JKR’s Male-to-Monster: Voldemort’s Transphobic Coding

JK Rowling’s transphobia is on full display in the text of Harry Potter, and I’m tired of pretending it’s not. The best example of this is her main villain, Lord Voldemort, being a Male-to-Monster transsexual. (A MtM, if you will.)

Voldemort said “Dead Names Stay Dead”

I’ll break it down for you. Voldemort’s physical transition from bright and handsome young man into a waxy, nose-less, red eyed, snakelike Dark Lord is coded in anti-trans sentiment. It’s an allegory for her true thoughts on transition. Voldemort reflects all of what Joanne Rowling thinks is evil: fascism, Nazism, murder, and the dreaded, aforementioned medical transition. Let’s take a walk through memory lane.

To start, Voldemort’s birth and childhood.

He was conceived under a love potion — sexual assault— and the story goes that he cannot love because of this (monster point number 1 — and I’m going to stop counting now because if I added them all up, this bit would get old quick). A clunky metaphor that has some not-so-great implications, but a metaphor all the same for generational trauma and how it can affect us even beyond the lifespan of our parents, as Voldemort grew up an orphan. During our moments witnessing him as a child, the text makes it clear to us that there is something wrong with this child. He is hurting other people, behaves differently from the other children, and is a social pariah.

But beyond that, he is a child who knows he is Different. Like, different from the other children in a way that none of them have words for, but still somehow an understanding of. Different in the way that he knows he has worth, has value, despite his current circumstances. He is isolated from resources, from care, and from understanding of who he is. These experiences overlap strongly with what it is to grow up trans, in my experience and many other trans people I’ve heard speak of theirs.

Moving onto his adolescence —

There’s a fun fact I found out early in my days of delving into the Harry Potter fandom— out of all of the characters in the series described as “handsome,” young Voldemort is the recipient of the word the most times in the narrative. (From what I remember, the second most handsome character is Sirius Black.)

Now, we could say something about Harry here — and don’t worry, fanfic authors certainly have — but what I find keenly interesting here is this notion of pureness — of beauty — being preserved. The notion of ‘but you were so beautiful/handsome’ is often weaponized against trans people. Against trans men specifically, there’s the idea of the ruining of a pretty girl. This is reminiscent in works like Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. Against trans people as a whole, there’s the fear of leaving behind what “God gave you” to pursue something else, something synthetic, something “false”. Even within trans people ourselves, there is a fear of being ugly, of not adhering to the cis gaze and being put up to the test under cis beauty standards. Much of this fear derives from a transphobic society, some of it internalized transphobia, some of it is dysphoria manifesting (or perhaps a combination of the two), and all of it is painful. The truth is, trans people don’t need to achieve any sort of beauty to be worthy of respect. But transphobia fetishizes “purity” and “natural beauty” particularly in transmasculine people. Oh, what a shame. Another gender traitor. You were such a lovely girl.

Do you remember in Chamber of Secrets, when we found out that Voldemort killed Moaning Myrtle via Basilisk in the girl’s lavatory? Yes, young Voldemort, reclaiming a forgotten piece of his family’s history, committed the worst crime a young man can ever possibly commit: stepping foot into the girl’s bathroom. Look at the danger — a cis girl is dead! Because apparently, this is what happens when you let any ol’ person enter any bathroom they want all willy-nilly — THEY OPEN CENTURIES OLD CHAMBERS LEFT BY THEIR ANCESTOR TO COMMIT HATE CRIMES. I cannot think of a more ridiculous made up set of circumstances to put “the bathroom debate” into your children’s story about magic school, years before it was a debate!

There’s a scene in the books that didn’t make it to the movies where we see Voldemort in his 30s return to Hogwarts to ask for a teaching job.

What has he been doing since he left school? Well, after a brief stint as a thrift store cashier, he disappeared for a decade. Presumably to travel Europe — or the world — in search of various forms of Dark Magic. This one may be a bit of a stretch, but there’s a part of my mind that is reminded of how easily accessible trans surgery and medical care is in other parts of the world other than Britain. Places like Thailand, where you could fly in and get transfeminine bottom surgery on the cheaper from any number of experienced surgeons for years before trans medicine got its international spotlight.

The reason I bring up surgeons is that when we see this older Voldemort, his countenance has changed. His face is waxy now. He’s lost the gorgeous purity he had in his evil youth that I mentioned earlier. The implication here is that he’s had all this experience with dark magic, and clearly experimented with some of it. In the text, we know he’s made multiple Horcruxes at this point. But in our reading of it, in addition to the mysterious, scary going to another country to change your body aspect, there’s the additional aspect of Voldemort coming to Dumbledore and asking for the teaching job, which Dumbledore immediately rejects.

This lends itself to another notion: the idea that physical transition is dangerous to expose young people to. Again, this is an extension of this reading of the text. It’s been made clear that Voldemort is dangerous around children for much more than that. But viewing Voldemort’s physical transformation into “Monster” as an allegory for transition, the idea that older trans people could “infect” young people with the idea that they could do anything they wanted with their bodies is absolutely a fear transphobes have.

Which in turn, leads us to the third aspect I wanted to talk about in this scene. This memory is the first time in Dumbledore’s and Voldemort’s relationship where Voldemort mentions his new name. He alludes to it, rather than speaking it out loud, but Dumbledore makes it clear he’s heard the news, and refuses. This isn’t the first time in the books that Dumbledore refuses to call Voldemort by his name, but it is the first in Voldemort’s life. Time and again, this is portrayed as the morally correct action by the text. Again, this is Dumbledore, in direct opposition to Voldemort, being portrayed as good to offset Voldemort’s evil.

This notion of refusal to use a person’s chosen name is a common attitude with transphobes. Throughout the whole series, Dumbledore models an attitude I’ve seen in a lot of religious folks who “don’t believe” in transsexualism. The idea that if you call a person by their dead name, they’ll remember who they really are, the gender they were born as, and that calling them by their chosen name only feeds into our “delusion”. (My Mormon uncle did this to me, for instance.)

Dumbledore’s insistence on calling Voldemort “Tom” actually achieves the opposite effect that he wants. Instead of recognizing Voldemort as a human being who has the autonomy to dictate a name for himself, he instead insists that he, Dumbledore, knows better than Voldemort what Voldemort’s name is and what’s best for him. The most insidious part, as far as we can tell in Harry’s viewpoint, the narrative frames him in the right! Wouldn’t it be better if Voldemort could just learn to love his birth family, the fact that he’s a half-blood, and love having his father’s name? Wouldn’t it be nice if he could heal from the pain of otherness and everyone could just hold hands? This Dark Lord does evil and holds a prejudiced, harmful view of the world misinformed by his trauma, but the text doesn’t want to engage with him that way. It wants to paint him as monstrous and inhuman, which is why Dumbledore needs to take his autonomy away, and know what’s best for him, because he is becoming a Monster.

The imagery used in Voldemort’s Monster form only drives this further home — the biblical snake being a key allusion, as JKR is Christian. Red eyes to offset our hero’s green ones. Skin the color of bone, the texture synthetic and waxy. At this point in the narrative, he has yet to achieve all of these looks, and is in an in between, transitional stage. If I were to compare it to a transition timeline, I’d say he’s about a couple years into HRT, maybe having undergone one of potentially many surgeries.

This brings us to the matter of his death.

The whole point of Voldemort’s arc, his becoming a Monster, was that in the end, he couldn’t escape what made him human: death. He was only a man after all. The idea of the transsexual as a monster is not new, and as usual, there’s biological essentialism that comes into play. The idea that no matter how much medical transition trans people go through, they still remain, at their core, their assigned sex at birth. The word “man” is used in the end, to cement the idea that transition is futile.

“You’ll never escape what you were born as!” There’s this idea that we’re running from something, that Voldemort is running away from humanity, ignores that trans people are often instead tired of hiding. We are tired of running. When we transition, and get affirming medical care, we don’t run except to escape discrimination and bigotry. We settle into our bodies. We find contentment, and happiness. We find joy in ourselves and our physicality. We stay.

I want to take the time to acknowledge the fundamental opposition that exists within Voldemort’s character:

That he represents a sort of queerness, which could be seen as an allegory for medical transition, as I posit here, but also is very clearly meant to be a magical neo-Nazi.

Not only just one, but a leader of a fascist, racist movement intended on the subjugation of nonmagical people. These two identities are at odds with each other. In history, Nazis killed queer people, gays and trans alike. Nazis burned books about trans medicine, and pushed trans medicine back decades, if not longer, by not only the destruction of medical advancement, but the genocide and mass murder too. And so this gross misunderstanding of transness leads to the false conflation and merging of these ideas. It’s important for us, as critical readers, to be able to dissect these ideas and speak about them, to help fight against the transphobic idea that these ideas are in alignment. They are not.

Additionally, there are other ways in which Voldemort is coded as queer. Canonically, he is aromantic. The series uses it as another way to vilify him. Prior to the Cursed Child’s release, the series never made any notion of him engaging with anyone else sexually, thus implying his asexuality or perhaps closeted homosexuality. A lot of fan works I’ve read include the possibility of Voldemort having Monstrous genitals, or snakelike genitals, which only helps fuel my reading.

In the end, I wrote this for the person I was at 16 — the dysphoric and neglected trans boy who over-identified with a Dark Lord in the most popular book series of all time.

I was raw, afraid, and confused. I had so much anger. I didn’t know how to live as me. I didn’t know I was being coerced out of what I knew I needed. But in my hands, there was a story of a kid who also knew he was different, who grew up to achieve what he wanted despite a lack of love in his childhood, who chose to be ugly and monstrous, just as my religious upbringing told me I was, and find power in that despite it all. And it turns out, that’s what I needed.

JK Rowling didn’t know that when she wrote her big bad as a transsexual allegory, she inadvertently helped one survive. My relationship to this series will forever be complicated, but there’s no doubt I’ve had one, and it has shaped me for the better.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
DE Hamilton

DE Hamilton

just a trans fag who loves books