Before Ellen DeGeneres made history coming out on her sitcom “Ellen,” reality television was already breaking barriers with LGBTQ participants and contestants. There was Norman and Pedro on “The Real World,” and before you knew it, Richard Hatch was making his own history on “Survivor.” And as the decades have passed, reality and reality competition programs have truly become safe spaces for members of the queer community.
Jonathan Van Ness, who shot to cultural prominence with the reboot of “Queer Eye,” knew the Netflix series would be an environment where he could express himself. He did, however, have trepidation over whether his HIV status would be an issue once he was cast on the series.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, do I need to tell someone?’ Because you had to get a physical, go to a doctor,” Van Ness says. “And I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, how’s this going to work?’ And they actually were all so sweet. They’re like, ‘It’s not an issue.’ They helped me navigate that, and it was just not a big deal at all.”
The grooming expert, who also has a spinoff Netflix series in “Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness,” has been part of “Queer Eye” assisting both straight-identifying and LGBTQ individuals throughout its six official seasons. Just this past year, the Fab Five (Van Ness, Tan France, Bobby Berk, Antoni Porowski and Karamo Brown) helped transform the life of a newly out trans woman, Angel.
Van Ness credits the crew and the producers for having their hearts not only in the right place but “in a genuine place, in an authentic place.” He adds, “And I think that’s part of why people watch the show because you can feel that. That’s something that is really almost impossible to fake, a genuine caring for someone.”
In the ’00s, a number of programs including “American Idol” and “America’s Top Model” often instructed contestants not to reveal they were queer. “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars” Season 5 champion Shea Couleé has a podcast revisiting “Top Model” that has featured past contestants who experienced this unexpected queer erasure.
“There were people that were open in their lives that had to then go back into the closet for the sake of trying to succeed in this reality television competition,” Couleé says. “I can’t imagine what that would feel like for anybody in the community who’s already taken the risk of being open and out to then have to revert and go back into the closet just for the sake of success.”
A veteran of three “Drag Race” seasons, Couleé says being able to be her true self was one of the things that originally attracted her to the show.
“Even as an outsider, more so than the fame or the followers or the bigger paychecks, the thing that I wanted the most was to feel like I belonged to this family,” Couleé says. “And ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ has expanded into such a big family across [the globe]. So, I just find it such an honor to be able to really be my most true and authentic self, flaws and all, and show the world who I am.”
This past season, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” featured its largest number of trans-identifying contestants to date. One of those queens, New York City’s Jasmine Kennedie, found herself coming out as trans during an extremely emotional moment on the program’s Emmy-winning post-show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked.” It was not something Kennedy had intended to do when she walked on set that day.
“It just felt more and more comfortable as the days went on,” Kennedie recalls, “and how genuine these people were and how amazing and authentic they were living their selves, and I felt like it was a perfect opportunity to talk about it, especially with all the girls just being very open about trans-ness and their identity and where they lie. And I think it was great in that episode that not everyone necessarily knew where they were at that point but also they knew where they wanted to go.”
A program with the specific intention 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. The docuseries is currently in production on its third season and is now finding communities in conservative states grappling with anti-gay and anti-trans laws.
“I’ve never really, like, ugly-cried during the show until this season,” co-creator and executive producer Johnnie Ingram says. “I think it’s just been really important that we are more visible, that we celebrate more often, and just to see, even among the craziness and the gates of hell that have opened, I think it’s beautiful and so much more meaningful now that we get up there and celebrate ourselves and show up for each other. It really does mean a lot.”
Ingram’s partner, Steve Warren, also a co-creator and executive producer, says when they first started shooting, many of their drag kids’ goals were to simply increase visibility and make people aware queer life exists in rural America. Now, everyone involved feels as though they are telling stories of people simply fighting to survive in their communities.
“It’s for staying out of jail, for doing things that you would never think could be criminalized, for giving your kids proper medical treatment that’s necessary for transitioning, that you could literally have your kids taken away,” Warren says. “There’s a dystopian feeling that we’re seeing, rather than fighting for showing the beauty of what’s going on, which we still show. But there is now, the word isn’t dismay, but it’s literally fighting for our lives.”