Glee and the Consequences of Outing

Glee's ability to address serious and complex issues is always impressive, but this week's episode was particularly commendable. Continuing a story line from last season, glee club member Santana Lopez, powerfully portrayed by Naya Rivera, is coming to terms with her sexuality as tongues wag about her relationship with fellow glee club member Brittany. In the episode titled "Mash Off," lead character Finn outs Santana in a school hallway.

At first, the incident seems to be treated as just an embarrassing moment. I, for one, was incredibly mad at Finn and Glee for treating outing so flippantly, to the point that mid-episode I tweeted my frustration. But perhaps I was too quick to tap, as toward the end of the episode they revisit the central question with verve. One of the various sub-plots involves cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester running for Congress. In a campaign smear ad against Sue, an opponent outs Santana by questioning the coach's morals for promoting a lesbian to team captain. The source of the information: a student who overheard Finn's comment in the hallway. When Santana is informed, she runs out of the room crying, stating that she hadn't told her parents yet, who will surely see the ad.

The issue of outing has been addressed on Glee throughout the run of the series. Kurt, played by Chris Colfer, has mentioned on several occasions that he does not believe in outing. But until this latest episode, outing was merely frowned upon, and the consequences of outing had never been discussed.

The ethics of outing are complex. There is a lot of disagreement about its appropriateness. Many take a hard line against it, while others tend to believe it is appropriate in specific situations. For instance, the outing of an anti-gay politician may seem acceptable to some because of the hypocritical nature of his or her actions. But people do have an inherent right to privacy, and in most situations, nobody should have the right to interfere with a person's private process.

Coming to terms with your own sexuality can be extremely difficult, and each individual has their own path to doing so. In the case of Santana, she is a high school senior in a small, conservative town, so it's not surprising that the character is uncomfortable with the idea of sharing her true sexuality. What the episode makes clear is that Santana, for all her faults, does not deserve the humiliation of being outed, and certainly not that of seeing her homosexuality made the subject of a TV ad.

What makes this coming-out moment so important is that, unlike so many other coming-out stories, she is not given the choice about how to control it. It's a warning to the students who watch the show: your words matter, even when directed at someone as malicious as Santana. The incident is a perfect juxtaposition to the way Kurt dealt with his bully the previous season. By the end of the season, his bully was repentant, and Kurt had maintained the high ground. Finn's actions may have given him a sense of power, and perhaps they even felt cathartic at the time, given the antagonistic nature of his relationship with Santana. But Finn's actions show us that the consequences affect more than just their relationship, and that, in outing her, he made a decision for her that he had no right to make. That's the key to why this episode has such virtue: one high school student outing another, for whatever reason, is wrong.

The episode ends with an intense confrontation in which Santana slaps Finn. I thought the choice of physical violence to dramatize the emotional violence of outing made for a powerful, if controversial, moment when Santana's vulnerability is addressed and the full weight of Finn's action is laid out.

It is Glee's ability to tackle issues like outing and bullying with an honesty not often seen on television, and far less often on network television, that makes the show so special. These are issues that audiences, especially those in high school who experience these kinds of situations on a daily basis, need and want to see. The Glee team should once again be applauded for all of their fantastic work at tackling the tricky issues.