attacking the Trans and NB community (along with her ‘innumerable” gay and lesbians even if they are too absorbed in their own solipsistic activity to see it). From only liking the odd (and also occasional) tweet by a “GC” individual JKR has doubled and tripled down on her apparent hatred of Trans people, who are in fact people and not ideology.

I will NOT spend the hours it would take to chronologically list the countless ways in which JKR has displayed transphobia, promoted transphobia, liked transphobia, signal boosted hatred, used rhetorical dogwhistles and sown division within the LGBTQ+ community – even had the gall to claim that she speaks for us, she’s been told we want her to say this (she does not, we do not).

That isn’t because I cannot, but because it would be severely harmful to my mental health to do so, and it would take days because citations are needed, instead I can recommend you watch this excellent video by ContraPoints which covers some of JKR’s Transphobia up to January 2021.

But just to add more recent events J. K. Rowling has;

◎falsely accused a group of people “doxing her” by peacefully protesting outside her landmark listed castle (the police dropped all charges against the people she accused),

mocked a Welsh police force who were attempting to reassure their local LGBTQ+ community following the horrific cold-blooded murder of a bisexual doctor over a typo “virtual signalling” as if that mattered more than the homophobic murder,

◎claimed to speak for innumerable gays and lesbians,

◎ sent “big love” to a Christian fundamentalist who has spoken out repeatedly against same-sex marriage, LGBTQ+ rights and LBGTQ+ inclusion in education.

◎had brunch with a group of notorious bigots at the heart of a hate movement

◎said brunch happened on the very day of a protest in held in London to properly ban conversion therapy in the UK so it would protect ALL LGBTQ+ people rather than our Conservative govt’s highly criticised decision to exclude Trans and NB people from the legislation which might offer full legal protection (guess which one was widely discussed by the mainstream media and which was downplayed?)…

◎and decided that she doesn’t like “woke” gay men with beards.

When you rush around in hopeless circles,

Searching everywhere for something true,

You’re at the Age of Not Believing,

When all the make believe is through.

Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman .

All of which has led me to believe that actually, JKR and I will never be friends, she isn’t the person I thought she was, nor the hero I would associate with her universe.

All of which is totally valid and her choice, but she is choosing to abuse her global platform to push a warped agenda clearly influenced by moral panics and misinformation.

The gates of Hogwarts are now closed to me forever but that isn’t because I misunderstood a single part of that series…

I think it’s the reverse, it is because I am “too Gryffindor to function” (‘the brave at heart, their daring, nerve and chivalry set Gryffindors apart’) and as such I believe in standing up for who and what matters most to me.

And for example;

I believe Trans Rights are human rights,

I believe in my community,

I believe in humanity overall as a whole.

Of course, some nasty people are quite entitled to their “protected beliefs”. No one can actually stop you from being racist, sexist, antisemitic, ableist, homophobic, transphobic in your heart or mind but you aren’t allowed to actually harass people or hurt them because of those prejudices, it still goes without saying that harbouring such toxic thoughts doesn’t make you a nice person.

So there we have it, this gay woke bearded bloke has cast Diffindo on his love of Harry Potter and its creator and cut it from my life forever but I won’t be quiet about why.

I wrote this blogpost partly because I am exhausted with the narrative that ‘“woke” millennials are cancelling JKR over nothing!’ which is nonsense. JK is cancelling herself, it is entirely her choice to re-centre her public identity about the “Trans issue” and harm the entire LGBTQ+ community in the process but we are entitled to critique and call that out.

Freedom of speech is not freedom of consequence. Which is why I would encourage others appalled by the author’s actions to move on to other less toxic fantasy franchises…

You never can get pesky Gryffindors to shut up when they’re riled.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow?

Rainbows, they mean different things to different people, and for thousands of years have been celebrated as a sign of hope overcoming adversity – light breaking through the clouds after a storm.

Whether the Abrahamic references to Noah’s covenant with God, or the many other non-Christian religions and mythologies — Bifrost bridge to the Gods anyone? Repeatedly stories emerge of rainbows representing peace and hope in the face of adversity, respite after conflict.

The LGBTQ+ community too has embraced the rainbow as our symbol, ever since it was incorporated into a flag by the pioneering openly gay activist, Gilbert Baker in the 1970s.

Baker’s initial design contained eight stripes and intended to have specific meanings;

The initial colours of Baker’s pride flag
and the characteristics of the LGBTQ+ people they were designed to represent.

However, at the time there was a scarcity of the hot pink fabric which led to a seven-striped version (without the hot pink) and then latterly in 1979, the Turquoise was removed to create an even number, as the flag was going to be used to flank the Pride march route – resulting in the iconic, ubiquitous six-stripe flag based on Baker’s design;

The Rainbow Pride flag as of 1979

Since 1979, this six-striped version of the Pride flag has been a popular and iconic symbol for LGBTQ+ and its distinctive colours have been adapted into clothing, signs, sidewalks, steps, tattoos and badges either as a signifier of an LGBTQ+ person or an ally. This included a revolutionary scheme in UK to roll out rainbow NHS badges to foster inclusivity into healthcare (which historically has on occasion had a problematic relationship with health providers and anti-LGBTQ+ stigma, for more on that and the scheme please read this great blog).

NHS rainbow badges were first launched by Evelina London Children’s Hospital in an award-winning scheme.

Following the COVID19 pandemic in the UK, children and families have begun painting rainbows on pieces of paper and displaying them in their windows as symbols as hope – which is a touching and completely understandable movement. This seems to have gathered new meaning and morphed into a message of support for key workers and NHS staff. Just to be clear, I do not — nor do I know a single LGBTQ+ person who is uncomfortable about that gesture.

However, as a consequence of this many organisations have seen fit to either sell rainbow Pride flags as “thank you NHS flags” or just treat the design as clipart for their own marketing and messaging. A few weeks ago on a run, I was so shocked to see this banner that I stopped and took a photo of it and posted my frustration, unease and confusion to social media;

And more recently Plymouth City Bus bragged about “rebranding” their Pride bus to show support for NHS workers. While I’m not claiming that this was the intention of the team behind it, they have effectively reduced a bus which was designed to celebrate and show support for LGBTQ+ people to just a multi-coloured commodity —

Myself and several others have criticised this not only the move itself and its messaging but also the clumsy and insecure apology ‘we are sorry if it caused offence’.

For me, for more than half of my lifetime as an openly gay man, seeing the rainbow Pride flag or its colours has made me feel; welcome, safe and amongst my tribe (LGBTQ+ people and allies). From when I was bullied at school Even as recently as February, seeing the rainbow Pride flag in Brussels made me realise I’d stumbled by happy accident into the vicinity of the LGBTQ+ neighbourhood by following the restaurant recommendation of a friend.

The rainbow Pride flag is ubiquitous, and a symbol which is recognised across the globe, including in countries where it is displayed with enormous risk owing to human rights atrocities against LGBTQ+ people. To be frank, I find it insulting to see it treated as stock template that organisations and companies can appropriate without any consideration for the marginalised community for created it for themselves.

In recent years there have been calls for the flag to be updated (particularly in the West), to better represent marginalised groups within the LGBTQ+

The progress flag which calls for better representation of Trans and POC within the LGBTQ+ community.

I respect that there are extremely good arguments for the updates in the revised design above and the individual denominations or variants of the flag which different groups within the LGBTQ+ community have created for themselves over time, just some of which are included below;

However, I personally feel that it is not the original flag that has failed, but rather the more privileged members of the LGBTQ+ community (cis white gay men like myself predominantly) who have failed to uphold it. We need to do more in order to protect, support and represent our marginalised POC, Trans, Bi and Intersex family. If the new flag was adopted globally in a heartbeat without the necessary changes it would simply be as callous a rebranding exercise as th­e bus one outlined above.

Please do not dismiss myself or any of my friends who are concerned at how readily our symbol has been co-opted into a new context.

We are entitled to feel frightened and unhappy at the ease and speed at which this has happened. While I hope that the updated flags become increasingly prominent over time, I think it is insulting to the heritage of the rainbow Pride flag created by Gilbert to throw it under the NHS bus so to speak, and pretend it doesn’t still have value to a great number of LGBTQ+ people globally.

I am more than happy for a loan of the pride colours to show support for NHS staff and key workers but…personally, I feel that proper pay, PPE and the respect they all deserve at every level would be much more meaningful than clapping and borrowing our colours ­– which to my mind are merely token gestures to assuage guilty consciences.

As brilliant, iconic and popular supporter of queer people, Dolly Parton famously once said;

The way I see it, if you want the rainbow,

you gotta put up with the rain.’

That’s true.

But we queer people have been rained on for centuries, with ignorance and persecution, we’ve earned our right to own our six-striped rainbows and its variants.

** update the BBC’s brilliant LGBTQ+ correspondent Ben Hunte has also written an article on this topic for the BBC which you can read here **