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 man.
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.
Times were 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.
Letters from 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 of secrets.
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.”