Over the past nine seasons, I can't tell you how many late Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons I have spent reliving Heather's recording sessions, Eric's self-important modeling adventures or Norman's frank discussions of the dating life of a young gay man in the early 1990s.
Since Norman unknowingly set the stage for the omnipresent role gays and lesbians would play on The Real World, we have come to know a diverse group of gay and lesbian Real World alums. There was activist Pedro Zamora of the San Francisco cast. His on-camera marriage to Sean Sasser and ongoing fight with HIV and AIDS made national headlines and put a real face on gay and lesbian issues. Beth, a mid-season replacement member of the Los Angeles cast, matter-of-factly revealed her sexual orientation to her fellow cast members by wearing a T-shirt that said, "I am not gay, but my girlfriend is." Although I am not a big fan of hers, I am happy America watched Genesis, the lesbian member of the Boston cast, struggle to get to know herself and find her place in the group. And who doesn't love to look at the latest gay Real World cast member, Danny, the fresh-from-the-closet Atlanta boy? Danny struggles to remain faithful to his military boyfriend Paul, despite the temptations of being young and gay in New Orleans, the ultimate party town.
This year, however, some would say The Real World is getting a run for its money with the introduction of such shows as Big Brother and the super-popular Survivor. Let's be clear on one thing right now. I will always be loyal to The Real World. But I also can't argue with the exposure afforded by a show that, according to the Hollywood Reporter, was CBS' highest rated summer series in history. The same paper reported estimates of the audience of the final Survivor episode in the neighborhood of 72 million.
Though the format of The Real World differs slightly from its big-network successors Survivor and Big Brother, I was thrilled to see the casting connection in the presence of an openly gay character, Richard, the corporate trainer who schemed his way to the $1 million Survivor jackpot.
As we all know, loving to hate Richard has become a national pastime. Although I personally find Richard repulsive, I am happy that America has been formally introduced to -- as Hank Steuver of The Washington Post so astutely pointed out -- an evil queen.
In a clever story, Steuver wrote, "The straight world is conditioned to think of homosexuality as a handicap, a weakness, a fey stereotype. The gay-rights movement tries to present a warm, united front and yet somehow amplifies the notion that gay men and lesbians are marginal, lacking in power. Ha! This is exactly where the Evil Queen strikes. In the hands of an Evil Queen, no task is insurmountable: the stockholders' meeting, the final legal details of a mega-merger, the choreography for the Super Bowl halftime show."
Kidding aside, I am thrilled American audiences are being introduced to a growing cast of real-life gay and lesbian characters outside the realm of what prime-time sitcom television is comfortable portraying. Will, Jack and Ellen are doing their part for the cause; but real gays and lesbians like Norman, Pedro, Beth and even Richard keep it on a more personal level.
These people haven't had to pass consumer testing or endure network-mandated script rewrites (although they love to remind the public they are at the mercy of their show's editors). Instead these folks are just living their lives, fighting to find themselves and make their marks.
In the process, the American public is learning important lessons about gay and lesbian people. Gay people have principles. Gay people can be bitchy and even evil. Gay people love and need to be loved. Gay people are competitive. Gay people have good and bad days. And gay people are great friends, husbands and wives.
In short, gay and lesbian people have important stories to tell. We are everywhere. And we are here to stay.