When I was 11, I walked out of the mall with the complete box set of the first season of “Glee” on DVD. I had begged my mom to buy it for me for months. She was reluctant, not only because of the price (you can get them now for less than $10 at Walmart, but back then it cost closer to $50) but because she’d heard about the show and thought it might not be appropriate for an 11-year-old. It took some cajoling, and I think I remember something about a promise that I would stop watching if anything inappropriate happened, but as I walked back to the car with the DVD case tucked under my arm, I was already half in love with “Glee” solely because of the anticipation I’d built up for it in my head.
As it turns out, I didn’t so much love “Glee” as I did attach a piece of my soul to its first three seasons. Aside from being the source of my love for musical theatre, the source of my gay awakening and the only reason I know all the words to Black Kids’s “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You,” it was also my gateway into fandom, something which has taken up more space in my brain than I’ll ever be comfortable admitting.
When you’re young and you think you might be gay and the internet is still fun and not totally awful, wanting to engage with other fans online is inevitable. In 2010, it was almost impossible to be young, gay, online and not on Tumblr, the nucleus of all fandom activity at the time. I was impressionable and excited and overwhelmed by the amount of content that was already there when I joined. Especially when “Glee” started to go off the rails, it was a place where people could yell with — or at — each other about it, where users wrote fanfiction that changed painful canonical endings, where fans took to Photoshop to create hyper-realistic edits of their favorite couples.
The longer “Glee” dragged on, the more entrenched in the fandom I became. It’s hard to describe exactly how in it I was, but it was probably to an unhealthy degree. I wholeheartedly engaged in the online discourse. My love of reading became applicable almost exclusively to fanfiction. The way that a storyline played out for my favorite character Santana (played by the late Naya Rivera) in an episode could drastically alter my mood for better or for worse.
But as much as I loved the show, as much as I sometimes felt like I could burst from my love for it, nearly all of my feelings were contained to the internet. Fandom was taboo and liking “Glee” had certain social implications. There was an overlap there as well.
The queerness of “Glee” is obvious, but the inherent queerness of fandom shouldn’t be understated. The online spaces that I occupied were almost entirely queer, loving and working off of the gay relationships “Glee” depicted (primarily Klaine and Brittana), but also pairing straight characters together in romantic gay relationships and creating hoards of content about them.
Thousands of queer people have used fandom, in part, as wish fulfillment. When I first got involved, the state of gay issues in the United States was in a strange, in-between place. Acceptance was growing, but gay marriage hadn’t been legalized yet.
Everyone was starved for validation, and we projected our identities onto characters we loved. This was not only applicable to “Glee” or other shows with explicitly queer characters but also to intensely heterosexual shows like “Supernatural,” “Teen Wolf” and “Sherlock.” The gay pairings Destiel, Sterek and Johnlock were completely fanmade, the results of rather egregious instances of queerbaiting, but that didn’t keep them from becoming some of the most popular relationships across fandoms.
For me, fandom, queerness, secrecy and shame were intertwined. I never felt guilty for loving “Glee,” but I felt incredibly guilty about how much I loved it and the ways in which I expressed that love. How could I possibly explain how much of my personal happiness was contingent upon how certain characters were treated on a TV show? I didn’t want to answer all of the questions that could come with any offer of an explanation, because I knew it could reveal a part of myself that I wasn’t ready for other people to see.
My friends knew that I really liked “Glee,” but I never told them how Finn outing Santana had sent me reeling for days. I put an innocuous slushie sticker on my binder and saved a lot of the music to my playlists, but I never let anyone in my real life know the true extent of my deep emotional investment in the show. I loved the fandom, the creativity that it inspired in people and the space it gave me to express that creativity freely, but I still read all fanfiction in a private tab, never saved any bookmarks and was careful to log out of my Tumblr account after I was done scrolling through my dashboard.
Things are sort of different now. Fandom no longer resides in a shadowy place that the light doesn’t touch. We’ve entered a time in which “Euphoria” directly references not just fanfiction, but the cultural phenomenon that was Larry Stylinson. Celebrities and YouTubers make videos reading and recreating fanfiction written about them. Hollywood makes successful franchises out of “Twilight” smut. The ubiquity of big franchises and the way that they not only allow but encourage fans to speculate about and create around them has done a lot to normalize letting entertainment take up more brain space than it should. What’s more, us once content-starved girls and gays have grown up, become self-aware and moved onto different social media platforms. We love to make fun of ourselves, the media we used to consume and the way we used to consume it.
Admittedly, I’ve never totally fallen out of fandom. After half of the characters (all the good ones, really) graduated at the end of season three, I fell out of love with “Glee,” but my dependence on the comfort of an online community and the content it created remained. For a while, I felt like I had been cut adrift; I floated from fandom to fandom, trying to figure out where I might feel the same intense love and care for a single thing again. I still haven’t loved a TV show, movie or character in the same way (and that’s probably for the best), but that three-year obsession is the reason Tumblr is still downloaded on my phone and the reason I still read fanfiction when I’m bored.
With those old tendencies, some of the old shame still lingers. There’s a recognition that fandom exists, but it’s still sort of tucked away in the corner of pop culture. The fact that people care about fictional characters and worlds so much that they write novel-length fanfiction about them or create museum-worthy art is still thought of as strange.
But the reasons I continue to seek out and consume fan-made content are the same reasons that drew me to it over ten years ago. The people who write fanfiction and create fanart and fanvids love the media they create unconditionally. There are no real incentives to make content, certainly not monetary or recognition-based incentives.
Fans pour their time, talent and creative energies into fandom simply to express how much they love a thing, and there’s something deeply admirable about that.
I’ve gotten to a place where I can read fanfiction in a regular tab, and I can even bookmark it on my phone, but it’s still in a folder misleadingly labeled “Recipes.” I still feel an unshakeable embarrassment at the nerdiness of fandom, but it’s also been an incredible comfort to me for years. I’m sure that I’ll keep coming back to it, using it as wish fulfillment and to fill in the gaps when popular media inevitably disappoints.
As long as there are still fictional characters to love and creative people who want to share their passion for free, fandom will be there for me.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.