How Glee‘s Chris Colfer Changed The Face Of LGBT High School Students On TV
Kurt Hummel, played by two-time Crushable 25 honoree Chris Colfer, is by no means the first queer teenager on television. Without a doubt, he borrows from Ricky Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) on My So-Called Life and Buffy‘s Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan). But while these iconic characters are remembered in relation to their shows’ tortured heroines, Kurt is undoubtedly Glee‘s star.
Through a mixture of Ryan Murphy‘s power, more open-mindedness in the 2000s, and a heartbreaking portrayal from this 21-year-old actor, Chris has given LGBT teenage characters much greater visibility on TV. He elevates all who come after him beyond their sexual orientation and makes their plotlines matter just as much as their straight co-stars’.
Compare Kurt to his queer counterparts from just 5-10 years ago. In the kind of drawn-out narrative we’re used to, it took Degrassi: The Next Generation‘s first gay character Marco three seasons to come out to his ignorant father. In the space of four episodes, Kurt is out to McKinley High as well as his dad.
USC professor Larry Gross, who specializes in LGBT representations in the media, explains why we’re seeing more LGBT youth in high school TV shows:
“Coming-out stories are standard, almost a cliché of television stories dealing with gay characters and this goes back to the ’70s and the ’80s. What’s probably different now is that the age is becoming younger and I think this reflects the fact that the sort of battleground for gay people in society includes high school and probably even includes middle school. It’s moved younger in the past decade or so, I think in part… because younger people are becoming more aware of their identities.”
The marked difference between older shows and Glee is that while characters like Willow grow into their sexuality, Kurt arrives fully-formed. From the beginning, he’s valued for his effeminate qualities. His high vocal range has challenged Rachel to more than one diva-off, and in one episode Mr. Schue relies on him to teach the football team fleet-footedness with his “Single Ladies” dance. Since the pilot, he’s proudly shown off his signature fashion sense and bluntness with his fellow outcasts. He is the king — or, as he would tell you, queen — upon his throne. Even if he gets Slushies thrown in his face every once in a while.
Not everyone has subscribed to the Kurt fan club, of course. The Gawker article “The Canonization of St. Kurt” outlines how elevating Kurt’s bullying situation and disregarding the rest of the show’s nastiness makes the Kurt-centric message disingenuous in the first place. But the point remains: We’re talking about him. To the point of obsession.
Most important is that Kurt’s plotlines are active, rather than passive. Each week he’s brainstorming a new theme or a way to evade mockery in the hallways, rather than shrinking back in fear. Even when he’s being bullied by Karofsky, instead of switching schools like Blaine did, Kurt chases after his aggressor in this scene that left viewers breathless:
Kurt: Hey! I am talking to you!
Dave: Girls’ locker room is next door.
Kurt: What is your problem?
Dave: Excuse me?
Kurt: What are you so scared of?
Dave: Besides you sneaking in here to peek at my junk?
Kurt: Oh, yeah, every straight guy’s nightmare that all of us gays are secretly out to molest and convert you. Well, guess what, ham hock? You’re not my type!
Dave: That right?
Kurt: Yeah, I don’t dig on chubby boys who sweat too much and are going to be bald by the time they’re thirty.
Dave: Do not push me, Hummel.
Kurt: You going to hit me? Do it.
Dave: Don’t push me!
Kurt: Hit me, ’cause it’s not going to change who I am. You can’t punch the gay out of me anymore than I can punch the ignoramus out of you!
Dave: I said get out of my face!
Kurt: You are nothing but a scared little boy who can’t handle how extraordinarily ordinary you are!
For all of Glee‘s faults, its decision to have Karofsky kiss Kurt and reveal himself to be battling same-sex feelings was heartbreaking and one of the most talked-about moments in season 2.
Kurt’s interests — namely, glee club — are front-and-center. Every episode has at least an update on his relationship, his quest to get out of Lima, and a new song for him to sing. By contrast, only diehard My So-Called Life fans would be able to tell you what Rickie was up to each episode.
Even more meaningfully, as we moved into season 3, viewers came to know every intricacy of Kurt’s sex life. Even though fans and queer critics were disappointed that the Blaine/Kurt sex scene was tamer than Gossip Girl, Queerty did mark Kurt’s deflowering episode as a humanizing step forward. “Regardless, bravo to Glee’s writers for not letting Kurt languish as a de-sexualized, impotent twink for yet another season,” they wrote.
Really, if you need an example of Kurt’s impact, you need go no further than Glee itself. If Kurt hadn’t touched so many people, do you really think that Ryan Murphy would have been able to introduce other queer protagonists Blaine, Karofsky, and especially Santana to such overwhelming support?
In McKinley High as well as the larger realm of LGBT characters in media, Kurt Hummel is a trendsetter. And while people may not agree with his methods in either sphere, he leaves each space better than before he appeared.