This entry started with a comment I made on this post on Letters from Titan. Since I couldn’t stop thinking about the issues I had started to verbalize there, I decided to do what works best for me in those situations: talk about it. So here I give you my first post in English on this blog, and my first post about Glee. I have a strong suspicion that this is only the beginning…
As I said before, the butch and I are currently obsessing about Glee a bit (me more than him). We’re watching all episodes for a second time, and I’ve recently discovered some really read-worthy blogs that are wonderfully thinky about aspects of Glee. So I’m catching up on that end, too. I’ve also been sucked into Glee-related Tumblr blogs, mostly from Kurt/Blaine fans, and have found myself watching GIFs of the same kiss (their first one, from “Original Song”) over and over again until the wee hours of the morning. So far, I’ve only read a few fanfics, but I’m pretty sure I will get back to more of that eventually. And I can’t stop thinking about Glee. For me, that’s an extraordinary level of fan involvement which I experienced last with the Rocky Horror Picture Show (starting, oh, eighteen years ago).
Right now, I switch between moments of believing that Glee is absolute genius, especially in the way it depicts Kurt’s story arc (including the Karofsky story) and his relationship to Blaine (this happens most of all when I read Letters from Titan until my brain starts to crackle with happy fireworks of neuronal joy due to all the thinkiness and detail obsession and her seemingly random webs of associations that suddenly aren’t random at all anymore) and the sober realization that Glee does oh-so-many things terribly, terribly wrong, especially when it comes to its female and/or of-color characters and the madness of Glee‘s random story arcs in general (that happens a lot when I read Glee Critic, for example) or the unequal treatment of gay and straight relationships on the show (likewise with Fabfemmeboy). And don’t get me started on Finchel.
But even despite my awareness of the many problems Glee has, I can’t help being crazy over many of Kurt’s and Kurt and Blaine’s moments. What can I say? They move me. After all, they are exactly what brought me to Glee in the first place (and it’s the one thing I really, really owe Mensa for because someone shared a link to the video of Teenage Dream sung by the Warblers in “Never been kissed” (2×06) on their QueerSIG mailing list).
And then I watched the entire series up to wherever they were in April last year. And kept watching. And remained fascinated by Kurt (and Blaine). At some point, I noticed that I was obviously identifying with Kurt, and I’m partly writing this entry because I’m still trying to understand why and how exactly that is the case and how it ties in with my own gender and desire. I’m peeling back the layers, if you will.
You see, in my everyday life, I’m a queer, butch-loving femme who experiences a profound disidentification with what media portrayals (and, sadly, all too often real people as well) tell me is a woman/girl. Nevertheless, I’m apparently read as a fairly gender-conforming female, at least to the degree that strangers or coworkers wouldn’t seriously question my belonging to this category. But even in contexts where people are easily able to assume I’m straight (e.g. when I haven’t come out verbally yet, or when my transgender butch partner has been read as a cisgendered man and I am “straightened by association”), they still often notice that there’s something odd about the way I do gender and gendered interactions. So in that sense, I do read as queer in many situations, even if I don’t specifically aim for that (but I also don’t aim for avoiding it). If I want, I can make myself look pretty and/or sexy, and not just in the queer eyes of a select few. But that never completely overrules the fact that I also feel like a terribly awkward dork a lot of the time in the area of beauty and sexiness, especially when I didn’t consciously transform myself into a pretty/sexy girl (or woman, or even femme). The dorky, awkward real-life teenage me from 25 years ago has obviously not vanished.
Perhaps this is why Glee speaks to me. It’s this world where people aren’t even expected to know who and what they “really” are. They aren’t supposed to be “done” with themselves. It’s this world where nothing is set in stone yet, where the future is wide open, where anything can happen. Even if we secretly know that this is a lie. Because you can’t fully unlearn being an outcast once you’ve been there. Especially not when you discovered the glittery, hard but absolutely exhilarating joys of it (which reminds me of that quote I recently read about Glee being a few diamonds in a pile of shit). Then again, I never went to an American high school because I grew up in Germany (and still live there), and I’ve never been to a school where athletes and cheerleaders were of any relevance to the entire student body (not to mention that we didn’t even have cheerleaders). Of course we also had social hierarchies and cliques and outcasts, but as long as I had a few like-minded friends, and a teacher or two who cared, I didn’t even want to be “popular” anymore.
I probably also need to say that there were a few rather interesting moments in my adult life where I felt like a young gay guy (which caused a rather interesting temporary transformation of how I perceived my entire body, which is perhaps a story for another day) and/or where I was erotically attracted to a certain type of gay male leather daddy. This attraction also happened while I was wearing a miniskirt and high heeled platform boots with my shaved head. And I know from experience that people’s anatomies are a lot less relevant to me and to the degree I enjoy sexual interactions than I initially thought. What turns me off most men (both cis and trans) isn’t the way their bodies look or work, or even their identification as men, but their inability to see my gender as anything but “naturally female” and our interaction (sexual as well as social) as anything but “naturally heterosexual.” Because I don’t do either of these.
So here I am, identifying with Kurt Hummel of all people (okay, characters) and trying to understand why and how. I’ve obviously never lived a gay male teenager’s life (or a lesbian teenager’s life at that, because I was already 21 when I first came out). I’ve never been harrassed, insulted, shoved into lockers, thrown into dumpsters, and I most definitely never had my life threatened for my queerness, gendered or sexual. Especially not at school.  But still, I can relate to Kurt so much more than to any other of the Glee characters.
I’m pretty clear on at least one aspect of why that is.
Before I get into it, however, let me insert a disclaimer. I’m talking about media representations and cultural narratives of certain genders here, and I read them the way I read book or movie characters, even if the stories are at least partly (auto-)biographical. I am not talking about actual people who I’ve personally met. I realize that this is a problematic thing to do, because the two constantly bleed into each other, but it’s the only way I can even start expressing certain things about myself right now. So please read this as provisionary and imperfect images I use because they’re better than nothing and until I find better ones.
So. The way I read Kurt, he embodies a certain kind of queer, camp-influenced, male femininity. And I have always found it a lot easier to identify with the queer femininity of drag queens, or lifestyle queens (I hope this is the appropriate term! I mean people like LaMiranda from the movie Stonewall, for example) and some kinds of feminine, gay men, than with straight or even mainstream-lesbian femininity (I’m looking at you, The L-Word). As much as I can explain that, it has to do with not taking one’s femininity for granted because people keep telling you you’re not good at it (in my case) or that you shouldn’t do it in the first place (in the case of lifestyle queens – which is not to say that I didn’t also get some pretty heavy anti-feminine shit thrown my way from a feminist/lesbian and direction). Instead, this kind of queer femininity has to be carefully and consciously constructed, and it never comes across as completely “natural.” Even if at the same time you feel that it has “always” been there and it just happens without you even thinking about it.
For me, this tension between consciously constructed and “natural” femininity is a fundamental aspect of my own femmeness. You see, I never was a pretty or girly girl. Nor was I an outright tomboy. Instead, I grew up as an oddly gender-neutral kid who was happiest when reading, or creating elaborate fantasy worlds to play in that included rearranging at least half of the furniture in my room. When puberty hit, I quickly found out that all of this was a problem. I wanted nothing more than be pretty and desirable like the other girls, but I failed miserably at that. I tried dressing right and wearing my hair right and moving right, but none of these things came “naturally” to me, and I kept looking like I had put on an ill-fitting costume for a role I simply couldn’t pull off. I very obviously wasn’t wanted by any of the teenage boys around me, and I was unable to join all the psychological “games” between girls and boys. Partly, I because found them stupid, but mostly because I just didn’t get them. My intense crushes on boys went unrequited, and I barely had any kind of teenage relationship although I did eventually start making out with boys at parties when we were all drunk and maybe a bit desperate. But I was never chosen by the ones I most desired.
It was only much later, after I had come out as a butch-loving femme (one went with the other for me) in my mid-twenties, that I experienced the blazing glory of being the prettiest girl in the room, being desired above everyone else, and being proudly and publicly chosen – and choosing and desiring back, because that’s part of the butch-femme dance for me, the mutual choice of what is otherwise despised, passed over, and considered ugly. With that came the realization that I could learn doing pretty and sexy femininity and be incredibly powerful at the same time. Even (or rather, especially) when I was yielding to the look and touch of a butch. Finally, femininity didn’t equal being stupid, exploited, or in danger anymore. Because I learned it so late, however, I was very conscious of the act of learning and the amount of practice it took until I was good at it. And that’s precisely when I remembered that I had once, without thinking, seen myself in a ballgown at a women’s dance to which I was invited during the most lesbian-feminist and harshly femme-hating phase of my life. And how perfectly right it had felt to walk into that dance in my red floor-length ballgown from the cheap second-hand store, with my tattoos visible on my upper arms, Doc Martens-like boots peeking out from under them hem of the dress, and a DIY haircut that mostly fulfilled the lesbian cliché look of that time and place – and a dyke in a tuxedo or blazer, respectively, on each of my arms. That was indeed a princess dream come true, long before I even dared to think of myself as having even the slightest trace of princess, let alone the desire to be one, in me. Even though I didn’t even know a single ballroom dance step and sat around most of the time, pettily envying the only other young woman in a dress whose femininity was so much more “perfect” than mine (and who therefore couldn’t be a “real” lesbian) and who got to dance with the kind of dyke I found most attractive.
It took me a few more years to understand that I didn’t have to be a butch just because I desired butches, or to even think about my own gender and desire in terms of butch and femme. Today, I still cringe at the few pictures of me that exist from these years because I look so awkward in my attempts at looking “like a real lesbian.” I cringe even harder at remembering how I hated my own femininity and tried to eliminate it, not just by putting away my eyeliner and skirts and eventually stopping to do bellydance (which, ironically, had taught me to be erotic for and with women in the first place), but by trying to develop a new body language that would read as more “lesbian” (read: butch). And that point of painful, deliberate, self-hating re-formation of myself is exactly where I come crash back to Kurt. The Kurt in “Laryngitis” (1×18), who tried so hard to butch it up to be who he thought others wanted him to be. There’s no scene in all three seasons of Glee that make me as uncomfortable as watching Kurt sing “Pink Houses” during that episode, and few that make me tear up with pride and joy as seeing him sing “Rose’s Turn” later on.
Because I’ve been there, and not just once, and not just with one gender. So, yeah, that’s where I get Kurt, in all the ambiguity of both becoming and understanding him.
And that’s where I get back to Blaine. Because, at some point in my budding Glee obsession, I realized that I found Blaine attractive. And it was most decidedly Blaine, not Darren Criss who portrays him. And I didn’t find him attractive from a girl-to-guy position. I found him attractive for the way he looked at Kurt, because that’s how I want to be looked at. Like I am loved for being perfectly imperfectly exactly how I am, with all my insecurity and my big dreams and my hurt at never, ever fitting in. With my hard-edged scorn for what’s “normal” and my desperate episodes of wanting to be completely unexceptional, just once. I want to be someone’s treasure, the thing they never thought they could get because they’re as much of a freak as I am, just in a different way. And I want to be the girl to someone’s boy, even though it’s really never that simple and there are days when girls need to give boys flowers in all seriousness and… zig instead of zag. Layers, you know. Layers and intimacy.
Besides that, Blaine has a certain kind of retro masculinity going on, which often looks inherently “queer” to the modern eye (even though it wasn’t back then, except when it was – there’s a brilliant article out there somewhere that discusses Blaine’s clothing and its relation to gayness of earlier time periods but I sadly can’t seem to find it again right now) and which plays into the Kurt/Blaine dynamic. The first time we very explicitly see this is with “Baby, it’s cold outside,” and the retro theme, complete with obvious nods to hidden homosexual narratives of the 1950s, comes back with full force in “Extraordinary Christmas” (3×09). And this retro masculinity has a very strong “lesbian” butch-femme subtext for me. After all, this is where “we” first started – at least in one of the butch-femme history narratives. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues iconized the decades of the late 1940s to 1960s for us, and many butches and femmes have been romanticizing this time ever since. We’ve been dreaming of being or having a perfect gentleman who really is a “woman,” and in recent years, many of the aesthetics of that time were adopted as an iconic look for butch-femme. All of this is present for me in Blaine and Kurt’s interaction. Which makes it very easy to see myself in their dynamic. And since I really have to think hard to remember even one filmic depiction (let alone in the mainstream media) of a romantic narrative between a (transgender) butch and a queer femme where the butch wasn’t so “girlified,” presumably to make her more acceptable to a larger audience, that she stopped reading as a butch to me, Blaine and Kurt are pretty much the closest to home that I’ll probably get in the near future.
Finally, the way the two of them don’t even get close to being undressed on-screen (on their own or with each other) goes a very long way for me in reading their genders as something that isn’t determined by their anatomy. Which again ties into my desire for (transgender) butches and my femme gaze at their naked bodies. Because my gaze looks not primarily at the anatomical “truths” we’re so often told remove any doubt about someone’s “real” gender. Instead, I see a different gendered layer that is a lot more true than what a plain photograph of these bodies could ever capture. In other words, I’m very grateful that Kurt and Blaine’s sexual moments have not been illustrated with lots of undressing of clearly gendered body parts.
Wow. That was a very interesting trip. (It also served its purpose, because I now understand a lot more about my identification with Kurt and desire for Blaine.) I think I’ll do more of them.
Update, 01 August 2012: And how could I forget to link to this article from Letters from Titan where Racheline Maltese has said pretty much the same thing about the butch-femme dynamic between Blaine and Kurt without ever using the words “butch” or “femme.” Here’s an excerpt.
For folks (largely queer folks) paying attention, Glee informs us that Kurt is happy and eager to be an aesthetically feminine partner in his relationship and play act at that very role… when it’s about his relationship. But that in no way makes him a passive, submissive or traditionally feminine partner; it doesn’t even make him a girl (sidenote: I loathe all the stereotypes it’s necessary to address to untangle what’s going on with Kurt, but it’s the world he, and we, live in). It places a heteroaesthetic dynamic around Kurt and Blaine, while firmly removing any hint of a heteronormative one.
That heteroaesthetic dynamic serves to amplify queerness for the viewer interested in queerness, but also to minimize queerness, by suggesting the actually rejected heteronormativity, for the viewier not interested in, or not comfortable with, that same queerness. This is a type of relatively outrageous passing, one that offers Kurt and Blaine safety both intra- and extradiegetically, without imposing restriction on their significantly queer gender expression and sexuality.
 This is not to say I’ve never personally experienced anti-queer harrassment or violence, but the context of those few incidents was very different from what has been shown on Glee. I was also already in my twenties. All in all, I’ve always been a lot more more afraid of anti-queer violence for my butch girlfriends/partners than for myself, which probably has to do with the very real and drastic violence they did experience, partly while I was their girlfriend (but not with them when it happened). For now, let’s just say this isn’t my point of connection to Kurt.