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

And sometimes
it’s something a bit stronger. Over the past decade,
the gay housemates on The Real World have
proved to be among the most popular with viewers.
“Danny, without a doubt, got more fan mail than
anyone else [that season] and just as much from guys as
girls,” says Murray. “Not long ago I was
with the new cast, and when Chris got up, the audience
went crazy.” Slowly, a new pantheon of
demicelebrities is emerging—one with no need
for closets, since their lives, including their sex
lives, are televised weekly.

Many gay reality
veterans say they’ve benefited from a kind of homo
affirmative action. Life partners Bill Bartek and Joe
Baldassare believed as much when applying for the
first installment of The Amazing Race, a show
that follows 11 two-person teams as they sprint around
the world chasing a million-dollar prize and getting
eliminated one by one. “We thought that [being
gay] was our ticket to fortune if we could promote
ourselves as a long-term gay couple,” says Bartek.

Because the teams
consist of people who are already close, The Amazing
Race
“is a relationship show, not just a
scavenger hunt,” says Bartek, who’s been
with Baldassare 15 years. “And as far as we knew,
there hadn’t been a gay couple [on reality TV]. That
was the risk we took going into the whole thing, that
it was too groundbreaking. We were told by one of the
staff members about halfway through the interview process
that we were the most stable relationship he’d seen
in about 10 years—gay or straight—and
[he said,] ‘If CBS decides to have enough courage to
put on a gay couple, then essentially you guys are on
the program.’ ” CBS bit, and Bartek and
Baldassare—who dubbed themselves Team Guido after
their pet Chihuahua—came in third on the show.

Survivor’s Quinton also played the gay card
during auditions. “I talked about [two previous
Survivor contestants] who were obviously gay
but pretended not to be for whatever reason,” recalls
Quinton. “[CBS president] Les Moonves really enjoyed
that. [Series creator] Mark Burnett didn’t
think I was qualified to be on the show. He
didn’t think I would last. When I was voted off
[after 30 days], he told me he was really impressed.
He thought I would have lasted less than 10
days.”

Another
stereotype shattered.

Producers also
like gay cast members because they are almost certain to
rankle their conservative castmates and stir up some drama.
On the first Survivor, crusty ex-Marine Rudy
repeatedly called Hatch “queer.”
“That’s his word, at 72 years old, for two
guys who like each other,” Hatch says.
“Rudy was great. The comments that he made were
honest and straightforward. They weren’t
malicious or hateful or spiteful.”

Hatch even thinks
that being gay gave him a competitive advantage. “It
had tons to do with the game, and it is indirectly at least
why I won,” he explains. “I was much
more introspective at a much earlier age than any of
my peers, and having done that, I was much more capable in
the game Survivor—that’s what
it’s about, knowing yourself.”

But just how real
are these reality shows? Participants on every program
sign extensive agreements giving producers the right to
portray them in just about any way they wish.
“We are dramatists,” says The Real
World
’s Murray. “Every episode is
constructed with a beginning, middle, and end. I think
we are interested in telling the best stories
possible.”

On the current
Real World, for instance, editors have focused on
Aneesa’s conflicts with her mother, who is troubled
by her daughter’s sexual orientation.
“When I see it now, it makes me quite upset,”
says Aneesa. “I love my mom. I think we could
have handled it differently. Now we talk more and
listen more. Now I’m more cautious about what I do
and how I do it. The show has helped in certain ways.
It was hard to watch.” In contrast to the
emotional rawness of Aneesa’s life, the fictional
parental struggles of lesbian mom Lindsay on Queer as
Folk
seem muted and artificial at best.

Hatch agrees that
viewing yourself on national TV can be revelatory.
“There was obviously lots that they left out because
there were hundreds of hours of tape to fit into 13
one-hour episodes,” says Hatch. “I found
myself watching at one point and saying, ‘Wow! They
captured exactly what I was thinking in that facial
expression.’ ” He adds, “But I
don’t think people understand how the game
works enough to respect how bright I was to have
pulled it off.”

Though the
reality vets shy away from the term “role
model,” they understand that having been out on
national TV makes their every move noteworthy to our
celebrity-crazed press. Both Quinton and The Real
World
’s Beckman have been outspoken about their
struggles with substance abuse, for example. On the
show, Beckman discusses his decision to quit drinking
one year earlier. “All of my peers at that time were
going out to clubs,” he says now. “I thought
that was what being gay was all about—that that
was what my identity was. I slowly realized that
everything I wanted in life wasn’t being achieved
because I was so fearful I couldn’t ask for
help. It came down to the decision that I was going to
either keep going down that path and kill myself by the time
I got there [or quit]. It was just sickening. I took a
look at my life and where it was going—and it
was going to the next party.”

Quinton, who grew
up in rural Oklahoma and was tormented by bullies as a
kid, also believes he can offer something from his
experience. “I changed a couple of
people’s minds on the show,” he says.
“I don’t think anyone down in Louisiana
is going to say, ‘Gee, Brandon’s gay;
I’m going to stop burning crosses.’
That’s not going to happen. What I hope happens is
that some kid in rural Oklahoma—like
me—says, ‘You know, Brandon is cool with
being gay, so maybe I shouldn’t be so worried about
it.’ You know, this sissy fag lasted a long
time with no food or water and outlasted a lot of
athletes out there.”

How’s that
for a role model?

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