Bil Browning

Can we handle a gay American Idol?

Filed By Bil Browning | March 06, 2008 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: American Idol, BB9, Big Brother, Dannie Noriega, Danny Noriega, David Archuleta, David Hernandez, Richard Hatch, Survivor

I watch too much reality TV. It's a weakness. Not only do I watch Big Brother, we record Survivor and American Idol too. We should put our Netflix account on hold through reality TV season; we rarely have time to watch the movies since every night there's some sort of reality show on the air.

This year's crop of reality show contestants features a batch of openly (and not-so openly) gay contestants. There was a gay couple on BB9 and another contestant is, to say the least, bisexual. Survivor has a particularly nelly contestant that manages wanna-be beauty queens in real life.

On American Idol though, this is the year of the queer. David Hernandez has been outed as a former gay bar stripper, Dannie Noriega has online videos that references his sexuality, and 17 year old David Archuleta sets my gaydar a tingling. But can they win?

The first year of Survivor saw Richard Hatch take the top prize and set the standard for including gays and lesbians in primetime reality shows on major networks. I've watched most seasons of these three shows, but I can't think of any other openly gay contestant that has won. Sure, there have been several contestants but none have made it to the end. Even Clay "I'm not gay!" Aiken came in second place to a "winner" that put out one failing album while Aiken's sugary pop became one of the top albums of the year. Since, as Ryan Seacrest would say, "America voted," does that mean America still shys away from the queers?

Survivor lets the "tribe" winnow down the contestants before throwing it to a "jury" of former contestants. With a cross-section of America participating, wouldn't the jury pretty much be representative of America calling in for Idol? Wouldn't the same ignorance and prejudices still come into play?

Big Brother also lets the contestants pare down the possible winners themselves by voting out losing house members. Openly gay characters seem to go the furthest in Big Brother even though some contestants have been openly homophobic. Does the forced intimacy without having to scratch for food a la Survivor bring around a general tolerance? Or does familiarity breed contempt?

So what is it that holds us back?

29410.jpgPersonally, I think American Idol has more to do with society at large. Tween girls don't want to vote for the boy that will never be interested in them. Contestants that tend to buck gender norms are quickly weeded out before the top few are announced. Dannie Noriega (left) is about the most feminine guy that has ever been featured. Even Clay Aiken butches it up.

America doesn't like to confuse itself with gender identity and sexual orientation issues. It's easier to vote for someone else, convince yourself that you didn't vote for the lesbian because you just happened to prefer someone else and when they get voted out, well, they must not have been very popular. I mean, you liked them, but you just liked someone else better, right?

Big Brother and Survivor though involve group think mostly. They come in with their own prejudices and stereotypes but leave with altered experiences. Does this always translate into positive associations with any arbitrary person or even "type" of person? Richard Hatch was not known for being a pleasant and positive role model for the gaybies even before he went to the federal pen for tax evasion. A few of the Big Brother contestants have made me cringe every time they came on the screen. Would I want everyone to think that the contestant was representative of all gays and lesbians?

Is it possible that through around two decades of total programming between the three, gays and lesbians just don't have what it takes to win. Whether through bad game choices, personality traits, duplicity or simply bad luck, does it even matter if we win?

Or should we be happy that at least we're able to openly compete now?

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I'm a reality show addict, too. My favorite is Amazing Race which I think is the fairest of all the reality shows in terms of who wins and I think a gay contestant could certainly win again (a gay couple won in season 4, I think).

The winner of Survivor last season was gay. I don't ever remember him "coming out" on the show (I didn't watch every episode) so he might not qualify as "openly gay", but I also don't think it was particularly hard to figure out. I think another gay "character" could win this show because the jury often bases their decision based on who "played the game" the best.

Big Brother and American Idol are opposite each other this year so I end up watching American Idol. The one episode of Big Brother I watched, I wasn't particularly impressed with either of the gay "characters" though they didn't show much of them on the episode I watched. I'm not so sure a gay "character" could win this show because it is probably the most like a popularity contest and there is a LOT of back-stabbing. The only gay "character" I liked enough by the end of the show that I wanted them to win was Will (the one who went on to host a travel show on Logo).

With American Idol, it's hard to say. I don't think Danny Noriega has a chance of winning this year. Mostly because he's not quite as good as several of the other contestants, but I also think he's a bit too feminine for America. Simon has made a couple of not-so-subtle comments about his effeminacy. I think David Archuleta could win but I'm not sure he's gay or if it's one of those "wishful thinking" kind of things. He's adorable. If he is gay, I'm not even sure he's aware of it. I think David Hernandez *might* win it if this "controversy" about his erotic dancing doesn't become a huge news item. Otherwise, I think he's in trouble. Clay is so popular because he looks/acts like the boy next door. Sadly, America is still too sex phobic, I think, to vote for anyone (gay or straight) who has a history of getting naked.

Speaking of American Idol, I just have to say that I can't believe Luke hasn't been voted off yet. He should have been out the first week of voting and Colton (another gay contestent) should have gone further, though I don't think he would have won it.

If you want to watch a reality television show where a gay man has a real chance of winning, you might want to check out So You Think You Can Dance. There is a bias about men being feminine in the show, but it is probably the most "gay friendly" of any of the shows not specifically targeted only to the gay "community".

By the way, I'm totally aware of the fact that I'm writing mostly about gay men. Where are the lesbians and queer women on reality television? There was a lesbian couple on Amazing Race last season and I know there was a lesbian on one of the cooking shows and at least one on Survivor, but they certainly seem less represented in the genre.

Also, Transamerican Love Story on Logo is great. Sadly, it'll be quite a while until we see trans people on network reality shows.

I'm embarrassed that I've spent this much time writing about reality television. ;)

Um, I think that Project Runway prooves that gay contestants can win.

Michael Bedwell | March 6, 2008 4:10 PM

The reality competition show that has had the most out gay competitors [and won 5 out of 5 Emmys over "Survivor," "BB," and "AI"] is apparently the one you are most unfamiliar with: "The Amazing Race."

Not only has most of its 12 seasons had at least one out gay competitor, the first out gay couple [and possibly the only?] to win a TV reality competition won on "The Amazing Race"—gay activist Chip Arndt and his former partner Reichen whose face looks at me from a Bilerico ad as I type this. The most recent season included their first out lesbian couple, Episcopal ministers who have been together 10 years.

While the degree of stereotypical representation has varied, most [like all I've seen on Big Brother and most I've read about on Survivor save for Hatch] have been gay men who would rate rather higher than most on the Nelly Scale. From a get-your-foot-in-the-door-of-the-Moveable-Middle perspective, unfortunately, the least stereotypical and most successful, Chip and Reichen appeared the same month as the debut for "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." While "Entertainment Weekly" crowned C & R reality TV's "Cutest Couple" that season, they, like mainstream media generally, showed their preference for solo-flaming-queens-as-capon-clowns of the Carson Kressley variety over a nonstereotypical Harvard MBA and his US Air Force veteran partner who were actually fucking.

Kressley's role [which he won, in part, by being nellier than others who auditioned] and that of his lesser to one degree or another epicene posse was to be the fairy godmothers for a series of straight slobs so HE could impress his WOMAN. The five sets of queer eyes getting initially to only watch by hidden camera the result of spreading their fairy dust.

He, unlike Chip and Reichen, would never make viewers uncomfortable by suggesting that gays deserved marriage equality. Kressley's only interest in leading a Boy Scout troop would be to suggest a hot pink belt for their uniforms. His only interest in the Air Force would be the same—in giving them greater "style." Job protection? What segment of the gay male community has had greater job security throughout history than its hairdressers and clothes designers?

So while the first "real life" gay couple to appear in a network series was primarily noticed only by gays and TAR fans, "QEFTSG" became a cultural phenomenon swimming in MSM ink and magazine covers and even got St. Oprah's blessing. This despite the fact that their viewer numbers were big only by sleeper cable channel Bravo's standards. Bravo, not LOGO or here! is now the de facto Queer Channel for nonqueers with a succession of nelly gay minstrel shows.

If I sound bitter it is not just because I became friends with Chip after the show and have worked with him on a number of his efforts such as raising money to fight AIDS and hate crimes and for gay-positive political candidates. As I used to say on panels I organized for the Kinsey Institute, "I couldn't pass for straight in a thick fog," but I get that one's "masculinity or femininity" is not a "value/one more superior than the other" issue. My own Eternal Flame doesn't blind me to the fact that there are those of us who are simply being who we are while others are, as Stepin Fetchit did in racial terms, just doing it for the money.

Yes, it would be nice if the gay representation on TV featured "diversity" in a manner that wasn't only race or ethnicity.

Departing from the frivolous flaming femme over-representation would be a nice and fresh break. Nevertheless, I fear that depicting gay men in any way not resembling the buffoon or the perennial straight woman's sidekick would be too much to handle for the lovingly condescending heterosexuals. God knows they need that superficial portrayal of gay men.

You know, now that Danny Noriega has been cut, I'm just feeling very sad -- I have seen this young man called so many horrible names on the blogs. "We" are ready for a gay American Idol, I guess, and all the Idols (str8 or gay) have had haters, but I'm convinced that the people who called Danny creep, freak and worse were just the ones capable of verbalizing (however crudely) a set of prejudices that is more widely shared than anyone should be comfortable with. And "flamboyant" and "effeminate" gays (especially young ones) end up taking the brunt of that hate. I think Simon Cowell himself holds some of that prejudice in his heart, but I'm not saying he is actually aware he does. It's a visceral thing, and only time, and valuing all members of the community, may fix.

I don't hardly see how it's Danny Noriega's or David Hernandez's job to represent all gays -- just to be themselves and be proud (and in Danny's case, finish growing up healthy and strong). I don't know who you'd pick to represent all gays -- but I think Danny represented himself just fine, and I'm proud of him.

Btw, I disagree about David A. and the gaydar -- I think he's just a earnest Mormon kid with an odd childhood -- Mormon missionaries often set my gaydar off, with their politeness and ease at smiling. A cutie though -- if he's not dating models really soon, that means your gaydar's sharper than mine.


Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 7, 2008 12:39 AM


As you mention the Kinsey Institute I recall the documentary I did on a shoestring budget as my thesis for my degree in Radio-TV. The head of Kinsey Institute made a point of viewing the piece with the station manager and myself (wish I could remember his name) and was instrumental in convincing Barry (asnt station manager and major closet case) to air the piece. It was broadcast at ll:00 PM on WFIU. Oh well, that's show biz.

The other grad students (particularly the Gay ones) were keeping this boy at arms length after word spread of my project. I had a tape of it I showed Vito Russo during the Gay Convention in the summer. His remark to me which was a synopsis of "The Celluloid Closet" was "We will know that we have arrived when two Gay people can be in a movie and the plot of the movie is not about their lifestyle. We have come a long way since the Dark Ages and the freedom with which these kids are now able to express themselves relative to our era is the real Eternal Flame.

Michael Bedwell | March 7, 2008 11:41 AM

Hello Again, Robert.

As I was the chief organizer of that conference which included Vito among its programs our paths, indeed, must have crossed. But, again, I'm sorry that my brain cells are so atrophied not to remember. Do you know Allen Lopp? Maybe he can refresh my memory.

I didn't agree with Vito about everything, but most things and he was a dear whose loss in terms alone of leaving a void in the movement is especially tragic. He gave me an audio tape of Bette Midler's last performance at the Continental Baths and at the 1973 NY Pride celebration that I treasure almost as much as memories of his smile and love of film. We watched "Grand Hotel" together marveling at the glamorous lighting that passed through Garbo's gossamer sleeves from seemingly out of nowhere. I've often written that today he would kick down the door of SAAD's...excuse me...GLAAD's offices and shout, "What the fuck have you done to the once ACTivist organization I helped found?!!! And before you answer get these goddamn cans of Coors out of here before I shove them up your ass!"

Kris: the issue is who-singular would represent "all gays"—that's impossible in an existential sense—but why isn't there a greater variety represented. Contrast the debate about most gay men on TV being written or cast as castrati to black professional basketball players. No one's saying there's anything wrong with basketball when they say, "Blacks are more than basketball players."

Lesbians [on the big four networks] are treated worse because they're treated less. A few lipstick lesbians are spilling over to CBS, et al., from "The L Word," but, in most cases, both gay men and women appear in scripted shows in roles that are primarily about them being gay not simply one part of their character. That CAN be okay if it has a gay-positive purpose. That is, presenting the problems that can be related to being gay and addressing them in a gay-positive way [e.g., "good" nongay characters side with gay character] rather than dramatizing gayness as inherently problematic.

Sometimes some of the best work, just like John Edwards pro pro-gay education of students statement on the LOGO forum, get overlooked. The otherwise rather predictable "Private Practice" had a jaw-dropping show about a TEN-YEAR old boy who already knew he was gay and accepted it. His problem wasn't being gay but his same-age friend who didn't return his affection and hit him when he found out about it—but ultimately—with the gentle guidance of the hot, straight male doctor—did recognize that he still cared for his friend "just not that way."

The kid wasn't written as a small screen version of "Trevor"—the white pre-teen who was so stereotypical that he pranced around dreaming of being who was it Diana Ross someday. Not that there's anything wrong with that—it led to the creation of the wonderful Trevor Project's LGBT youth suicide hotline.

The little boy on "Practice" was written neutrally which is a less-Party Line way of saying he "passed." So much that when he showed up at the doctor's office with a black eye and mentions his parents hot doc assumes one of them is abusing him. When he explains that it's related to the fact that someone he loves doesn't love him, hot doc assumes without thinking that he's talking about a girl. So, along with teaching ACCEPTANCE rather than that absurd word "tolerance," we get a lesson in assumptions about what being LGBT looks like which contributes to helping people understand what being LGBT IS like...or, perhaps, is not like: sick, doomed, alien, sexually compulsive, boy/man raping.

Which brings me back to GLAAD who instead of simply being reduced for publishing annual "State of TV" reports which are actually nothing more than their own failing report cards, should be DEMANDING that TV and other media include not just MORE LGBT people—both scripted and "real"—but more diverse ones.

As for the original question, while a "Melissa Etheridge" type might win AI or Survivor or BB someday—a stereotypical male never will because winning on each show is ultimately dependent upon the votes/acceptance of others and America while often pleased as punch to have a fairy sidekick is not ready to crown him the winner. Again, "Amazing Race" is different because there it is solely about what you and your racing partner are able to achieve on your own and the opinions of viewers or other contestants be damned.

I just skimmed the comments, so this may have been talked about it more detail, but yo: Project Runway! Christian (gay) just won. (I mean, surprise surprise. It's the fashion industry and there was only one straight man on the show). However, I sort of disagree with Serena. I'm not really sure that this is a positive thing. Don't get me wrong, I like Christian, I think he's very creative. However, when he won over Jillian, it just encapsulated for me the entire fashion industry's fascination with "arty" gay men who design clothes for stick-women, instead of designers who make interesting clothes that women will actually wear.

To avoid confusion, I'm not saying that gay men ONLY design clothes for stick-thin models. However the fashion industry does have a lot more out gay men than most other industries. Also, as an industry, fashion concerns itself mostly with ridiculously over-the-top clothes designed for unrealistic women's bodies. (Not women, mind you: headless stick-thin female bodies). And, as a designer, Christian fits right into this trend, even going so far in the last episode as to encourage one of his models to go home and "be beautiful! don't eat!" Clearly he meant that as a joke, but it's really not funny. In addition, though his clothes were beautiful, they were clearly not meant to be worn. Even the models complained about how painful the shoes were. It seems to me that if a model is complaining about uncomfortable clothes, the clothes must be pretty damn painful.

Christian's clothes were beautiful and artistic. It's wonderful that a gay man won. However, during the last episode, the attitude he showed towards his clothes and his models was demeaning to women and--I thought--bordering on misogynistic. I have always felt an alliance and overlap between feminism and queer activism. However if celebrating the fact that a gay man won a reality tv show means celebrating the win of someone who perpetuates harmful ideas about women, I'm not so thrilled.