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Shooting straight on reality TV

Guest column

Last summer, I remember seeing the enormous press visibility garnered by the breakout show of 2003, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and feeling a sense of unease.

Don’t get me wrong: GLAAD loves “Queer Eye.” It’s funny, smart and endearing. Each week five of the most self assured, open and comfortable gay men we’ve seen on TV help a straight man ‘come out’ — as bald, as a better spouse, as a confident artist — you name it. The Fab Five cheekily use stereotypes to create greater understanding, and their investment in each week’s “straight guy” is a labor of love that builds bridges between gay and straight experiences.

So why the uneasy feeling? Because programmers can be a bit like lemmings. Remember the stream of game shows after the success of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” Would an unsophisticated view of “Queer Eye” lead to shows that exploit — rather than explode — stereotypes? Would programmers reach for cheap sensationalism without regard for context — without remembering that we are still treated as second-class citizens in this country?

My fears came true two weeks ago when I screened a show called “Seriously, Dude, I’m Gay,” which Fox was slated to air on June 7.

“Seriously, Dude” featured Larry and James, two straight men competing for a $50,000 prize by trying to fool people — including their close friends — into thinking they’re gay. It was an exercise in systematic humiliation, with contestants who referred to the experience on-camera as their “worst nightmare” and who bemoaned that they were “trapped in gay hell.”

Let’s look at “Seriously, Dude’s” idea of “turning gay.” The contestants had to try on and model swimsuits before a group of gay men. James had to tell a former teammate that he liked wrestling because he enjoys “close contact with sweaty boys.” He had to fork-feed dinner to a blind date and later get the man to spank him. And the final contest before an all-gay jury involved one contestant’s making “a gay face” and hinged on, among other things, naming a favorite male porn star.

To its credit, Fox heard GLAAD’s concerns and took a second look at the show. And at the end of the day they did the responsible thing: they shelved it.

Now, I’m not naïve. The reality TV genre has been upping the ante on sensationalism for some time now. And “Seriously, Dude” probably seemed — on paper at least — like a next-generation “Fear Factor,” where instead of milkshakes made of bug parts, the producers were trying to elicit squirms by forcing a couple of frat boy-types to embody some ludicrously sophomoric notions of what it is to be gay. But in exploiting such salacious, homophobic stereotypes, they were about to — consciously or not — put real gay people in harm’s way.

It’s important to remember that until last year, gay people could still be prosecuted and branded as criminals in many states. We have no federal protections from housing or employment discrimination. Gay youth are targeted everyday for harassment and violence in our schools. And we are fighting a constitutional amendment that would forever deny us the rights and protections of marriage — an amendment being pushed by anti-gay political operatives spending millions of dollars to demonize and dehumanize gay and lesbian Americans.

As we enter the 2004-05 season, we’re seeing another explosion of reality TV. Which is great as far as gays and lesbians are concerned. We want to, and should, be part of that trend. And as we’ve seen with “Queer Eye,” “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “Boy Meets Boy,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “The Real World” and so many other shows, inclusive reality TV doesn’t have to mean pro-tolerance pedantry. But it shouldn’t be scattering seeds of bigotry in its wake, either.

I hope the fate of “Seriously, Dude, I’m Gay” serves as a wake-up call for Hollywood. Turning gay people into targets for prejudice is not a joke, nor is it fair game for any type of television programming. The stakes are too high, the dangers too real. As long as gay Americans continue to be harassed, beaten and denied basic civil rights, the entertainment industry has a responsibility (and, I would submit, an opportunity) to create programming that advances — rather than undermines — understanding of our lives.

Stephen Macias is entertainment media director of Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)