The dating game

By Rick Andreoli

Originally published on Advocate.com June 24 2003 12:00 AM ET

Surprises on
reality television are so cheap and common these days that
most new twists and turns generate little more than a
cynical chuckle from seasoned viewers. So when word
leaked out in May that the Bravo cable network was
producing a new dating-themed reality series about a
gay bachelor choosing the perfect boyfriend from among 15
eligible men, it sounded like simply a queer take on a
preexisting idea.

But in a move
worthy of Joe Millionaire, Boy Meets Boy takes the
surprise factor one step further, because neither the
“leading man” nor his best gal pal nor
all of the 15 potential boyfriends—called
“mates”—know that sprinkled among them
are some heterosexual contestants. Initial reaction
has been polarized, with one overriding question: Will
this be a groundbreaking portrayal of gay romance on
television or a sordid example of setting up gays as
the butt of one big, degrading prank?

“In some
ways, [Boy Meets Boy] has the potential to kind of
subvert the whole notion of how people conceive of lesbians
and gay men,” observes Stephen Tropiano, author
of The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and
Lesbians on TV,
who sees the show as a natural
outgrowth of gays’ presence in television.

Tom Shales of
The Washington Post agrees: “On the
surface it would seem like a healthy development, on
the grounds that visibility is healthy.”
However, with this praise Shales adds a note of concern
that’s common among many who hear of the
straight twist. “We don’t know how much
ridicule or derision is going to be a part of it,” he
says, “so a lot depends on how it’s
done, whether it’s going to be leering or above
board.”

Airing in July
and August, Boy Meets Boy is hosted by
Extra’s Dani Behr and was shot in May in Palm
Springs, Calif. The show features handsome leading man
James (the participants’ last names are
omitted), 32, who works in human resources at a major Los
Angeles law firm. What drives an obviously attractive,
successful gay man to subject himself to what some
consider a very wide-reaching video dating service?
James, who came out at 22 while in college, explains,
“I tend to meet guys who are interested in sex
first and then maybe something more if the sex is
good.” That said, James wanted to challenge himself,
better understand what he wants in a relationship, and
affirm his values as a modern gay man. He also wants
America to see that the caricatures on most scripted
television shows don’t accurately represent gay
culture. “We are normal people with normal jobs
[and] normal friends, looking for love and happiness
just like everyone else,” he says.

Not that everyone
thinks that normalcy is what’s going to come across
on Boy Meets Boy. “It sounds more like
How to Date a Hustler, because the motive
[of the contestants] is to be emotionally and
physically attractive to the gay guy,” observes Brad
Gooch, author of Dating the Greek Gods.
“The straight guy is trying to act like trade
in this case.”

Confining the
other 15 singles in one house sounds like the makings of a
gay porn video, notes Derek Hartley, who dispenses
relationship advice at PlanetOut.com’s
“FantasyMan Island.” “The only reason I
would watch the show is to see the 15 bachelors ignore
the lead guy and hook up with one another,” he
says with a laugh. But Hartley and viewers like him may be
disappointed.

For one thing,
also living in the house will be James’s longtime
best friend, Andra—a married heterosexual woman
who’s there to help James choose. “What
was amazing about James and Andra right from the start was
their rapport,” notes supervising producer Kirk
Marcolina. “They were finishing each
other’s sentences right from the get-go and really
had that relationship we were looking for.”
This dynamic, so indicative of the relationships of
many gay men and their straight women friends, should
help provide a hook for straight viewers while giving the
show some oomph.

James affirms his
friend’s importance. “Andra was the voice
behind many of the decisions,” he says.
“If she wanted me to keep a mate, I did. If she
wanted me to have a one-on-one date with a specific mate, I
did.”

And if
Andra’s presence isn’t enough to be a cold
shower for the mates, the only physical connection
allowed on Boy Meets Boy is kissing. “We
didn’t want this show to be a big sexual romp and for
it to be salacious,” explains openly gay
executive producer Douglas Ross, who created the show
with Tom Campbell, his production partner at Evolution
Film & Tape. (Evolution was also behind last
year’s acclaimed, gay-positive Bravo series
Gay Weddings.) “We very specifically
designed this show to challenge the viewer’s
preconceived notions about what it means to be gay and
to be straight. We really wanted it to be an
exploration of sexual politics and not sex.”

While this
kissing rule protected the straight contestants from being
asked to put out, it also raises the question of whether gay
men know how to court one another without sex being
involved. “Of course they can,” James
says, but he’s quick to add that he believes men in
general are more sexual than women. “Straight
men would have sex the first night if women would let
them. It is no different in the gay world.”

The natural
assumption concerning the straight twist is that James or
the other gay contestants will be able to spot the
impostors in an instant. As James attests, “Gay
men look at men the way straight men look at women.
That is a dead giveaway.” In Boy Meets Boy,
the producers promise, the mystical homosexual power
known as gaydar fails, and some delicious
complications ensue.

“If it
were just a gay dating show, for sure we’d get a lot
of gay viewers, probably not that many straight
viewers, [and] some looky-loos,” Ross says.
“But we felt by putting [the twist] in, we would get
a much broader audience and have a chance to explore
the sociological issues which are really important to
us as gay producers.” Adds Scott Seomin of the
media watchdog organization Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation: “Frankly, only a reality show could
create a closet for straight men. We hope the closeted
heterosexuals in the cast will learn what it’s
like to be gay.”

Since gay images
on reality TV have become something of a stale
staple—lately failing to match the excitement
generated by, say, Pedro Zamora and Richard
Hatch—it’s promising that Boy Meets Boy
promises to shake up concepts of sexuality. Take it as a
good sign, then, that within hours of the
show’s announcement, Andrea Lafferty of the
right-wing Traditional Values Coalition was quoted by the
Associated Press as saying, “Clearly,
they’ve hit a new low. What’s next after
Boy Meets Boy? Boy Meets Sheep?”
Psychotherapist Betty Berzon, whose autobiography,
Surviving Madness: A Therapist’s Own
Story,
just won a Lambda Literary Award, welcomes such
controversy. “Groups like this do [gays and
lesbians] a favor by keeping us in the public mind and
giving us a visibility that we don’t always do for
ourselves,” she says.

And while
everyone at Boy Meets Boy seems to be approaching the
concept with the best of intentions, the show’s
methodology doesn’t necessarily sit well even
with potential allies. “It’s my understanding
that if the gay guy picks the straight guy in the end, the
joke is on him, and I don’t like that,”
observes Berzon. (According to Ross, if James chooses
a gay mate, he and the suitor win a romantic vacation, but
if a straight guy is chosen, they win a “very
small” cash prize.) PlanetOut’s Hartley
is also skeptical. “If what they want to do is make a
documentary or explore social issues, they should do
that,” he says. “What makes reality
shows work is the delight in seeing people devolve to
horrendous behavior toward one another. That’s what
we’re watching for.”

There’s
horrendous behavior, and then there’s homicidal.
Boy Meets Boy’s gay-straight
romantic dynamic has been a queasy reminder for some
of the Jenny Jones show’s disastrous same-sex
secret-crush episode in 1995, in which Scott Amedure,
a gay man, surprised his heterosexual friend Jonathan
Schmitz by professing his attraction to him.
“[Schmitz]’s response was
anticlimactic,” explains Jeffrey Montgomery,
executive director of the Triangle Foundation, an
antiviolence project dealing with victims of bias
crimes throughout Michigan. “[Schmitz] laughed
it off and said, ‘You’re a nice guy and I like
you,’ and then went home,” only to
fatally shoot Amedure three days later at Amedure’s
home in the suburbs of Detroit.

Violence is not a
likely scenario for Boy Meets Boy, argues Larry
Grimaldi—who, along with Christopher McDonald, cast
the show—because the heterosexual contestants
knew exactly what was in store. “Many of the
questions we asked [the straight participants] were geared
to ascertain their social behaviors, political views,
and friendships,” he says. A solid pool of
applicants, all with gay best friends and relatives, were
then told about the twist and concept behind the show, and
they quickly signed on. “We didn’t want
them to put on any affectations or try to ‘be
gay,’ ” Ross adds. “We just wanted them
to change the story about their sexual
identity.”

Be that as it
may, the premise of Boy Meets Boy worries many gay
men. What if the show ends with James rejecting all of the
gay contestants? Would this support the right-wing
stereotype of the self-loathing, predatory homosexual
male? Ross notes that during their private
confessionals, the straight contestants make it clear that
they don’t feel preyed on. “If anything,
it’s going to help dispel that myth [by
showing] that gay men and straight men can be
friends,” he says. “They can bond on a
lot of different areas, and it’s not just because a
gay guy might be sexually attracted to somebody.”

Gooch points out
that, far from being new, the mix of gay and straight
men on Boy Meets Boy represents a return to age-old
roots. In ancient Greece men like Socrates were
married and yet had homosexual relationships as well.
“So our society at the moment is rolling the dice,
instigated by gays, to reconsider what masculinity is and
what makes a straight man or gay man, and if these
definitions are real or if a middle ground can be
found,” says Gooch.

Howard Buford,
founder and CEO of Prime Access, an ad agency that serves
more Fortune 500 companies than any firm in the gay market,
believes that protests by the Traditional Values
Coalition or other right-wing organizations could
ultimately prove beneficial to Boy Meets Boy.
“The actual promotion for Boy Meets Boy
isn’t widespread, but if it were to hit CNN,
suddenly it generates a much higher awareness, and it
could increase viewership,” he says. As for a
backlash against advertisers, Buford says those days
are over: “There’s so many active
Fortune 500 companies in the gay market, it’s just
become untenable to boycott them.”

Ross and his team
told all of the participants to be ready for surprises
and have fun, which Berzon believes is exactly the right
approach to dating in general. “I think people
take dating too seriously,” she says.
“They approach it like a life-or-death situation,
asking if this is ‘the one’ when they
barely know the person’s name.”

James shares
Berzon’s laid-back approach to romance. He’s
had only two relatively long-term relationships, and
he’s never felt like his life is missing
something because he’s single. “I do feel like
there could be something more in my life,” he
says, “but I am content being single until that
special someone comes along.” And that special
someone might be just an episode away.