27 November 2010

My So-Called Queer Life

My So-Called Queer Life
© Rhianon Elan Gutierrez
Originally published for the Producers Guild of America Diversity on November 26, 2010
Written November 16, 2010

Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer)
in Glee (FOX).
Rickie Vasquez.  Justin Taylor.  Kurt Hummel.  They are three of a growing list of gay teens in mainstream television shows.  Rickie (Wilson Cruz) hung out with Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, Justin (Randy Harrison) was fiercely political on Queer as Folk, and Kurt (Chris Colfer) is currently one of the stars in the Glee ensemble.  All three characters have storylines dealing with familial pressure, violence, and bullying as the result of homophobia.  Colfer’s Kurt is a standout because of his voice, style, and storyline, which has been one of the more deeply explored ones in the series, such as the bullying that he experiences in school and his relationship with his father Burt Hummel (Mike O’Malley).

The bullying of LGBTQ youth has become an issue of national concern due to the recent suicides of gay youth.  The three actors mentioned above are openly gay and have spoken out about bullying, in particular Chris Colfer and Wilson Cruz.  Many LGBTQ performers and their allies have been involved with such campaigns as NOH8, The Trevor Project, and the It Gets Better Project to pledge messages of acceptance and support.  These issues may be getting a great deal of media exposure now, but the truth is that they’ve been around for a long time.  We’re just now really giving them serious attention.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters represent 3.9% of series regulars on broadcast television, according to GLAAD’s Where We Are On TV Report for the 2010-11 year.  My So-Called Life only lasted one season but viewers got to see Rickie deal with violence at the hands of a family member.  Queer as Folk was groundbreaking during its five-year run and showed us the good and bad aspects of being out as a gay person: the political and communal pride, the anger from family members, and the pain of relationships.  Glee is a phenomenon in itself.  It features various high school archetypes: the jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, punks, and outcasts all joining together to sing show tunes and dance.  In the episode “Wheels,” Kurt wants to sing a solo but worries that his father will be embarrassed to have a gay son so he intentionally messes up the note on his solo.  In a later episode, he tries to act more masculine by emulating Burt’s hyper-masculine outdoorsy style and making out with cheerleader Brittany.  Burt eventually tells his son that he likes him for who he really is, but not before Kurt has to repress his true desires to satisfy his father’s image of masculinity.  It’s obvious that his father, who is a single dad raising his only son, is unsure of how to react to Kurt’s queerness.  In The United States of Tara (Showtime), Marshall Gregson (Keir Gilchrist) finally declares “I’m gay” to his father, Max (John Corbett).  Max says, “I know” and moves on.  Prior to this revelation, Marshall explored his sexuality with a fellow male student and with a close girlfriend.  His exploration appears natural and, though he does date a girl, he doesn’t do so to please his parents.  The parents’ background and present situation can play a strong role in how they react to their teens’ coming out.  Justin’s father in Queer as Folk threatened to send him to military school because he didn’t like how he flaunted his queerness.  Justin fought back, saying: “I’ll still be your queer son.”  Though initially uncomfortable with his son’s queerness, Burt Hummel does defend Kurt when fellow glee club member Finn (Cory Monteith) utters gay slurs.  He is also more present than any of the other Glee Club members’ parents.

In the “Never Been Kissed” episode, Kurt deals with incessant bullying and finds the courage to stand up against it with the help of a gay friend, Blaine (Darren Criss), who tells Kurt that he shouldn’t leave his school like Blaine did just because he wants to escape the bullying.  He texts him “Courage.”  We see this message also plastered in Kurt’s locker at the end of the episode.  By then, he’s confronted the closeted bully who kissed him and harassed him twice more.  There have been mixed opinions about this episode from viewers and advocates.  Some feel like the issue of bullying is addressed too softly while others applaud the attention given to the issue.  Creator Ryan Murphy told The New York Times that he had long planned to do an episode on bullying because they had shown Kurt getting thrown in the dumpsters and getting slushied.  Kurt’s choices have also been discouraged by other students because of his openness about being gay, most recently when he wanted to do a duet with new member Sam (Chord Overstreet).  In his interview, Murphy talks about how Blaine, despite being talented and openly gay, is actually “tormented” and not a “Clark Kent-like character” and how the homophobic bully who kisses Kurt is actually based on someone that Murphy knew who came out in his 20s.  His interview puts the episode into perspective.  Murphy further states: “At the beginning, it is about the Chris Colfer character, certainly.  But as we get deeper into the episodes, it will be about how all the other kids are tortured and bullied.”  We have yet to see how Kurt’s father reacts to this particular experience (as he is recovering from a heart attack), but I’m a bit more curious to see how the other characters will deal with bullying and if there will even be any parental or administrative involvement.  

Wilson Cruz, when interviewed by Chicago Pride about his role on My So-Called Life (1994), said: “I think it was a little too real and too honest. People want to escape when they come home, and that show wasn't about escaping; it was a mirror.”  The show, which had a much darker tone than Glee, explored Rickie’s experience with a violent uncle in a very real and painful way at a time when AIDS was the topic of concern with gay characters.  I wonder how Rickie’s story would be developed if the show still existed today, and how Kurt’s story will evolve in the coming seasons.  The difference between the two is that Glee, despite having a diverse cast and exploring issues that teens face, continues to feel very much like a fantasy.  I wonder if it will be able to have the right blend of the musical and the serious to get a strong message out to LGBT youth about healthy relationships and bullying?  Is it important for it to do so?  I think so, because our youth are watching.

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