Perhaps the most amazing thing about the reference to lesbian bed death in Glee’s Whitney episode last night was that it didn’t fill me with rage. In fact, it was actually pretty funny, served an interesting function regarding gender in the narrative, hinted at a number of off-screen details, and was something of another shout-out to fan concerns about how much time Kurt and Blaine don’t spend sucking face on our screens compared to the ongoing car crash of PDA in Finn and Rachel’s relationship.
In case anyone reading this first heard of lesbian bed death from Kurt Hummel (an idea so hilarious to me, that I beg you to confess in comments if this is the case), let’s talk about that dreaded phrase, which does get used both within and outside of the lesbian community, even though Kurt does get the definition more or less right.
The idea is that sex leaves relationships between women and that the blame there sits with presence only of women in those relationships. More specifically, lesbian bed death as a phrase is a symptom of people not necessarily believing that what women do in bed with each other is sex. How, many people wonder, can desire be maintained with out male sexual assertiveness, or, to be really direct, the presence of a penis?
This is absurd, mostly (and we’ll get to that mostly in a minute — it’s important regarding Kurt and Blaine). For one thing, the presence of sex ebbs and flows in all relationships for all sorts of reasons; anyone who’s been in a long term relationship knows this.
And it’s hardly surprising that Kurt and Blaine haven’t had a lot of time for making out or anything else when Blaine’s been injured; the situation with Dave Karofsky happened; Kurt’s preoccupied with NYADA; the Finchel marriage drama has exhausted everyone; Quinn was seriously injured; and Blaine’s been super emo about a ton of things, including the stress of having his brother around. So really, Kurt and Blaine are experiencing a normal adult couple thing like the teenagers they still are.
That Kurt is worried enough about the situation to apparently Google around to find the phrase lesbian bed death is hilarious though, and really shows one of the ways he’s been growing up about sex and relationships. And yes, I firmly believe Kurt found this one on the Internet.
Because Kurt explaining it to Rachel means she wasn’t the source; and if Santana were the source (the only other source that makes sense), that would have been all over the school long before Kurt and Rachel have their little chat. Who else at WMHS would have likely shared that phrase with Kurt?
But as absurd and offensive as the lesbian bed death idea is, one thing that can actually be hard about relationships between women, at least in my own experience, is that a lot of us receive significant training to never, ever be sexually assertive. Certainly many of my female friends who are attracted to women lament situations in which no one is willing to make the first move before the relationship starts, and no one feels fully confident initiating sexuality once it does. Obviously, this isn’t just a lesbian problem, but it is a real thing we do talk about.
Which brings us to Kurt and Blaine, gender, and that fandom favorite of “who’s the top?” While that who’s the top conversation has always been a mess — confusing terminology about sexual positions and terminology about BDSM activities with ideas about sexual assertiveness (the whole thing is just a morass) — that conversation happens for a reason: among other things, people want to know who takes the sexual lead between these two boys who are both private and shy about their sex life, even, it seems, with each other.
Because Kurt is associated by others with the feminine so often, people have generally, stereotypically, expected him to want his partner to take the lead. When Blaine showed up in season 2, that suspicion seemed confirmed, until Blaine started talking about never being anyone’s boyfriend and Sadie Hawkins and then demonstrated his desire not just for approval, but to be courted. And once that happened, things got murky.
The murkiness, frankly, has been good, because relationships are complex and as a random Tumblr meme says, asking who’s the boy (or girl) in a gay relationship is like asking which chopstick is the fork. It’s not really a question that makes sense, unless a particular couple wants it to because of dynamics they enjoy.
But the murkiness has also suggested the possibility that neither Kurt and Blaine seem to feel particularly comfortable initiating sexuality between them. Other than the first time Kurt and Blaine kiss, most of Blaine’s attempts at being sexually assertive end in disaster (Jeremiah) or involve alcohol (Rachel, Kurt at Scandals). When Kurt tries to discuss whether Blaine wants him in “The First Time,” he’s utterly uncomfortable once that hilarious discussion of masturbation begins.
But none of this is really surprising.
Just as women are often trained not to express their sexual desires or make the first move, gay teens (and especially gay boys who don’t have the advantages of the level of platonic touch that is socially acceptable between women) are also trained not to show desire. It’s not safe, polite, or well-received. It is an insult to want.
How many times has Kurt been scolded for having a crush or pursuing so much as a conversation with another boy because of how it will reflect on that boy? And Blaine arguably had the actual desire to make the first move beaten out of him with what happened at the Sadie Hawkins dance.
That Kurt and Blaine are experiencing anxieties around sexual activity as generally discussed in the context of women makes perfect sense, and shouldn’t actually be feminizing at all. Yet, because of the way gender comes into play around both characters so often (especially considering the evolution in Blaine’s choices regarding female empowerment songs — first he’s having kept woman fantasies (“Bills, Bills, Bills”) and now he’s telling Kurt he can pay his own way (“It’s Not Right, but It’s Okay”)) a perfectly reasonable problem they’re encountering for a number of not unexpected reasons becomes once again about Glee‘s ongoing examination of how queer men are, and sometimes are not, perceived as men by both themselves and the world around them.
Ultimately, what’s hard about this for me as a queer viewer with a female body and a female partner, isn’t actually that dread reference to lesbian bed death. What’s hard is that lesbian sexuality is used so often not as a subject unto itself, but a side note to explicate the sexualities of others.
I joke a lot about how I connect so much with the Kurt and Blaine storyline in part because Patty is so the Kurt to my Blaine (go on, ask me about the time she went to eight stores looking for a limited edition McQueen-inspired nail polish that was sold out everywhere). But I also connect to their storyline because of their chemistry (which I’m only really starting to see between Brittany and Santana) and because their anxieties are often mine.
The lesbian bed death comment underscored that, because it underscored the doubts Kurt and Blaine have both been trained to have on how acceptable their desire is. Those doubts are what made Sebastian interesting to Blaine earlier in the season, and Chandler interesting to Kurt now. Open expression of want is hard to look away from when you’ve been told you’ll never hear it and that you shouldn’t engage in it yourself.
Homophobia has a lot of costs — many of them big, public, frightening and violent. But “Whitney” also shows us one of the small costs of bullying, violence, homophobia, and misogyny in its treatment of Kurt and Blaine by showing us just how hard it is to carry on a relationship when you’re still learning that it’s okay to love and it’s okay to want and it’s okay to have.
It’s remarkably deft. Now if Glee would just acknowledge that lots of girls of every stripe — cis, trans, and metaphorical — like and have sex too, we’d be golden. But that can probably really only happen once characters graduate and start escaping Lima; at WMHS femininity (which is generally defined as performativity) is always punished, early and often.
Just ask Quinn Fabray who has to put her gender on every day. Or Rachel “man hands” Berry who is punished for not being enough of a girl precisely because she is a girl. And how about Mercedes Jones who gets called lazy for being the size and shape typical of far more American women than not? Or Blaine who so often seems almost guilty over how he constructs and is rewarded for a masculinity he doesn’t seem to feel? And what about Kurt Hummel, who never asked for grace and sorrow and a kingdom of dead things he didn’t choose to pull him from the world of men.
Looking at it that way, lesbian bed death, even as it sort of explains it all, is really the least of the reasons no one at WMHS really enjoys being a girl.