Keeping it real

Gays and lesbians are everywhere in life, so of course they’re on reality TV. From Lance Loud to Chris Beckman and Brandon Quinton, the diverse bunch of out gays on these shows brings viewers face-to-face with our queer lives

BY Erik Meers

April 16 2002 12:00 AM ET

After several
weeks of dating Kurt, a schoolteacher from Minneapolis,
Chris Beckman, a strapping 23-year-old artist from Boston,
brought him back for a sleepover at the loft apartment
in Chicago that he shared with six other castmates on
The Real World. MTV’s camera zoomed in on
the duo as they cuddled and kissed on Chris’s bed
before heading under the sheets. When Kurt sent Chris
flowers the next day, Chris’s straight roommate
Theo groused, “This is a little bit too gay for
me,” undoubtedly speaking for many young
viewers who had never seen two men in a romance
before.

Regularly
rattling viewers with frank gay content has been part of a
winning formula for so-called reality TV programs for
decades, and it’s something The Real
World
has perfected during its decade-long run. In
fact, the show is enjoying record audiences this season,
thanks in large measure to its two charismatic gay
cast members, Beckman and Aneesa (who has declined to
reveal her last name).

The show’s
candor about same-sex romance surprised even Beckman.
“Those were the [remote-controlled] cameras
that were inside the room,” he says of his
bedroom scene. “I had no idea they could record from
those cameras. Even when they weren’t there,
they could be recording us. Seeing that scene was
like, ‘Wow! Hi!’”

“Wow” is right. Lesbians and gays are
everywhere on the tube this spring courtesy of the
endless proliferation of reality TV. In addition to
The Real World, the CBS juggernaut Survivor:
Marquesas
features out castaway John Carroll, a
nurse from Omaha, as well as a rumored lesbian yet to
be revealed, and The Amazing Race 2 highlights
gay buddies Oswald and Danny from Miami. This fall,
Eco-Challenge Fiji 2002—a grueling
500-plus-kilometer race to be broadcast on the USA
Network—will feature an all-gay team sponsored by
Subaru. And this is not to mention the countless openly gay
people who continue to pop up as participants
everywhere, including Who Wants to Be a
Millionaire,
the various confront-your-fears shows, and
possibly even that heterofest Temptation
Island
.

All these
vérité programs are breaking fresh ground for gay
visibility and defusing a bit of the frustration felt
by activists at the timidity of some fictional network
shows like Will & Grace. “Five
seasons ago on The Real World, we would not see
someone like [Beckman] lying in bed and kissing his
boyfriend. It’s wonderful. There’s
nothing salacious about it,” says Scott Seomin,
entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian
Alliance Against Defamation. “Will &
Grace
is a great show, and it has done an amazing amount
for our community, but it’s a hit because it
conforms to the sitcom format to make the majority of
this country comfortable. We have seen Grace making
lots of passionate noises with her boyfriend. We have not
seen that with Will.”

Unlike the
sex-starved Will, Chris and Aneesa date, cuddle, and sleep
with their same-sex love interests. And unlike the heated
romances of ER’s Dr. Kerry Weaver or the
“questioning” youth story lines on
Boston Public and Once and Again, their
doings can’t be dismissed as ratings-driven
character development. In a recent episode of The
Real World,
for example, when Aneesa ripped into her
game-playing girlfriend for bringing her ex by the
apartment, the tears and expletives flowed from
immediate emotions, not from a writer’s pen.

“It was
real,” recalls Aneesa. “I was upset and I was
mad. I wish I wouldn’t have cursed as much. I
gave [the producers] everything. I kept one or two
things private, but everything else is out there. I would be
so embarrassed to go home and have people say,
‘Aneesa, that is not you.’ Aneesa does
not hold back one ounce of her personality.

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