When Pedro Zamora stepped foot into The Real World: San Francisco house in 1994, not even he was aware of the impact he’d make on his roommates, the show, and the world. He was a gay man of color living with AIDS and one of the first people to bring the disease to mainstream media. During his time on the show, Zamora educated young reality TV viewers about what it was like to live with a life-threatening disease. He broke barriers, confronted stereotypes, and opened, as well as changed, minds. He educated people about how the disease was contracted and how to prevent infection. While filming, Zamora met Sean Sasser and viewers got a chance to see a beautiful love story evolve between two men, which culminated into the first gay marriage in television history. The importance of that season to the queer community cannot be understated; it changed the way America related to people living with AIDS. Even President Clinton recognized Zamora for humanizing the disease, especially to the Latino community. Zamora died of complications from AIDS just hours after the final episode of his season aired, but even today, his time on the show is regarded as some of the greatest moments in reality television history. In the 20 years since Zamora’s debut on the national stage, the show has featured countless queer personalities, but has failed to capture a moment that addresses as significant of an issue relating to the LGBT community as Zamora’s story did-well at least until last week’s episode.
Admittedly, I’m probably one of the few educated 30-somethings who still gives a damn about The Real World, even though it’s nothing like it used to be. Granted, the show has dealt with some important issues over the years such as racism, alcoholism, domestic abuse and eating disorders. But, for the most part, viewers tune in for the assemblage of clubbing, binge-drinking, “hooking up” and all out brawls. That’s why last week’s episode caught me by surprise, making me sit-up and pay attention. If you haven’t been watching, this season of The Real World returns to San Francisco with an ‘ex-plosive’ plot twist: unbeknownst to the cast members, their exes move into the house midway through the season.
Last week, the show finally gave some significant airtime to lesbian exes, Arielle and Ashley, which resulted in the most poignant LGBT moment in a Real World broadcast since Zamora’s appearance. The two ended up fighting because Ashley prefers Arielle, who has referred to herself as androgynous, to dress more femininely. As Ashley puts it, “I like girls, so I want my girl to be girly.” So when Arielle decides to accompany Ashley to a nightclub dressed in a beanie, t-shirt and a male roommate’s trousers, Ashley has a tantrum and they end up leaving early. Once back at the house, Arielle, in retaliation, decides to pull every single item of “masculine clothing” she owns out of the closet (so to speak). In doing so, she further exasperates an already heated situation leaving them both in tears.
In case the average heterosexual Real World viewer was left confused by that exchange, let me break it down: Ashley and Arielle weren’t really fighting over a pair of jeans here or a hoodie there, they were fighting about gender expression. What it boils down to is, sometimes, the way LGBTQI people see themselves doesn’t align with the way others perceive them or wish them to be. An ex once called me, “a femme in stud’s clothing”, because, although I identify as more masculine of center, she felt I was a little “soft” emotionally.
The jab hurt because, who the hell are you to try to define me? I could totally relate to Arielle as she broke down while explaining to Ashley that she often dressed more femininely only to please her partner. Having to contort or deny your identity for the sake of acceptance WITHIN the LGBTQI community happens on a mass scale, but is rarely addressed in the public square. In the end, Ashley and Arielle had a heart-to-heart allowing Ashley to explain that she didn’t really care about the clothes Arielle wore as much as she cared that Arielle felt the need to hide a part of herself from her and did so their entire relationship. Eventually, they shared a kiss and made up, proving that they are by far the most mature couple of exes in the house.
In another scene, Arielle discovers that some Real World viewers have mistakenly identified her as transgender in some of the cast photos circulating online. Here again, Arielle’s gender expression is being confused with her gender identity. She felt her “ripped” body and the beanie she was wearing may have led to the false assumption. The revelation noticeably shocked and upset her.
“I don’t want to be trans,” she explained, which some members of the transgender community may have taken offense to. Among other things, her reaction raises the question: Why is being labeled trans so threatening? To help her sort through her barrage of emotions she called in a few of her friends from Oakland, CA where she currently lives.
Her friends, some of whom identify as trans, engaged Arielle and her fellow roommates in an honest discussion about gender identity and gender expression. After the discussion, Arielle decided her “identity as a gay woman has nothing to do with what the outside world would say.”
Of course, she’s right. The bottom line here is that Arielle’s gender expression is hers to explore regardless of what anyone else has to say about it, including the person she’s sleeping with. I’m thrilled that this season of The Real World: San Francisco has chosen to tackle some important issues for queer people. Returning to San Francisco where Pedro Zamora’s story first captivated a generation 20 years ago, whether intentional or not, is more than fitting. The last episode raised some profound questions within our community but perhaps just as important, if not more so, The Real World has once again made it easier to extend the dialogue to members of the heterosexual community.