Do you know what you were doing 30 years ago? I do. I was a 14-year old, deeply closeted, skinny, curly-haired kid sitting on the floor in my parents’ room glued to their 19” TV screen (the biggest one in the house), watching the very first episode of a new MTV show that would go on to transform and rock my world: The Real World: New York. It was the first reality TV show before reality TV—and reality TV show Presidents—were a thing. Even more significant, it was the first time an eclectic mix of young African American, Caucasian, and out gay people agreed to live together under the same roof and have “their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real”. Because of this innovative social experiment, barriers were shattered, visibility was expanded and the landscape of television was changed forever.
It’s been nearly thirty years since that season first aired in 1992. Can you believe that makes me fort… nevermind. Those original seven strangers (i.e. trailblazers: Eric, Heather, Julie, Norman, Kevin, Becky and Andre) have just reunited to film a limited docuseries currently airing on the new Paramount+ streaming service—watching it is like catching up with old friends, a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Some of the cast now have children the same age they were when they filmed the original series. Seeing how their lives changed during the past 30 years made me reflect on how the whole world has changed. I realized, on some level, the more things change, the more they stay the same because what was in the news in 1992 is still in the news today.
Back then, a rebellion formed as thousands of Los Angelenos took to the streets in protest after the acquittal of the four racist policemen who brutally beat up Rodney King. Now we have the Black Lives Matter movement—a modern-day uprising—after the senseless deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor also at the hands of policemen. Back then we had Anita Hill bravely speaking out against sexual harassment. Now we have the Me Too movement. These are literally the exact same conversations, thirty years apart.
While many of our nation’s problems have sadly remained the same in regards to police reform, social injustice, systemic racism, xenophobia, sexism and sexual abuse, the tides have turned closer towards equality for one marginalized community—the plight of gay people in America. Slowly but surely we have witnessed great advancements and a tremendous amount of growth on our freedoms and protections as support for gay rights reaches an all-time high in the court of public opinion, in spite of living in a very divided America.
Think about it — in 1992, while The Real World’s Norman broke ground by acknowledging his bisexual orientation, recently elected President Clinton would soon institute a new policy on gay service members, known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing closeted members of the military to serve. The implication was to keep hiding who you are. For the time, it was considered an imperfect step forward. But things would soon look up.
Twelve years later, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2004. But that was just the start. LGBTQ advocates fought endlessly for increased rights and legal protections on a federal level. Then, in 2015, the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in all 50 states. Same-sex marriage is currently legal in 30 countries. We can now adopt children in all 50 states, and there’s a growing number of states in favor of laws regarding surrogacy for gay dads. What does all this mean? Being gay is no longer a novelty, and as it turns out, alternative families aren’t so alternative anymore.
Thirty years ago, the thought that I would one day be able to legally marry the man I love and legally be permitted to adopt a child with both of his dad’s names on the birth certificate is not something I would have believed. And the reality of how far the gay community has come is not lost on me. We’re lucky to be able to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, the ones who faced hardships so we wouldn’t have to. Sure, we’ve still got a ways to go as we continue to fight for LGBTQ+ equality, but for now, let’s take comfort in the fact that we’re able to live our truths with the people we love and raise beautiful families of our very own. That’s our real world. A reality that didn’t seem possible thirty years ago.
So as I sit back, and joyfully binge watch the new Real World reunion series—sidenote: I’m not the only one going gray—I think back to where I was in 1992 and where I am today. Back then, as a 14-year old, being self-conscious was my full-time job. I was an insecure, artsy kid with a big lisp and even bigger dreams. Now, I’m a devoted husband, a loving father, and a proud gay man, who after spending twenty successful years in advertising, is back in grad school, studying to become a psychotherapist. Would these milestones still have happened without the influence of The Real World? Probably. Would I have believed that they were possible without the influence of The Real World? Probably not. This was the one show that made me feel less alone, less on the outside and less scared for what the future might bring. Because of The Real World I believed there was something special out there waiting for me. And I was right.
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