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Why “Glee” Matters: Let’s Talk about SEX

2011 March 14
by Genya Shimkin

Most  kids don’t want to talk to their parents about sex, and most parents aren’t thrilled about it either.  It can be uncomfortable, awkward, and just plain weird.  The conversation means parents accepting that their children are sexual creatures, and children accepting that their parents have had sex.  A lot of parents don’t talk about it at all, leaving kids to figure it out on their own.  A lot of them push abstinence.  And a lot of them are completely open, fostering honest dialogue, answering questions, and handing out condoms.  There isn’t just one way to talk to kids about sex, but Tuesday night’s episode of “Glee” featured one of the most honest, frank, and poignant conversations I’ve ever seen on television or in movies.  And most importantly, it was a conversation between a straight father and his gay son.

Chris Colfer, the openly gay actor who plays Kurt, recently won a Golden Globe for his role on “Glee.”  In his speech he dedicated his award to “all the amazing kids that watch our show, and the kids our show celebrates, that are constantly told ‘no’ by the people in their environments, by bullies at school, that they can’t be who they are or have what they want because of who they are.  Well, screw that, kids!”

Though some have accused Kurt of being overly stereotypical, he holds an important place among gay characters on television right now.  Tommy and Kevin on “Brothers and Sisters” and Mitchell and Cameron on “Modern Family” are committed couples, the former in the process of adopting, and the latter one raising a child.  They are anchored by big loving families and the stability that comes from years of being out, coupled, and comfortable.  Kurt is in high school.  He was raised by a single father, a widower.  He is tortured by a big football-playing bully, who we eventually discover is tormenting Kurt because of his own repressed homosexuality.  Kurt transfers schools to escape his bully and a school that won’t protect him.  Being gay informs so much of Kurt’s world, and it is his struggles that make his character so important.

In Tuesday’s episode “Sexy,” Kurt tells his crush/only gay friend Blaine that he doesn’t know how to be sexy because he doesn’t know anything about sex.  Blaine tries to start a conversation, but Kurt shuts him down.  (After all, who wants to learn about sex from a crush who “just wants to be friends”?)  So Blaine approaches Kurt’s father, Burt, and asks him to talk to Kurt.  He explains that most schools don’t offer honest sex education classes, and those that do rarely (if ever) talk about “what sex is like for gay kids.”  He says that Burt should take advantage of the close relationship he has with his son and talk to him about sex and sexuality before it’s too late.

Then something truly incredible happens.  Burt sits down with his gay son and talks to him about sex and sexuality.  He gives his son a stack of pamphlets and tells Kurt, “I want you to read them.  And then I want you to come talk to me about it.”  He does not condescend to or infantilize his son; he is honest and emotional and frank.  He talks about respecting yourself, and your partner.  He talks about allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and protecting your heart.  He says that sex can and should be about more than just physical pleasure.  He tells his son, “don’t throw yourself around” and, “don’t let anyone treat you like you don’t matter.  Because you matter.”  Most young men in our culture do not get this message, especially from fathers.  They do not hear from their fathers that sex can take an emotional toll.  Gay kids get this message even less frequently, because most of our parents are straight, and even if they are well-intentioned they can’t fully understand the “sexuality” piece of homosexuality.  And the vast majority of school-based sex education classes completely ignores the LGBT community.

In a previous episode of the show, Kurt’s friend Blaine spends the night (fully clothed) after the kids get drunk at a party.  Upon discovering Blaine the next morning, Burt is upset and tells Kurt he is being “inappropriate.”  A defensive Kurt argues that nothing happened, and that his father is being unfair because he doesn’t fully understand Kurt’s sexuality.  Burt admits that he’s unsure of what two teenage boys might be doing behind closed doors, so Kurt asks him to educate himself.  That way, Kurt says, he could go to his dad with questions, just like straight guys do.  The show could easily have dropped it there, but instead, Burt (with some prodding from Blaine) follows through.

The relationship between these two men is one of my favorite pieces of “Glee.”  Not only because Kurt is gay, but also because the show honestly portrays the struggle of this single father raising a son with whom he has so little in common.  Scenes of Burt teaching Kurt about cars are juxtaposed with scenes of Kurt teaching his father about brunch.  There were two separate instances where Burt comes to the defense of his son when he is bullied.  In the first instance, he threatens to kick his step-son out of the house when he calls Kurt’s bedroom “faggy.”  In the second, Burt finds out that a bully threatened to kill Kurt and grabs him in the school’s hallway.  Fathers standing up for their gay sons is something we don’t see enough of on television, in movies, or in society at large.  (During testimony for the marriage bill in Maryland, a U.S. Army Colonel spoke of his love for his gay son.  See the clip here.)

The visibility of gay people on television is certainly on the rise, but for teenagers, these people can seem so far away.  High-school lesbians watching Ellen don’t necessarily feel connected to her just because she’s a lesbian.  She’s in her 50s, lives in Hollywood, has a beautiful wife and a contract with Cover Girl.  Her life looks nothing like a high schooler’s. But if “Glee” had been on when I was in high school, I would absolutely have identified with Kurt.  He is self-assured but struggles with the pressures of being out in high school.  His relationship with his father has become a source of strength for him, and should be an example to ALL fathers, not simply those with gay sons.

I came out to my parents before my mother died, but I was always very close to her.  After her death, my father and I had to find a ways to talk about my sexuality and my relationships.  When a woman broke my heart, it was my father who offered a shoulder to cry on, who told me that I’d be okay.  It’s not always easy or comfortable, but he’s my father and we love each other.  He is a straight man in his 60s and I’m his lesbian-activist daughter.  He loves me and supports me and wants me to be happy and safe and successful.  That’s all a lot of gay kids wantto feel loved and supported.  Unfortunately, entirely too many parents are unable to communicate with gay children in meaningful ways.  So I’d recommend that every parent and every middle school show this scene.  Without saying a word about condoms or sexually transmitted infections or the parts involved, Burt has an informative, open, and honest conversation about sexuality with his son.  And that’s an excellent starting point for any teenager, gay or straight.

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3 Responses
  1. Alex Shimkin permalink
    March 14, 2011

    My cousin never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

    • Genya Shimkin permalink
      March 15, 2011

      Thanks Alex!

  2. Jacqueline Moss permalink
    March 15, 2011

    Genya, this is such a beautifully-written and touching essay. I can’t possibly express how much I agree with you more eloquently than you did. Thank you, this is truly beautiful.

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