10:30 am EDT, January 19, 2015

Opinion: ‘Glee’ and transgenderism – the right direction?

On this week’s episode of Glee, Coach Beiste came out as a transgender man. The moment was great, but is this a fitting arc for that particular character? This is an important transgender storyline, but is it the right one? Unique is out, Coach Beiste is in. Hmmm.

Recap: Glee season 6, episode 3, “Jagged Little Tapestry”

In recent years, trans visibility in the media has increased. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too quickly – it’s increased from “practically nothing” to “something.” It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, normalized, but what’s there so far has made headlines in a big way. Orange Is The New Black’s Laverne Cox was the first transgender person on the cover of Time Magazine. Laura Jane Grace, birth name Tommy Gabel and singer for Florida punk band Against Me!, was the first rock star to come out as trans midway through a successful career, and the band’s album about Grace’s journey, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, debuted at number 6 on the Billboard rock chart.

Amazon series Transparent just won Golden Globes for best TV series and best actor, Jared Leto, for better or worse, got the Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, and MTV’s teen comedy Faking It even features an intersex character – not the same thing, I know, but it’s another example outside the gender binary hitting the mainstream.

However, none of those examples are as mainstream as Glee. Glee’s ratings may be down, but it’s still a highly publicized network show and it’s still a household name. A trans storyline on prime-time Fox is a little bit different to a trans storyline on Netflix or HBO, which is why it’s surprising to see Glee using the limited time left in its final season to explore a new transgender character. In last Friday’s episode “Jagged Little Tapestry,” Shannon Beiste, the show’s lovable female football coach, came out to assistant coach Sam and principal Sue Sylvester as a transgender man.

Note: This article uses the current preferred pronouns for Glee’s trans characters – male for Shannon Beiste, female for Unique Adams.

First things first: the scenes handling this matter in “Jagged Little Tapestry” were exquisite. They were sensitive, beautifully acted, realistic and I’m pretty sure they managed not to insult anyone. Jane Lynch and Dot-Marie Jones have both received Emmy nominations for their portrayals of Sue and Beiste, and Chord Overstreet as Sam Evans is an oft-underused gem with a talent for honest, emotional work. If I was watching Glee for the first time, I would wholeheartedly applaud this entire situation.

The thing is, though, I know Glee’s past five seasons inside and out – and given that perspective, the question must be raised: is this truly the right plot for Shannon Beiste?

Beiste’s story, from his introduction in season 2 until now, has involved several arcs about the insecurities of an untraditional-looking cisgender woman who wanted to feel beautiful, who wanted to feel like a normal girl, who struggled to get the love and acceptance she craved as a woman. Being diagnosed with gender dysphoria, as Beiste succinctly explains to Sam, isn’t about who you want to go to bed with but about who you want to go to bed as, so sure, his plot involving romance and marriage to a man doesn’t contradict the transgender reveal, but so much of that story was intrinsically wrapped up in validating Beiste’s womanhood. That was the message of this character.

Way back in season 2, in “Never Been Kissed” – the episode that got Dot-Marie Jones her first Emmy nomination – after being cruelly mocked by the students, Beiste tells Will “I know I can be a little intimidating sometimes, but deep down inside, where no-one can see, I’m just a girl. Am I nuts that I just wanna be reminded of that sometimes?”

beiste will

It’s a hugely vulnerable moment for the character, and a lovely one, but it sure doesn’t sound like someone with gender dysphoria. I’m not trying to imply that there’s some sort of transgender rulebook here, but that statement sounds like someone desperate to be seen for how they identified inside: just a girl, despite the love of sports and the tough voice and the burly exterior.

This theme has continued through many of Beiste’s plots since then. The message of Coach Beiste’s story until now has been one that proved that womanhood comes in all shapes and sizes, that all kinds of women can feel beautiful and vulnerable and powerful. It’s not as if that message has suddenly been magically erased, but re-visiting Beiste’s prior arc with this new perspective in mind doesn’t quite sit right.

To be frank, it’s bad continuity on the show’s part and it proves that this transgender storyline, no matter how well-acted, important or touching, was not premeditated by the writers at all, and taking that factor into consideration, for Glee to suddenly present us with this story in its final season feels a bit like they’re treating trans visibility as a hot-button issue that they needed to jump on, rather than something that makes sense for the character.

To make matters worse, there’s the show’s existing trans character, Unique Adams – a black teenager who we met, initially, as a boy called Wade who performed in drag and who eventually admitted to identifying as a girl. Unique’s entire plot, from seasons 3 to 5, was not once handled with the honesty and tact of Coach Beiste’s coming out. Glee’s idea of A Very Special Episode About Gender focused on which bathroom Unique was allowed to use. Her gender and presentation was the butt of many casual transphobic jokes and slurs by nearly every character in the show. There were multiple arguments about whether she should be allowed to present femininely onstage, or at school.

unique

Unique had no sexuality or romance, aside from “catfishing” a straight male friend – a storyline that was never actually resolved – and very little serious handling of the choices and struggles faced by trans teenagers, such as physical transitioning. Language like “gender dysphoria” never even came into her equation – in fact, I can’t even recall use of the term transgender in relation to her identity, presentation and transition, except for a passing mention in a joke plot – yeah, a joke plot – about self-medicating hormone treatment with birth control pills.

It might be understandable that a bunch of sheltered Ohio teenagers wouldn’t be super educated and accepting about Unique. You could argue that the response to Beiste is different because he’s coming out to a couple of reasonable, responsible adults, but the thing is, Sue was always one of Unique’s biggest adversaries. From trying to stop Unique auditioning for a female role in a musical to her inner monologue in the season 6 premiere which mentions forcing Unique and her New Directions peers to transfer to others in order to disband the old glee club, full of “sitter-diddled transvestites,” Sue never missed a chance to disrespect Unique, whether it was limiting her “for her own safety,” or just because a transgender kid provided Sue with fuel for some of her most creative and disgusting insults.

Sue never approached Unique with the same acceptance and compassion that she immediately offered to Coach Beiste. It’s a pretty big stretch to imagine the same character who banned a trans girl from playing Rizzo in Grease admitting a trans man back into her school as an educator. I mean, I like the second version of Sue way better, but still – this circumstance is a pretty huge contradiction for more than just Beiste’s character. Even Sam seems way too confused by the concept of a transgender person, given that he was in glee club with Unique for a full year.

beiste sue

It’s a difficult, almost disgraceful thing to stand up and say “excuse me, that person shouldn’t be trans.” Who am I to say that about anyone? But this is a fictional character, and the audience has been granted a close look at his private feelings. In regards to his past statements, it’s possible that Beiste didn’t figure out what his feelings meant until very recently. Perhaps he was trying to prove his womanhood to himself just as much as he was trying to prove it to the rest of the world. With some careful writing (or headcanons), you could rationalize Coach Beiste’s past in a way that makes sense for his future. But Glee had another trans person sitting right there. There’s certainly no criticism of the show having multiple trans characters, but why they’ve chosen to neglect Unique and move on to Beiste is beyond me.

There’s no backpedaling this plot now – no ifs, buts or maybes. In an interview with actress Dot-Marie Jones, she reveals that Beiste will be re-appearing in several weeks’ time, no longer Shannon but Sheldon. Having Beiste decide that he’s changed his mind about transitioning would be a pretty weak move on Glee’s part, and it would reflect very negatively and flippantly on Glee’s portrayal of the trans community, so I don’t want them to undo this, but I’m still not convinced that this was the right move to begin with.

I’m sure that given the quality of the material so far, Dot-Marie Jones will do a great job telling the story of Sheldon Beiste, a trans man. It’s an important story. But Shannon Beiste was a important woman, and so was Unique Adams.

What did you think of Coach Beiste’s new storyline on ‘Glee’?

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