I grew up behind the “Orange Curtain,” about 40 miles outside of Los Angeles. You may have heard of my hometown of Yorba Linda only because it is the birthplace of Richard Nixon and the current home of the Nixon Library. More than anything, Orange County is known for its political and religious conservatism – a 2005 academic study listed three Orange County cities as being among America’s twenty-five “most conservative,” making it one of two counties in the country containing more than one such city. Orange County has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 landslide re-election.
As far as I was aware, I was the only gay person in my high school of 2,500-odd students. Statistically impossible, I know. Orange County didn’t have its first Pride festival until 1989, and that was nearly dispersed by riot police due to violence between gays and “concerned” community members. I was not aware of any gay role models that I would identify with or desire to emulate on any level. People weren’t “coming out” so much as being “found out” in scenarios that usually involved undercover police officers and public restrooms. Nobody was talking about homosexuality in Orange County unless they were talking about who was caught in a gay scandal or which Hollywood star was dying of AIDS.
That was until the summer of 1994 when MTV premiered The Real World (San Francisco). Our block wasn’t cable-ready yet, so I had to watch the show at a friend’s house. For the first time in my life some left-wing Hollywood liberal force-fed me some actual “reality” by casting a sympathetic gay character whom I simultaneously loathed and identified with.
I am not ignorant about the criticisms of “reality television.” Homosexuality, from the inception of the “reality” genre, has been a ubiquitous source of fodder for exploitation. We love to see ourselves in the media and reality TV producers love to profit from the community’s stereotypes and the most shocking elements of the homosexual lifestyle. Some activists fear that we have become the big gay clown in Hollywood’s media circus. That being said, it was the only window I had into the gay community, the community that I would later identify as my own. Reality television didn’t recruit me – what it did was educate me. It fostered an environment that softened my attitudes and strongly-held beliefs to the point that I could accept myself.
In the wake of ignorant and insensitive comments made by some ZZ Top-bearded duck-hunting homophobe (I don’t watch the show; not my demographic), I thought it would be helpful to explore some of the reality television shows that were influential in shaping my own self-understanding. Let me start by apologizing to my lesbian and transgender friends for not selecting a cross sample of the entirety of the LGBT community. However, this is my list. Your list will probably be different. Some of the lessons learned are humorous while others may be inaccurate. Some of these lessons may have saved my life.
THE REAL WORLD: SAN FRANCISCO
June 30, 1994 – November 10, 1994
Featuring: PEDRO ZAMORA
The Real World focuses on a group of economically and sociologically diverse young coed strangers thrown together in tight living quarters for several months in a different city each season, as cameras follow their lives and interpersonal relationships.
Pedro Pablo Zamora (February 29, 1972 – November 11, 1994) was the first openly-gay man with AIDS to be portrayed in a reality television program. Zamora’s health struggles and romantic relationship with Sean Sasser, were documented in The Real World: San Francisco. Zamora’s commitment ceremony to Sasser was the first ever televised. The program further documented Zamora’s conflict with the unhygienic and homophobic housemate, David “Puck” Rainey, and the chronic and debilitating effects of AIDS on his health. Not wanting to be kept alive by artificial means, on November 11, 1994, hours after the final episode of The Real World: San Francisco aired, Zamora passed away in the presence of family and friends. In a way, Zamora became the surrogate friend we all knew and liked, who had succumbed to AIDS. He personalized the disease for my entire generation.
LESSONS LEARNED: AIDS affects us all, not just prostitutes, drug addicts and homosexuals; some bodily fluids, such as saliva and tears, do not transmit HIV; safe sex is mandatory; silence equals death; some gays are in long-term committed relationships; always have health insurance; and ignorance and homophobia are rampant.
THE AMAZING RACE (SEASON 4)
May 29, 2003 – August 21, 2003
The Amazing Race is a game show in which eleven teams of partners race around the world. The race is split into twelve legs interspersed with physical and mental challenges, and require teams to deduce clues, navigate themselves in foreign areas, interact with locals, perform physical and mental challenges, and vie for airplane, boat, taxi, and other public transportation options on a limited budget.
“Married” couple, Reichen Lehmkuhl and Chip Arndt, were the winners of the season 4 race, and are the first openly gay couple to win the competition. They requested to be identified as “married” on the show even though gay marriage was not legal in California yet. Lehmkuhl and Arndt were a happy, well-functioning couple during the competition but have since split.
On July 2006, former ‘N Sync band member Lance Bass told People Magazine that he is gay and in a “very stable relationship” with Lehmkuhl. The couple broke up in January 2007 but Bass said they remained “good friends”.
Chip Arndt has been very active in the LGBT community following the win. He was elected as an Obama/Biden delegate to the Democratic National Convention and was named one of Florida’s twenty-seven electors representing the Electoral College.
LESSONS LEARNED: Gays can’t actually get married; gays can and do get divorced; not all gays are effeminate; some gay men are kind of hot; there are gays in the military; DADT is highly problematic for military personnel.
AMERICAN IDOL (SEASON 8)
January 14, 2009 – May 20, 2009
Featuring: ADAM LAMBERT
American Idol is the widely popular reality-singing competition series created by Simon Fuller.
Runner up, Adam Lambert was known for his gender-bending, glam rock look, flamboyant style and highly proficient technical singing skill. Photos of Lambert kissing another man surfaced during the American Idol competition. Shocking nobody, Lambert confirmed that the photos were indeed him, stating he had nothing to hide and had always been open about his life. Most industry people agree that personal revelations about his sexuality ultimately cost him the competition to Arkansas singer, Kris Allen. Adam was able to parlay his Idol experience into a successful music career, while Kris Allen has struggled in relative obscurity after the show ended.
LESSONS LEARNED: Country music has a big fan base; some guys are really gay; homophobia is unfair; American Idol is not a singing competition; some people are cruel and judgmental; I’m not watching this show anymore.
December 1, 2004 – present
Featuring: TIM GUNN
In Project Runway, the contestants compete with each other to create the best designer clothes and are restricted in time, materials and theme. Based on the opinions of celebrity and industry judges, one or more designers are eliminated each week.
Tim Gunn functions as a fatherly mentor to the fledgling designers. In addition to Project Runway, Gunn was on the faculty of Parsons The New School for Design and was also chair of fashion design at the school, after which he joined Liz Claiborne as its chief creative officer. Raised in an intensely homophobic family, Gunn attempted to commit suicide at the age of seventeen. He denied his sexual orientation until his late twenties, and didn’t share it with anyone in his family until he came out to his sister when he was 29.
LESSONS LEARNED: Always “make it work”; age gracefully; be honest; be kind; be successful; help others.
SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE (Season 2)
May 25, 2006 – 16 August 2006
Featuring: TRAVIS WALL
SYTYCD is a dance competition that features dancers from a variety of styles who enter open auditions held in a number of major U.S. cities to showcase their unique styles and talents. Dancers are then put through additional rounds to test their ability to adapt to different styles until a winner is ultimately chosen.
Travis Wall is a talented dancer and dance instructor, specializing in contemporary and jazz dance. Travis came in second place to overall winner Benji Schwimmer even though Travis was highly favored by the judges. Wall is openly gay, and is in a relationship with gymnast Dom Palange. Travis continues to choreograph, teach and perform extensively across the country.
LESSONS LEARNED: Hard work pays off; confidence is key; do what you love; value of self-expression and art.
July 19, 2006 – June 10, 2008
Featuring: JACKIE WARNER
Work Out was centered around fitness trainers and models located in several California cities. The first three seasons featured many of the trainers who work for fitness trainer Jackie Warner, as well as other aspects managing the gym and its clients as well as Warner’s other personal and fitness endeavors.
In 2004, Warner opened Sky Sport and Spa. Warner is a no-nonsense entrepreneur with boundless energy and a plan. Work Out followed her as she ran her day-to-day business and her employees never-ending personal issues. Somewhat less competent with relationships, viewers see how she juggles her personal life with then girlfriend, Milenna (Mimi) Saraiva. The show ended in controversy after a client heard Jackie talking trash about her and then refusing to come clean. Jackie went on to several other reality ventures after Work Out. She continues to train prominent celebrity clients, and is sought after media consultant, spokesperson, columnist and bestselling author.
LESSONS LEARNED: Determination is required; humble beginnings and setbacks; example of an empowered business woman
October 19, 2004 – present
Featuring: ROBERT “BOB” HARPER
The Biggest Loser features several severely overweight people competing by losing the highest percentage of weight relative to their initial weigh-in.
Harper previosly worked as a personal trainer for celebrity clients in Los Angeles, CA. He has been a trainer on The Biggest Loser since 2004. In addition to personal appearances, speaking dates, and writing on health and fitness issues, Harper still teaches regular exercise classes and works as a yoga instructor in Los Angeles. Harper just recently publicly came out as gay, while talking to a contestant who was having difficulty telling his parents about his own sexuality. Harper revealed he came out to his parents at seventeen, but that this was his first time ever addressing his sexuality publicly.
LESSONS LEARNED: Courage; compassion; living honestly; inspiring others; discipline.
Just as I learned very positive lessons from my gay reality idols, there were also plenty models of bad behavior as well: Survivor’s Richard Hatch, Skating with the Stars’ Johnny Weir, A Shot of Love With Tila Tequila, Flipping Out’s Jeff Lewis, and Big Brother’s Mike “Boogie” Malin, to name a few. So, If Duck Dynasty has got you down, fear not for the future of reality television. At least don’t be offended on my account. I relish the fact that their ignorant comments are being captured in high-definition television and digital surround sound, for future generations to download and gawk at.
In my opinion, “Reality” TV has been very good to the cause of equality and LGBT visibility. I think it was instrumental in paving the road for the positive headlines we are seeing at an ever-increasing rate these days. I know it was a lifeline to me growing up in a suburban cultural vacuum.
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