For all its blurred-out cursing, senseless catfights, and questionable editing, the reality TV genre propelled the level of representation for LGBT people forward at a pace that lapped the rest of the media world, forcing society to catch up and evolve. Here’s a sampling of individuals with the courage to be themselves when the cameras were running.
1. Lance Loud
Years before reality TV would be a labeled a genre of its own, PBS’s An American Familyfollowed the lives of the Louds, a typical family from Santa Barbara, Calif., on the brink of disintegration circa 1973. In addition to the dramatic breakup of parents Bill and Pat, the show would also out son Lance Loud, then still a teenager, marking one of the first examples of a gay man appearing regularly on a television series. The influential show inspired The Real World, and Loud became a gay icon. He was a musician and later a columnist for numerous publications, including The Advocate. Lance died in 2002.
2. Pedro Zamora
This cast member on season 3 of The Real World became one of the most recognizable people in America living with AIDS. After the season aired, MTV returned for a special about Zamora’s last days before he succumbed to the illness in 1994. His death inspired a statement from President Clinton. Of course, the out Zamora also made history on the show when he exchanged vows with partner Sean Sasser in a commitment ceremony, the first time such an event was nationally televised.
From the jump, The Real World proved to be one of the most consistent platforms for LGBT representation on television. Before anyone could know what they had signed up for, Norman Korpi joined the inaugural 1992 season of the show. In episode 8 he went on a date with another man, and a same-sex kiss shocked the world when television sets failed to explode. Korpi would go on to create Gay Entertainment Television.
From his “Supermodel” late-‘90s reign as America’s most famous drag queen to his current run as marquee host of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the gender-bending giant has done heavy lifting for representation on television. He hosted The RuPaul Show for two seasons in the late '90s on VH1 and more recently migrated Drag Racefrom the distinctly LGBT channel Logo to the more mainstream VH1 and landed the show on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. And don’t let all that success overshadow the greatest intergenerational drag catfight to ever play out on an MTV awards stage, between Miss Thang and Uncle Miltie.
Isis King originally appeared on America’s Next Top Model in the background of a shot featuring homeless youth and then approached producers about whether they would take a trans contestant on the show. She ended up cast on the 11th season, where she finished 10th, then returned for an all-star season. In between cycles, host Tyra Banks introduced King to a doctor who covered gender-confirmation surgery. King went on to be a successful model and actress, and in 2012 became the first trans model ever in an American Apparel campaign.
Not settling for the role of token gay, Richard Hatch took over the first season of Survivor on U.S. television and won the inaugural season, developing the basic strategy along the way that every winning alliance would abide by for years to come. Hatch also became widely regarded as one of reality TV’s greatest villains and earned some real-world notoriety after being convicted of tax evasion. Hatch would appear in later seasons of Survivor,as well as Celebrity Apprentice and The Biggest Loser. The snake for the win.
Jenner in 1976 reigned as the world’s greatest athlete after winning an Olympic gold medal for the decathlon. Jenner would return to the public consciousness decades later as stepparent to Kim Kardashian on the E! reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Then in 2015, Jenner shocked the world by coming out as trans to Diane Sawyer. Almost inevitably, this led to Jenner, now identifying as Caitlyn, to star in a spin-off of her own. I Am Caitbrought trans issues to the masses for two seasons.
Jazz Jennings gained news notoriety for coming out publicly as transgender at an elementary-school age during a 2007 interview on 20/20. In 2015, Jennings became the star of her own TLC show, I Am Jazz, cementing her icon status among trans youth. The third season of that show premiered June 28.
Zeke Smith played a central role in two of the most cultural significant moments on Survivor of the last decade. The first came in Season 33, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen-X, as millennial Zeke, who played the game out and proud, dined privately with X-er Bret, who had gone the whole game without a peep about his sexuality. He then confided to Zeke (and the nation) that the younger contestant wasn’t the only gay man on the island. The moment, a telling one about the social mores of homosexuality in two neighboring generations, would be ranked the best of the season by fan sites. But that would be nothing compared to what happened the following season in another moment with a fellow gay contestant. In Survivor: Game Changers, Jeff Varner decided to out Zeke in a desperate Tribal Council move. Smith, this time the one having a secret revealed, had apparently not disclosed this part of his background to other contestants. Things could have gone any number of directions, but Smith’s tribemates rallied around him and voted Varner out of the game.
Varner’s outing of Smith incited outrage and self-reflection within the LGBT community. Varner, who had played two prior seasons of Survivor in a glass closet as neither himself nor producers ever revealed his homosexuality on camera, would be fired by his employer and would go on an extensive apology tour after the show aired.
The fashion expert on Queer Eye, Kressley became the predominant face of the brand and later hosted How to Look Good Naked and Carson Nation. The former Ralph Lauren stylist appeared as a judge and cast member on countless other shows and also launched his own fashion line. Transcending the success of any member of the Fab Five, though, may be the way Queer Eye would demolish that first word in its title as a slur and recast its meaning in mainstream America, which finally got used to it.
Another of the Fab Five, Queer Eye alum Ted Allen used the Bravo show to become a prominent Food Network personality on shows like Top Chef and Chopped. Allen provided a face to the burgeoning food reality scene.
While Mondo Guerra shockingly came in second on season 8 of Project Runway (seriously, what the hell?!), nothing could dismiss the designer’s social significance for coming out as HIV-positive to the nation. Guerra, who kept his diagnosis secret from family for eight years before appearing on the show, not only shared the information but included plus signs prominently in his work. Literally putting his status on his sleeve, Guerra ushered a new era in the way HIV survivors presented themselves publicly. Guerra would later create custom designs for World AIDS Day and become a spokesman for Dining Out for Life.
Before she played beloved trans character Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox was a contestant on VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy. She may not have landed a job with Sean Combs, but the gig led to VH1’s TRANSform Me, where Cox led a trio of trans women providing makeovers. That job made Cox the first trans star and producer of her own show. After her reality days, Cox became the first trans regular cast member on a network show, Doubt.
Who says a gay couple can’t be a pair of bad-asses? Lehmkuhl, a former Air Force pilot, and Arndt, a Harvard grad and gay rights activist, had recently held a commitment ceremony before competing and winning on the fourth season of The Amazing Race and insisted that the show present them as a married couple. The relationship would end quickly after the show finished taping, but both have remained high-profile. Arndt, now a Miami e-commerce executive and Democratic activist, would become the first gay man to cast an electoral college vote after Barack Obama won Florida in 2008, and Lehmkuhl would briefly date Lance Bass and star in The A-List: New York.
Before the arrival of Cat Cora, Iron Chef was the exclusive playground of men treating cooking as sport. The out star changed the rules of Kitchen Stadium forever, as the first female chef to appear on the American version of the show or the original one in Japan.
In the U.K. version of Big Brother, the houseguests in season 5 selected Nadia Almada as the winner of the season, unaware they had just named the show’s first trans star with its top honor; Almada’s gender identity had been known to audiences but not to other members of the cast. She would have a decidedly less positive outcome when she returned for Ultimate Big Brother in 2010, refusing to appear on the finale and getting into a row with presenter Davina McCall over a transphobic joke.
Who should teach the hottest ladies competing for the title of America’s Next Top Modelto properly strut their stuff? How about a gay man from the Bronx quickly introduced to the world as Miss J, a name that came by accident when contestant and former beauty queen Robin wanted a way to differentiate the coach from Mr. Jay Manuel. J. Alexander in the early '90s developed a reputation as a runway coach working with host Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, and others, then rose from coach to judge on subsequent seasons of Model.
The only other LGBT winner of Survivor to date besides Richard Hatch would be gay Mormon flight attendant Todd Herzog, who was named sole survivor on the 15th season after serving as puppet master through a season in China. Five years later, he appeared as a guest on Dr. Phil to discuss his life-threatening alcoholism.
As reality TV migrated to network television, Bill “Bunky” Miller would appear as the first gay Big Brother contestant in the second season. During the course of the show, Miller’s husband was alluded to after sending a letter to the house, years before same-sex marriage became mainstream.
A second season contestant, Dowling became the first gay man to win Big Brother in the U.K. and would go on to have a successful career as a television host, presenting Live at Studio Five alongside Kate Walsh. In 2011, he took over as host of Big Brother, replacing Davina McCall, after the show moved to Channel 5.
While gay, lesbian, and bisexual representation has been a key part of Real World casting for 25 years, it took until 2008 for the first trans cast member to appear on the show. Cusanelli moved into the loft The Real World: Brooklyn, the show’s 21st season. She was also the only trans contestant to ever compete on MTV’s The Challenge.
While Big Brother boasted many a show-mance through the years and would become groundbreaking for airing real sex scenes on network television, it would take until 2016 and on British television before two men engaging in any sort of congress would make the cut. Ryan Ruckledge and Hughie Maughan would go on to get engaged.
The two gay men were no strangers to media by the time they won the 21st season of The Amazing Race. Kilmer-Purcell, an advertising executive and New York Times best-selling author, and Ridge, a physician and Martha Stewart Omnimedia alum, had starred together in the Planet Green documentary series The Fabulous Beekman Boys, learning to run a farm and launch a personal brand.
While he technically didn’t come out until shortly after appearing on American Idol, the flamboyant Lambert became a gay icon before eventually finishing as the runner-up on his season. He would later say that people questioning him for not being more transparent about his sexuality prompted him to kiss a male keyboardist at the American Music Awards. When his Trespassing album debuted at number 1 on the Billboard charts, he became the first out artist ever to top the album charts.
Stolz may not have been the first lesbian to compete on America’s Next Top Model but made an impression on season 5 after making out with a self-identifying straight contestant in the back of a limo. She made it to the final five on her season, unapologetically maintaining a butch sexiness the entire way. She would go on to sign with Ford Models and have a career at MTV before becoming a Bank of America executive (no, seriously).
The son of two deaf parents, Verraros became the feel-good story of the audition phase for the first season of American Idol. But after The Buzz discovered an online journal where Verraros discussed his homosexuality, the online posts would disappear, his sexuality would go unmentioned on-air, and he would be voted out early. He would later tell The Advocate that he’d never been aware of interview requests from the queer press while he was still on the show.
The successful fashion consultant became a household name as the constant mentor to designers competing on Project Runway, where he remains a face of the show alongside Heidi Klum as the series prepares for a 16th season. That’s making it work.
What, you think the respected journalist came out of Gloria Vanderbilt’s womb as a Peabody-worthy pundit? No, after a stint on the made-for-school news network Channel One, Cooper came to prominence for most Americans in 2001 as the host of The Mole, a show where contestants worked on missions together and tried to figure who among them acted as a saboteur.
While he never discussed being gay while appearing on the show, it shocked no one when American Idol season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken came out to People magazine in 2008. Aiken would go on to find success as a recording artist and on Broadway.
The gay actor would become a runner-up on The Glee Projectbut enjoy the longest run of any competitor on Fox’s Glee, the show on which contestants on this show purportedly wanted to be cast. But during the reality spin-off, Newell first balked at and then embraced direction from Glee creator Ryan Murphy to perform in drag, a process that ultimately informed the creation of Newell’s character, Unique.
39. Danny Roberts
For a moment in the year 2000, Danny Roberts turned The Real World from a venue for representation to one of political protest. Dating Paul Dill, an active Army captain during the "don’t ask, don’t tell" era, Roberts brought his boyfriend on the show with the promise that Dill's face would be blurred out. The act showcased the unfair shame of forcing enlisted people into the closet. While the relationship would not last, in part due to the resulting scrutiny from the show, Roberts would go on to be a public speaker at high schools across the country helping advance equality.
40. Big Freedia
LGBT people of color remain a rare sight on reality TV, even if the genre has advanced representation for the marginalized groups separately. Enter Big Freedia, the Queen of Bounce. After years of influencing New Orleans hip-hop, the out star got a reality TV break with a show on Fuse.
41. Ronnie Kroell
Perhaps the greatest gay-straight bromance in reality history, the pure affection between the gay Ronnie Kroell and the straight Ben DiChiari became one of the most memorable parts of Bravo’s short-lived Make Me a Supermodel. The reason the connection felt so historic? After Kroell confessed a crush, DiChiari declined romantic interest, but the friendship remained strong. In 2008 this represented a marked shift in wider acceptance of LGBT people. A few years earlier, the standard reality show plot would surely have been a resulting altercation, and a macho straight man likely never would have appeared in a simulated gay scene for a photo shoot.