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Keeping it real

Keeping it real


Gays and lesbians are everywhere in life, so of course they're on reality TV. From Lance Loud to Chris Beckman and Brandon Quinton, the diverse bunch of out gays on these shows brings viewers face-to-face with our queer lives

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 verite 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?

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