Downtime

Growing Up Without Glee

Queer media is now central to my life. But as a closeted teen, it terrified me.

A man watches Kurt in a scene from Glee.
Chris Colfer as Kurt in Glee. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by burakkarademir/iStock; FOX.

This piece is part of the Passing Issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I’m very public about being gay. I’m a writer who doesn’t shy away from personal stories, a regular (alongside my boyfriend) at my local drag bar, and a budding scholar of queer art and media. Yet despite this surfeit of professional and personal confidence, I may never stop feeling a sense of rebellion when I press play to watch Glee.

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There is seemingly nothing risky about embracing a mainstream show that was at the top of the television game within the last decade. But for me, every time I sit down with Glee I’m forced to confront the fears, prejudices, and loneliness that plagued me in high school.

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Refusing to watch musicals was one of the ways I helped myself pass as straight. I thought that if I stayed far away from theater and dance, no one would read further into my own nascent flamboyance. For a teenage me, Glee seemed dangerously gay. A ticking glitter bomb, it risked coating me in a queer shimmer that would be impossible to wash away.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a shock to anyone. People suspected I was gay since the sixth grade, and I knew the truth for even longer. However, by high school I had developed a lifestyle that mostly successfully deflected my queerness. I didn’t date anyone, and in a suburban community with high-achieving peers, I blended into the crowd of busy teenagers, cultivating a nerd aesthetic that played on reality: son of immigrant engineers, excellent student, president of Science Olympiad, unemotional, and (of course) presumably a heterosexual. “If only he had the time to date,” went the excuse of parents and friends alike.

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The media I surrounded myself with was particularly crucial in preserving my precariously closeted situation. Watching a sentimental, soap-opera-tinged show that celebrated gay, lesbian, bisexual, and gender non-conforming teens would have made obvious what my parents, friends, and everyone at school had already long wondered. I stuck to Big Bang Theory and it worked. I invited more comparisons to Sheldon Cooper than Kurt Hummel.

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Away from school and my parents, in the comfort of my room, however, I allowed myself to feel whole. I watched Kurt and Blaine duets on repeat, quickly hiding their flirty courtship behind another browser window at a moment’s notice. This clandestine activity showed me the possibility of a queer future for myself. The self-image I had constructed and the narrative I had created began to crack—but only in the tiniest ways, and, of course, only for me. Surreptitiously watching Glee clips, I tapped into the part of me that lurked beneath the surface, desires which were not limited to my sexuality, I soon learned; I also loved musicals.

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As these things go, in college, I stopped trying to pass as straight, but I surprised myself when I found out I simultaneously also stopped “passing” as a future engineer. I ultimately majored in art history and race studies. Chipping away at one part of my passing narrative brought the whole facade tumbling down, and media was central to that turning point. I took classes on LGBTQ history and was exposed to Andy Warhol’s polaroids, Félix González-Torres AIDS sculptures, and Jack Smith’s avant-garde film Flaming Creatures.

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Starting with radical queer art, at 23 I finally allowed myself to turn back to the show I yearned to watch as a teenager. In doing so, I realized that I could have really used Glee at 14. I’m even the same age as the characters. Kurt could have been the trailblazing gay kid, and I could have graduated alongside fellow out queers Unique, Blaine, and Brittany in the Class of 2013. Glee could have served as a beacon of hope for me, showing first kisses and relationships when I thought those would be impossible.

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It was easy for me, a white kid, to have seen myself in Glee. The show’s first gay love story focused on two white men. As the seasons progressed, however, it righted that lack of diversity with more complete narratives given to an interracial couple of queer women and a black trans teenager. As a teen myself, I could have seen Glee evolve and have evolved with them, watching as they followed the lives of an increasingly diverse group of people and tackled universal (but disproportionately LGBTQ) issues like suicide and bullying. Sadly, that’s just a nostalgic fantasy.

These days, shows and movies that celebrate queerness allow me to feel a sense of communion, learning from the stories they share and the diverse community they gather. Trips to my nearest theater have become a sort of pilgrimage. In 2018, I get to watch Tom of Finland immersed in a crowd of couples, lone leather daddies, and my boyfriend—an intergenerational group of gay men who are, like me, attracted to the work on screen.

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I’ve now watched, discussed, and fawned over films like Brokeback Mountain, Tangerine, Call Me By Your Name, Carol, Y Tu Mamá También, and Moonlight, which offer gorgeous, moving glimpses of LGBTQ life through the specificities and universalities of queer experiences. As a person, these remind me of my friends and chosen family. As a scholar, these offer significant insights into the politics of love, transgression, and desire.

While Glee may not be the most profound musing on the queer condition, it is nevertheless an integral through-line in my own queer history. Only by watching Glee have I confronted how media impacted my life. Remembering myself as a lonely teenager watching Youtube in the dark has made me all the more grateful for where I’ve ended up: surrounded by queers on televisions, stages, screens, and seats around me—finally watching openly. Out of the closet and into the streets; out of the browser and onto bigger screens.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.

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