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

“I cried
more there than I have in the last five years,” she
continues. “It was therapy for me. We all make
mistakes—and I get to see mine every
week.” While many will shake their heads at
Aneesa’s antics, most can relate to her
frustration with an unresponsive lover. Such scenes
humanize gay relationships to an impressionable audience in
a way that fictional shows can’t.

Survivor: Africa’s Brandon Quinton can
probably advise Aneesa on living with an over-the-top
TV persona. “I knew they were going to play me
up to be really flamboyant,” Quinton says of his
portrayal on the show. “They made us all
extreme. I’m a real person. It wasn’t Brandon
playing someone else. They edited me extremely, but it was
still me.”

But by playing
into a gay stereotype, Survivor’s producers
may have made Quinton an easier target for homophobes.
He confesses that he no longer reads the mail
forwarded to him from the network since almost 10% of
it is hate mail. “I just don’t want that
‘die-fag-die’ stuff in my house,”
he says.

Many gay viewers
also bristled at Quinton’s campiness. Some even wrote
to GLAAD to complain. “I got a lot of e-mail
and calls about Brandon,” recalls Seomin.
“What am I supposed to do, remove him from the show?
He’s part of the gay community, and we should
be embracing him. It was their own internalized
homophobia—the fact that he wasn’t
hypermasculine and had some ‘Mary
moments,’ as I call them. These people e-mailing me
are out with their friends calling them
‘Mary.’ But there is so much shame about
who sees that. If we want people to understand our lives, we
can’t cherry-pick what they see.”

In its own
subversive way, reality TV is challenging the notion that
every gay man on ad-supported TV has to be either
“straight-acting” or a nonthreatening
clown. With each new out reality player, the palette of
familiar “gay types” is gradually expanding,
whether that means a gay mathematician who gets a
Bette Midler question wrong on Millionaire, a
tough lesbian Road Rules contestant who’s
also one of the show’s lookers, or a sensitive gay
man on Big Brother who loves both his Southern
home and his long-term partner.

Preferring
larger-than-life participants who will quickly stand out,
reality TV by its very nature favors more Brandons and fewer
Wills. It has been that way since the beginning: Lance
Loud’s coming-out on the granddaddy of reality
TV shows, 1973’s An American Family, was
politically incorrect long before that phrase existed. Loud
lived up to his name, and his determination to find
his gay self contributed to the messiness that
overtook his family during the filming. Nineteen years
later, the creators of The Real World took that
lesson to heart, adding the openly gay Norm to the
first season’s cast. The show caught the
imagination of the MTV generation and became an instant
institution, queer characters and all.

In the second
season, Beth Anthony piqued housemates with her
aggressively out manner. Looking back now, Anthony says gay
visibility was especially vital during the early
’90s, before TV stars like Ellen DeGeneres or
Rosie O’Donnell came out. “I’ve had a
lot people come up to me on the street and say that it
changed their lives, that their parents understand a
little better, that they were in really shaky places and I
helped,” she says. “Visibility makes a huge
difference. I’ve had thousands of people tell
me that.” Anthony, who now lives in Los Angeles
with her partner of 10 years, Becks, and their 3-year-old
daughter, has put that philosophy into practice with
her own T-shirt company, featuring both humorous and
earnest gay-related designs.

Since Norm and
Beth, The Real World has presented a parade of warm
and colorful out personalities, including person-with-AIDS
Pedro Zamora in San Francisco; binge-drinker Ruthie in
Hawaii; and, in New Orleans, boy-next-door Danny, who
dated an enlisted man during the filming, dramatizing
the problems with the Pentagon’s “don’t
ask, don’t tell” policy.

“The very
idea of The Real World when we pitched it to MTV in
1992 was putting seven diverse people into a
house,” observes Jonathan Murray, the
show’s cocreator. “It almost requires having a
gay or lesbian just as it requires having a black or
Latino person.”

The reality genre
took a giant step toward the mainstream with the
howling success of the first season of Survivor on
CBS in summer 2000. Unlike broadcast sitcoms and
dramas, where network suits psychoanalyze the import
of each character’s persona down to their
haircut, reality TV seems to have dodged a major-network
hurdle—execs’ fear of risk
taking—an advantage guaranteed by the victory of
first Survivor winner Richard Hatch.

With his smirking
egotism, bearish build, and preference for nudity,
Hatch was no one’s idea of a gay role model, much
less a network superstar. But his soap-operatic
connivings were the best thing for CBS’s
ratings since J.R. Ewing. “I think that Richard Hatch
was so popular because of his scheming,”
observes Julie Salamon, a TV critic for The New
York Times.
“The fact of his being openly gay
became important but incidental. In a lot of ways
reality shows have been searching for the next Richard
Hatch ever since. Having a gay person in the cast is
just part of the formula now.”

Since the
broadcast networks reach a far larger—and more
conservative—audience than MTV, the potential social
impact of gay people being on major-network shows is
profound indeed. After all, reality shows purport to
depict reality, so the inclusion of a diverse assortment of
gay, lesbian, and bisexual people sends viewers the message
that such people are just another variation on who
might move in next door. “There’s more
of a realization that this is part of the population, and
it’s not a monolithic group of people,” says
Salamon. “Even in the stupidest situations,
that’s got to be positive. I think that familiarity
breeds indifference—which is a good thing, in this
case.”

How the queer
folks interact with all the straight players simply becomes
part of each show’s drama. “What I love about
it is you don’t control the story
lines,” says The Real World’s Murray.
“If you have the courage to put a gay or
lesbian person on, then you have to be courageous
enough to air wherever it takes you. The audience
doesn’t have as big a problem with it because
they know you haven’t made those choices as a
network. It’s happened and you’re just showing
it. Reality gives the network a license to go into
things that ordinarily they might not go into.”

With gays popping
up all over the cable box, Salamon argues that reality
TV has become an easy out for the networks.
“Certainly, 10 years ago [having gay people on
TV] was something to be commented on,” says
Salamon. “Now it has become less and less startling.
The difference with the people on reality shows [as
opposed to fictional series] is that they are there
for a short run. On a lot of them, they are kicked off week
by week. With something like an Ellen, these are
characters who are presumably going to be coming into
people’s homes, in the best case, for years. I
don’t think this [inclusion] shows a bravery on the
part of the reality people. I think it’s a
different phenomenon.”

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