Reality TV as a safe space for LGBTQ+ participants, viewers

Two people hug on HBO series "Were here."

Angie, left, and Shangela on HBO’s “We’re Here.”

(Greg Endries/HBO)

Before Ellen DeGeneres made history with her sitcom Ellen, reality television was already breaking down barriers with LGBTQ contestants and contestants. There was Norman and Pedro in The Real World, and before you knew it, Richard Hatch was writing his own story in Survivor. And over the decades, reality and reality competition programs have truly become safe spaces for members of the queer community.

Jonathan Van Ness, who rose to cultural prominence with the reboot of Queer Eye, knew the Netflix series would be an environment in which to express himself. However, he had concerns if his HIV status would be an issue once he was cast for the series.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, do I have to tell someone?’ Because you had to be examined, you go to a doctor,” says Van Ness. “And I was like, ‘Oh my god, how is this supposed to work?’ And they really were all so cute. They say, “It’s not a problem.” They helped me deal with it, and it wasn’t a big deal at all.”

The groomer, who also has a Netflix series spin-off in Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness, was part of Queer Eye, which has supported both straight and LGBTQ people throughout its six official seasons. Just last year, the Fab Five (Van Ness, Tan France, Bobby Berk, Antoni Porowski, and Karamo Brown) helped transform the life of a newly-outd trans woman, Angel.

Van Ness credits the crew and producers with not only having their hearts in the right place, but “in a real place, an authentic place.” He adds, “And I think that’s one of the reasons people watch the show, because you can feel that. That’s something that’s really almost impossible to fake, genuine caring for someone.”

In the 2000s, a number of shows, including American Idol and America’s Top Model, often told contestants not to disclose their homosexuality. RuPaul’s Drag Race: Season 5 All-Stars winner Shea Couleé has released a podcast revisiting “Top Model,” which showcased previous contestants who have experienced this unexpected queer obliteration.

“There were people who were open in their lives who then had to go back into the closet to try to be successful in this reality TV competition,” says Couleé. “I can’t imagine how that would feel for someone in the community who has already taken the risk of being open and out only to have to turn around and go back into the closet just for the sake of success.”

Couleé, a three-season veteran of Drag Race, says the ability to be her true self was one of the things that initially drew her to the show.

“Even as an outsider, more than the fame, the followers, or the bigger paychecks, what I wanted most was to feel like I belonged to that family,” says Couleé. “And ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ has grown into such a big family [the globe]. I just feel so honored to be able to truly be my truest and most authentic self, flaws and all, and show the world who I am.”

Three people in costume pose for a photo on HBO under a cloudy sky "Were here."

Eureka, Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela in HBO’s “We’re Here”.

(Greg Endries/HBO)

Last season, RuPaul’s Drag Race had the largest number of trans-identifying contestants to date. One of those queens, New York City’s Jasmine Kennedie, found out she was trans during an extremely emotional moment on the program’s Emmy-winning post-show, RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked. That was not what Kennedy intended when she walked onto the set that day.

“It just felt more comfortable as the days went by,” Kennedie recalls, “and how genuine these people were and how amazing and authentic they were living their selves, and I felt like this was a perfect opportunity to talk about it.” . especially with all the girls who are just very open about being trans and their identities and where they lie. And I thought it was great in this episode that not everyone necessarily knew where they were at that point, but they also knew where they were going.”

One program that specifically aims to create safe spaces for its participants is HBO’s “We’re Here.” Over the course of two seasons, three world-renowned drag queens, Eureka, Shangela and Bob the Drag Queen, have traveled to small towns across the country to meet members of the local LGBTQ community and help them put on a drag show. Currently in production for its third season, the docuseries is now finding communities in conservative states grappling with anti-gay and anti-trans laws.

“Up until this season, I never really cried ugly on the show,” says co-creator and executive producer Johnnie Ingram. “I think it was just really important that we’re more visible, that we celebrate more often and just to see that despite the madness and the gates of hell opening up, it’s beautiful and so much more meaningful that now we’re standing up and.” celebrate and be there for each other. It really means a lot.”

Ingram’s partner Steve Warren, also a co-creator and executive producer, says that when they first started filming, many of their Drag Kids goals were simply to increase visibility and get people aware that it was in rural America there is a queer life. Now everyone involved feels like telling stories of people simply struggling to survive in their communities.

“To stay out of jail, to do things that you would never believe could be criminalized, to get your children the right medical treatment needed to make the transition, you could literally take their children away from them,” says Warren. “There’s a dystopian feel to what we’re seeing, rather than fighting to show the beauty of what’s going on, which we’re still showing. But there is now, the word is not dismay, but it is literally a fight for our lives.” Reality TV as a safe space for LGBTQ+ participants, viewers

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