It was the 7th grade, my first year of Junior High, when I became painfully aware that I was different from most other boys. Literally painful—on a daily basis, I received beatings and punches and kicks from older, stronger kids taunting me as a “fag” and “homo.” I had never experienced anything like it before, having up until that point, been cocooned in an elementary school program of fellow talented and gifted kids who all seemed a little quirky and different. And while at my new school I was still housed in a special set of classes for high-achieving students, I was thrust onto a much larger stage filled with mean kids who exercised their aggression on my body.
I mostly felt shame and didn’t want to call attention to the abuse. I needed to stay strong. After all, my father as a federal judge had just held a trial known as Baker v. Wade—a case that would become a landmark gay rights ruling overturning Texas’ sodomy statute. My father made sure I was in the courtroom for the hearings—something that the press notice and commented upon—further complicating my situation in school. I was the “fag kid of the fag judge.” But I knew from the testimony of the plaintiff in the trial, Don Baker, that I could go grow up and have a full and wonderful life as a gay man, just like he had. I would just have to suffer abuse along the way.
My parents were separated and I didn’t want to cause my mom any unnecessary stress. Neither parent asked me directly about the beatings—how could they not notice the bruises or the apple core ground into my head on a particularly gruesome bus ride home? Worried that my sullen disposition and ongoing “illnesses” that I invented to keep me from facing school might have something to do with her separation from my father, Mom took me to see her therapist. When I revealed the truth about the abuse, he counseled my parents to get me into a private school with a more protective environment.
The story may sound slightly familiar because it’s a core pattern that continues to repeat itself across this country—and is at the forefront of my mind because it’s a troubling storyline on Fox’s hit show Glee. Troubling, because as much as I love, adore and sing-a-long to the show, there’s a part of me that cringes at the choices the shows writers and producers make when it comes to Kurt—the out, gay student suffering abuse at the hands of a bully.
Kurt’s McKinley High exists in a fantasyland—the show can portray over-the-top production numbers and push the boundaries on any number of social issues. But for some reason, when it comes to Kurt’s storylines, just when they get to the edge, the show backs off.
Last night, Mr. Schuester, Kurt’s choir teacher, picks up on the fact that Kurt is starting to exhibit signs of depression because of his isolation and abuse. But that’s as far as it goes. Does Mr. Schuester do anything? No, he’s too busy worrying about the hurt feelings of the butch female football coach. Where’s the helpful offer or suggestion to start a Gay Straight Alliance club in the school? Hey, how about super diva student Rachel head up that club and help Kurt out—she’s evidently got 2 gay Dads we’ve never seen. Where’s her help in all this? In this day and age, it’s highly likely that McKinley would have such a group. It’s as if the show’s writers and creators are playing out their own, old issues with their coming out years ago—rather than reflecting what happens, or could happen, currently. Given the amount of attention to and discussion of these issues—and the powerful platform Glee has and seems to want to wield—the show could present to America a useful solution to Kurt’s pain.
There was a glimmer of hope last night. Kurt sneaks inside an all-boys school to discover that Gleeks can be rock stars, and falls for the precious lead singer Blaine. Thankfully, the show does dispense with the stereotype that all boys at the school are gay. Finally, Kurt may actually have a boyfriend—something hugely lacking from a show that prefers to present us with more acceptable images of two female cheerleaders making out. But, as always, the show pulled back at the last minute. When Kurt confesses to Blaine that he’s depressed that his first real kiss came at the hands of a possibly gay bully, you just know Blane is going to lean in and give him a true first kiss. Nope, he slaps Kurt on the back and says, “Let me buy you lunch.” Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t be nearly as upset if the very next scene wasn’t a confession by Coach Beast that at the age of 40 she’s never been kissed by a man (oh, she’s straight, kudos for breaking stereotypes I guess). Never fear, Mr. Schuester to her rescue with a pity kiss. Come on. Mr. Schuester, who ignored the desperate pleas of Kurt, is off comforting an adult whose feelings are hurt by mean kids.
And as cute as Blaine is, I’m worried that he’s giving Kurt extremely bad advice. When Kurt tells Blaine that the bully is making his life a living hell, Blane urges Kurt not to run—that he has an opportunity to confront the bully, and stand up against prejudice. Blaine says he didn’t do that—that he ran to the fancy private school instead of standing up to his former tormenters—something he’s always regretted. Let’s forget the fact that Blaine is maybe 16, so “always” is maybe a few years. The show’s writers, through their character Blaine, has just counseled Kurt to remain in an unsafe situation—and perhaps even make it worse. Would we ever give that same advice to a woman in an abusive relationship? Tell her to stand up to the abuser and not runaway? And why should dismantling prejudice be put on Kurt’s shoulders? He’s a teenager with a million other issues to deal with alone, and now he has to be a noble martyr?
Clearly, I’ve gotten worked up about this. It’s touched a nerve in me from my own experience of being beaten, and like Blane, running to the safety of a tolerant private school (shout out to Greenhill for basically saving my life multiple times, really). To me, the problem is that Glee is choosing to tackle difficult and important subjects like gay bashing, coming out and self-esteem, but unwilling to move the discussion forward. The show creates all kinds of crazy storylines for other characters—we’ve all but forgotten about the cheerleader’s teenage pregnancy. So why not give Kurt the same chance to leap forward, have a boyfriend and more “normal” life—well, “normal” in that crazy-Glee-ified universe. Instead, the show writers are dangerously close to trafficking in stereotypes and perhaps wallowing in their own past experiences.
Believe me, I get how difficult it is to leave behind the scars of abuse. After years of therapy, I don’t believe we actually ever get over them. Hopefully, we learn to deal with the pain honestly and openly in hopes others can learn and take strength from our survival. That’s the path I hope Glee let Kurt take.