Reality TV Proves a Quiet Groundbreaker for LGBT Voices

Padro ZamoraReality Television Reality TV Gay
Courtesy of MTV

Despite being known for celebrating the unusual and the extreme, reality television might be the genre that has done the best job of normalizing the lesbian, gay and bisexual experience for America’s households.

While there will always be outliers like Phil Robertson of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” reality TV more frequently offers viewers a look into the lives of subjects like AIDS educator Pedro Zamora (who had a commitment ceremony on MTV’s “The Real World”) and Richard Hatch, the first winner of CBS’ “Survivor,” as well as more recent contestants on CW’s “America’s Next Top Model.”

“Reality TV has been significantly influential in changing the public perception of what it means to be gay or lesbian,” says Matthew Breen, editor-in-chief of the Advocate and deputy editor of Out magazine.

Breen says reality shows that feature gays make it easier for public figures like Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres or Anderson Cooper to come out as well “because they’re not concerned about a backlash.”

Producer Jonathan Murray says casting decisions are motivated more by inclusiveness than by politics. “Reality has these roots because diversity makes a better story,” says Murray, who co-created “Real World,” and whose Bunim/Murray Prods. also produces E!’s Kardashian programs and Lifetime’s “Project Runway.” “There weren’t the barriers that there were in the scripted world. I think one of the strengths of reality is you enter a world you don’t know. Sometimes those worlds are people who have a different skin color than you or a different sexual orientation than you.”

But reality producers have to keep a close eye on individual attributes in order to avoid stereotypes.

“The word we use in our office a lot is ‘unexpected,’ ” says Pamela Post, head of original programming for Logo TV. “Sometimes stereotypes might be there for a reason, but our goal is to try to find those people who can work in our shows and make you think, ‘Wow, I never saw that coming.’ ”

The spotlight now seems to be on the transgender community. Although competition shows like “Top Model” have gained attention for showcasing trans talent, programs such as ABC Family’s “Becoming Us” and E!’s Caitlyn Jenner docu-series “I Am Cait” aim to present viewers with a diversity of individuals and their stories.

Murray says he learned a lot about the trans experience as an exec producer on “Cait.” “Most Americans just want to see people live their lives as fully as they are meant to be,” he says.

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