By Jon Barrett

Originally published on Advocate.com September 09 2009 7:00 AM ET

I’ve been a fan of reality tv ever since I first knew it existed -- in 1992, when I was a closeted 23-year-old living alone in a studio apartment across the street from the Mormon temple in Idaho Falls, Idaho. I didn’t know anybody in town -- let alone anyone gay -- so imagine my delight when I turned on the TV and met Norman Korpi, the first of many gay cast members on MTV’s The Real World. I studied Norm’s every move, and by the second season (in Los Angeles and featuring lesbian cast member Beth Anthony), I’d found the courage to get on with my own reality -- moving to Chicago and eventually coming out.

Seventeen years later, I now check my DVR every morning to make sure I don’t miss Survivor, Big Brother, Project Runway, Top Chef, The Real Housewives, or any number of other reality shows -- a good share of which are on Bravo (thanks in large part to the network’s head of programming, Andy Cohen). I revel in the ridiculousness of Housewives, roll my eyes at the lavishness of Miami Social, and identify (for better or worse) with many of the shows’ gay cast members -- people who just “happen to be gay,” as Cohen describes them in this issue’s cover story.

You see, like some of the people on Bravo’s shows, I fight being defined solely by my sexual orientation, and I even sometimes feel like I just happen to be gay. But then, probably because I work at this magazine, I also realize that my nonchalance is a luxury afforded me by the people who are hitting us all over the head with sexual orientation. Artists like Moisés Kaufman, whose Tectonic Theater Project premieres The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later(An Epilogue) on more than a hundred stages around the world October 12 ; politicians like Mariela Castro Espín, who is using her status as the daughter of Cuban president Raúl Castro to change the way people in that country think about sexuality and gender identity; and activists like Tim Gill and Patrick Guerriero, who, through their work with the Gill Action Fund, fight every day for critical gay rights advances on the local, state, and federal levels.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not putting your sexual orientation front and center in everything you do. And in my face or not, I will continue to rush home to watch what happens on Bravo. But when I was living in that studio apartment in Idaho Falls, I didn’t know the first thing about being openly gay -- and certainly never thought I’d ever just happen to be gay. I was miserable and lonely, and needed someone to hit me over the head -- to show me the way out. And now that I’m here -- living where I am, with the job that I have, and surrounded by friends and loved ones who know the real me -- I try to remind myself, especially when I get comfortable, that there are at least two sides to every reality.