After my kick-ass vacation appearing on the third season of The Amazing Race on CBS--I was one of three openly gay contestants on three different teams that time around--I had a decision to make: What do you do after becoming a reality-TV star? (1) Move to Hollywood and become an A-list actor. C'mon! How many Survivor castaways do you see starring with Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts? (2) Travel the world. Maybe you could do that if you actually won The Amazing Race--which most of us didn't. (3) Sign autographs at shopping malls. I think I'll pass.
The majority of reality-TV personalities simply head back home and dive back into their normal lives. Our 15 minutes are over, and most of us are brave enough to admit it. But once I had been eliminated, after racing around the world with my conservative Southern Baptist father, Dennis, I realized that I had bigger plans. I decided to head back home and dive into making a difference.
You see, I've just turned 22, I'm gay, and I live in Kentucky. Kentucky is not known for its acceptance of gays. I learned this lesson the hard way.
In high school I was a cheerleader on two nationally ranked squads. I was also the only male cheerleader in the high school for years. Needless to say, it wasn't easy. I remember being hit in the head with rocks, being pushed into walls, and even hearing the fans of our opposing team chanting "Faggot" in unison. But cheerleading was my life, and I refused to quit. I survived and went on to college--and more cheerleading.
At age 21, I was cast with my dad in The Amazing Race, and we were thrown into the realm of reality TV--and I was outed to millions of viewers all around the world. There's something about being out of the closet on international TV that builds up your self-confidence. I never feel the need to hide anymore.
After the interviews, the pictures, the autographs, and the parties I went back into my "happy place" in Lexington, Ky., and launched my own Web site. It was that site that changed my outlook on life. As soon as I got home from a media tour in New York, I noticed that my E-mail box was no longer filled just with spam E-mails telling me how to grow my penis 6 inches longer or something about college girls with Web cams. Far outnumbering the spam were thousands of E-mails from teens and young adults that watched the show, most of them gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. The boys and girls told me their stories of being in the closet, the tragic tales of violence and hatred that had occurred toward them, and then they all asked for my advice. My advice? I'm a goofy cheerleader thrown into some crazy TV show. I am not a therapist; I am not a doctor; I was not even an activist--until now.
The thought of suicide was a reoccurring theme in these E-mails. I could never have fathomed how bad it still is for children who are GLBT. Suddenly I realized that I had a "title" with some power. I was a Reality-TV Star, and that gave me some leverage, a platform from which to reach out to people. I knew that I had to help these kids--these kids who were just like me.
These days I appear all over, speaking and attending fund-raisers for equal rights, AIDS, diabetes research, and more. I figure anything I can do to help, I'm there! Heck I've even gotten to talk about the future to casting directors from some TV shows. That was fun. But my goal is to keep building my activist muscles big enough until I figure even The Hulk can't touch me.
I also formed Andrew's Club, a social support group for young GLBT adults in my part of Kentucky. The group meets bimonthly in Lexington and is basically a fun group in which you meet people in the same predicament as yourself. Surround yourself with positive people and you become a positive person: That is my motto.
Now I've stepped up one more level and have begun speaking around the country about growing up gay and basically how to deal. Dealing with parents, friends, and coworkers when you're young and coming out is always a tricky situation, and I figure people need help with this just as I did.
I have spoken at colleges, high schools, gay-straight alliance meetings, and pride rallies all over the country, including New York City. My message is easily stated: The holocaust of our gay youth is not over. Matthew Shepard is not a phenomenon of the past. Let's remember to look beyond our struggling economy, beyond the war, and see that children still live in fear right here in the United States.
I challenge the adults in our country to remember that we all have the means to help the younger generation. As cliche as it sounds, they are our tomorrow.
And to the youths themselves I say: You guys are kick-ass! I don't know how you constantly find the strength and will to stand up every day. Remember to live your life for you. Listen to your heart and never forget that there are millions out there just like you. If you decide to come out from behind those closet doors, you'll find us; I swear we're here.
So hopefully my work after reality TV is paying off. I figure if I can help smooth over that rough period in life for one kid, my time was worth it. Gay youths face hate and intolerance every day--and that is reality.