Glee suggests that being out involves more than a single coming out moment. In this scene from the first season Kurt feigns heterosexuality because he feels that being openly gay has threatened his relationship with his father.
The Glee Club perform Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” whilst wearing t-shirts expressing the things that they are most self-conscious about.
Santana sits at the back of the auditorium, literally wearing her sexuality across her chest in big black letters.
Santana continues to reject a public announcement of her sexuality, performing this song to Brittany as a means of expressing her “private feelings”
Coming out is represented as a series of tentative steps. In this scene, Santana and Brittany hold hands underneath a napkin at a restaurant.
Finn outs Santana in the hallway at school.
Santana’s sexuality becomes a public announcement as it is used in this political smear campaign
The camera employs an emotional point of view throughout this performance of “Rumour has It/Someone like you”.
Furious about being removed of her agency, Santana slaps Finn.
Santana eschews the traditional coming out narrative as her peers are already aware and supportive. In this scene, the girls in the Glee Club stand up for Santana when she is being harassed.
Continuing to evade the revelatory and climactic coming out, Santana offhandedly remarks that she told her parents, “And they were cool with it.”
Santana does, however, enact a more typical coming out to her grandmother in this scene.
The grandmother’s negative response acts as a contrast to Glee’s earlier depiction of a queer teenager coming out to a parental figure.
The character of Brittany seems to move beyond coming out entirely.
We may consider Sue Sylvester’s comment in the season two episode ‘Rumours,’ “Once a story is out, it’s out forever. You can’t put it back in,” as an allegorical comment about coming out as it is represented in contemporary popular culture. Coming out is often discussed in terms that emphasize it as a fixed, historical action, a formative moment that happens just once. The implication of this is the suggestion that being ‘in’ or being ‘out’ are the only definitive options, and that once ‘out’ is selected and publically declared there is no going back.
However, Glee reminds us that coming out should instead be discussed as an ongoing process, presenting its characters with more options than a simple in/out dichotomy and suggesting that being out is far more complex than coming out once. Indeed, after coming out to his father early on in the first season Kurt feigns heterosexuality for an episode, going on a date with Brittany, when he feels that being openly gay has threatened his relationship with his seemingly conservative father. In addition to this, Santana is portrayed throughout the second season as being out to Brittany but continuing to date boys as cover.
Coming out, for Santana, does not involve a single utterance of “I’m a lesbian” but rather entails a series of tentative steps “out of the flannel closet” (episode 3.07) that are followed by panic and immediate return to the safeness of heterosexual relationships. However, Santana does slowly come to a state of self-acceptance that does not rely on the public announcement of her sexuality. This is particularly evident in the episode “Born this way” in which the Glee Club perform Lady Gaga songs wearing t-shirts expressing the things they are most self-conscious about—“BROWN EYES,” “NOSE,” “LIKES BOYS,” “CAN’T DANCE.” This episode concludes with a shot of Santana sitting in the back of the auditorium watching her friends perform and wearing her sexual identity plastered across her chest in big black letters. Her t-shirt reads “LEBANESE,” a delightful mix up with words courtesy of Brittany, and although Santana does not perform with the group, the importance of this scene is the emphasis on the gesture of simply wearing the t-shirt.
Highlighting the limits of the more typical coming out narrative, Santana remains resistant to conventional modes of coming out despite her cautious self-acceptance, refusing to publically declare her sexuality on numerous occasions. In one particular episode, after singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird” to Brittany as a means of expressing her “private” feelings—nervously playing with her hands as she sings, “I love you, I love you, I love you like never before.”—Brittany questions, “Why couldn’t you sing that to me in front of everyone?” to which Santana, wiping the tears from her eyes, replies, “No, not yet, I’m not ready for that type of [pause] public announcement” (episode 2.19). However, in the third season, Santana’s sexuality becomes exactly that: a public announcement. After viciously verbally bullying Finn in the hallway, he retorts, “why don’t you just come out of the closet?” Another student overhears this and Santana’s sexuality is eventually employed in a political smear campaign against Coach Sylvester. When alerted to this, she bursts into tears and runs out of the room, crying, “I haven’t even told my parents yet.”
In the following scene, Santana and her friends perform a mash-up of Adele’s “Someone like You” and “Rumour has it” whilst a number of other students look on. After the first verse of the song, there is a significant pause where Santana should be singing. Filmed side-on, she appears caught in inarticulateness, unable to speak. Throughout this number, the camera work begins conservatively but becomes increasingly wild. Employing an emotional rather than physical point of view, fast edits are coupled with tracking shots, reframing each of the characters multiple times throughout the number and reflecting Santana’s fragile mental state. As the performance progresses, the camera lingers on the emotion on Santana’s face, and at the conclusion of the number Santana notices Finn whispering something to Rachel. She jumps from the stage and demands to know what he said.
With the character of Santana deprived of her agency, Glee offers another variation to the more conventional coming out narrative as depicted by Kurt. Unlike Kurt, Santana does not get to choose the words to articulate herself to her peers. Although featuring a public announcement, Santana’s storyline provides an alternative to the coming out narrative that is nothing more than a public announcement, offering glimpses of the emotional consequences of public ‘outing’ and, again emphasising the complexity of the gradual process of coming out.
In episode 3.07 ‘I Kissed a Girl’ the series deliberately frustrates audience expectations of the coming out narrative with Santana further resisting the typical revelatory coming out. The theme of this episode is “Lady Music” as each of the members of the club sing music “by ladies and for ladies” in support of Santana, reiterating the message that “Glee is about learning how to accept yourself for who you are, no matter what other people think” (Finn, episode 3.07). Literalizing a pedagogical figuration of queerness that is remarkably pervasive within much film and television, Finn introduces Santana’s sexuality as the lesson of the week. He emphasizes the intentions behind it,
However, Santana immediately refuses this lesson, quickly retorting, “I don’t even get a say in this? Not cool” (episode 3.07).
Whilst this episode was marketed quite heavily as ‘Santana’s coming out episode’ in online press, the coming out narrative is further eschewed as the episode continues. In the typical coming out narrative, the act of the adolescent figure revealing their sexuality to parents and/or friends is positioned as the narrative climax (Bronski; Davis). Although, as Finn points out, “Everyone in this room [already] knows about you and Brittany” (episode 3.07) thus removed the need for a dramatic, revelatory moment. With Santana’s peers already aware and supportive of her sexuality the climactic revelation should traditionally involve the act of coming out to parents and any conflict arising from this. However, this does not happen within Santana’s storyline. After eventually accepting Finn’s lesson, Santana offhandedly remarks, “...I told my parents last night and they were cool with it” (episode 3.07).
This storyline does not completely eschew more conventional modes of coming out, however, as Santana is depicted engaging in a more traditional coming out to a different parental figure, her grandmother. Nevertheless, when this mode of coming out is enacted, it provides another significant variation and contrast to that of Kurt. In significant contrast to Kurt’s “I’m gay,” a phrase that he says to both his peers and family members, Santana refuses to emphasize an identity label, instead articulating her sexuality via feelings of love for another girl. Sitting her grandmother down, Santana softly asserts, “Abuelita, I need to tell you something.” Clearly emphasizing her grandmother as a role model, Santana continues, “I’ve watched you my whole life and you’ve always been so strong, done exactly what you believed and never cared about what anyone else thought of you” before enacting a more traditional coming out.
Through this monologue and the prior comment to her grandmother, Santana’s ‘outness’ is not associated with an assertion of a specific identity label but rather with the demonstration of strength, courage, truth and conviction. As she speaks, the camera juxtaposes the action shots of Santana with emotion clearly visible in her expressions and reaction shots of her grandmother appearing emotionless. These contrasting shots are followed by a brief conversation before the grandmother coldly leaves.
This negative response from Santana’s grandmother is a stark contrast to Glee’s earlier positive depiction of Kurt’s accepting father. As such it offers a very different portrayal of the reaction of a parental figure to the adolescent’s queer revelation. However, this scene is also significant because it portrayed as one of Santana’s multiple coming out moments.
As a group of queer adolescent activists have recently noted in a message about queer youth action called “Reteaching Gender and Sexuality,” because heterosexuality is the assumed norm, coming out as a means of marking difference from that norm and a means of connecting with a broader queer community is enacted by queer people every day. Speaking a line each, this group of adolescents aim to challenge normative assumptions about coming out and “shift the conversation about gender and sexuality” (www.putthisonthemap.org).
Most of Glee’s queer teenage characters are represented with similar sentiment, challenging the singularity of the traditional coming out narrative as they come out a number of times throughout the series. However, it must be noted that the character of Brittany further eschews the coming out narrative, perhaps moving beyond coming out entirely. Beginning as a side character, by the second season Brittany features as one of the central ensemble of characters. However, she does not come out to anyone in this revelatory mode throughout the series. Her encouragement of Santana to sing a love song to her in front of the Glee Club—“Why can’t you sing that to me in front of everyone now that Artie and I aren’t together?” (episode 2.19)— is indicative of a fundamental difference in the depiction of Brittany in relation to the other queer characters in the series: she does not differentiate between genders and considers all relationships equal. The Brittany character thus appears to be portrayed as bisexual, offhandedly identifying herself as a “bicorn” to Kurt in one episode, however it remains to be seen where the series will take this.
Depicting different teenage experiences of coming out alongside an emphasis on the complexity of coming out as a process rather than a singular action, Glee offers what Davis describes as a “complex enunciation of queerness” in place of a unified vision of ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ or ‘queer’. Initially Glee engages a more traditional mode of coming out via the character of Kurt who participates in a revelatory-based coming out storyline. This storyline does, however, challenges the traditional coming-out narrative because it positions coming out as the beginning to a storyline rather than an end. Beyond this, Glee offers multiple variations to the coming out narrative from Blaine and Sebastian’s immediate openness to Karofsky’s struggles with repression and subsequent refusal to come out, to Santana’s long and difficult path toward self-acceptance and rejection of the public announcement of her sexuality, to Brittany: the character that seems to move beyond coming out entirely.
It is because of the unique ensemble cast format that Glee is able to do this. With previous storylines fresh in the minds of viewers and more than one queer character present at any given time the series cannot represent each of its queer characters as having the same experiences lest it follow the path of dull repetition. Highlighting the ambiguities, the moments of flux and different degrees of out-ness that are so often missing from contemporary popular culture, Glee emphasizes that queer adolescent experience cannot be reduced to simple revelation or short, three-episode narrative arc. Through the characters of Kurt, Karofsky, Blaine, Sebastian, Santana and Brittany, Glee offers multiple variations on the coming out narrative, depicting the many experiences of queer teenage characters being young and queer and, at times, coming out.