Yesterday, Deconstructing Glee raised the issue of whether or not Kurt Hummel is cisgendered. Having just watched all the episodes in a week (I know, I know, didn’t I write an essay here about how the show is not for me? Well, something happened, that I think has something to do, actually, with the BIg Gay Kiss and the Patty is Far Away intersection and now here we are), I have an opinion. Sort of.
It’s an entirely tricky thing to have an opinion about on a lot of levels. For one thing, you have to define cisgendered, which is all fine and easy if we’re dealing with a quasi-binary model; it’s less fine and easy if you’re genderqueer and don’t necessarily feel okay about including that identity in either the cisgender or transgender category, but know other people who may feel otherwise in a myriad of different ways (hi!).
For another, answering the query means you have to assume not only that production’s choices are deeply intentional and made of coherent messages, but that the character’s choices are also intentional and made of coherent messages. The kid’s 16 and in one hell of a set of difficult circumstances that he deals with through performativity. So really? I think it’s fair to say that no one probably knows what’s going on here, including not just the people writing Kurt, but Kurt himself.
That said, intentionality aside, there are all sorts of cues and clues on this lurking all over the show, and I do think there’s sort of an answer. I think Kurt has maybe had to spend a lot of time wondering if he’s trans, but I also think he’s come to the conclusion that he isn’t.
Somewhere, someone reading this is going, “Wait, if you’re the person in question, how the hell can you wonder about something like that?” Life, my friends, is very complicated, especially when you live in an environment where the theoretical reflectiveness of gender (i.e., my gender presentation serves to seemingly define the gender presentation of those around me) is highly emphasized. Kurt’s environment is totally like that. His queerness is constantly being called out by those around him not as just potentially reflecting on the sexuality of those he interacts with, but on their gender in a way that highlights some pretty intense misogyny (because, dude, it’s a show about really crap high school kids in Lima, Ohio).
That dynamic gives Kurt an option to find allies. No matter how many times he tells us — and he tells us often — that being gay doesn’t make him a woman (“I am a guy, Dad,” he says when Burt talks about how much he loves doing “guy things” with Finn), one of the few relatively positive pre-Dalton choices he has is to ally himself with the girls. Then, instead of being the one gay kid, he’s one of the girls. It’s not an ideal fit, but wow, it’s better than the alternative. And it’s also not a terrible fit, because Kurt is performing a very specific type of queerness (there’s a reason he’s the one in the Leigh Bowery heels in the Lady Gaga episode) that is about playing with feminine archetypes and gestures.
That performance of queerness is complicated in itself. Certainly, many, many older viewers of the show (that would include me; I’ll be 39 this year) recognize the type of queer kid Kurt performs from our own lives in the 1980s (and earlier, or a little later), but also wonder how often teen queerness really looks like that today. Meanwhile, others make noises about stereotypes, while some of us make noises about how grateful we are that Kurt’s a kid that can’t pass as straight. Some queer people just can’t pass. Kurt can’t. Santana can. Brittany can. Blaine can. Karofsky can (oh my god, is everyone on this show queer all of a sudden? Rock on). If you’re going to have a show with multiple queer kids on it, one of them kinda has to be like Kurt.
But the central item, I think, in discussing Kurt’s gender identity, has to, as the original piece I linked to did, talk about wardrobe. That piece, however, didn’t talk about the thing that I think makes solving this little puzzle the most complex (note: it’s a puzzle because it’s a TV show; actual non-fiction humans are not and should not be solved in the same way; therefore, as someone whose work is about lowering the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, I actually should note I feel slightly sketchy about this entire exercise). That’s the “Grilled Cheezus” episode.
You’re groaning. I know. Because it was kind of almost awesome about atheism or diversity of belief and then it was… well, the way it was. Also, it gave us Kurt singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which is one of the best uses of song in the whole series (where, as I’ve noted before, I often think the uses of song don’t serve the genre correctly). But, the point is, in “Grilled Cheezus,” Mercedes ultimately seduces Kurt into joining her at church by telling him he can wear a fabulous hat.
Kurt knows all the rules of fashion. Kurt talks about all the rules of fashion all the time. Kurt notes that one of his only gifts in addition to his voice is his uncanny ability to spot menswear trends. And Kurt loves old-fashioned things and classic films. Which means Kurt knows damn well that a man simply cannot wear a hat indoors, especially in a church, especially in a church where the women still mostly wear hats. And then he does it anyway.
This, far more than Kurt’s insistence on being with the girls in so many of the singing challenges (which really, can speak to self-preservation as much as anything else), is what makes me go, “Hrrrrr, maybe Kurt does see his gender as very complex or queer in a addition to his sexuality,” because it’s a gesture that breaks the type of rules that Kurt doesn’t usually break, in a set of circumstances Kurt doesn’t usually break rules in.
Despite the fact that I don’t identify with Kurt, somewhere, this essay had to get personal in order for me to make the point. When other people tell me I am not a girl, it’s infuriating to me, (see Kurt and “I’m a guy, Dad”), but I often find it just as hurtful, or at least puzzling, when people tell me I am one, and the more fraught and formal a circumstance, the more likely I am to deviate from my gender as assigned and find a profound armor in choices that may seem weird to other people and really, really comfortable to me. I often say that if I were assigned as a guy, I’d probably wear dresses about as often as I do now. Therefore, is it somewhat easy for me to imagine that Kurt lives somewhere in the same country as I do? Sure. And, yeah, it’s all because of that damn hat.
But, at the end of the day, I think we have to come back to the previously mentioned gender reflectiveness of the show’s environment and the opening spoken word bits to Madonna’s “What It Feels Like to Be a Girl.”
Girls can wear jeans
And cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots
‘Cause it’s OK to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading
But secretly you’d love to know what it’s like
What it feels like for a girl
Kurt (in one of the best deliveries the always excellent Colfer gives us) gets the end of that little segment, starting with “But secretly.” Here’s this queer kid, with the high voice, who has to constantly remind everyone around him that he’s a man, and who wants to be romanced like in an old black & white movie delivering a line that, coming from him, is about nearly too much stuff to analyze.
It’s about his own identity. It’s about how he suffers for being gay because of the ways in which that makes people around him perceive him as being female in addition to characteristics he has that just makes it all hard (it’s no accident that a lot of the episode in which he tries to “be a man” for his dad, focuses on him trying to speak in a lower register — and he can’t really, because that’s not his voice).
But there’s also a wistfulness in the delivery. Kurt tells us a lot across the series, and with a bit of pain, that being gay and being gay like this isn’t something he chose, that it was a roll of the dice and one that he thinks sort of sucks. In this line, I think we also hear him wondering if his life would be easier if he were a girl. It’s also so blatantly filled with his longing to be loved (emotionally, sexually) the way he wants to be loved, and it’s presented in a gendered framework, because that’s all he’s got to work with.
So do I think Kurt is trans? Not really. Do I think Kurt is cis? Maybe, maybe not. Do I think Kurt has had to think about it until it’s run him into the ground with exhaustion and that he’s still frustrated by his own answers even if the show never meant for us to wonder about this at all? Yeah, I kinda do.
[Side note for new readers: two weeks ago I started watching Glee. This week, I totally noticed that their football team is called the Titans. My world is a world of deeply absurd circles, but this wacky bit of wackiness has nothing to do with the title of this journal, musings on which can be found in the first post here].