Glee, which received the GLAAD Media Award last year for Outstanding Comedy Series, raised the bar for diversity on network television again last night, when it introduced a new character named Unique, a transgender African American student and performer in rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline. The character is played by Alex Newell, who finished as a runner up on The Glee Project; the Oxygen reality show in which a group of hopefuls competed for a spot on Fox’s hit show.
Audiences first saw Unique as Wade, a shy student from a different high school who gushed with fandom for Kurt and Mercedes and asked for their advice on coping as outsiders. Wade recalled being tormented by other kids at school and even family members, and revealed that “Ever since I was a kid, I would play this game. Where I would pretend I was a different person. The person I dreamed of being. The real me. I even have a different name. Unique.”
Kurt offers some words of support, saying “I hope one day you have enough courage to be him.” To which Wade responds “Actually, Unique’s a her.”
But the key moment came later in the episode, after Kurt and Mercedes try to talk Unique out of performing in women’s clothes for fear of a backlash. Kurt tells her “I’ve worn some flamboyant outfits, but I’ve never dressed up as a woman.” To which Unique replies “That’s because you identify yourself as a man. I thought you of all people would understand.”
Rather than play it safe, Unique performs the KC & The Sunshine Band hit “Boogie Shoes” onstage wearing a flapper dress and glittery high heels, and receives a rapturous response from the crowd as you can see in the clip below. Kurt and Mercedes later remark how impressed they were with Unique’s resolve to be herself.
Actor Alex Newell was actually asked about the possibility of playing a transgender character on Glee back in August of last year, when the Hollywood Reporter noted during an interview that he had appeared in drag on The Glee Project several times. Alex replied that he’d be happy to, explaining that he understands how important representation in the media, saying “I go to different schools to visit friends and I see [transgender] kids and it’s hard. Not too many television shows shed light on that, it’s that hidden thing that not everybody wants to talk about. But it is there and there are people that want to be able to turn the television on and see somebody else who is just like them. I feel like if I were able to that, I’d be beside myself and happy.”
As one of The Glee Project’s runners-up, Alex is unfortunately only contracted to appear in one more episode of the show, but there is reason to be optimistic. If the writers and producers are happy enough with the character and the audience response, Unique could easily return in a recurring capacity much like Alex’s fellow Glee Project veteran Damian McGinty, whose contract on the show was extended beyond the seven episode arc he was initially signed for. It would certainly be a great boon for LGBT diversity on television if Unique stuck around a little longer, but for now, fans can look forward to seeing her appear in the next original episode on April 24.