Keeping it real

By Erik Meers

Originally published on Advocate.com April 15 2002 11:00 PM ET

After several
weeks of dating Kurt, a schoolteacher from Minneapolis,
Chris Beckman, a strapping 23-year-old artist from Boston,
brought him back for a sleepover at the loft apartment
in Chicago that he shared with six other castmates on
The Real World. MTV’s camera zoomed in on
the duo as they cuddled and kissed on Chris’s bed
before heading under the sheets. When Kurt sent Chris
flowers the next day, Chris’s straight roommate
Theo groused, “This is a little bit too gay for
me,” undoubtedly speaking for many young
viewers who had never seen two men in a romance
before.

Regularly
rattling viewers with frank gay content has been part of a
winning formula for so-called reality TV programs for
decades, and it’s something The Real
World
has perfected during its decade-long run. In
fact, the show is enjoying record audiences this season,
thanks in large measure to its two charismatic gay
cast members, Beckman and Aneesa (who has declined to
reveal her last name).

The show’s
candor about same-sex romance surprised even Beckman.
“Those were the [remote-controlled] cameras
that were inside the room,” he says of his
bedroom scene. “I had no idea they could record from
those cameras. Even when they weren’t there,
they could be recording us. Seeing that scene was
like, ‘Wow! Hi!’”

“Wow” is right. Lesbians and gays are
everywhere on the tube this spring courtesy of the
endless proliferation of reality TV. In addition to
The Real World, the CBS juggernaut Survivor:
Marquesas
features out castaway John Carroll, a
nurse from Omaha, as well as a rumored lesbian yet to
be revealed, and The Amazing Race 2 highlights
gay buddies Oswald and Danny from Miami. This fall,
Eco-Challenge Fiji 2002—a grueling
500-plus-kilometer race to be broadcast on the USA
Network—will feature an all-gay team sponsored by
Subaru. And this is not to mention the countless openly gay
people who continue to pop up as participants
everywhere, including Who Wants to Be a
Millionaire,
the various confront-your-fears shows, and
possibly even that heterofest Temptation
Island
.

All these
vérité programs are breaking fresh ground for gay
visibility and defusing a bit of the frustration felt
by activists at the timidity of some fictional network
shows like Will & Grace. “Five
seasons ago on The Real World, we would not see
someone like [Beckman] lying in bed and kissing his
boyfriend. It’s wonderful. There’s
nothing salacious about it,” says Scott Seomin,
entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian
Alliance Against Defamation. “Will &
Grace
is a great show, and it has done an amazing amount
for our community, but it’s a hit because it
conforms to the sitcom format to make the majority of
this country comfortable. We have seen Grace making
lots of passionate noises with her boyfriend. We have not
seen that with Will.”

Unlike the
sex-starved Will, Chris and Aneesa date, cuddle, and sleep
with their same-sex love interests. And unlike the heated
romances of ER’s Dr. Kerry Weaver or the
“questioning” youth story lines on
Boston Public and Once and Again, their
doings can’t be dismissed as ratings-driven
character development. In a recent episode of The
Real World,
for example, when Aneesa ripped into her
game-playing girlfriend for bringing her ex by the
apartment, the tears and expletives flowed from
immediate emotions, not from a writer’s pen.

“It was
real,” recalls Aneesa. “I was upset and I was
mad. I wish I wouldn’t have cursed as much. I
gave [the producers] everything. I kept one or two
things private, but everything else is out there. I would be
so embarrassed to go home and have people say,
‘Aneesa, that is not you.’ Aneesa does
not hold back one ounce of her personality.

“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.”

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?