Glee: Hats in church and Kurt Hummel’s gender identity

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
Wouldn’t you
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].

24 thoughts on “Glee: Hats in church and Kurt Hummel’s gender identity”

  1. Such interesting stuff here. I have absolutely no interest in ever watching the show, but I find your analyses of it fascinating.

    1. Thanks for this. I know my OH MY GOD GLEE is less than satisfying for people who are used to me talking about properties they prefer (or you know, actually watch, or don’t actively hate), so I’m glad to be not boring someone who is outside of the immediate scope of this particular interest.

      1. *laughs* Some of us are switching around on that continuum. You’ve got me watching Glee now (despite the sit-com-y-ness and high school drama) solely for Kurt’s storyline.

  2. I only half like the show, for a lot of reasons that you’ve called out, but I LOVE Kurt, and this essay has articulated some of the reasons that I couldn’t quite put into words. Thank you.

    1. I am so… I haven’t decided on a name for that feeling about Kurt yet. But yeah. Whatever the name is, it’s a good one. An essay for another day.

      (Accidental implied joke regarding my identification with Blaine is entirely accidental).

  3. I’m really enjoying reading what you have to say about “Glee”, because I’ve been very frustrated with it – people tell me I take it too seriously while being too critical of it – especially with Kurt. Not because I see him as a stereotype (all the characters to a certain extent are written as stereotypes, but they are complex people), but because he and bis arch are written so much more seriously and with more awareness than any other character on the show.

    I’m really glad that a story like Kurt is getting a spot light. But I feel as though everyone else is either overshadowed or just not written brightly enough.
    “Glee” makes me feel conflicting and complicated things.

    1. My biggest peeve right now is people who say that because the show lacks intentionality (which is may or may not) that it can’t be analyzed. In non-fiction life we’re often just winging shit and that’s certainly worthy of analysis. A show tells us things, regardless of whether it means to. Honestly, Glee is so problematic and so conflicty with itself and so doesn’t know what genre it is, for me the only way to watch it is to try to analyze it, which really, is about my eternal need to find a Watsonian solution to its problems, but hey. It’s making me one very happy shiny person lately, frustrations aside.

  4. Speaking of sexual orientation, gender identity, society, and clothes, have you seen Bill Cunningham New York? It’s playing at Film Forum until the 7th, I believe.

    1. And many people do, and that’s perfectly workable for many people. I totally respect that, but my struggles are very different than a trans person’s. They’re also pretty different than a gender conforming cis-person’s, hence my “this conversation changes depending on whether we are looking at a binary.” I’m not going from one place to another, nor is my body crosswise to my identity, so for me, I don’t feel comfortable using “trans” for myself, although I am not uncomfortable if someone else wants to include me in the trans community. (I actually talked about this a lot on the HPA thing, which should be up soon).

      So yeah, complicated. And probably outside the scope of what’s going on in Kurt Hummel’s head. It’s barely within the scope of what’s going on in mine, it can feel like more thinking really hard than I should have to do about just kinda going through my day.

  5. This is brilliant. You’ve articulated better than I could what I was going through in my head. And I’m not sure I can come up with a conclusion either (despite the title of my post). Because I define myself somewhere in between trans and cis, I rarely see a character on television to whom I can relate. Kurt seems to be changing that, and it worries me. Unnecessarily, probably, but I’m a worrier.

    I hadn’t picked up on the hat-in-church thing, but yeah, totally. I think I was too enraged by the selfishness of his friend making him feel guilty for not letting her assign her faithview to his situation and then dragging him off to a place that is not a safe space for him. As a former evangelical Christian, I’m pretty wary of churches, and I expect my friends to respect that. I was angry for Kurt that his friend didn’t.

    My biggest question in all of this is what was Kurt’s motivation in not wanting to play Frank in RHPS, and I think (sadly) that it’s pretty prosaic.

    1. Long comment is long:

      I’m interested in how the character identification moment you’re having worries you. It’s pretty much my reflexive response to media, to the point that I can’t watch if I don’t identify with someone, so I am curious what that is like over there.

      I’m also going to refrain from doing my “How they Could Have Fixed ‘Grilled Cheezus’ because I don’t have the time and it doesn’t really solve anything.

      I wonder if the RHPS thing has anything to do with Kurt’s “baby penguin” position on sex? I can see it being a role that would make him really uncomfortable in light of that (although I thought he really brought the sex in that performance of “4 Minutes” with Mercedes, so I don’t know what to say about that). But I also see how much he gets irritated when people make the “oh, the gay boy will do it” assumption around him, and that might have been a factor there too (in addition to general personal safety).

      I, possibly weirdly, don’t actually identify with Kurt very much at all. Whatever is going on with Blaine, mostly off screen, feels more personally familiar to me, even if I was the weird kid, with the weird clothes that screamed QUEER QUEER QUEER all through high school — and weird clothes not unlike Kurt’s weird clothes — I had a neon varsity jacket designed by Keith Haring that got me so much grief, and it’s always weird at class reunions when people tell me how cool and sophisticated they thought I was because of that, and I’m like, seriously? that’s not really how that all went down, but thanks for playing.

      Anyway, in fanfiction, I’ve seen people try to play a bit with “is Kurt trans?” but now I’m sort of like “oh, someone needs to play with ‘is Kurt genderqueer?’ and ‘how much is that going to bend Blaine’s brain?'” Tragically, I have a lot of other stuff to do today other than to mess with that, but I sort of want to now.

      1. ❤ long comments!

        Worry may have been the wrong word? I don't know. I guess when something feels so close to the bone, it's scary? I'm not the most self-aware person in the world anyway. Also, I worry about how his character will be handled — like will it be upsetting?

        Funny what you said about thinking you'd be more like Kurt but feeling more like you identify with Blaine's story. Blaine is — on paper — more me. I wasn't unpopular or bullied a lot — some, mostly by teachers. Besides my penchant for high fashion, which got kicked out of me pre-teen years, I was pretty straight acting (although I was weird in other ways. I have a learning disability and some social phobias) and my parents are not in any way supportive of me being queer. I found stuff out for myself, for example. Oh, and the inappropriate crushes. And yet, I see myself in Kurt. Huh. Maybe more my present self?

        Can you link me to some fanfic about transKurt? Because I'd love to read some. I'm not good at wading through!

      2. See what I get for replying on the go? Totally didn’t address the RHPS thing. Yes, the “baby penguin” thing did occur to me, and it’s funny because in “Sexy” when he’s doing the crazy dancing, as soon as he’s not explicitly doing the bizarre sexy faces, he’s actually being kind of sexy — you only see him a little bit in the corner of the scene.

        But it’s easy to play that as he can be sexy, he just is so unaware that he doesn’t know when he is and when he isn’t. And those faces were so freaking hilarious. Even though “Sexy” is one of the least plausible episodes ever, I just love the Klaine scenes SFM.

  6. Hi *waves* so I’ve been reading your Boston!verse (as I call it in my brain) and I fell in love with it pretty hard (As much as Italy made me sad, but hopeful I am conjuring up all sorts of things for China that I hope do not happen). Yours is one of the few pieces that tackles that post-high school issues and does it well. So then I started poking through your livejournal and then I started poking through your blog and this post is magic for me. I, too, pretty much mainlined Glee in a matter of days (Bless you, Netflix Instant Play) and so I’ve only really been in this fandom for about two weeks. However, you hit on quite a few things about Kurt’s character that intrigue me and one of them has been his gender identity. I am not an expert on the subject in the slightest but the definition of gender and why people think its so damn important has always sort of fascinated me (and pissed me off and confused me, etc).

    My main means of interacting with fandom has always been stories. I haven’t written in ages but Kurt is one of those characters that I itch to write because I want to explore what the show doesn’t. I want to pick and pull at the loose threads to see what unravels and one of those things has been his self identity. This especially exploded for me while Blaine tried to coach him through his sexy faces and it was just humiliating to *watch* and it made my heart break as he asked Blaine to leave and couldn’t look him in the eye because what occurred to me (and as a writer who mainly writes the porn) was, “Oh my God, I don’t think Kurt has ever even masturbated.” And I’ve seen that come up in fic but only as a precursor to the Blaine’s-All-Healing-Cock which is fun in some instances but not how I want it handled.

    But as I thought about him standing in the shower in the mornings and keeping his eyes closed as he washed himself or how he would be just very clinical about it so it could be over and he could cover himself up with his armor…it just made me think and your post sort of reflected that. I do agree with you that I don’t think he is transgendered, but I definitely think that he does have some issues with his gender identity, whatever it turns out to be. And this is turning into something far less eloquent than I had originally intended it to be.

    Er, so, I love your universe and I am enjoying your blog (the non-Glee stuff, too!)

  7. I’ve stumbled across this blog a few days ago, and have just started to catch up reading on ALL your Glee posts. And I just realized that I first discovered Glee (by way of a link to the video of “Teenage Dream” someone sent round on a mailing list) almost the same day that you posted this entry. So what took me so long to get here? Good question. As the partner of a Harry Potter-slash writer I actually should have known there might also be a Glee fandom worth discovering out there but for strange reasons it simply didn’t occur to me. So, I’m very late to the discussion but I’m still joining because I don’t believe in dead posts as long as they’re still out there and able to almost make me cry because of their brilliance. And I’m sooo glad I found this because now I’m totally in love with your stuff and the thinkiness and the detail obsessions and the webs of associations that suddenly aren’t random at all anymore.

    Well. Long introduction was long. Sorry. Onward to my actual point.

    I’ve been intrigued by the way I identify with Kurt, although I haven’t been able yet to fully wrap my brain around WHY that is the case (I hope to get there soon and suspect it will be in writing). I’m also intrigued by the way you identify with Blaine, moreso because I think there might be a connection between the two. Not us as individuals (because obviously I don’t know you), but us as two examples for two kinds of queer gender.
    I hope this isn’t creepy due to possibly wrong assumptions made (or human beings treated like cultural texts for the duration of this comment), but please bear with me as I try to explain. From the few posts of yours that I’ve read so far, I gathered that you seem to be genderqueer-ish, with a strong gentleman aspect. I have no problems reading that as “butch,” although I have no idea if you can/do identify with that term. So you identify with Blaine. Which makes perfect sense to me because a “Blaine” is what a “Kurt” desires. And, as I said, I’d be a “Kurt” in this scenario.

    So, what IS a “Kurt” here? Too simply put: someone who embodies a (gender)queer femininity (whereas Blaine embodies a (gender)queer masculinity). And yet, even these non-anatomical terms for gender (femininity, masculinity) are sadly insufficient to express what I REALLY see and feel when I look at Kurt and Blaine with my real-life (gender)queer femme, (gender)queer butch-loving eyes. Because this is not at all as simple as a gay male version of butch-femme. Because for me these identifications take place in a genderqueer mindspace, not in male/female land. Perhaps it might be called a genderqueer butch-femme dynamic until I can think of more accurate words?

    At any rate, thanks for the many, many thoughts you shared on your blog. My brain is happily buzzing from them, and my heart is touched. Anything that makes me write gushy, potentially embarrassing comments like this one is something very special indeed.

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