In an age where it’s OK to kiss a boy and like it, Glee’s Kurt Hummel at first seems an anachronistic stereotype. The fashion-conscious flamer, played by Emmy-nominated Chris Colfer, loves his show tunes, worships his divas, and can belt a high F like an Italian castrato. He is Sex and the City and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy rolled into one character—the sassy best friend who will make you over.
Primetime television shows have featured gay teen characters before. They are a great source of drama. Done right, a gay bashing or tearful coming out earns high ratings and LGBT media awards. In the mid-90s, My So Called Life battered its gay teen, Rickie Vasquez, with violent bullying, abuse, and abandonment. Dawson’s Creek made history in 2001 with its five-second kiss between two boys not afraid anymore. Fast-forward to 2010, and pretty much every dude on CW’s Gossip Girl is heteroflexible. C’mon, Kurt. Just make out with all your friends and talk about something more important—like drinking.
Kurt is not the first homosexual or gender-bending gay teen on TV, but Glee’s popularity allows his character to ignite more conversations about sexual identity than any of his ancestors. Kurt is groundbreaking in that he does fit in with his peers, although not to the point where his homosexuality is a non-issue. At the same time, Kurt is not an after-school special. Like the rest of Glee’s cast of outcasts, he is your ordinary hyperbolic teenager, but just a bit more fabulous.
Glee’s writers are using their show’s loyal audience and the recent media focus on gay bullying to teach America that no matter how “normal” male homosexuality becomes, being a teen queen requires a unique emotional toolkit. Kurt’s role was transformed this fall from a running gag in Glee’s first season, booty-shaking to Beyoncè and dressing up as Lady Gaga, to a full-season story arc. Past the obligatory coming-out phase, Kurt-centered plots are now the show’s heaviest. Despite having his father’s acceptance and supportive friends, each week Kurt faces a new challenge—isolation, atheism, violence—and grows more defensive and belligerent as a result.
Some modern television shows portray their gay characters just like any other silver screen half-wits. Their argument to viewers is that gays face the same mundane problems as any other American. These are shows where homophobia does not exist and breaking gender norms is ignored by the rest of the cast or fuels an endless source of witty repertoire, ẚ la Will and Grace. Although entertaining, they feature sanitized gays, far from the reality of a closeted teenager in Ohio.
Kurt allows Glee’s writers to say that gay characters are normal, but that their sexuality shouldn’t be ignored. Sure, gays have friends and family and can be just as jealous and vapid as any other primetime television stars, but Glee doesn’t shy away from homophobia. A boy like Kurt at most high schools would attract bullies.
Viewers see him thrown against lockers and into dumpsters and mocked for his over-the-top outfits—a personality quirk that makes him stand out. The writers also refuse to portray Kurt as a saint. He manipulates his friends, is extremely self-motivated, and talks about his homosexuality to the point of obnoxiousness.
You can almost hear the discussions in the writer’s room with recent episodes. Kurt ‘s friendship with rival glee club singer Blaine (played by 20-something dream Darren Criss) is the ultimate “It Gets Better” message. Kurt walks into Blaine and his posse as they perform an all-male cover of Katy Perry’s Top 40 hit “Teenage Dream.” The song, which features one boy singing to another, is Glee’s best-performing single on the billboard charts. Within one episode, Kurt has someone to confide in and the courage to stand up to bullies.
For the first time, a television show’s fame is exposing families across the political landscape to empathize with a gay teen’s experience. A closeted teen scared of his own identity can watch the show with his mother, eying her reactions as Kurt overcomes the unique challenges of being young and gay while remaining fabulous. Whether or not these boys wear feather boas to sleep or kick around a football with their pals, Kurt’s identity is a topic that these boys can talk about with their parents. Glee’s greatest contribution to American culture may be the conversation that starts, “Mom, I’m like Kurt.”