Football coach Shannon Beiste was first introduced to Glee fans at the beginning of the second season. She was a force to be reckoned with; an intimidating presence with a hefty build and a loud, booming voice. She came with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, having been bullied throughout most of her life for her perceived lack of femininity.
In general, Coach Beiste was not considered sexually attractive. In one unfortunate storyline, several of the glee club boys (and one girl) chose to visualize her in overtly sexual outfits as a way to avoid “overheating” during make out sessions. Clothing choices included lingerie, a cheer uniform, and a ballet leotard. The juxtaposition created by this “mannish” woman attempting to be feminine and sexy was, apparently, a pretty effective boner killer.
When word of this unkind strategy made its way to Beiste, she was visibly hurt. She insisted that she wasn’t gay (a fact that she would repeat more than once as the series went on) and expressed her exasperation with situations like these:
“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?”
She went on to confide in Will (the glee club director) that, at the age of 40, she had never been kissed. On a personal level, I found this revelation both sad and completely believable. I had just turned 30 when this episode first aired, and I knew what it was like to be a late-in-life kiss virgin. I, too, am large-framed and generously proportioned, and I have my share of manly mannerisms. I’m familiar with feeling dismissed for not looking enough like a girl.
For me, the beauty of Coach Beiste is in her so-called contradictions. Yes, she’s a ruthless football coach who benches like a champ, but she also wears lipstick and has neatly groomed eyebrows. Sure, she’s burly enough to bust up fistfights between hot-headed teenage boys without breaking a sweat, but at the end of the day, all she really wants is a man who “makes [her] feel like a girl” (The First Time).
As a female character, she’s a revelation. She lifts weights for fun and unapologetically chows down on whole rotisserie chickens at lunchtime. She’s built like a tank and her wardrobe seems to be comprised solely of shorts, polo shirts, and tube socks. People assume she’s a lesbian because her appearance, mannerisms, and personality don’t fit the stereotypical notion of femininity, but she’s not gay. She’s just an unconventional-looking straight woman.
Shannon starts dating in season three, and before long, she’s married to a football recruiter named Cooter. She’s thrilled at first (celebrating with two rotisserie chickens for lunch that day!) and things are rosy for a brief while, but before long she’s showing up to work with a black eye. She initially plays it off as a sparring injury, but soon we’re let in on the terrible reality: her husband has been hitting her.
No one at school can believe that something like this could happen to someone as physically imposing as Beiste. Santana (a student) likens the coach to a wall. When Beiste confesses the awful truth to her coworkers (Sue and Roz), Roz seems confused.
“Sweetheart? You’re as big as a house. Why didn’t you just turn around and kick his ass?”
“I’m not a violent person,” explains Beiste.
Sue and Roz try to convince Beiste that she has to get out of that house and relationship, but Shannon resists. “I can’t leave him!” she says, eyes brimming. When they press her on why not, she gives into the tears completely.
“Because I don’t think anyone else is ever going to love me!”
I love that Glee went there. I love that they showed a woman sticking by her abuser, not because she couldn’t fend him off physically, but because of his emotional manipulation. Cooter’s cruelty had fed into Beiste’s deepest insecurities. He had convinced her of something she’d always feared: that she was intrinsically unlovable and undesirable to men.
Somehow, Beiste found the inner strength to break free of Cooter. In doing so, she told the world (and herself) that she deserved happiness and love just the way she was. Her long-term character arc showed us that it’s not necessary to fulfill a stereotype in order to have value as a person. She taught us that there’s more than one way to be a woman.
It was a powerful, necessary message. So imagine my surprise when the final season of Glee began and we were told that Coach Beiste was actually a man.
I believe that trans visibility is important. I commend Glee for giving it such a mainstream platform when so many shows and movies refuse to even acknowledge that trans people exist. But Beiste’s trans storyline felt lazy, and extremely rushed. I think it’s safe to assume it was concocted on a whim; otherwise the writers would have spent previous seasons laying some semblance of groundwork.
At the start of the sixth and final season, Beiste looks different than we’ve come to expect. Gone is the bold lipstick and warm smile. There’s a heaviness about her. She’s hiding something.
Sue and Sam confront her, concerned for her health. She hands them a doctor’s note, and as Sue skims it, Beiste explains that it is her “first step into legally transitioning from a woman to a man” (Jagged Little Tapestry).
Sue declares this revelation to be “not that big of a stretch.” Sam expresses confusion at what it all means. Beiste elaborates:
I’ve felt like this my whole life. Growing up, I was really confused. I thought I was just a tomboy. So I got into sports, I started coaching football, and I wrestled hogs in my free time, but no matter what I did, I never felt at home in my own skin. I never felt like my body fit who I was on the inside. I don’t hate being a woman and I don’t regret the things I’ve been through because they’ve made me the person I am today. A person strong enough to go through with this transition. I gotta do it for my own piece of mind. I gotta get my body in alignment with how I see myself.
It’s nicely worded. And it might be believable to viewers who joined Glee in season six. But to many of us who were there from the beginning, it felt like a complete rewriting of a beloved character, and an erasure of the very things that made Beiste so special.
Dot-Marie Jones (the actress who plays Beiste) has said that the trans community responded with overwhelming positivity to her newly trans character. I can understand that. As a lesbian, I know what it’s like to grasp at any and all media portrayals that even marginally resemble you, even those with troubling elements. I just wish that Glee had been less slapdash about their Big Trans Storyline.
Beiste’s transition felt like a hasty gimmick; one more thing to fit in before the curtains closed on Glee for good. Shannon came out as trans with zero lead-up, and after a short absence from work he returned, post top surgery, as Sheldon.
Sheldon’s journey was short and mostly took place offscreen. There was no progression to observe; he left the show looking female, returned looking male, and it all more or less worked out fine. He dealt with some bullies, received support from a surprisingly trans-friendly Sue, and witnessed a performance by an all-trans choir that somehow appeared in an Ohio school gym. All this was packed into a Very Special Episode, and once it was over, Beiste disappeared into the background of the show for good.
Glee‘s eleventh hour “We Love Trans People!” banner struck me as disingenuous. After all, they had already introduced a trans-ish character way back in season three, in a storyline that was, at best, careless (and at worst, staggeringly offensive). It centered on a kid from a rival glee club; a male student named Wade who liked to perform in drag onstage as his female alter-ego “Unique.”
I can’t recall the word “trans” ever being applied to Unique. Most of the time, people just described her as being confused. She got bullied a lot for her gender-bending ways. Sue was one of the worst aggressors, calling her names and forbidding her from taking the role of Rizzo in Grease. Sue claimed she was doing it out of concern for the kid’s safety, but it was hard to see the altruism when she snarkily referred to Unique as both a “shemale” and “Urethra Franklin” (The Role You Were Born To Play).
Glee‘s treatment of Unique was hardly a sensitive portrayal of the trans experience. I fail to see how Beiste’s transition undoes any of that damage. Everyone’s being respectful of pronouns in season six, and Beiste can’t stop talking about how happy he is as a man, but it just doesn’t ring true.
There was no path for the viewer to follow; no consistency of character. Sue went from being a howling bigot to being Sheldon’s biggest ally. Beiste went from being an unconventional woman to being a man. None of the other characters seemed terribly surprised by Beiste’s maleness, and that’s precisely what frustrates me. Shannon had spent four years showing everyone that being large and loud and strong and badass didn’t make her any less of a woman. When Sheldon showed up in the final season to basically say “just kidding, I was a dude all along,” it kind of stepped all over one of the show’s most positive messages.
I just wish Glee had tried harder. I wish they’d taken their time and written a transgender character carefully and intentionally, starting from the moment he or she first appeared onscreen. They could have done better by the trans community. And they most definitely could have done better by Beiste.
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