Gay King Richard

By Gregg Kilday

Originally published on Advocate.com September 25 2000 11:00 PM ET

The tribe has spoken: Richard Hatch may not be King of the World, but after the nail-biting climax of CBS’s summer ratings blockbuster Survivor, Hatch was certainly king of the island of Pulau Tiga. The mainstream media, after dutifully noting that Hatch is gay, went looking for other reasons to explain the skill with which he played the game and won the $1 million. But his lesbian and gay fans, cheering his victory, no doubt saw something of their own lives in Hatch’s game plan. His 39 days on an island with 15 strangers (gradually whittled down to Hatch alone) was a veritable metaphor for surviving as a gay person in a potentially hostile environment. Life’s lessons had taught Hatch—overweight and something of an outcast as a child, by his own admission—to bide his time, quietly analyze the workings of the straight world, master its rules, and then beat it at its own game. It was a survival competition that was as much steely mind game as physical endurance contest.

No PC exemplar, this out single dad didn’t bother playing the good gay Boy Scout, eager to prove himself trustworthy, loyal, and kind. With his bold asides to the camera—“I’ve got the million-dollar check written already,” he confidently predicted in the very first episode—the show’s producers portrayed the 39-year-old corporate trainer as a castaway Richard III, methodically knocking off his enemies at each episode’s “tribal council.”

Yet in his fashion Hatch was the island activist, overturning more than a few stereotypes: While hetero Sean—with his smooth-shaven chest and nipple ring—stood around playing the dim twink, Hatch dived into the reef to spear some dinner, proving himself the Tagi tribe’s alpha male. While old salt Rudy griped about spending time with a “naked queer,” Hatch earned his grudging admiration and unshakable loyalty. And when finalist Kelly begged for love in the ultimate tribal council, Hatch simply demanded respect. When he won, it was as if the tormented Piggy had bested his persecutors to win the title of Lord of the Flies, while Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” played on every gay viewer’s mental soundtrack.

What of the real, live human being behind Survivor’s version of scheming Richard? With fragments of Hatch’s life story swirling through the media—his Newport, R.I., upbringing; a stint at West Point; an apparent green-card “marriage of convenience”; allegations of child abuse made and withdrawn; a half-million–dollar book deal—how could it all add up to one singular gay man? A few days after Hatch’s nationally televised triumph, The Advocate found out, meeting Hatch himself—every inch of 6 foot 4, nattily dressed, clean-shaven, and surprisingly svelte—for a celebratory dinner at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills, along with Hatch’s mother, his manager, and a family friend.

It was the day Hatch had taped a week’s worth of Hollywood Squares episodes, the evening he had signed with Hollywood’s powerful Creative Artists Agency, and the night before he flew back to Rhode Island to rejoin his 10-year-old son, Christopher, in the home he’s busy renovating. For a couple of hours Hatch, the ultimate survivor, let down his guard and revealed that in the end he’s not quite the self-sufficient loner he appeared on Pulau Tiga: His current goal is simply to find a boyfriend.

You’ve probably been in something of a bubble for the last few days. Within the gay community, there’s been an enormous reaction to your win. Have you gotten much sense of that yet? Very little. I think maybe it’s starting to happen now. There was a guy in the audience today at Hollywood Squares who was blowing me a kiss. I blew one back. That was funny. On the night of the final show, there were a few fun guys with pictures of my face on sticks, standing up [in the studio audience]. That was fun. There was also some woman with a sign that said, “Marry me, Rich.” She obviously watched a different show. [laughs] Did you know that in the first year of the original Swedish version of the show a gay guy won it? I didn’t know that until long after I won.

How did you hear about the show and decide to go after it? My mother called and said she’d seen an article about some show that’s just right for you on some network. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. And then a week later, another friend called and said the same thing. So I looked up its Web site, got an application, got a video together, and sent it in.

Did you have any qualms about what you might be getting into? Not in the least. I literally would have gladly paid to go. I’ve spent a month in the Talkeetna Mountains, north of Anchorage, doing the same thing. I spent a month in Canada and Maine camping. I’ve scuba dived all over the world. I just love camping and hiking and scuba diving. So it was great.

You’ve said you began strategizing even before you hit the beach on Pulau Tiga. It began when I was filling out the application. I was trying to decide what my options were, running over the possibilities. Certainly I knew I had a distinctive advantage—I’ve always been very introspective, very observant, interested in the ways personalities interact, the way they impact me, the way I impact them. I knew that basically this was a game of social skills as opposed to survival skills in the sense of living in the woods or the jungle.

In the Survivor book you say, “I think being gay is the main reason for my success,” in part because it taught you “to interact assertively with people.” But in your strategizing, how did you decide when you’d actually come out to the other contestants? How did I decide that? I never had to decide that. I never do.

But there are gay people, going into a new situation, who struggle with how to come out. Yeah, I get that, but I don’t get it. I’ve never ever wrestled with whether to tell anyone I’m gay or who to tell.

Even though you were about to play this game where anything you chose to reveal about yourself could have some impact on your fate? Perhaps it went through my head to decide how am I going to expose myself to these people, how am I going to let different people there know who I am. I probably did do some of that.

As you sized up your team, did you think anyone there would have a problem with your being gay? Certainly, I assumed Rudy might. But again I’d go back to “Who cares?” I think one of my strengths is that if somebody has an issue with me, I love to hear why and talk about why I disagree if I do. To some people, that comes across as arrogance. Some people think I’m a smart-ass because I have really, really strong opinions. But I like to hear their thoughts as well. It’s not that I’m unwilling to listen to a different view; it’s just that I’m very willing to express my own.

But there are certainly gay people who, facing a similar situation where they have to interact with a bunch of strangers, might decide to stay quiet about themselves rather than risk alienating whoever they’re about to deal with. No offense, but I think that’s asinine. I’ve never done that. Who gives a shit? That’s their problem. I don’t give a crap. My sexuality just isn’t an issue, and if it is, I just make more of an issue about it.

I wish more people approached it the way you do. I do as well. If it all makes me a role model or hero, that’s great. But it’s just who I am. If people can’t respect the way I choose to live, who cares what they think?

Of course, in this game, people could vote you off the island without ever telling you why they were doing it. Sure, but that made no difference to me either because I knew damn well I’d be able to control who was going and when, and I was from day one. It was a mental effort from the first day, and I continued that through to the end. I wasn’t there to make friends with anyone. Who cared about developing some personal friendships and relationships? And they all knew it. It wasn’t as if I hid it. I actually talked about being there for one reason. I think I was ethical, I think I was good at not being nasty. And I think the others would say the same things. I think the show was edited in a way to allow viewers to perceive me in a more negative light, but that’s okay. I think it was great TV. I really liked it.

How about going naked? I understand you're comfortable with it, but within the context of the game why risk exposing yourself to someone who might be annoyed and could vote you off? In the arena where we were playing the game, I had made a decision to be myself. If someone couldn’t deal with it, however these people responded, it was who I was. So who cares?

So did you go over there figuring you’d have to create an alliance? Your goal in going to the island: You have 16 people; 15 have to go before you do. You can’t approach that haphazardly. If you can very quickly identify four or five—and I identified five early who might be willing to stick together until the end—you had a [better] chance. So I knew before I even went that I was going to do that.

Sean refused to join the alliance, so poor, dear, naive, wonderful, good-hearted Sean, it was bye-bye. That was kind of what I was thinking.

Rudy was voting with the alliance from the beginning—he just didn’t know it. I identified him immediately, saw he was loyal, an amazing man whom I could trust, and I knew I needed that. I didn’t even tell him at first, because I knew he would come to trust me. He recognized that I was bright and strong and knew what I was doing. The fact that he recognized that made me respect him. I saw that even with all that other gay-baiting behavior.

Why do you think some of the other people on the island—and a lot of the commentary that has surrounded the show—has found the whole notion of an alliance so abhorrent? Wow, you’re asking the wrong guy. It makes no sense to me. Here’s a theory if you like. If you watch football—and I don’t watch football—you find people rooting for the underdog. But here was this guy who seemed to be doing what he needed to do, he looked so far ahead of everyone else, and he was doing it at everybody’s expense. Well, that was part of the game. I was just doing my thing, knocking them off one by one by one.

Let me ask you about some of your victims. You knew right away you wanted Stacey off the island. I knew on the boat we took to the island, never having even spoken to her, that I wanted her off. I think she believes I felt threatened by her. But I was very uncomfortable with the way she interacted with people. My perspective is, or at least was, is that she’s very unaware of the way she impacts people, and she made things uncomfortable for most of the people on my team. I lobbied, without having even solidified the alliance, to have her go.

How about Dirk, the vocal Christian contestant? I assume he wasn’t keen on your being gay. He didn’t want to deal with it. He was so young and so strident in his beliefs, I don’t think he was open-minded enough to explore that reality. We had discussions where he expressed his belief that homosexuality was inappropriate, immoral—I’m not sure of the exact words he used. But who cares?

The show suggested that blond Ivy Leaguer Greg set out to flirt with you in order to gain some advantage. Greg is a very, very bright, compassionate man with strong opinions and clear perspectives. I did not get to know him well, and he’s certainly a very guarded person. I think it would take a long time to get to know who Greg really is. So when we did combine teams and we were interacting for a brief period of time, we did get to take a walk together to try to get to know each other. We talked. He never approached me directly to ask about an alliance. I knew that he was a loose cannon, and so he had to go, bye- bye. But he absolutely never hit on me. He never flirted with me in any way that suggested he was interested. We did discuss his comfort with homosexuality. He certainly wasn’t bigoted.

We’ve been talking about sexual orientation. But that penultimate challenge where you were asked to remember details about the other contests seemed as much about gender as anything else. As a guy, you must have felt at a disadvantage when you saw all the details Kelly remembered from her discussions with the other women. I didn’t know whose kids they were talking about, never mind their names. I knew I was going to lose that thing, but it didn’t matter because I knew who was going to be voted off. I was in control of it. Who cared if one of the other contestants had kids? All I cared about was who was impacting me, how they were impacting other people, who’s ready to vote who off right now, are there enough people to get this one off or that one. I couldn’t have cared less what kind of person they were [in real life]. It was so stressful to just deal with the information I had to deal with. The extra stuff was for later. Now, having shared this experience with these people, some relationships may develop. Those kinds of things are things I’d be interested in knowing in a way. But now I’m not trying to figure out how to get them out of my life.

In your own life, when did you first realize you were gay? Well, I always thought I was gay. I was molested when I was 8. Some neighborhood kids stuffed chestnuts up my butt. I was molested again when I was 10 at the beach. And I knew the difference between what other guys were talking about and seemed to be feeling and what I was feeling. But I had also heard society talking about faggots and queers and all this negative shit, and it didn’t make sense to me. I knew I was going to get married and have kids. So I just thought all guys must have feelings for other guys.

You were thrown out of the house as a teen? My mother kicked me out when I was about 15; I went to stay at my dad’s. I was beating up my brother all the time, and [my mother] was actually afraid I was going to kill him because I was really big and tall. My parents had a tough time with me. I was doing my own thing, sneaking out of the window, smoking cigarettes in the sixth grade, then smoking pot at the drive-in before classes started. I actually feel lucky that I went through what I went through early, instead of dealing with it later.

How’d you end up joining the Army? I’d spent a year in college in Florida—where my grade point average went from something like a 3.8 to 1.2. I was playing very hard, experimenting. Grades just weren’t a priority. So I moved back to Newport for a short time, was working at a deli, got engaged to the girl I went to all the dances with in high school. Go figure. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do with myself. I didn’t want to join the Navy because I thought everybody would think I was gay. What did I expect I’d get out of the Army? Fun in the showers? I don’t know. I just thought it would give me time to figure out what I wanted to do. My commander in basic training suggested that I apply to West Point, so I did. I was in the Army five years total. When I was given the option to leave [West Point] or re-up for five more years after graduation, I left.

That West Point experience must have helped you bond with Rudy. Certainly my experience in the Army helped me to understand Rudy quickly and easily. Some of the others were bothered by his directness. I was actually warmed by it. I thought he was charming because I understood it.

How were you defining yourself sexually while at West Point? Well, I’d had sex with one woman in Florida, the only woman I’d ever had sex with in my entire life, and it was a unique experience to say the least. I remember being so damn excited that I’d just done it that when we were done, I was buck naked and walked her downstairs from the fourth floor of a coed dorm and took her to her car. [Laughs] And then I walked back up the stairs saying, "I did it, I did it, I did it." Oh my.

So when did you come out? As far as being openly gay, it was after leaving West Point and moving into Manhattan. I was living openly then and having an amazing time. Steve Rubell, after Studio 54 and after he’d come out of jail, had opened a club called Palladium, and I worked there. It was very cool.

You have talked about your 10-year, in-name-only marriage to an Australian woman. Have you had any long-term relationships with men? I was with a guy, who lives now in Philadelphia, for eight years. We were not compatible as partners and we both recognized that and became really close friends. He came out to watch the show with some other friends. A real good guy.

How did you come to adopt as a single father? I’ve always been interested in children. I’d thought of being a semen donor or having a child with a woman friend, but it never happened. And then the possibility of adoption came about.

When you decided to adopt your son, Christopher, did you meet any resistance as a single gay man? No, not in Rhode Island. I was invited to join the Adoption Rhode Island board of directors. My being gay has never been an obstacle in anything I’ve ever done. It’s always been an asset.

The trouble you encountered when you returned home [charges of child abuse related to his son’s exaggerated report about an early-morning jog were made and dropped]—did that have anything to do with the fact you were now a very visible gay man? My attorneys certainly tried to question that, but it wasn’t about that. It was about the show, a small-town–mentality police force that was irresponsible, and a headless bureaucracy.

How involved are you with the gay community now? Well, I don’t do the gay bar scene. I don’t drink, don’t smoke, or even drink caffeine. I live in a town that doesn’t even have a gay bar. But I have good friends who are gay, a wonderful circle of friends, both straight and gay.

How did you then go on to become a corporate trainer? I got my bachelor's in behavioral sciences [at National-Louis University]. I had no interest in pursuing it further. But I had a professor, Dr. Evelyn Hendrix, who told me later she thought I was impressive, and she asked me to come and watch her give a seminar. When it was through, a client asked her to come do the same thing again. She was unavailable, but suggested I do it. So I spent about two weeks preparing, overpreparing really, and it went brilliantly. I now give courses on 35 different topics in the behavioral sciences. I started my own company in 1986.

Let me try a few final thoughts out on you: For a lot of gay viewers watching the show, here was this guy—who’s admitted to being overweight and something of an outcast as a kid—who wins this contest, besting all the straight folk he was up against. A lot of gay viewers got a whole lot of satisfaction out of that. That wasn’t true for me. I have no animosity or enmity toward the people who were like that toward me—even the kid who molested me the first time. I feel sorry for him; he is a sad and unhappy character. It was a horrible experience and it was painful, but I blocked it out. Today, I’m very comfortable with who I am. Growing up gay in an environment where people were homophobic and bigoted actually got me to where I am, and I recognize that I am really great. I’d be missing the point if I were bitter.

So where do you think all your self-confidence comes from? It’s a developed thing. I can’t say. I was an intelligent and sensitive kid—that may have been genetic. I don’t know where I stand on the whole question of genetics vs. the environment when it comes to being gay. But that doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care why I became gay. But having been sensitive becomes an asset.

In the final tribal council, Kelly was basically arguing, I’m a nice person, I want you to like me. And you were saying, It doesn’t matter whether you like me or not, just as long as you respect me for how I played the game. In the midst of all the emotion there, how do you think you got to the point where you could view the contest so dispassionately? People were not capable of knowing me. It takes time for observation. You have to spend time with people before you get to a point where you know someone to some extent. Certainly, nobody’s going to know someone in just 39 days, and that wasn’t my goal. I didn’t care what people thought about me. I really truly know this because of how well I think I know myself.

You have a lot on your plate now—a book, speaking tours, endorsements. What do you most look forward to? I anticipate this is an opportunity to find a compatible partnership. That’s the only goal that I’m pursuing with a lot of energy. I don’t really have any other goal. But it’s not something you can rush. If this experience, and the exposure it brings, helps me, there’s just more opportunity for that. And that’s damn exciting.