Lesbians did not fare well on network TV this year, with the number of regular lesbian characters at only three so far this season. But there is one area in which lesbian and bisexual women actually gained ground in 2004: reality TV.
The genre of reality (or “unscripted) television has taken off in the last few years as Americans have come out in droves for their chance to compete on-camera for dates, prizes, or just their moment in the sun.
But with the exception of MTV’s Real World and Road Rules franchises, lesbian and bisexual women have generally been absent from these shows. Out of the hundreds of reality show contestants on television in the last three or four years, only a small handful have been lesbian or bisexual women (not including the hordes of women on shows like The Third Wheel and Elimidate who appear willing to sleep with anyone).
The lack of lesbian/bi women on reality shows can be attributed to a variety of factors, ranging from the practical (many of these shows revolve around dating, which leaves lesbians out from the get-go unless it’s an all-lesbian show) to the socioeconomic (television is still largely geared towards a more conservative Middle America where negative social attitudes towards homosexuality are assumed to persist).
The first openly lesbian reality contestant, Beth, debuted on The Real World: L.A. (MTV) in 1992, when reality TV was still a novelty. She was followed by Genesis on The Real World: Boston (MTV) in 1997; Ruthie on The Real World: Hawaii (MTV) in 1999; Sophie on Road Rules: The Quest (MTV) in 2001; Rachel on Road Rules: Campus Crawl (MTV) and Aneesa on The Real World: Chicago (MTV) in 2002; and Ebony on America’s Next Top Model (UPN) in 2003.
There have been other lesbian and bisexual reality contestants whose sexuality wasn’t officially disclosed—like Sonja Christopher on the first season of Survivor in 2000—but no other openly gay women.
That brings to the total to seven openly lesbian or bisexual women on reality TV in eleven years, prior to 2004.
So the fact that we’ve had 10 openly lesbian reality contestants in 2004 alone–three more than in all of the previous years combined–is not insignificant. Not only have the numbers increased, but lesbian reality show contestants are appearing on a greater diversity of channels.