When Alex Newell first appeared as transgender teen Wade “Unique” Adams for a two-episode arc during the third season of Glee, visibility of trans youth on TV didn’t just take a step forward, it literally leapt skyward, twirled, and hit a high note. Embraced by the show’s audience, Newell returned as a series regular for the show’s fourth season, and “Unique” quickly became a powerhouse performer in the New Directions show choir.
Newell’s work furthering the visibility of LGBT youth in entertainment hasn’t stopped there. For his latest role in the upcoming feature film Geography Club, the 21-year-old plays the part of Ike — a gay teen struggling with his sexual orientation who joins a group of outcast students to form an after-school club as a safe haven. For Newell, who identifies as a gay man, the character is one that is close to his heart due to the similar experiences they share. “Everything Ike goes through I had to go through for a brief moment as well,” says Newell. “Testing the waters of coming out. Understanding your choices and the consequences of coming out. The time I spent figuring out who I was, that’s where I most see myself in this character. However, he takes a little bit longer to fully come out and understand everything and I think I always had the understanding as soon as I realized what was going on.”
Newell understands the importance of LGBT visibility firsthand and credits gay-inclusive entertainment with easing his own coming-out process. “I grew up with Will & Grace, and that really helped me understand and be OK with who I am,” he says. But while the weekly adventures of Will Truman and Jack McFarland had a positive impact on Newell, he longed to see out teen characters when he was younger, and he hopes inclusive entertainment like Glee and Geography Club will make a difference for a new generation of LGBT youth and their families.
“I think a film like Geography Club would’ve been helpful for someone like me and my mother to watch when I was younger,” he says. “To help us understand what it was going to be like when I got to high school and to help me find my own way.”
Yet, for all his efforts to represent the LGBT community positively, Newell knows he can’t speak for every individual. “I know everyone has their own opinions about the way LGBT people should be [portrayed in media]. No matter what you do, someone is always going to be upset and someone is always going to be happy,” he says. “But it’s my hope that most people are happy [with my performances].”
Nevertheless, Newell doesn’t plan on backing down anytime soon. Though LGBT representation has improved in recent years, the actor says he believes the need for greater visibility still remains. “When people don’t understand something their first reaction is to hate it,” he says. “But [the LGBT community] isn’t going away. We’re a part of everyday life and people need to be educated. “
Still, Newell is thankful for the difference he’s already had a hand in making. “One of the best parts of [doing what I do] has been hearing the stories of people who told me I’ve helped them be themselves,” he says.
Geography Club opens in theaters Friday and will be available on video on demand beginning then as well.