How Glee‘s Chris Colfer Changed The Face Of LGBT High School Students On TV

Chris Colfer (Kurt Hummel) LGBT high schoolKurt Hummel, played by two-time Crushable 25 honoree Chris Colfer, is by no means the first queer teenager on television. Without a doubt, he borrows from Ricky Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) on My So-Called Life and Buffy‘s Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan). But while these iconic characters are remembered in relation to their shows’ tortured heroines, Kurt is undoubtedly Glee‘s star.

Through a mixture of Ryan Murphy‘s power, more open-mindedness in the 2000s, and a heartbreaking portrayal from this 21-year-old actor, Chris has given LGBT teenage characters much greater visibility on TV. He elevates all who come after him beyond their sexual orientation and makes their plotlines matter just as much as their straight co-stars’.

Compare Kurt to his queer counterparts from just 5-10 years ago. In the kind of drawn-out narrative we’re used to, it took Degrassi: The Next Generation‘s first gay character Marco three seasons to come out to his ignorant father. In the space of four episodes, Kurt is out to McKinley High as well as his dad.

USC professor Larry Gross, who specializes in LGBT representations in the media, explains why we’re seeing more LGBT youth in high school TV shows:

“Coming-out stories are standard, almost a cliché of television stories dealing with gay characters and this goes back to the ’70s and the ’80s. What’s probably different now is that the age is becoming younger and I think this reflects the fact that the sort of battleground for gay people in society includes high school and probably even includes middle school. It’s moved younger in the past decade or so, I think in part… because younger people are becoming more aware of their identities.”

The marked difference between older shows and Glee is that while characters like Willow grow into their sexuality, Kurt arrives fully-formed. From the beginning, he’s valued for his effeminate qualities. His high vocal range has challenged Rachel to more than one diva-off, and in one episode Mr. Schue relies on him to teach the football team fleet-footedness with his “Single Ladies” dance. Since the pilot, he’s proudly shown off his signature fashion sense and bluntness with his fellow outcasts. He is the king — or, as he would tell you, queen — upon his throne. Even if he gets Slushies thrown in his face every once in a while.

Not everyone has subscribed to the Kurt fan club, of course. The Gawker article “The Canonization of St. Kurt” outlines how elevating Kurt’s bullying situation and disregarding the rest of the show’s nastiness makes the Kurt-centric message disingenuous in the first place. But the point remains: We’re talking about him. To the point of obsession.

Most important is that Kurt’s plotlines are active, rather than passive. Each week he’s brainstorming a new theme or a way to evade mockery in the hallways, rather than shrinking back in fear. Even when he’s being bullied by Karofsky, instead of switching schools like Blaine did, Kurt chases after his aggressor in this scene that left viewers breathless:

Kurt: Hey! I am talking to you!
Dave: Girls’ locker room is next door.
Kurt: What is your problem?
Dave: Excuse me?
Kurt: What are you so scared of?
Dave: Besides you sneaking in here to peek at my junk?
Kurt: Oh, yeah, every straight guy’s nightmare that all of us gays are secretly out to molest and convert you. Well, guess what, ham hock? You’re not my type!
Dave: That right?
Kurt: Yeah, I don’t dig on chubby boys who sweat too much and are going to be bald by the time they’re thirty.
Dave: Do not push me, Hummel.
Kurt: You going to hit me? Do it.
Dave: Don’t push me!
Kurt: Hit me, ’cause it’s not going to change who I am. You can’t punch the gay out of me anymore than I can punch the ignoramus out of you!
Dave: I said get out of my face!
Kurt: You are nothing but a scared little boy who can’t handle how extraordinarily ordinary you are!

For all of Glee‘s faults, its decision to have Karofsky kiss Kurt and reveal himself to be battling same-sex feelings was heartbreaking and one of the most talked-about moments in season 2.

Kurt’s interests — namely, glee club — are front-and-center. Every episode has at least an update on his relationship, his quest to get out of Lima, and a new song for him to sing. By contrast, only diehard My So-Called Life fans would be able to tell you what Rickie was up to each episode.

Kurt Blaine kiss gif Glee

Even more meaningfully, as we moved into season 3, viewers came to know every intricacy of Kurt’s sex life. Even though fans and queer critics were disappointed that the Blaine/Kurt sex scene was tamer than Gossip Girl, Queerty did mark Kurt’s deflowering episode as a humanizing step forward. “Regardless, bravo to Glee’s writers for not letting Kurt languish as a de-sexualized, impotent twink for yet another season,” they wrote.

Really, if you need an example of Kurt’s impact, you need go no further than Glee itself. If Kurt hadn’t touched so many people, do you really think that Ryan Murphy would have been able to introduce other queer protagonists Blaine, Karofsky, and especially Santana to such overwhelming support?

In McKinley High as well as the larger realm of LGBT characters in media, Kurt Hummel is a trendsetter. And while people may not agree with his methods in either sphere, he leaves each space better than before he appeared.

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    • Lily

      “Kurt Hummel is opening doors…I am pleasantly surprised that the openly gay actor who plays Kurt Hummel, namely Chris Colfer, is presenting at the Nickelodeon’s Kids Award show this month… And Sesame Street made a spoof on Glee , including a Kurt-puppet.

      • Lily

        and got slimed at the award show…

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    • Anna

      Let’s not forget the major influence of the actor himself. Most gay characters on television are played by straight actors, and most actors wait until their careers are established, or they’re in committed, long-term relationships before coming out. Colfer has been out since 19, shortly after Glee began. That he’s been so embraced by fans is a powerful visible reminder of progress.

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    • Jack

      I am more impressed by Chris Colfer himself more than Kurt.

      • Lily

        Totally agree… There was a complaint on a certain website in the past why Chris Colfer did not figure (often) in American Teen magazine… Then all of a sudden I saw Chris Colfer in an article on a website in Teen Vogue, citing all his achievements in and outside Glee… I think those other achievements and his work ethics and demeanor brought Chris eventually to Nickelodeon, and not really just “Kurt Hummel”.

    • Mardie

      Chris Colfer and Glee are changing people’s opinions on LGBTQ issues, one person at a time. The groundbreaking portrayal of a loving gay relationship between Kurt and Blaine on a primetime network show is revolutionary. One year ago today Kurt and Blaine shared their first kiss with the world…and it was not just a peck on the cheek. Love is love. You fall in love with a person, not a gender. As Darren Criss has said, it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, orange, purple, dinosaur; I don’t care. And Chris, I do hope that someday you get that ring on your finger. Legally. Everywhere. Happy Klaineversary everyone.

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    • Colin

      If Kurt was a straight character, no one would like him. He’s a whiny, mean self-centered hypocrite who sets the gay community back about fifteen years. He’s an awful person and character and if he’s changed the face of LGBT high school students on TV, that’s really just sad. People, watch United States of Tara or Shameless (the US version) on Showtime if you want to see well-developed, genuine portrayals of gay teens.

      • glee fan

        how is kurt any of those things? there’s a huge difference between whiny and sensitive (with a good reason to be). if the guy who ruined your high school life so far suddenly kissed you, for example, how would you react? also, he is not mean at the least. again, there’s a difference between mean and blunt. kurt says what he thinks is true, and he’s always there for his friends, no matter what. when rachel didn’t get her nyada letter back immediately, he practically cried with her. instead of telling karofsky off, even after everything he had done to kurt, he was sweet and polite about the situation, forgiving him and offering to be friends. and self-centered? are you sure you’re watching the same show? I’m not even going to start on that one. kurt and chris alike have both changed so many people’s lives. maybe he hasn’t changed yours, that’s okay, don’t go around taking it out on other people and making them feel bad about their opinion. it’s ignorant. and I’m surrounded by ignorance like yours every day because I’m only thirteen and it annoys the crap out of me. kay? thanks bye.

      • Lily

        All characters in Glee are flawed…and we have the straight version of Kurt…actually 2 versions: Rachel and Mercedes. Kurt is mean and annoying and strangely that is why I like him.

        The straight male characters are also kind of mean: Finn and Sam became cheaters, Artie called Brittany stupid… Rory lied to Sugar. Puck has a whole list of bad things he did.

      • Lily

        In the episode “Grilled Cheesus” when Kurt was so whiny and self centered when his father had a heart attack, I totally forgot about his sexuality.. I just saw the characterisation of a teenage only child who already lost his mother and was almost about to lose his father as well.

        As for Kurt whining and being annoying to Quinn in “On my way”, he got a lot of backlash for it, and I think that is good…because it makes the people talk as is pointed out in this article…

    • Lily

      By the way, Kurt did eventually change schools after he noticed that the school was not able to expel his bully Karofsky.

    • Britt

      This is really well done article and truly explains the appeal of Kurt and why he is so relevant to society and why the character has been so applauded – people who have a problem with Kurt find him stereotypical but if he was truly stereotypical, he would be in the sidelines in his over the top costumes making the occasional broadway reference – but he does so much more than that and has been pulled front and center. Thank you for this piece!!!