G is for Gayme Show
Dearest Stack family,
Sincerest apologies for the backup – between warm weather, Passover, spring break, COVID’s grand return, organizing a house show, and originally drafting an essay about the one and only Grimes for “G” which needs some more research and thought to be remotely publishable, I’ve shirked on my duties to my beloved Stackers and denied you the alphabetical content you subscribed to see. The wait is over – it’s time to talk Gayme Shows.
I don’t remember who it was who first showed me “Gay, Straight or Taken?”, but I have since shown the early 2000s Lifetime show to numerous friends, mostly to prove it actually exists, but also because it’s bizarrely fun to watch. The pilot of “Gay, Straight or Taken” follows a woman named Jenner as she dates three potential suitors with the goal of choosing one lucky man to take on an all-expenses-paid dream vacation. The catch? Only one of the three men is available for romancing– the other two are both in relationships, with a man and with a woman respectively. And here’s the second catch: if Jenner picks either of the taken guys instead of the single guy, then they’ll score the dream vacation for themselves and their partner. Over the course of the 20 minute episode, the producers engineer different scenarios – like a pool party, touch football game, and massage class – for Jenner to guess at the men’s relationship status and to test out her gaydar. Her gaydar is clearly broken – at the end of the episode, Jenner chooses the dashing Luciano as her pick, only to find out Luciano is exclusively interested in men.
“Gay Straight or Taken" ran for a single season in 2007, joining a small menu of other one-season-only gay reality TV offerings which aired in the early 2000s. FOX’s “Playing it Straight” (2004) follows a similar format as “Gay, Straight or Taken,” but with a larger contestant pool, budget, and prize pot – $1 million for the guy who can woo Jackie, a student-turned-bachelorette juggling fourteen suitors of various sexualities on a Nevada dude ranch. “Playing it Straight” features tears, horseback riding, and probably the campiest theme song ever to air on FOX:
“Fourteen cowboys came a ridin
Each more handsome than the rest.
Said we’ve come a wooing Jackie,
We’ll submit to any test
Oh they came to sizzling saddles
But the thing she didn’t know
Some of these rugged riders
Like a different rodeo
If Jackie wants to find a mate
She’s gotta figure out who’s playing it straight.”
Lots has been said about queerbaiting, a pervasive phenomenon writer and activist Leo Herrera recently described in a Rolling Stone article as when “a celebrity or a public figure capitalizes on the suspicion that they may be romantically involved with another same-sex person for the sake of publicity, promotion or a capitalistic gain.” Less, however, has been said about “straightbaiting” – that is, play-acting as straight for publicity, promotion, or capitalistic gain. Straightbaiting doesn’t have a comparable discourse to queerbaiting because the power dynamics inherent in these tactics are grossly different. A straight person appropriating a marginalized sexual orientation to gain clout occupies a position of power that a gay, lesbian, trans or queer person feigning a straight identity for any reason, be that reason extremely serious (e.g., needing to “pass” in heteronormative society under threat of violence or death) or exceptionally silly (wanting to win money on a reality TV show), simply doesn’t have. But straight-passing and straightbaiting, in my opinion, aren’t synonymous – while passing is a survival tactic for queer people in a hostile world, straightbaiting, as seen on shows like “Gay, Straight or Taken” and “Playing it Straight,” dramatizes passing from within a controlled environment of acceptance and safety, providing a televised opportunity for queer people to (quite literally) capitalize on their successfully staged self-repression.
Of course, this is pretty exploitative – contestants on these shows endure constant and degrading stereotyping, and mimic their way towards a monolithic interpretation of heterosexual masculinity. Even worse, some shows produced around the same time period figured they’d flip the script and offer cash prizes for straight people who could convince others they were gay. Thankfully the most preposterously offensive of these shows, “Seriously, Dude, I’m Gay,” (yes, real title) got canceled before it even aired, but “Boy Meets Boy,” a gay dating show that aired on Bravo in 2003, puts seven straight men in the running with eight gay men for a gay man’s heart (the straight guys can keep $25,000 prize money if they’re the final choice). To make things even more problematic, none of the gay contestants on “Boy Meets Boy” were informed that straight men were even present on the show until the pool had been significantly narrowed (“I felt betrayed,” said frontman James in an interview with Newsweek). By deliberately and non consensually withholding the true sexual orientations of contestants, the producers of “Boy Meets Boy” violated the trust of the non-straight participants (notably, in the same Newsweek interview, “Boy Meets Boy” producer Douglas Ross defended the show’s premise, stating "Why do gay people need to be protected from participating in reality shows with twists? I don't see us as a victimized minority. We're capable of handling this.")
“There’s Something About Miriam,” a British reality program filmed in 2003, escalates the “secret identity plot twist” in a yet more sinister direction. The six-episode series, which first aired in the United States in 2007, follows six men as they compete to win a romantic cruise with Miriam Rivera, a Mexican model – only after Miriam selects a winner does she reveal she’s transgender. Miriam’s admission turns the winner into a laughingstock with the other contestants, who mock him and crack transphobic jokes at Miriam’s expense. Offscreen, comparable situations have resulted in the deaths of transgender women – Gwen Araujo, a transgender woman, was murdered in 2002 by two men she hooked up with after they discovered her assigned sex at birth did not match her outward presentation. Miriam passed away in 2019 from an apparent suicide, though her husband suspects she may have been murdered. (If you’re interested, Miriam Rivera’s story is the subject of a recent Wondery podcast called Harsh Reality – I’ve been meaning to check it out, though one scathing review reads “This is six episodes on what could’ve been two paragraphs on Wikipedia.”)
At its worst, the Gayme show genre is exploitative, cruel, non consensual, and reliant on harmful stereotypes. But watching old episodes of “Gay, Straight or Taken” and “Playing it Straight,” I don’t think queerness is necessarily depicted solely as a punch line – often in these shows, queerness is construed as a serious competing force with heterosexuality in a manner that feels almost subversive. Straightbaiting, as it occurs on “Gay, Straight or Taken” and “Playing it Straight,” queers the heteronormative script of typical reality dating shows by actively preventing heterosexual couples from getting together. Furthermore, there’s prize money in this cockblock – when Love Wins on these shows, it wins $1 million.
In other words, when gayness as an institution wins on these shows, straightness as an institution loses – if you Google “straight vs gay competition,” “Playing it Staight” is literally the first hit. There’s something devilishly explicit about these two modes of desire pitted in conflict – compared to the earnest, collaborative ethos of shows like the Queer Eye reboot, I found the campy competitiveness of “Playing it Straight” refreshingly naughty, even if the show’s flaws precluded me from enjoying it thoroughly. I’d be curious to see whether a competitive, sexuality-centered reality series could find a respectful and fun way forward in 2022 – maybe it looks like Odd Man Out, a YouTube game show series which simply puts determinations of sexuality in the hands of contestants rather than in the jurisdiction of a potential love interest. Or maybe sexuality is fluid, desire shouldn’t be gamified, and the concept should just be put to rest. Either way, I leave you with the “Playing it Straight” theme song from the show’s UK edition, which is somehow even campier than the US version.