By Dan Renzi
Originally published on Advocate.com April 15 2002 11:00 PM ET
One hot summer
day in Kansas when I was 17, I came inside to take a break
from mowing my yard, and I turned on MTV, and this really
odd show was on. It was a sort of documentary about
these random 20-something people in New York City.
Much to my head-spinning surprise, a guy on the show
named Norm suddenly mentioned his upcoming date with another
Norm was the
first gay person I ever met.
As I watched him,
I imagined what it would be like talking to him. I made
up conversations, never talking about much; it was just the
image of him that mattered. Images create
possibilities, and Norm represented possibilities for
me. Somewhere, on the other side of a television camera
in New York City, he really was out there.
A year later I
jumped on a plane and left Kansas, headed for college on
the East Coast. There I heard amazing stories of gay people
who didn’t hide. I met students who marched in
gay pride parades. I even met a few guys who had taken
their boyfriends to the prom. I couldn’t fathom the
thought! But these people didn’t think it was a big
deal; they had been around gay people for years.
changing. I saw gay images all over TV, in the news,
seemingly everywhere—real gay people living
mainstream lives—so this became my goal too. I
stopped referring myself as “gay” and rid
myself of labels. I double-dated with straight couples
I knew from my classes and discussed my love life with
the candor of any college student. I didn’t think
much about being gay anymore, and life was so much
easier; I was so excited to be just “be
me.” Norm faded into the background.
In 1996 the
producers of The Real World cast me for the Miami
season because they saw my lax attitude about gayness as
“refreshing.” I just wanted to have a
good time on TV. And even though the show was silly
and wildly sensationalized, I was quite excited about being
“famous” and important enough for a TV
crew to follow me around all day. I really
didn’t care what got me there.
But then I got
letters. A lot of letters.
Alabama, Idaho, Belgium, or Turkey. They were usually short
and very polite, written by teenage kids who saw me on TV
and felt like they knew me just a little bit. They
just wanted to introduce themselves—say hello
and tell me about what was going on in their lives. I
was the only other gay person they knew, and watching me
live my life once a week eased their loneliness and
isolation a little bit.
I read every word
of every letter. I laughed, cried, and felt humbled. I
had forgotten that despite all the TV shows and gay pride
parades and the ease of my life, for most people in
this world, things still haven’t changed that
much after all.
On May 18, I will
fly to Boston, where I’ll participate in an
extraordinary event called the Boston Gay/Straight Youth
Pride March, an annual celebration sponsored by the
Massachusetts public health and education departments.
Marching along with me will be eight other people who
have lived their gay and lesbian lives on TV, people named
Beth, Genesis, Justin, Ruthie, Danny, Chris, Aneesa,
and yes, even my beloved Norm. We will be nine
seemingly random people from a TV show, with the
common memory of what it was once like to feel the anguish
We will march,
honored to be able to help change the world for the
better—to have created the images that mattered to
these young people, many of them too young to remember
a time before The Real World brought gay and
lesbian people into America’s homes. Many of them
happier and healthier because of the images
they’ve been able to see on television.
We will give as
many hugs to as many kids as we possibly can. And with
each embrace, I will be so excited to say the same words
that Norm said to me the first time we met:
“Hi. It’s very nice to meet you.”