The importance of being “Glee”

You may not like Glee, and that’s perfectly fine. You may hate its jazz hands and show tunes and rampantly inconsistent character continuity. That’s your prerogative and I respect it completely. But I think, for a moment, we should talk about how important Glee is in a larger context.

Of course, it’s not just Glee that is important, but all queer-positive TV programming. Shows that allows its gay characters to be not just punch lines and background props, but complicated, fully realized characters. Shows that give people who might otherwise feel alone a way of seeing themselves and thinking, just maybe, things will get better. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars and The Good Wife. Shows that matter.

And it matters not just from the simple desire to watch fun shows on the television. But it matters because sometimes, when you’re part of a minority community, what you see on TV is the only chance you get to see yourself reflected in your daily life. And that matters because according to a new study, gay, lesbian and bisexual teens attempt suicide more often when they live in areas they do not feel supported.

The new study published in Pediatrics found that GLB teens were 20 percent more likely to have attempted suicide if they lived in politically conservative communities or areas where schools did not have anti-bullying/gay-straight alliances. It also found that GLB teens are much more likely than their straight counterparts to attempt suicide, 20 percent for gay youth, 4 percent for straight youth. Incidentally, suicide attempts for straight youth were also up in conservative areas, by 9 percent.

Now, this news may not come as a big surprise. The more traditionally conservative an area the less likely it is to protect gay rights. So it follows the less supported and more isolated queer youth in that area will feel. Loneliness can be a terrible, desperate thing.

Which brings me back to Glee. How does this TV show about singing and dancing make a difference? How do any of these shows make a difference? Because for some people, what they see on the television and the internet is their only window to a wider world.

So when they see Brittany and Santana or Emily and Paige or Callie and Arizona and even complicated Kalinda they see, at long last, lives like their own. No one flips around the TV dial and thinks,” God, if only there were more shows about straight couples I could watch.” But LGBT people are constantly searching for themselves, both onscreen and off.

I’m not saying that Glee or Grey’s Anatomy or Pretty Little Liars is the key to saving lives; it takes so much more to change people’s hearts and minds: brave activist, principled politicians, dedicated educators, caring families and endless hard work. But it’s an important start.

We still live in a world where some people still think “gay” is a bad word. Panelists at the Christian conference The Awakening spoke about ending the use of the term “gay” entirely because it’s “a left-wing socio-political construct designed to create grounds for fundamental rights [based on] whimsical capricious desires.” They’d prefer to use “same-sex attraction,” “same-sex intercourse,” “sodomy,” “unnatural vice” or “anti-Christian.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to go to the Unnatural Vice Pride Parade this summer.

And two Tennessee state senators are introducing a bill that says “no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.” It’s even called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Given those statistics on teen suicide, making schools even more inhospitable to gay youth isn’t only bigoted, it’s downright evil.

So if TV, in some small way, can fight back against that institutionalized loneliness and isolation, I say bring on the jazz hands. You certainly don’t have to like Glee, or any of the other shows, but you should at least be happy that they exist.

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