When I was fourteen, my friends—all of us with conservative, religious, Southern parents—used to smuggle makeup into school: lipsticks hidden in jeans pockets, little tubes of foundation shoved in their pencil cases. They’d apply their makeup in bathroom mirrors and purse their lips to kiss their own reflection. Growing up in a culture that was determined to convince young girls their sexuality was shameful and sinful made secrecy not only the obvious choice, but the necessary one. This was a matter of gender expression and reclamation, of establishing agency over a body that had recently begun to sexually develop, to hold the reins of their own sexuality in a society determined to commodify their femininity.
I didn’t sneak makeup into school. My backpack was full of a different kind of contraband, and in the bathroom before first period I would change out of my emo uniform du jour and into oversize cargo pants and the mens’ shirt I’d stolen from my dad’s closet. I went to an arts high school, which meant that when I showed up to meet my friends on the library steps where we always hung out before class and told them I think I’m a guy, actually, their response was just: “Cool.”
This phase, if you want to call it that—my parents certainly would have—lasted about a week and a half. It was the fear that I couldn’t deal with, the slow-rising dread that my family would find out, that I was making a mistake, that because another part of me still liked wearing skirts and lipstick that meant I was just lying to myself about the gut-deep need to have someone call me a nice boy.
I took off my men’s clothes and took my queerness underground. And by ‘underground’ I mean, of course, to the internet.
Circa age fourteen, the Harry Potter fandom was just beginning the ascent to its frenzied peak. I had a livejournal, a deadjournal, a greatestjournal, an insanejournal, a dreamwidth…every journal it was possible to have, pretty much, which seems like overkill until you realize that a different part of fandom occupied each of these far-flung corners of the online diary landscape. My favorite fanfic-sharing community was on livejournal, but my favorite role-playing game was on greatestjournal, but the anon meme was on dreamwidth—you get the picture.
I was a Harry Potter early adopter. I’d read the first books when they were still just UK editions borrowed from a friend who’d gone to England on summer vacation. I’d suffered through the three-year gap between books four and five like everyone else, a period which spawned a massive flood of fan trilogies—Harry Potter and the whatever of whatever—meant to serve as the fanficcer’s fantasy of how the rest of the series might turn out. I’d scribbled my fair share of fanfiction, posted long essays—‘meta’, we called them—on various Harry Potter-related topics of amateur scholarly debate. I was also member of several RPGs where the whole point was that you played one character, and everyone else played different characters all complete with their own personal online journals, and you all interacted with each other in a round-robin style of communal fic-writing.
The golden days of Harry Potter fandom is one of those phenomena you had to see to believe. Harry Potter obsession swept through the culture–everyone knew their Hogwarts House (mine is Ravenclaw, by the way). Everyone had a theory on whether Snape was good or bad. Everyone had a favorite possible ending. Harry Potter, to us, was possibility: maybe there really was magic hiding behind the mundane veneer of our real lives. Maybe one day we’d be able to leave our boring schools, turn our backs on the mean girls who bullied us, and escape into a world where we had extraordinary powers and would be taught how to use them.
Perhaps Harry Potter was especially appealing to queer kids. In that world, we could imagine no one caring who you loved or what gender you were. People at Hogwarts would be way too busy drinking pumpkin juice and transforming chairs into birds to worry about being homophobic.
We lived out these possible-lives online, through fandom. For me–in the roleplaying games, as well as in my fanfics–I had something like a brand. I only ever played queer people. Across the board, regardless of my characters’ genders, everyone was always very, very gay.
Fandom in those days was rife with The Gay. Slash fanfiction—fic involving same-gender couples—wasn’t some niche interest, it was mainstream. And everyone that I personally knew who was writing slash at the time was queer.
Slash was one of the first places I explored my fluid gender and sexual identities. I could write characters—importantly, I could write male characters—who shared my identities, who liked people of all genders, who were confident and proud in their sexualities. My mind exploded into this world and I created all these lives stitched into the fabric of Harry Potter’s setting and characters. I made Remus Lupin and Sirius Black shamelessly queer. I had Gellert Grindelwald say I prefer men in eighteen ninety-fuckin’-nine, and what of it? My characters weren’t hiding their identities. I had memorized the stretch of forty-one lines in Order of the Phoenix during which Remus Lupin’s eyes remained “fixed on Sirius”–proof positive of their love. I had underlined (twice) the part where Dumbledore told Harry, “You cannot imagine how his ideas caught me, Harry, inflamed me. […] Grindelwald and I, the glorious young leaders of the revolution.” As far as I and about a gazillion other people were concerned, this was Rowling whispering through the pages, it’s true, they’re in love, they were just like you.
But to a certain extent, there was a separation: those characters were just that—characters. They weren’t me. And as gratifying as it was to write fanfic about queer Draco Malfoy, the truth was…it hurt, in a way, to write dramatic and passionate romances for these characters when I’d never get to have that for myself. Or, not in the same way. I still saw my future the way a fourteen-year-old Southern girl is taught to see her future: go to college, meet your husband, marry young, have a house and two kids by twenty-eight. No dramatic and passionate romances for me.
But the need to explore this side of my identity spilled out of fandom and into other parts of my life. That same year, still fourteen, I remember writing a book for NaNoWrimo—featuring a whole lot of gay people, as always—and telling everyone on the NaNo forums that I was a twenty-year-old bisexual man with a live-in boyfriend named Christopher. I hungrily devoured every reply to my posts, every time I was referenced with the pronoun he, every time someone called me by my fake (male) name. I wanted that to be my real life so badly it felt like it might eat me up inside. I wanted to be this strange man I was pretending to be—to wake up one day in a man’s body, to walk through the world with the confidence that I was exactly who I was meant to be. But even then, I wondered…if I were born male, would I want to be a girl instead? Because for all I fantasized about being a dude, some part of me still loved all things feminine.
Maybe, I decided, the whole I’m-a-guy thing in ninth grade was a fluke. Maybe these dreams were better relegated to the imagination.
Only six years later, in college, the same shit happened all over again. This time, at least, it was easier. I was part of a friend group that was itself almost entirely queer. We had leadership positions in the university queer alliance, we went to the gay club every weekend, we asked for personal pronoun preferences when we met people. So when I confessed to my suitemate that I thought I might be a transgender man, she got it. She helped me shop for clothes and fawned over my new masculine haircut. We practiced doing my makeup in a way that made my face look more masculine: pronounced cheekbones, sunken temples, the hint of an Adam’s apple shaded onto my throat. I still remember the thrill I got the third time we went out and I was dressed in men’s clothes, calling myself Gabriel, and overheard someone I didn’t know say that guy’s really hot and point Right. At. Me.
I broke out the laptop again. I started writing more slash fanfic. I poured myself into the fictional male identity that I so badly wished was the reality I was born into. I’d spent the past several years role-playing Rowena Ravenclaw, digging deep into the female side of my identity, but now that felt fundamentally wrong. I couldn’t relate to this girl, even though I’d–in many ways–created her. I didn’t want to let her into my mind and heart. It was like some part of me worried that if I wrote about a woman, her femininity would infect me.
This time, I’m-a-man lasted a year and a half. The desire for long hair and soft edges re-emerged from deep inside me like a bad omen. Maybe, I thought, I was fundamentally broken. A real trans person wouldn’t keep changing their mind. Or, on the flip side, maybe I was a trans man…just too chickenshit to take the next step.
I mustered up the nerve to tell my college friends I wanted them to call me Victoria again. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Apparently I can’t make up my damn mind.” And that was when someone asked me if I thought I might be bigender.
I’d never heard that term before. I went back online, to my slash-loving queer Harry Potter community, and floated that word on tumblr. And it turned out I wasn’t alone. Those same friends who wrote gay fanfic, who role played queerified HP characters online, had also discovered something about themselves in the process. Ginny and Luna made me realize I’m gay, someone said in my askbox. Someone else: Harry/Draco fic was the first time I got to feel like a man. Or, I don’t know what gender I am, but I know it’s not the one I was born with.
A whole new set of terms presented themselves to me, buoyed into my inbox from the mouths of these queer slash fanatics: nonbinary, genderfluid, genderqueer.
Would I have figured out I was bigender without Harry Potter? Definitely. But it might have taken me that much longer—or I might have wasted even more time worrying about whether my identity was real. As the Harry Potter kids informed me, no cis person spends this much time agonizing over their gender.
Back in fandom days, we didn’t need anyone to tell us if the Harry Potter characters were gay or not. They just were. They were gay because we said so, they were gay and in love and they were going to have brilliant, happy lives. Harry Potter fandom took a set of books that were almost aggressively straight and cisgender and colored them in with rainbow ink. We wrote our own stories in new iterations over and over, each RPG character or one-shot fic one step closer to embracing our own queer identities. If these characters can be happy, so can I.
Recently, JK Rowling has come forward to retroactively canonize some of these relationships: Albus Dumbledore was gay, she said first, but the relationship wasn’t physical. Only then she came back years later to say actually, the relationship was physical, and passionately so. As a teen reader, this kind of confirmation of queerness in Harry Potter would have made me unspeakably happy. I’d have seen it as validation of my identity from the author of my favorite book series. But as an adult queer, I have come to expect more from the media I consume. It’s not enough to say the characters were gay—I want to see them be gay on the page. I want true representation of the entire spectrum of queerness, written in ink. That’s the kind of representation queer fanfic writers created for ourselves in the heyday of Harry Potter fandom, and it’s the representation we’ve come to demand from the original source material. Queer readers deserve to see ourselves depicted in literature. Transformative works like fanfiction will always be an important and wonderful part of exploring a fandom—but one thing that might have helped my teenage self come to terms with their gender and sexual identities earlier isn’t more fanfic…it’s more queer characters depicted in canonical media, as casually as cisgender straight characters have been since forever. If I could give my fourteen-year-old self anything, it would be this: the gift of opening a book and discovering a character who identified as both male and female, who was both bisexual and bigender—and who was, above all, proud.
Victoria Lee grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent twelve ascetic years as a vegetarian before discovering spicy chicken wings are, in fact, a delicacy. She’s been a state finalist competitive pianist, a hitchhiker, a pizza connoisseur, an EMT, an expat in China and Sweden, and a science doctoral student. She’s also a bit of a snob about fancy whisky. Victoria writes early in the morning, then spends the rest of the day trying to impress her border collie puppy and make her experiments work. Her debut novel, The Fever King, is available now. It’s sequel, The Electric Heir, is due in March 2020.