A Reversal of Progress: A Closer Look at Survivor’s Gay Contestants

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Another Feature Article is coming your way today, as Ozlet Clay Shirley, takes a look at the role gay Survivor contestants have on the game. In his article, Clay argues that gay contestants are less prominent in Survivor’s current era, that they are not used to their full potential in terms of storylines and that this is a determent of the show. As always, feel free to get involved in the conversation, by leaving yor thoughts in a comment below!

When Survivor first aired in 2000, it changed the landscape of television forever. It was a show that combined multiple concepts that were unlike anything audiences had seen before. Watching people survive in the wild while also playing a game in which they voted each other out was astounding. A lot of viewers couldn’t believe what they were watching. The show was an enormous hit and by the end of it, it had become a cultural phenomenon. What makes all of this more interesting than it already was, that right smack dab in the middle of everything, was Richard Hatch.

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In casting Richard Hatch as one of their castaways, Survivor gave America a look at something it had rarely, if ever, seen before: a depiction of a real gay man. Sure there had been gay characters on television, but the climate of gay culture in 2000 was remarkably different from what it is today and at the time, seeing a real gay man simply being depicted as he was drove us into new territory. While it is true there had been previous reality-based shows with gay participants, they weren’t on national television and they weren’t getting the astounding ratings that Survivor was getting. An enormous portion of America was sitting down every week to watch a show in which one of the central “characters” was a gay man.

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To make matters more interesting, Richard Hatch completely defied cultural expectations to what it meant to be a gay man. Hatch wasn’t flamboyant or feminine. He wasn’t thin, he wasn’t weak, he wasn’t pretty, he wasn’t bitchy, he didn’t speak with an affectation. Years of televised stereotyping were countered with Richard Hatch simply being himself. As if all of this wasn’t enough. Hatch went on to win the damn thing, launching him beyond mere contestant and into another realm of television history. Richard Hatch became the figurehead of Survivor and was the first of many strong gay contestants to compete on the show; a trend which had a terrific run that has fallen short in the past few years.

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As Survivor continued to air new seasons, they also continued to cast strong and interesting gay contestants. Brandon from Africa was more of a stereotype, but he was also a depiction of a young, independent gay man who had no qualms about who he was. John Carroll, who was both very intelligent and overly confident, proved on Marquesas to be yet another gay power player who, for a while, was controlling the game. After Marquesas, gay contestants seem to disappear for a bit on Survivor up until Vanuatu, which featured two lesbian constants. Ami Cusack and Scout Cloud Lee were the first openly gay women on the show and both of them offered a different perspective. Ami was a sexy, cutthroat player who also controlled the game for a time, while Scout offered us a rare depiction of an older lesbian. Palau brought us Coby, a big personality who proved to be an excellent foil for Tom Westman. Guatemala had Rafe, who was both a terrific player and a very likable contestant who almost won the game. The only out gay contestant from seasons thirteen and fourteen was Brad Virata, who’s screen time was limited. Then came Todd Herzog in China, who I believe presented the best image of a gay contestant since Hatch. Todd was small, but he was unmovable in his mastery of the game, showing intelligence and cunning while still being a likable character that towed the line of villainy. However, Todd’s victory in the fifteenth season would mark the end of Survivor’s run of strong gay casting.

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After Survivor: China, something changed. The show stopped surprising us with interesting and unique gay characters and began to cast a line of gay contestants who came off more like punch lines than players. Chet was a disaster of a contestant in Micronesia whose legacy consists of being knocked around an obstacle course while literally being dragged around by Joel. Charlie Herschel proved to be both forgettable and irrelevant in Gabon, while Spencer in Tocantins was largely ignored before being unceremoniously voted out. And while Nicaragua didn’t feature any out gay constants, it did feature the homophobic Shannon, whose exchange with Sash was highly uncomfortable and left a bad taste in the mouth, a taste worsened by his reprise at the Reunion Show. Then came Papa Bear, an older gay man who thought straight men could lure women by gushing over their jewelry.

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Then there’s Colton. Colton Cumbie is, without question, the absolute low point in Survivor‘s casting of gay contestants, (or any contestants, really). A spoiled, shrill, whiny, bitchy, hateful creature, Colton just about single handedly reversed all of the commendable depictions of gay contestants up to that point. At a time when gay rights have been in the forefront more than ever before, Colton was an embarrassment in every sense of the word. This is a shame on casting just as much as it is on Colton himself, if not more. Casting knew who Colton was and yet they decided to put him out there anyway. The fact that casting then went on to put him back on the show for a second time is inexcusable.

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While gay culture continues to grow and the world slowly begins to come around on social progress, Survivor begun to marginalise their gay contestants, utilising them for controversy or not utilising them at all. In Caramoan, Michael Snow, smart and funny, looked to be the best gay contestant in years, only to be given a mediocre edit and reduced to “Corinne’s gay.” The same goes for Caleb Bankston, who despite being the saving grace of Colton, received an invisible edit past his move to eliminate Brad Culpepper. At least with the Colton situation, some blame lay with Colton. The coming season of Cagayan features Brice, the shows first openly black gay contestant. While this should be a terrific opportunity, Survivor‘s recent track record has me nervous. I hope Brice proves to be a turn around for the shows gay casting and that he defies expectations and proves to be a great player; but given the players we’ve been served up lately, I’m not holding my breath.

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Do you agree or disagree with Clay? Has the portrayal of gay contestants declined over the years? Comment below to let us know your thoughts! 

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27 Comments on A Reversal of Progress: A Closer Look at Survivor’s Gay Contestants

  1. You really were just ranting your own opinion with no structure to back you…

  2. Well I see that Mr. Clayton cant take the heat…..That explains a lot.

  3. “After Survivor: China, something changed. The show stopped surprising us with interesting and unique gay characters and began to cast a line of gay contestants who came off more like punch lines than players.”

    Hmm… Natalie Bolton anyone?

  4. What about Natalie Bolton? I think she and the show did a good job of representing another female lesbian perspective that wasn’t archetypal.

  5. Wasn’t Jeff Varner gay? Also, Dana got almost zero edit before being medivacced (although as she hadn’t even set foot in tribal council at that point, that is hardly an outrage).

    • This article is about contestants that were known to be gay when they appeared on the show. That’s why Jeff Varner, Mitchell Olson, JP Calderon, Rocky Reid or Shambo Waters are not mentionned in it.

      • It was screamingly clear to me that Varner was gay, but he was closeted I guess.
        Never knew that Rocky is gay. Funny because he was such a bully to that guy Anthony. Proof that gays come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities.

  6. I think if it’s acceptable to cast all types of straight contestants outgoing/reserved/strategic/outgoing/physical/weak/old/young, than it should be acceptable to cast all types of gay contestants, whether they be interesting and unique, boring as hell or Colton. There should be equality, although casting Colton was never a good idea….
    Also Charlie from Gabon is always my favorite gay contestant just for the fact that he could get along with so many of those strong personalities. Just and ultra nice guy and not fake. I think if there weren’t so many loose cannons on that season he was in a great position and likelihood to win.
    Brice surprising me this season already, should go far.

    • I found Charlie a bit embarrassing because of his crush on the straight guy – was it Mitchell or Moose or something like that? Come on, Charlie! Stay in your lane.

    • boywonder3919 // June 1, 2014 at 8:05 am // Reply

      I think part of the problem with your reasoning is that no one thinks that a straight contestant is supposed to represent all other straight people. For LGBT people (and other minorities) it is not uncommon that individuals have to carry the weight of representing the entire community. Just look at the casting model of the show. While any given season will cast anywhere from 16-20 contestants, there will usually be one LGBT contestant or two tops (if any). Every other contestant is straight. We can see on our screens the diversity of the straight contestants while a single person is there as “the gay character.” Given the much more modest exposure of gay people on Survivor, I think the show might actually need to think a bit more intentionally about how it is casting the gay players.

      • I see your point. I guess its sad that the general population will form opinions of an entire community based on one person on tv instead of taking people individually for who they are. Me personally I don’t see someone like Colton and have a bad perspective of all ‘gays’, but I can see how many people would have that narrow minded view.
        My ‘community’ is that I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, so if a Jw went on survivor -which I doubt would ever happen- and they were a complete nutcase than that would look bad on every jw around the world and that would be fairly annoying to me. But I wouldn’t care if the contestant was a shining role model for all to admire or a goat with no strategy whatsoever, as long as they aren’t a bad example, I think that was more the point I was going for.
        I don’t think its right to cast any bad influences whatever their community/occupation is but it’s all about making good tv, and if that means casting Colton, than sobeit they’ll say, wasn’t good tv but

  7. Clay Shirley // March 3, 2014 at 8:00 pm // Reply

    Hey there! Yes Chet, I am gay. I’m also more than willing to discuss anything you would like to regarding the article.

    Also, for the record, I would like to state that Natalie, Sonja, Mitchell, and JP were not mentioned because their sexuality was never brought up on the show. It was never part of how they were represented as a “character.”

    • I don’t agree with you when you talk about Natalie. She was often flirting with Parvati, and that was part of her character.

      • For real…I think Natalie’s jury speech left no doubt in anyone’s mind that she had a crush on Parvati during her time in Micronesia, and she was a pretty cutthroat player as well…had no qualms about using Jason and Erik’s stupidity to her advantage if it brought her 6 extra days on the island

      • Han Solo // March 5, 2014 at 3:59 pm //

        Natalie’s sexuality was never defined to the audience.

      • In the episode when Natalie got voted off, she grabbed parvati’s ass before going to tribal.

    • David Kopp // March 20, 2014 at 6:32 am // Reply

      Mr. Shirley,
      I really enjoyed your synopsis. Intelligent, well-written, and concise. You stuck to the facts and left opinions to the viewers/readers. Screw the haters (i.e., phobic CHET maybe? — you did an EXCELLENT job. I’ll admit I’m STILL curious about Sonja, Shambo, and Rocky (whom I admit I don’t remember very well), though. Would be interested in your opinions and view of those contestants. I’ve been a Survivor Addict since Season1 (I’m old enough to be your dad, thank you…). Again, thanx for your article. A fan, David Kopp, St. Louis

  8. Natalie’s sexuality was defined. There’s a clear scene shortly before she was voted off where she is feeling Parvati’s ass. And as a guy I can’t blame her.

  9. As a Survivor fan who stopped watching for a couple years after the Colton season and the recurrence of repeat players, I think this was a thoughtful and smart article.
    Wouldn’t it be lovely for them to have a gay contestant who was smart, confident, kind, out, and a PLAYER?
    Sure would.

  10. You talk about the decline of gay men. There have only been a handful of gay women on the show, one of them (Ami) who went on to describe herself as definitely not a lesbian. At least gay men have had a diverse representation on the show, even though there was a Colton in the mix. Gay women are hardly represented, and when they are, they are either bisexual (Ami), older (Scout) or quitters. I hardly find this a fair representation. Let’s be honest, who would be more likely to survive on a deserted island? A Colton or a real lesbian?

  11. I agree with the article- the gays have been terrible on the show lately- bad cliches- but that is what you get with Big Brother, as well. Caleb was good, he just seemed like a normal guy. Colton was a low point.

  12. I’m personally sick of the constant show of affection between gays apparently trying to make a point on the show. Nobody else last night was hugging and kissing like long lost lovers. Sick of it and I don’t want to see it. CBS, wake up. We are the majority!

  13. This article comes across as a whine fest. Apparently straight cast members can come in every variety but gays must be very special snowflakes that are fascinating and AMAZING. Gays are people, too, and come in every variety. They world doesnt owe the gay community a mirror that tells a lie. Gays can be villains, can be mean, can be dull, can be boring and can be absent, too. Nobody owes the gay community that they omni-present in all media and entertainment, either. What if the author were to just enjoy the show without having to only focus on gay cast members.

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