The Toughest Woman on Reality TV

By Kandice Day

Originally published on Advocate.com October 30 2008 11:00 PM ET

On NBC’s
reality show America’s Toughest Jobs, Sandy Gabriel
took the bull by the horns, literally, as she braved
crab fishing in the Bering Sea, scaled high-rises on
bridge duty, and pulled her teammates through tree
logging. Gabriel’s “tough country girl”
attitude and in-your-face commentary, and the fact
that she destroys the men in every challenge, provides
ample ammunition for retaliation. (The phrase “only
steers and queers come from Texas” was thrown
around quite a bit by job bosses.)

But back in
Winnie, Texas, Gabriel sheds her cowboy hat and boots for
heels and a chalkboard. As she tells us, high school
students can be just as malicious as adults, and her
passion for teaching has always overshadowed her
desire to rock the boat. “You figure, adults are
quick to call you a dyke when they’re mad at
you, what do you think a kid’s going to
say,” Gabriel said. “I spent my whole life
hiding who I am… I’m glad that I got the
opportunity to do this, to basically shout out loud
who I really am.”

So I just watched
the finale an hour ago…

The finale
sucked! (Laughter) It sucked cause I didn’t take home
the prize! I had a watch party for all of the shows.
We had a big cook-out and a watch party and had
everybody over for the finale.

Are you surprised
when you see how the shows are edited?

Sometimes, yes I
am surprised. Because sometimes I think they’re out
of order with the editing and stuff like that. I was
definitely surprised because my hand was already hurt
(in the finale). I didn’t hurt my hand from
punching that thing (the wall). So, I was kind of upset
about them saying that.

You were actually
trampled by a bull, injuring your ankle. How long did
you have to recover before the next job?

That first
incident with the bull I had three days. But I was in and
out of getting x-rays and getting my leg looked at. I
just took off the boot and got rid of the crutches
right before the next job. The first doctor said it
was fractured and I was done, but the second doctor cleared
me to go. I didn’t want to go to the hospital,
but they made me go. It didn’t air, but I
fought two more bulls. I didn’t want my leg to be
looked at until the job was completely done.
I’m an athlete and I’m all about get
back up and go. But for liability reasons, though, I had to
go to the doctor.

How long did you
have between each job?

Every job was
different. It depended on what time we finished the job of
that day. We basically did two jobs a week. We’d
spend at least three days on each job working
ridiculous hours, which is what the blue-collar
American workers do for us every day.

Every episode I
watch, it seems like the guys do a lot of complaining.
Did they really complain that much, or was it simply how the
show was edited?

(Laugher) A lot
of the guys did a lot of complaining. Steven never had a
job before. So it was definitely an eye opener for him. The
only person there that I felt was a real hard worker
was Ben. I’m really excited that he did win. If
I didn’t win it better be Ben because we come from
the same hard-working background where you
don’t have time to whine, you just get the job
done. A lot of them were thinking “this is the
toughest job ever.” But what did they expect?
It’s not going to be Candyland.

Did you make any
friends on the show?

I talk to Romel a
lot. We were pretty good friends on the show. A lot of
people think it’s funny that I talk to Amy. She got
voted off the second show. She’s actually a
good honest person. Every now and then I talk to Ben.

How did you hear
about the show?

My girlfriend
found an ad on Craigslist. They had an open casting call
here in Austin and it kind of started off as a little joke.
It seemed like a combination of Fear Factor and
Amazing Race, so I was like, “I can win this
hands down.” You know, I’m a farm girl.
I’m a country girl, I’m not afraid of
anything. I really wanted to do it because I haven’t
done any traveling. So I was looking forward to the
opportunity to just see what else is out there. Not
only that, I [didn’t want to] teach anymore. I
was just at a state in my life when I was ready to be me. I
had never been able to be me. I spent my whole life
hiding who I am. In the educational system parents
think you aren’t a good teacher because you’re
gay. They don’t look at you as a professional or at
how hard you work. I was just tired of being somebody
that I wasn't. So I said, “Here I am, this is
me.” It shouldn’t matter what my label is. At
the end of the day, my work should speak for itself.
Plus, I really wanted to find out what I’m made
of. I know I’m tough, but it’s hard when
you’re gone for eight weeks with no contact
with your loved ones and family. You’re put through
the most physical, mental, and emotionally challenging jobs.

Were you out to
your friends and family before you decided to go on the
show?

Well, I have a
girlfriend, but I never told my dad so he found out on TV.
One of my brothers knew, one didn’t, and I told my
mom. I have two separate lives; one with my girlfriend
and one at work where I wear my heels and I fix my
hair. So this was a merging of the two, putting it all
together and not caring what anyone else thought of me.

None of your high
school students knew?

No way. I do not
hint around, or let anyone…the thing about kids at
the high school level is they’re young and
immature. I just try to make sure that when I’m
in the classroom the kids look at me as a strong woman and
a great educator. They’re young and trying to figure
out who they are, how are they supposed to understand
who you are. I definitely keep my personal life
separate.

Do they know now
after the show has aired?

I don’t
know. None of them have said anything. I never told them I
was going on the show, they found out on their own. I
didn’t want them to think, “Oh,
she’s on TV.” I want people to get to know me
— what I stand for and my expectations. I
didn’t want everybody trying to get in my class
because I was on TV. So, they’ve been watching, but
the episode that my girlfriend was on aired on a
Friday night, which is football night. So, I
don’t know if anyone even saw that episode. The only
thing they’ve ever said to me is they think I
talk a little bit of crap. I just tell them that I
have to tell people how it is sometimes.

Was it a concern
of yours when you decided to go on the show that
students and parents would find out you are gay and
retaliate?

When I went on
the show I wasn’t planning on teaching again. I was
planning on becoming a police officer. I was going to head
out for the academy on April 28, but I left for the
show April 20. If I wasn’t going to teach or
coach anymore, then I was either going to become a police
officer or open my own youth recreational center. I’m
all about the youth. Working with kids is phenomenal.
But I did have a sit down with my principal before the
show aired to tell her what I said, that I did come
out, I do drink and cuss and I am gay. I had to prepare her
for what parents might say. The faculty saw the show,
and some of them I don’t really speak to
anymore. But, I just really don’t care anymore.
I’m tired of living my life for everyone else.

On the show, they
didn’t show the argument with Chris. On the episode
he called me “that chick,” when really
he called me “that dyke.” That’s when
I got absolutely livid. That’s just one of the most
hateful words that you can use. I don’t think
everyone understands the hatred behind that word. And
everybody had already been making a bunch of gay comments
before that. On episode one, one of the cast members was
saying “I can’t believe they
didn’t cast a bull-dyke.” You know, and one of
the bosses said “only steers and queers come
from Texas.” Every boss on every job that I was
on focused on that, which didn’t make air. It was
stressful. Plus, I hate how everybody thinks that if a
woman is tough she’s a man, or she’s a
dyke. Why can’t women just be strong? There are
strong working women out there.

My favorite
moment was when you were all sitting at the bar drinking and
you tell them you have a girlfriend. The look on their faces
was priceless.

Some of them were
like, “what?” But I said, “I’m
gay. I have a girlfriend and we’ve been
together for five years. She’s the love of my
life.” They couldn’t believe it. People
don’t recognize my girlfriend and I as equals
because we’re not married or we don’t have
kids. But this is my life, and we are married because
I don’t want to ever be with anyone else. It was
tough listening to everyone be proud of their families but
then not acknowledge you for having the same thing at
home.

How did your
girlfriend feel about being on the show and about you coming
out on national television?

She was all about
me being on TV and not her. When she got invited to
that one episode she was like “I didn’t agree
to be on TV.” She loved it, though. She was
proud that I branched out there and was honest. I think
she’s been waiting our whole relationship for me to
finally say, “This is my girlfriend and someone
who I’m completely proud of.” She was excited
and proud.

Why did you go
back to teaching when most contestants went on to
different careers when they returned home?

It’s still
my time to be here. I love the kids, and I really think this
is my calling. I am always trying to find a way to be a role
model. Like I said on the show, I just wanted the
money to pay-it-forward for people who helped me out.
In my life there have been several teachers and
coaches who have helped me out and turned me the right way.
Why not try teaching while being true to me and
working the job that I love? Now that I’m
honest with myself it makes this job so much better.