Anyone who knows me knows I love Glee! It’s a show about singing and dancing and musical theater and show tunes and Journey. I also love Glee because of the issues it has been known to confront each week.
Glee has done a fine job of interweaving modern-day issues into their storylines for various characters—teenage pregnancy, body image problems, interracial dating, domestic abuse and handicap youth. But the biggest issue Ryan Murphy has tackled is the struggle and rise of issues among LGBT youth and young adults.
Ever since season one, when Kurt (played by Chris Colfer) struggled with coming out to his family and friends, Glee has faced head-on issues within the LGBT youth community. The kiss between Kurt and Blaine (played by Darren Criss) in season two received criticism because the FOX show showed a same-sex kiss during primetime. Murphy then went on to tackle many other LGBT issues: lesbian relationships, bisexuality, LGBT bullying, suicide due to bullying, marriage equality and an anti-LGBT hate crime-related incident.
But on the latest episode, Glee introduced another storyline to one of its already famous characters—Coach Shannon Beiste. The coach, played by Dot Marie Jones faced gender dysphoria and launched a transgender storyline.
Yes, Murphy has touched on transgender issues before with the character Wade “Unique” Adams, played by Alex Newell. But this time viewers will watch a transition—of Shannon into Sheldon, a transgender man. There are very few modern shows that have been brave enough to do this.
In the Jan. 16 episode, Coach Beiste comes out to both Sue, played by Jane Lynch, and Sam, played by Chord Overstreet. She tells them she plans to transition into a man. She explains that she has always felt that she was in the wrong gender, but she was too confused to fully understand those feelings.
When Sam asks for clarification, Beiste replies, “Kiddo, this isn’t about who I want to go to bed with. It’s about who I want to go to bed as.”
Jones has said the preparation for the storyline and character of Sheldon was difficult. Not because she doesn’t support the transgender plotline, but because she wanted to do the character justice and make sure the transgender community was well-represented. It’s rumored that Beiste will disappear for a couple episodes before reappearing to update the cast and viewers on the transition process. By the end of the season, Beiste will re-emerge as Sheldon.
Timing of this story arc can’t be accidental. The transgender community is in the national spotlight following the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, Amazon Prime’s Transparent just won two Golden Globes and there’s a federal fight to protect transgender people in their places of employment.
Some say the new storyline leaves behind Unique, the trans character of color, and instead focuses on a Caucasian trans character. But honestly, it was probably poor creative planning on the show’s part on how to cut out cast members rather than a racial issue. It also seems that Murphy didn’t have a good grasp of how he saw Unique fitting into the Glee group. She was introduced as a drag-type character at the beginning and then developed into a trans woman. And honestly, this is an example of the confusion too many have when it comes to differentiating between drag queens and transgender people. There are some within the LGBT community who still seem to struggle with the separation of the two.
Others have criticized Unique’s character for always being the butt of “transvestite” jokes or the many times she is forced to appear as male because of situations with other characters. But isn’t that how most stories we read in the news about transgender youth bullying start? It’s always due to a lack of understanding and sensitivity.
While some may not like how Unique’s plot panned, it was—in a way—realistic of how transgender youth are treating every day. We covered a similar story in Watermark where the Volusia County School Board acknowledged a transgender student and offered a gender neutral bathroom—just like one of the plots that involved Unique’s character. But this is no solution at all because it simply degrades a person and deepens their feelings of inferiority when they are trying to be true to his or her authentic self.
A few seasons back in Glee, the character of Beiste was married to a male football coach. Is that background confusing in this new transgender storyline? No, it’s not. It displays the complexity of transgender issues and how the journey to self-acceptance is a difficult one. It’s an ongoing fight to find happiness when gender identity is a daily battle.
The most powerful part of the episode—for me, at least—is when Sue Sylvester tells Beiste that the position he has held as football coach will remain his when he comes back after his transition. It shows equality in the workplace in an environment where—in real life—finding such compassion isn’t as common.
I think it’s great that Glee is going to explore the entirety of what a person goes through when they transition. And the fact that a trans man will get the spotlight is refreshing, since there aren’t many trans role models in the media. It’s even more exciting that FOX, known for its conservative news channel, is the place showcasing the new plot.
I’m excited to see how Coach Beiste’s storyline plays out and what more conversations about transgender issues will be had.
Some criticize this new feat Murphy has added to his growing collection of LGBT issues tackled on Glee. But moving forward, a youth and young adult audience will be exposed to trans issues in a format they haven’t seen before. That’s the point too many are missing.
Visibility, awareness and education are the most important lessons anyone can take away from this brave storyline on the popular show.
If that leads to acceptance and a better understanding of the transgender community, then Glee is doing pretty well.