A (Pansexual) Love Letter to Kurt Hummel

On Tuesday night’s Glee, “Laryngitis,” (It’s less cutely titled than usual, thank God) Chris Colfer’s character, Kurt, became quite possibly the most interesting LGBT character on a predominantly straight show.

(I will admit I am not as familiar with shows that are predominantly LGBT  as I’d like to be. I watched The L Word, Queer as Folk, and like pretty much everyone in America, I watched Will and Grace until things got all weird and Grace was pregnant and it was strange. I’m certainly taking recommendations if anyone has more things for me to watch.)

Why is he interesting?

Well there’s the whole football “Single Ladies” thing.

He also almost out sopranos Lea “Spring Awakening and Ragtime when I was a baby” Michele when they both compete to sing “Defying Gravity.”

Above all, Chris Colfer lets Kurt keep his dignity, which is the character works in the first place. There are plenty of stereotypical gay men in the media. (Thank you Will and Grace and Ugly Betty.)

Though Kurt has the same breed of narcissism that makes Rachel generally annoying, his egocentrism comes from a place of visible and empathetic vulnerability. He was raised by his rather hapless (and awesome) father because his mother died when he was young. As I mentioned previously, in an earlier episode, Kurt competed with Rachel for a solo in “Defying Gravity,” but he threw the last note to protect his dad. (It should be noted that Mr. Hummel fought to get Kurt the audition in the first place and did not ask him to do so.) Kurt is very devoted to his father, and it’s what makes us care about him as profoundly as we do. (That and his undeniable fierceness.)

It was painfully authentic to see the second stage of Kurt’s coming out to his father in “Laryngitis,” the moment where, even though his dad is working to accept him, he once again tries to pass as straight so that his dad will spend more time with him instead of Finn.

That Colfer makes the choice to play Kurt’s heterosexuality well, straight only adds to the wonderful dialectic that the writers have created for his character. Sue Sylvester makes a very valid point. At 16, we don’t tend to know exactly what we want or like. (Often we have a very good feeling, but sexuality is fluid.)

At this point I’d like to introduce the concept of pansexuality. Pansexuality refers to romantic and/or sexual attraction in which gender identity and biological sex are irrelevant. The word first came into use because the term “bisexual,” implied that the individual was only attracted to cisgendered people, i.e. people who are comfortable with and perform the gender they were assigned at birth.

A very good friend of mine (who also happens to be a great director) likes to say that “Everyone is bisexual.” He’s revised this to “Everyone is pansexual,” because most of us are able to decide an individual’s attractiveness regardless of their gender or sex. That judgement acknowledges some kind of sexual awareness, if not feelings of sexual attraction.  I’m not sure I entirely buy this, and I’m not sure Kurt does either. Even if he is pansexual in the sense that he understands that Brittany, the girl he makes out with in “Laryngitis,” is pretty, a lot of those beliefs are based on observing other people’s behavior, the way Dexter fakes emotion on Showtime’s Dexter. (Wow, how many television references can I pack in this week?)

[Addendum: An amendment from the brilliant Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) on an entirely different, but not unrelated matter:

First things first. An actor, no matter which sex they’re attracted to, can’t “play” gay or “play” straight. Gay and straight aren’t actable things. You can act effeminate and you can act macho (though macho usually ends up reading as gay), but an actor can’t play gay or straight anymore than they can play Catholic.

All identity, gender, orientation, or otherwise, is performative, but not actable. That’s the paradox. Like a great Method acting performance, there is something intangible that powers it, not easily explained or articulated, a mystery even to the actor and director themselves. That said, we accept the reality that is presented to us on average. It’s a dramatic thing called “suspension of disbelief.” Usually that gets us through, unless you refuse to separate the outside world from the story, bring the actor’s personal life into how we understand the story. That is not an issue in this case because Colfer is openly gay, but the issue of Jesse, another character on Glee being played by an openly gay (and in Spring Awakening a very “heterosexual acting”) actor drew fire from Newsweek. But that is neither here nor there.]

Kurt’s struggle, his experimentation with Brittany, and his father’s urging to just be himself because that’s his job were both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Events like this on an immensely popular show like Glee incite exactly the right kind of conversations about sexuality and sexual orientation. And that is why you want to go to there.

It seems ridiculous to me that the role of Kurt wasn’t in the original concept of the show, because his arc is one of the most complex on Glee, and frankly the one I’m most interested in. Go Chris Colfer. Go Kurt. Go for attempting pansexuality.

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2 thoughts on “A (Pansexual) Love Letter to Kurt Hummel

  1. I read your post before watching, and I was with you until the heart-breaking rendition of “Rose’s Turn.” I’ll assume Kurt’s gay until further notice, but it did remind me of what my mother said during some serious high school drama between me, my boyfriend at the time, and his flirtatious lesbian friend:

    “Orientation before the first kiss is theoretical.”

    I reprised this conversation with a friend in Doha, who explained that she was straight, even though she’d never dated. I think in any society where one orientation is privileged–Ohio or Cairo–some people will assume their orientation is straight to avoid trouble, and may only get enough evidence to convince them otherwise after, um, some scientific experimentation.

    This is not to say that everyone’s orientation is fluid, since most people I know, straight or LGBTTQQPI&(*%$#!, know what plumbing they’re attracted to and have for their entire lives. But it is theoretical in some ways, particularly in societies where one way of being is privileged and others are not. Like for Kurt.

    Like for my friend in Doha.

    • I should clarify that the danger in this “orientation is theoretical/fluid” conversation that that does not mean that it can be forcibly changed by sheer force of will power. You cannot pray the gay away, and it is dangerous to question someone else’s orientation. That’s their own business. What I hope to mean by saying “Orientation is fluid,” is that it’s not a bad thing if you find a surprise waiting for you in terms of attraction. It’s not your fault, and you’re not totally wrong about your sexuality. I’d suggest it’s like an iceberg because a lot of elements of our sexuality hide beneath the surface (which is why we should be GGG), but that starts all kinds of awkward Titanic references. I must find a better metaphor.

      What I worry about with “Orientation is theoretical,” is that we’re not only talking about straight privilege, we’ve now created “sexually active privilege,” because then sexually active people’s experience are more legitimate in terms of understanding their sexuality. Single people, in fact most people, tend to have elaborate fantasy lives, and it’s fair to say that they at least partly know from those fantasies what turns them on. There are lots of reasons it takes time for people to find sexual partners, for some it’s willful, for some it’s not. I’m sure it’s not your intention to delegitimize “virgin” experience, but please forgive me for that being my worry. I’m not saying that having the other person doesn’t help, but it also complicates, and can, quite frankly, distract. 😉 I don’t think we can deny that Kurt has same-sex feelings (His crush on Finn is too authentic in my eyes to be performative.), and I actually admire his try at heterosexual experimentation, as wrong headed as its reasons were. The point is it’s not really anybody’s place to say “You don’t know who or what you are (whether you’ve tried it or not.)” Sexual orientation, whether we like it or not, ends up being a part of how we operate in culture. Kurt’s “stereotypical” gay behavior at McKinley High is part of his experimentation, just as any sexual activity would be. It’s all legitimate and it’s all performative (even in the bedroom.) We hide from ourselves when we’re alone, and when we’re with people, and having another person to hide with doesn’t mean you’re not hiding. Just ask James McGreevey.

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