Keeping It Real

By William McGuinness

Originally published on Advocate.com June 19 2009 12:00 AM ET

Before everyone arrived, before all eight beds were claimed, and before names had been exchanged, members of The Real World: Cancún cast asked the gay question. They knew there was one among them. This year (the season kicks off on MTV Wednesday), Derek Chavez says he's anything but a token, for-your-entertainment gay. After taking a four-month break from earning his kinesiology degree at Arizona State University, the 21-year-old speaks of each real world -- the taped and the almost ordinary.

What motivated you to apply for this season? It's something that I've always wanted to do when I was younger and growing up in a small town. TV was one of the only things you could do without getting into trouble. I've always watched MTV. After moving to Phoenix for school, I was offered the opportunity [to try out]. I was actually going to try out for the Hollywood season, but I was really sick and didn't go. Then all of a sudden, my roommate got an invitation to try for Real World 22. The line was about a mile long. When I was down there, I didn't think they would pick me because I was sick and didn't sound good. But as soon as they called me back from the first interview, I got my hopes up again and really wanted to do it again. If I did get picked for this experience, I just wanted to share my side of the story.

I'm not your stereotypical gay guy. I like to play sports; I'd rather go hang out at a straight club or do stuff outdoors.

How did you approach the tradition of having at least one gay housemate? Did you feel a need to set yourself apart from the others? Yeah, I just wasn't going to go inside the house and say, "I'm the gay guy." I wanted the other people to see if they could figure out that I am gay. There were some suspicions going in; but when I told everyone, they said, "OK, we have a gay guy."

First off, I thought I was going into a house where people were uncomfortable or not used to having a gay person in their lives. I was going in with a wall up just to save myself for four months so I wouldn't be uncomfortable.

Describe your feelings on the flight to Cancú;n -- the quiet time when you got to think. It was nerve-wracking. From the moment Jonna [a friend from home who, against standard Real World operating procedure, was also cast] and I left, a producer made sure we didn't talk to each other. I had time to think by myself, and all I kept saying was, "Derek, your life is going to change from this point on. The minute you land, this is going to start. It's going to provide opportunities to you." I was nervous, but at the same time, very excited and eager to see what was going to happen.

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The topic of sexuality came up almost immediately at your first group lunch. Can you talk about what it was like anticipating that you'd have to put your hand up as the gay guy? When we were in the airport in Phoenix, the question came up. Jonna said, "OK, how are we going to talk about that? Are you going to just come up and tell people that you're gay? What are we going to do?" But I said, "Well, let's just wait until it comes up in conversation." I think she just wanted to help me have it come out more easily. As soon as Ayiiia asked, "Who's the gay person?" I put my hand up and said, "Yeah, that's me." I wanted to say it there. I thought, Let's see what everyone thinks; let's see if everyone is going to be up-front with me right away.

You promised a true portrayal of yourself. Do you think others did the same when it came to talking about your sexuality? Everybody who I talked to from that first lunch and in individual conversations throughout the show was open with me. Everybody said, "Dude, you're the coolest gay guy we've met." They said, "If we got a really flamboyant gay guy, it would be so different because we're so used to you being one of the guys."

How did your coming out on the show compare to coming out back home? Coming out back in high school, in a town of 2,000 people who all know your business, it's not the easiest time. It was senior year, and I started seeing a guy who was completely open. I was still on the down-low -- still in the closet. I had a girlfriend who was one of my best friends. I couldn't tell her then because it was the beginning of the school year, and it [would have been] awful for her.

I tried to break it off with that guy. I said, "Dude, I can't do this." He said, "Well, if you're not going to tell anybody, then I'm going to tell everybody." So I thought, If I don't say anything then this guy's going to destroy it for me and will make my life, for the rest of senior year, [difficult]. So I told my good friends, and the thing that scared me the most was that I might lose those friends. And being from a small town, there aren't that many people. Turns out, they were OK with it. I didn't end up telling my girlfriend until I was leaving for college and we had to break up. She was hurt because I lied to her, but she forgave me. She said, "I want you to live your life happily as yourself rather than unhappy being somebody you're not."

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And how did your family react? I'm really close with my grandmother, and it was kind of hard to tell her. She didn't really know until my freshman year in college. I told her by bringing my ex-boyfriend around. I didn't really tell her. I just tried to give her the hint.

But it was kind of easy for my mom because of my older brother's situation. My uncle, who I call my brother and is my best friend, is gay too. When I was little, she told me when he came out, "And you better not be a little homo either." I know she knew it, but it was funny. I took her to meet my ex, and she liked him. She said, "Where do you guys live?" So I showed her. She was surprised that there was only one bed. I said, "Yeah, we share a bed." She said, "Oh, OK," and the idea set into her. She's going to be uncomfortable seeing me kiss guys because she doesn't want to be around it, but she's OK with the idea.

Is she going to see a lot of that on the show? Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes. Yes. Yes. I already warned her. I said, "Brace yourself for what's going to happen. It's not that bad, but it's not something that you will want to see."

MTV is suggesting that you brought some ex-boyfriend baggage to Cancú;n? Can you tell us about that? I didn't bring it along. Someone came uninvited and… caused a little ruckus down in Cancú;n.

A little ruckus? You'll just have to stay tuned and watch.

Reunion shows often provide a forum for those who don't feel they've been treated fairly. The stakes may feel higher as the only gay guy. Are you worried about how you'll be edited and later received? No, the thing about it is, I didn't get into any huge altercations on the show. From the very beginning, before this whole interviewing process, I said I'm not going to get into people's drama unless I have to. I went into this being myself, and that's who I was.

You are described as an overachiever in high school. What do you see in your real life after The Real World ? I don't know. When I was younger, I did a little bit of modeling and acting, but everybody who does Real World basically wants that. That's not all I'm looking for. Because I'm an overachiever and there are opportunities now and doors open for me, I'm going to be that person chasing my dream until I get it. If it takes me longer because of the show -- I took four months off from school -- it's OK. I'll still go to school to get my degree. But I still want to pursue my dream of acting, modeling, being an entertainer.

Do you see yourself playing an activist role in your pending celebrity? I want to start becoming more of an activist. At the moment, I'm not. I've looked into the deal with Proposition 8 in California and 102 here in Arizona. Because of the show and spotlight, I hope that I'm presented an opportunity to be an activist within the LGBT community. I want to talk to kids who are having a hard time coming out, and I want to be a role model for some gay people. Young gay people are going to be able to look at me in the show and say, "Look at what he's doing. He's gay, but he's not a bad person. He's someone who everyone gets along with, and people are OK with him being gay. So it's OK for me to be gay too -- to be open and happy."