Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) was one of only four major queer teenage characters on U.S. network television between 1980 and 2000. However, Willow’s relationship with Tara began in the college setting.

The number of queer teenage characters on U.S. television increased throughout the 2000s with series such as South of Nowhere.

Kurt’s storyline continues as he faces increasingly intense homophobic bullying from thuggish football players.

Kurt eventually confronts David Karofsky (Max Adler)...

... and it is revealed that Karofsky’s homophobic bullying stems from repression.

Karofsky, however, is not depicted as a one-dimensional self-destructive figure. He later forms one half of an anti-bullying group...

... and offers a heartfelt apology to Kurt.

In this scene, Kurt encounters a reformed Karofsky at a gay bar where he reveals that he is still ‘in the closet’.

Kurt’s future boyfriend, Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss), is introduced when Kurt begins attending a private boys’ school. Blaine nonchalantly articulates his sexuality within minutes of meeting Kurt.

Villainous queer student, Sebastian Smythe (Grant Gustin), is introduced in the third season.

The queer teen ensemble is completed with the addition of cheerleaders Brittany S. Peirce (Heather Morris) and Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera).

An intimate relationship between Brittany and Santana is hinted at when Brittany says, “If sex was dating, Santana and I would be dating,” during this group phone call.

Brittany and Santana initially perform their sexual relationship for the viewing pleasure of Finn, promising him that they will make out in front of him if he buys them dinner.

The sexual nature of the relationship is confirmed when the two characters are revealed in bed together sharing “sweet lady kisses.”

However, the relationship between Brittany and Santana is most often aligned with non-verbal modes of expression such as this hand hold.

Santana rejects the “lesbian” identity label, refusing to acknowledge her feelings for Brittany.

Holly Holliday (Gwyneth Paltrow) asks Brittany and Santana if they are gay as the camera fluidly moves around them.

Santana, Brittany and Ms. Holliday perform “Landslide” as a means of starting a dialogue. Throughout this number, Ms. Holliday acts as an emotional conduit.

The framing of this musical number gives it the feel of a private conversation between Brittany and Santana.

Close ups of the expression-filled faces of both Brittany and Santana reflect a remarkable interiority to this scene.

At the end of the performance, Santana rejects conventional modes of coming out.

The dialogue between Brittany and Santana commences as Santana reveals her love for Brittany.


As a rite of passage, a personal-as-political action or gesture, a challenge to normative identity politics, or simply the negotiation of “social boundaries that define both sex and sexuality” (Monaghan 58), coming out is “embedded in the very structures of gay and lesbian culture” (Bronski 20). To come out is to acknowledge one’s romantic or sexual desires for the same sex, it is to claim the identity of being gay, lesbian, queer or any other form of non-heterosexuality, it is to act sexually on these desires, and it is to publicly declare this identity (Bronski 20). But how does this translate to the visual medium of television?  Michael Bronski argues,

“Coming out is essentially a complicated internal process, not a simple public act. Yet film [and we might also add television], more than any other narrative form—such as the novel, for instance, which can easily portray internal realities—relies almost entirely on external conflicts.” (21)

To visually articulate these internal processes, coming out on television often involves a verbal expression of sexual identity. This typically takes the form of a public or semi-public declaration—such as the conversation between Mercedes and Kurt or between Kurt and his father—that followed by a conflict that arises “between the gay person and her or his family or peer group” (Bronski 21). In contemporary teen film and television, this act of self-enunciation and the conflict that follows occupies a “pivotal position in the…narrativisation of queer adolescent subjectivity” (Davis 131). Captured in these moments, according to Davis, is often “the first experience of coming out, a self-conscious taking-on of a new, specific identity” (131).

As a narrative possibility for gay, lesbian and queer characters in film and television, the coming out narrative is only several decades old despite the fact that, as Bronski argues, it is “embedded” in contemporary queer culture (20). Until the late 60s, homosexual desire was routinely represented as “some form of social, personal or psychological tragedy” (Bronski 21). With their lives “predicated and protected by secrecy” these characters were removed of their narrative agency and “being public meant, not coming out, but being outed” (Bronski 21).

Rebecca Beirne notes that during the 1970s and 1980s, queer audiences rarely saw themselves on television and “when they did, it was usually as monsters or victims, objects of revulsion or pity. Or perhaps as a once-off ‘lesson’ in tolerance, never to be heard from again” (Beirne, Televising Queer Women 2). Although the first ‘lesbian’ kiss on television occurred in the mid 1970s on Australia’s The Box (1974-1976), it was not until 1988 that primetime U.S. television even saw its first recurring lesbian character. Even then, however, the United States and UK did not televise lesbian kisses until 1991 and 1993 respectively (Beirne). Through the late 1980s and early 1990s the coming out film gained popularity and these narratives began to migrate to television from the mid 1990s onwards, with Ellen DeGeneres’ character Ellen marking a significant milestone and coming out on the sitcom Ellen in 1997. Although ongoing gay and lesbian characters have been slowly emerging in adult-oriented television since around this period, it is important to note that ongoing gay, lesbian or queer adolescent characters have remained far less visible. In fact, there were only four major queer adolescent characters on U.S. network television between 1980 and 2000:

  • Billy Douglas (Ryan Philippe) in serial daytime drama One Life to Live (1968-2012, character appeared 1992-1993),
  • Rickie Vasquez in primetime teen drama series My So-Called Life (1994),
  • Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith) in Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003, character came out in 1999) and
  • Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003, character came out in 2000). However, Willow’s relationships with women began in a college setting, troubling her configuration as a queer teen.

Cable television offered similar fare during this period with MTV’s popular reality program The Real World (1992-present) featuring a number of young gay cast members over the age of 18. However, MTV later aired a night drama series called Undressed (1999-2002) that focused on the social and sexual interactions of high school and college students and featured a number of gay characters. The U.S .version of Queer as Folk (2000-2005) was also notable during this period for featuring a gay teenage character named Justin (Randy Harrison).

This sparseness of representation is an implication of a more general restriction on sexual expression on teen television. In the United States, it is not legal for adolescents to have sex until 18, which varies somewhat by state. Teen television finesses this by implying sexual content rather than overtly depicting it. As Victor Strasburger argues,

“Although American media are not the most sexually explicit media in the world, they are the most sexually suggestive” (273).

In terms of cinematic representation, critics have observed that films in the teen genre contain “quite a bit of passionate kissing and sexual dialogue and fewer instances of implied intercourse and intimate touching” (Callister et al 470). However, as television programs—particularly those on network television—must conform to rather strict and conservative guidelines, the medium is generally understood as being more sexually suggestive than film. Strasburg further emphasizes, “What television shows suggest, movies actually show” (274). Indeed, conservative groups often consider the overt depiction of homosexuality as ‘inappropriate’ content for adolescent audiences, rendering queerness something to be suggested or implied within many television programs. 

Despite this, the number of queer adolescent characters in television increased on both network and broadcast television steadily through the 2000s, with series such as The OC, One Tree Hill, South of Nowhere and more recently Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and 90210  all examples of this. However, although these numbers continue to increase, the fact that homosexuality is “not assumed but is itself that produces narrative complication” (Allen 611) still means that disclosure of a character’s (non hetero-) sexuality is often “substituted for any [other] possible narrative, romantic or otherwise, predicated on such a sexuality” (Allen 611).  The concerning issue is not that there are not enough queer adolescent characters on contemporary television but that they enter their respective series or narratives as heterosexual characters. Coming out is the only narrative possibility for such characters as the conventional coming out narrative relies on the assumption of heterosexuality whilst depicting the act of coming out as “the only way for a queer teenager to achieve his/her personal, social, cultural and sexual liberation” (Padva 368). In many of these examples, particularly those of the early to mid 2000s, the queer characters are transient figures, either reverting to an initial state of heterosexuality or disappearing completely once the storyline has concluded.

Discussing Rickie Vasquez’s coming out moment, Glyn Davis writes that coming out scenes in teen television “seem to reinforce the act as an individualised one…an exultant liberationist confession of one’s essential(ised) identity” (Davis 131). However, he further notes that in addition to this, scenes such as Rickie Vasquez’s coming out can offer the potential to

“enact a complicated enunciation of queerness, in which, despite privileging a liberal paradigm, a range of different modes of homosexuality are brought into play” (131).

However, it is my understanding that much contemporary television is limited in its capacity to enact this “complicated enunciation of queerness” because coming out happens just once, to one character. Further, because coming out is represented in these narratives as a climax in the ultimate process of coming of age (see: Monaghan), the act of coming out is “not only an end in itself, but the end” to this singular narrative (Bronski 20). At this point it is wise to return to the beginning of this article, to Rickie Vasquez, and consider what Glyn Davis writes:

“Rickie’s final substantial scene in My So-Called Life, then, is centred around his coming out, which would seem to suggest such a confession as a potential narrative end point… But should it not have been a beginning?” (128).

Glee asserts itself from the outset as significant because it does not represent the revelation of queerness as a singular narrative end point. Indeed Kurt comes out to Mercedes within the first few episodes of Glee, presenting an alternative to the traditional coming out narrative via a queer storyline that only begins with the revelation of the character’s sexuality. Through this, Glee represents coming out as simply another aspect of contemporary queer adolescent experience that is no more or less important than other teen issues. Further challenging the traditional representation of queerness on television in which a solitary queer character enacts a single coming out, Glee subsequently focuses on an ensemble of queer teenage characters, each of them coming out in different manners. Through this, Glee offers a rare glimpse of queer teen community and redefining coming out as a complex and variable process rather than a singular, unchanging act.

After coming out early in the first season, Kurt faces increasing homophobic bullying which builds from threats of physical violence, to actual physical violence, to threats of death. This eventually causes Kurt to move schools for a period of time. The intense physical bullying that he faces comes primarily from David Karofsky (Max Adler), a thuggish football player. Karofsky harbours secret queer desires that surface as Kurt attempts to stand up for himself and his brutish actions are revealed to stem from both internalized homophobia and shame. As with much cinematic characterisation, the destructiveness of internalized homophobia here serves to excuse or soften audience attitudes toward the character’s homophobic actions. As James Keller argues, films such as American Beauty

“discredit homophobes by revealing that their hyperbolic hatred of gay men is indicative of their own pathological need to deny perverse longings” (183).

The danger in this is that the association between repressed queer desire and violence both “absolves the heterosexual community of responsibility for the violent repression of gays and lesbians” and “pathologizes gays as self-destructive” (Keller 183). Karofsky, however, is not depicted as a one-dimensional figure, driven only by repressed desire as he undergoes significant transformation throughout the second season.  After realising the consequences of his actions, eventually offering a heartfelt apology to Kurt and—becoming a favourite with fans—he forms one-half of an anti-bullying group called “The Bully Whips.” However, he remains resistant to conventional modes of coming out and refuses when prompted by Kurt on a number of occasions. In the third season, Karofsky is largely absent, having changed schools, but Kurt encounters him at a gay bar called “Scandals,” where he reveals that he is still ‘in the closet.’

Karofksy: Is this the part where you judge me?
Kurt: So long as you’re not beating people up I’m all for being whoever you have to be at your own speed.
Karofsky: Right now I’m just trying to get through high school.

A further prominent queer character is introduced when Kurt begins attending Dalton Academy, a private boys’ school, where he meets openly gay Blaine (Darren Criss) who eventually becomes his boyfriend. Blaine comes out in an offhanded manner within minutes of meeting Kurt when Kurt questions a group of Dalton students about their sexuality. However, he later mentions being bullied in the past, his disapproving family and considers the possibility of bisexuality in one episode. In this particular episode, he goes out on a date with Rachel and yells at Kurt for expressing bi-phobic attitudes, before deciding that he actually does identify as gay.  In the third season, another gay Dalton Academy student is introduced. This student, Sebastian, is depicted as openly gay and thus does not have a ‘coming out’ moment within the series. He functions primarily as a villain, disrupting the relationship between Blaine and Kurt, and is introduced as a gay character via his immediate desire for Blaine.

The ensemble of queer adolescent characters is completed with the additions of cheerleaders, Brittany and Santana. Their relationship begins subtly and ambiguously, expressing a very different relation to sexuality, identity, adolescent desire and the coming out narrative. An intimate friendship between the two is hinted to be something more midway through the first season when Brittany mentions that if sex were synonymous with dating, she would be dating Santana. This is not explicitly mentioned again until early in the second season, however, the pair go on a date with quarterback, Finn, in the following episode, promising him they will “make out” in front of him. Although equating their sexual relationship with the viewing pleasure of a (male) other—much like the lipstick lesbians of 1990s television— this scene gains further meaning as the series progresses, allowing it to be subsequently re-read in different manners. From this point onwards, intimate gestures between Brittany and Santana become markers of the ambiguity of their relationship and the season two episode ‘Duets’ confirms its sexual nature when they are revealed in bed together, sharing “sweet lady kisses”—“a nice break from all that scissoring” (episode 2.04).

The relationship between Brittany and Santana is continually aligned with non-verbal modes of communication and gestures that occur in the background of performances. It is not uncommon to see images of one girl resting her head on the other’s shoulder, hands linked by pinkie finger alone. However, as Glee is driven by dialogue and musical performance, this relationship must eventually be subsumed into more expository modes of storytelling. In episode 2.15, eleven episodes later, the two characters are confronted with their feelings. The spacing between these episodes is significant as it allows the relationship to exist ambiguously in the background for much of the first and second season, delaying engagement with the more conventional coming out narrative. As Brittany and Santana tidy themselves after a sexual rendezvous, Brittany tells Santana that she finds their relationship confusing. She says that with her boyfriend, Artie, they “talk about stuff like feelings…because with feelings it’s better” (episode 2.15). Santana quickly responds with a denial of the depth of the relationship,

“Are you kidding? It’s better when it doesn’t involve feelings. I think it’s better when it doesn’t involve eye contact…Look, let’s be clear here, I’m not interested in any labels unless it’s on something I shoplift” (episode 2.15).

They eventually seek guidance from the school sex education teacher, Holly Holliday (Gwyneth Paltrow) who is the first to ask “if either of you think you might be a lesbian.” In this scene, the camera moves fluidly around the three women as Santana responds,

“Yeah. I mean who knows. I’m attracted to girls, I’m attracted to guys. I made out with a mannequin. I even had a sex dream about a shrub that was just in the shape of a person.”

Here, the movement of the camera contrasts with the stable, fixed camera of both the previous and following scenes and is suggestive of the sexual fluidity of the characters.

With sentiments that run through the series as a whole, Ms. Holliday suggests they find a song to start a dialogue about their feelings. The idea that music can articulate what words cannot is explicit within this scene and this use of song as emotional expression is common within the musical genre. This is a significant moment within the Brittany and Santana storyline because until this point the relationship and/or queer desires between these characters had been defined by actions rather than words. In privileging ‘doing’ over ‘saying,’ Glee differentiates this relationship and these characters from many other queer teen characters, including Kurt, who verbally articulate their feelings before acting on them.

Accompanied by Ms. Holliday, the two characters perform Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” for their peers in the glee club. In this number, Brittany and Santana are positioned either side of Ms. Holliday who acts as a physical mediator but also an emotional conduit. The performance begins with Ms. Holliday in the centre of the frame with Santana and Brittany, slightly out of focus, to her sides. The camera slowly pans, refocusing and reframing Santana as the focal point as Ms. Holliday sings the opening lines—“And I saw my reflection on the snow covered hill.” We see Santana take a deep breath and look in the direction of Brittany. With the lyric, “When a landslide brought me down,” the camera reverses, cutting to Brittany, her expression concerned and questioning. The camera then sweeps across the room whilst Ms. Holliday sings the beginning of the following line—“Can the child in my heart...”— She is joined by Santana for the remainder of this verse in which Santana is depicted as singing to Brittany rather than to the audience—“...rise above? /Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? /Can I handle the seasons of my life?” All three characters come together for the chorus— “Well I’ve been afraid of changing ‘cos I built my life around you”—which builds to the climax of the performance: Santana’s solo lyric, “But time makes you bolder, children get older/ I’m getting older too.” Returning to the camera positioning of the first verse, Ms. Holliday sings the majority of the remainder of the song. With the lyric, “Well if you see my reflection in the snow covered hills/ Well maybe/ Well maybe...” the camera orbits the three performers, showing their backs in the foreground and the audience in the background, attentively watching. Until this point, the framing of the performance makes it feel like a private conversation. However, this sweeping shot of the choir room is a reminder of the performativity and public nature of this musical number.

For a performance, this number expresses a remarkable interiority. The lyrics of the song are clearly at the surface and of great importance to this dramatic situation, conveying an anxiety about coping with the inevitable changes of life. However, it is not Brittany or Santana that articulate these words as it Ms. Holliday, the conduit through which emotion is conveyed, who vocally performs the majority of the song. Beneath the lyrics are the gestures: deep intakes of breath, sighs, longing or questioning looks, tears, and of course, facial expression as Brittany and Santana begin their dialogue by literally singing through Ms. Holliday. At the conclusion of the performance, as the audience applaud, Santana sniffles and wipes the tears from her eyes. Brittany asks, “Is that really how you feel?” and Santana responds, “uh huh, yeah,” as she gets up from her seat and hugs Brittany tightly, clinging to her slender frame. Almost immediately, however, Rachel comically interjects, “Can I just applaud this trio for exploring the uncharted world of Sapphic charm? Brava, brava.” Although the performance of “Landslide” may be considered Santana’s first step toward coming out, her response to this comment acts as an explicit rejection of a specific, ‘lesbian’ identity and of conventional modes of coming out.

Santana: Look, just because I sang a song with Brittany doesn’t mean you can put a label on me. Is that clear?

Despite this immediate rejection, after the performance of “Landslide,” another coming out moment is enacted as the dialogue between Brittany and Santana commences,

Santana: Can we talk?
Brittany: But we never do that.
Santana: Yeah I know… But I wanted to thank you for performing that song with me in Glee Club because it made me do a lot of thinking. [Smiling as she takes a deep breath] What I’ve realized is why I’m such a bitch all the time. I’m a bitch because I’m angry. I’m angry because I have all of these feelings. Feelings for you, that I’m afraid of dealing with because I’m afraid of dealing with the consequences. And Brittany, I can’t go to an Indigo Girls concert, I just can’t…
Brittany: I understand that.
Santana: Do you understand what I’m trying to say here?
Brittany: Not really…
Santana: I want to be with you but I’m afraid of the talks and the looks. I mean, you know what happened to Kurt at this school.
Brittany: But honey, if anybody were to ever make fun of you, you would either kick their ass or slash them with your vicious, vicious words.
Santana: [sniffs] Yeah, I know but… still I have to accept… that I love you. I love you and I don’t want to be with Sam or Finn or any of those other guys. I just want you. Please say you love me back. Please. (episode 2.15)

While this dialogue and the preceding musical performance are Santana’s first experiences of coming out, they are not a “self-conscious taking-on of a new, specific identity” (Davis 131). What is emphasized in these coming out moments is rather an anxiety about feelings, intimacy and love which provides an interesting contrast with Glee’s earlier depiction of a character’s first experience of coming out. Kurt’s first articulation of his sexuality was a claim of a “new, specific identity” (Davis 131), an identity that he softly, timidly whispered to Mercedes, “I’m gay.” Santana, however, explicitly rejects all things carrying ‘lesbian’ connotations, particularly The Indigo Girls.

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