“Glee” recap 4:13: Girl on Fire

I have barely caught my breath when lightning strikes out in the hallway, signaling the arrival of Miss Santana Lopez and a gaggle of Louisville cheerleaders. Emma invited her back because the only other person on this show who could do justice to Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits” is no one, and it’s a principal component of the one true diva canon. Tina’s face when Santana dances her way into the room is like a full Liz Lemon “OH, BROTHER.” And Brittany’s face is like, “OH, GIRL.” And Sam’s face is like, “Oh, God. I’ll be dead by sundown.”

After the song, Brittany rushes up to high five her lady love and wonders aloud why Santana didn’t tell her she was teleporting into town. Santana, verbatim:

You know, I think that the better question is, why didn’t you tell me that you were dating Sam? I had just left a comment on my favorite Rizzoli & Isles lesbian subtext blog when I heard the news. Oh, and before I forget, allow me to introduce my backup, and my girlfriend: Elaine. And by “girlfriend,” I mean “out-and-proud, lipstick-loving, AfterEllen-reading girlfriend.”

Last week someone in the comments called me — hang on, I’m going to look it up because I want to get it right — a “Self-righteous Lesbian. Devoted to improving Glee with her rapacious standards of heterophobia and misandry. A woman on a mission.” And while the heterophobia and misandry thing is all wrong, the other part is right. I am a self-righteous lesbian, and I am a woman on a mission. And I’m not going to apologize for either of those things. Sometimes I’m preachy and always I want what I want, because what I want is: Queer visibility. When I started writing for AfterEllen, there was barely enough lesbian pop culture news to fill a weekly column. We went an entire year without a major lesbian character on broadcast TV. I’m talking like five years ago, that was the reality. Not one single major lesbian character. And gay guys weren’t all that present on broadcast TV either.

Here’s what we know about queer representation on TV: It changes everything. It changes things for straight people who have never met a gay person in their lives. It humanizes us. It opens the door for us into the living rooms of “mainstream” America and we sit down with these people who don’t know us and we have dinner with these people who don’t know us and we make them laugh and we make them cry and they come away knowing that there’s one kind of folks.

And it changes everything for gay people too. We are, all of us, born with an ancient need to stretch ourselves across the fictional universes of other people’s stories. If they can be heroes, we can be heroes. If they can find love, we can find love. If they can crash and bleed and break and claw their way back to redemption, well, then, so can we. If a young gay boy can get thrown into a dumpster and crawl out and come out and sing his way into the most prestigious fine arts school in the country where he can banish his bullies with a song in his heart and a smile on his face, we can really believe that it gets better. And if a young gay girl can break through walls she spent a lifetime building, stare down her deepest, darkest fears, and find the courage to crack open her own heart, we can be brave enough to love out loud too.

When I call Glee out on its misogyny, on its double standard of gay/straight physical affection, on its unwillingness to commit to its character development and tell us their real truths, it’s not because I’m jaded and cynical and like the sound of my own angry voice. It’s because when Glee does it right, it does it better than anyone. It heals us on a soul-balm level. I’ve written before about how constellations are nothing more than stories, the joining-up of unrelated points of light by people who wanted to make sense of the universe. When we look at the night sky, it’s not a jumble of glowing chaos. It’s Orion. It’s the Big Dipper. It’s Leo the Nemean Lion. And when we look at our own lives in the context of the stories we’ve been told, we’re not lost and alone and abandoned in a turbulent world without hope. We’re Blaine. We’re Brittany. We’re Santana. We’re Unique.

And when people who don’t know us — not really, not physically, not yet — try to work out whether or not we’re like them, the same thing is true: We are Kurt Hummel. We hurt and we love and we hope. Oh, we hope. And sometimes we do it looking fierce in one-sleeved woolen ponchos.

So, yes: I am a woman on a mission. And when Santana Lopez says “AfterEllen” out loud on Fox, five years after there were exactly zero lesbians on any major network, it only strengthens my resolve. It also makes me feel like the first time I went out on a date with another girl and she flicked her eyes up at me coyly over her beer and I was like, “Oh Jesus, she’s going to kiss me. Another girl is going to kiss me.” And she did kiss me, all gentle and firm and delicious and hops and jalapenos, and my heart ricocheted around in my chest like a pinball and my lungs forgot to do their job and all of my blood rushed to the surface of my skin, and I think what happened next was that I blacked out.

It’s like, Naya Rivera is saying “AfterEllen.” I see her lips going, “AfterEllen.” But it sounds to me very much like, “I love you.”

Someone who isn’t hearing “I love you,” however, is Brittany. What she is hearing is “I came here to hurt you,” and her face is so sad and now my heart is sad too.

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