Dear JK Rowling: Being a Werewolf Is Not Like Having HIV
Here is a not-very-secret thing about me: While by day I am TheBody.com's mild-mannered site director, by night (well, by evening and weekend) I am, in fact, a young adult fantasy author. So this morning, when tweets started rolling in about JK Rowling, lycanthropy and HIV, you can imagine I had something of an opinion.
For folks who haven't seen it, Harry Potter author JK Rowling recently commented that Hogwarts professor Remus Lupin's lycanthropy -- werewolf-ism -- is a metaphor for HIV:
"Lupin's condition of lycanthropy was a metaphor for those illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDS," Rowling reveals in the book.
"All kinds of superstitions seem to surround blood-borne conditions, probably due to taboos surrounding blood itself.
"The wizarding community is as prone to hysteria and prejudice as the Muggle one, and the character of Lupin gave me a chance to examine those attitudes."
However, despite the stigma he previously faced, Rowling reminds readers that Lupin eventually found acceptance with "a wife, a son, wonderful friends" -- not to mention helping rid the world of the most evil wizard of them all.
(Which he did. Though he also died in the process, so ...)
This isn't the first time Rowling has mentioned the HIV metaphor. Back in 2008, she described Lupin as "someone who had been infected young, who suffered stigma, who had a fear of infecting others, who was terrified he would pass on his condition to his son." She mentioned HIV then, too, as well as the stigma around it.
So, what's the problem with all of that?
The Queer Coding That Wasn't
For one thing, let's start with Lupin, a character many fans read as queer: Lupin is a character who was hiding a big secret -- one that meant other kids would have shunned him if they'd found out when he was a student and that means many parents wouldn't want him supervising their kids as a teacher. He's described as being self-loathing. He has an extremely close relationship with his male best friend, and though later in the series he marries a female character, he's also shown as unhappy and withdrawn from that relationship.
But Rowling says Lupin isn't gay. The queer coding, then, was unintentional -- it existed just to demonstrate HIV stigma in metaphor. But, while HIV can affect anyone, not just gay men, HIV stigma and homophobia are inextricably linked. You really can't explore that stigma without also looking at homophobia. Trying to do so -- writing about homophobia with no actual gay characters on the page* -- erases the very people who are most affected by HIV stigma.
That's bad enough, but things get worse when you consider how lycanthropy itself is portrayed: It's a blood-borne illness, passed mostly via biting. Lupin describes himself as a monster. The human beings who become werewolves have to be isolated (such as in the Shrieking Shack) to prevent transmitting their condition. There's no cure for it, and it turns people into mindless, dangerous killers who can't help but pass their condition on to others.
In other words: HIV-via-lycanthropy is dangerous, and so are the people living with it.
While it's easy to say that the way people react to Lupin's lycanthropy is wrong (after all, he's a good man and a good teacher; he doesn't deserve to be shunned, and Harry and his friends stick by him), the fact is, it does turn him into an uncontrollable killer who needs to be isolated for everyone's protection. Given that through the '80s and into the '90s there were actual calls to round up and isolate actual people living with HIV, using that as the solution to prevent metaphorical HIV is extremely upsetting.
And oh yeah: People living with HIV have myriad ways to prevent passing it on to others, so writing a metaphor where people can't prevent transmission is, in and of itself, stigmatizing. (And by the way, you can't get HIV through biting.)
Thanks But No Thanks
I know that lycanthropy is hardly the only metaphor used to tell stories about HIV. Vampires, who are often presented as overflowing with dangerous sexuality, have been used as HIV metaphors since the '80s. The X-Men, whose mutant status makes them perpetually marginalized in Marvel comics, had to grapple with the Legacy Virus throughout the '90s. But frankly, all of those stories have problematic aspects, and many of them -- including Harry Potter -- could be improved pretty easily, as summed up by romance author Courtney Milan:
Here's an idea: you could deal with the stigma of HIV by having an HIV+ character who lives a rich, full life and it's not a big deal.— Courtney Milan (@courtneymilan) September 9, 2016
* Yes, Rowling says that Dumbledore is gay, but it's never mentioned in the books themselves. And given that he apparently only ever had one relationship, which ended in tragedy and literal warfare and death, that's not exactly a helpful representation anyway.