It was my 16-year-old cousin who texted to tell me Cory Monteith had passed away. I’d chatted to her months earlier at a family reunion. She’d been tucked away in a corner reading her Bible (no joke), too shy and self-conscious to talk to all these strangers who called themselves family. I asked her the normal things: school (fine), summer vacation (fine), getting her driver’s license (fine), hobbies (she plays multiple instruments in the band and the orchestra). And so I said: “Do you watch Glee?” Her posture relaxed, her breath escaped her body in a relieved rush of air, her face lit up like Christmas. Watch it? Watch it? She lived it.
She talked at me for two solid hours, barely pausing to breathe, telling me about artsy kids in her school getting slushied in real life, and how Glee was her refuge, her stronghold, and on TV it made her laugh and cry and swoon and it filled her up with a kind of bravery she didn’t know teenage musicians could have, and when it wasn’t on TV that was OK too, because she was in fandom. Did I know about fandom? Had I heard of it? Tumblr? Fan Fiction? AO3? She had two ships, she said (did I know what a ship was?), and one of them was Finn and Rachel (the ultimate supercouple) and one of them was Kurt and Blaine (duh, soul mates; but don’t tell her mom, OK?). And, if she was being honest, she kind of shipped herself with Finn too. She talked about Cory Monteith the way Ariel talked about Prince Eric.
It was funny listening to someone who adored Finn’s heroism, loved the way he was always swooping in to save the day. She watched TV in a way I barely even remember: eyes overbright with optimism, hands clasped in adoration, singing and swaying along with the music. She wasn’t deconstructing narrative as a feminist, examining every writing and directing choice through the lens of queer visibility, weighing every TV moment in front of her against a lifetime of damaging tropes behind her. She was sixteen. She’d never been in love. She’d never seen Superman get shot out of the sky.
That’s the main thing I was thinking leading up to “The Quarterback.” I was thinking about the day when you realize the world isn’t split into Jedis and Siths, about the day when you learn that good guys don’t always win, about the day when you finally understand that not every story has a happy ending. In fact, not everything that happens in life fits neatly into a narrative. There just aren’t stories for some things. I was thinking, “How does a show built on the promise of ‘It Gets Better’ contradict its core message with the heartbreaking truth that sometimes it doesn’t?” I was thinking, “How does a show that prides itself on Important Life Lessons tie a neat little morality bow on such an enormous tragedy?” I was thinking, “How do you write a story about death on a show that is a celebration of wide-open life?”
And shockingly (elegantly, even), Glee didn’t. “The Quarterback” didn’t pass a verdict on whether or not It Gets Better, it didn’t try to teach us anything, it wasn’t even a story. It was a showcase of the ways we grieve and a graceful, courageous invitation to mourn with a cast and crew who knew (really knew) and loved (really loved) Cory Monteith.
The reason I mentioned my cousin at the beginning is because of how she reminded me what it’s like to watch TV with pure, undiluted emotion. And because she was one of the people who needed Lea Michele’s phoenix song. And because sometimes I forget that Glee doesn’t exist to provide a perfect platform for moving the queer cultural conversation forward. And because my extended family has never accepted the fact that I’m gay. They’re mostly super-conservative, right-wing Christians who think I’m a deviant at best and demon-possessed at worst. It sounds silly, but in rural Georgia it’s not all that uncommon. When my cousin’s mom saw how animated her daughter was talking to me about Glee, she decided to watch it so she could connect with her kid too. She met Kurt, she met Santana, she met Brittany and Blaine and Unique. She liked them. She knew them. She finally understood that whole lesbian thing. She hugged me and cried and told me so.
All because her daughter fell in love with Finn Hudson.
Cory Monteith quarterbacked a show that has completely altered the landscape of LGBT television. He hosted the GLAAD Awards and talked openly and often about gay rights. And he was, by all accounts, a warm-hearted, soft-spoken, people-loving man who truly understood how much his character and his music meant to millions of people. He changed so many lives — and for all the shit I’ve given Finn over the years, it turns out Cory changed my life too.