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American Television, Reality Shows  
 
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In 2000, when self-described "fat naked fag" Richard Hatch emerged as the first-season winning contestant on the phenomenally popular network reality television show Survivor, he credited his survival success in large part to his homosexuality.

According to Hatch, growing up gay, being part of a minority community--and thus subject to scrutiny by others--inspired him to be both introspective and egocentric. These dual poles of introspection and egocentrism are, in fact, key elements in understanding the important roles gay men and lesbians play within the confines of reality television shows, even as they present interpretive quandaries for hetero- and homosexual viewers alike.

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In a typical reality television show, particularly one with game-show trappings such as CBS's Survivor and Big Brother, or ABC's The Mole, cast members as well as viewers regard introspection as suspicious behavior. Surely, the viewers surmise, something is being hatched under that quiet façade, and usually this supposition is proved correct. For these shows' gay and lesbian participants, however, the conflation of introspection with cunning and plotting too easily becomes connected to the unfortunate stereotype that gay men and lesbians are inherently crafty, conniving, and untrustworthy.

Even in ostensibly less competitive shows such as Bravo's Boy Meets Boy, Fox's Playing It Straight, and even MTV's "docusoap"--Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen's neologism for a television show that seamlessly combines elements of documentary realism with soap opera-style plotting--The Real World, introspection is often seen as a negative attribute, indicating moodiness, insecurity, or simmering hostility.

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, egocentrism in gay and lesbian cast members or competitors is almost universally viewed in stereotypical terms. Egocentrism rehearses the well-worn cliché that gay men and lesbians are self-absorbed, narcissistic, and desperate to be on display. However, a more recent trend in reality television, "make-over" or "make-better" shows such as NBC/Bravo's Eye for the Straight Guy and the Style Network's The Brini Maxwell Show, have effectively countered this stereotype.

Reality television continues to evolve, as do its gay and lesbian participants, who bring to these shows a powerful set of societal presuppositions. While too often the shows play directly into stereotyped expectations, gay men and lesbians have demonstrated repeatedly that these preconceptions can be overcome. In fact, reality television viewers have come increasingly to expect the appearance of gay men and lesbians in these shows because their presence helps further underscore the "reality" in Reality TV.

Early Incarnations: Docudramas

The term "reality TV" properly entered the lexicon in the early 1990s with the rise of such gritty police and rescue programs as Cops and Rescue 911. However, the documentary-esque format of these shows, with their cinéma vérité, almost intrusive "slice of life" approach to observing, cataloging, and broadcasting human interactions, actually originated in the 1970s with the groundbreaking PBS series An American Family.

The series, broadcast initially in 1973 and rebroadcast in 1991, documented the real-life dysfunctional doings of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. In addition to showcasing bitter family arguments and revealing salacious family secrets such as a philandering husband and a crumbling marriage, An American Family was also groundbreaking in no small part because of eldest son Lance's on-screen coming out.

David Horowitz notes that, with his blue lipstick, dyed rooster-red hair, red eye shadow, and wildly exaggerated swish, Lance Loud (1952-2002) shocked television viewers of the 1970s by publicly proclaiming his homosexuality. Loud, who went on to become a regular columnist for the gay magazine The Advocate before succumbing to AIDS at age 50, explained that while he thought the open declaration of his homosexuality would mark him as "incredibly unique," he realized quickly that he would forever be remembered only as "a famous fag."

In spite of their prominently displayed dysfunctionality and unraveling family dynamic, An American Family ensured the Louds a lasting place in the pop-culture vocabulary and an important part in the history of homosexuals on television. In 2002 PBS eulogized Lance Loud in the retrospective documentary Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family, and filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond remarked that the broadcast history of on-screen gay men and lesbians can be traced directly back to Loud, noting that before An American Family there was not an accessible gay character on American television. Yet despite the fertile groundwork laid by Lance Loud and his American family, almost twenty years would elapse before gay men and lesbians would reappear in real life situations played out on the small screen.

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Richard Hatch, winner of the Survivor reality show in 2000.
  
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