Before Colton Underwood, ‘The Bachelor’ fumbled on gay romance

“The Bachelor’s” Colton Underwood on Wednesday revealed that he’s gay in an emotional interview with Robin Roberts on “Good Morning America.” Compared with the franchise’s past handling of the subject of gay romance, it was a major step forward.

“Obviously, this year’s been a lot for a lot of people,” said the former football player and reality TV star. “It’s probably made a lot of people look themselves in the mirror and figure out who they are and what they’ve been running from or what they’ve been putting off in their lives.

“And for me, I’ve ran from myself for a long time and I’ve hated myself for a long time, and I’m gay. I came to terms with that earlier this year and have been processing it. And the next step in all of this was sort of letting people know.”

Underwood, who was the lead of “The Bachelor’s” 23rd season after first appearing as a contestant on the 14th season of “The Bachelorette,” was known as the “virgin Bachelor.”

During his conversation with Roberts, Underwood discussed how his religious background as well as his casting on the show complicated his journey in figuring out his identity. But he also credited ABC’s venerable reality franchise for helping him understand his sexuality.

It’s understandable that Underwood hoped his time on “The Bachelor” would lead to his marrying and having a family with a woman; the entire franchise has been built on a rigidly heteronormative vision of happily-ever-after.

Colton Underwood smiling in a suit.

“The Bachelor’s” Colton Underwood.

(Nina Prommer / EPA-EFE / Rex / Shutterstock )

In fact, “The Bachelor” has previously come under fire for comments that prominent personalities from the franchise have made regarding LGBTQ people and relationships in trying to protect that vision.

In 2014, Season 18 “Bachelor” Juan Pablo Galavis was called out for saying a potential “Bachelor” installment built around same-sex romance would not be “a good example for kids” and used the word “pervert” in reference to gay people. (ABC and producers issued a statement denouncing Galavis’ comments, saying they “were careless, thoughtless and insensitive, and in no way reflect the views of the network, the show’s producers or studio.”)

But that didn’t stop “Bachelor” host Chris Harrison from appearing to defend Galavis’ position. In a 2014 interview with New York Times Magazine, Harrison side-stepped a question about whether there should be a gay “Bachelor” by trying to make it a question about business decisions and comparing love to pizzas and hamburgers.

“Is our job to break barriers, or is it a business? That’s not for me to answer,” Harrison said at the time.

Seven years on from the controversy caused by Galavis’ remarks, the franchise’s executive producers said in a statement: “We are so inspired by Colton Underwood’s courage to embrace and pursue his authentic self. As firm believers in the power of love, we celebrate Colton’s journey in the LGBTQIA+ community every step of the way.”

Harrison also offered his “love and support” to Underwood in an Instagram post. “Very proud of you today,” wrote Harrison, who will not be hosting “The Bachelorette” this season after making racially insensitive remarks during the franchise’s latest firestorm over race. “Happy to see you stand up and openly live your truth.”

“The Bachelor” isn’t the only dating show to make missteps when it comes to queer people and their relationships. Much like TV in general, shows within the reality dating competition genre have struggled when it comes to understanding and depicting same-sex romance.

Compared to the seemingly endless number focused on straight relationships, shows that highlight LGBTQ people finding love have been few and far between.

The 2003 Bravo series “Boy Meets Boy” followed the tradition set by “The Bachelor,” in which one central lead is looking for love among a group of suitors. But instead of letting the focus of the show be one man’s search for love, “Boy Meets Boy” included a twist: some of the contestants were straight men.

Bravo's 2003 gay dating series "Boy Meets Boy."

Bravo’s 2003 gay dating series “Boy Meets Boy.”

(Glenn Campbell / Bravo)

The twist was initially a secret to James, the lead, as well as the gay contestants, which meant the gimmick was purely for the audience to try to figure out each contestant’s sexual orientation. Given the homophobic stereotypes that exist around deceitful gay men, this cruel twist meant creating a game out of straight men trying to trick a gay man for a cash prize. (Fox aired a similar show with a straight woman at the center called “Playing It Straight” in 2004).

Of course, the “Bachelor”-with-a-twist formula was not just for men. In 2007, MTV premiered “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila” which saw 16 men and 16 women vying for the affections of a MySpace personality. The show’s “big twist” was that the contestants did not know about Tequila’s bisexuality until the end of the first episode. Not only was this another instance of a dating show with LGBTQ people involving a gimmick and an element of deceit but Tequila also recently revealed that she was straight all along and played bisexual only for the show. (Since her days on the show, Tequila has also made headlines for expressing white nationalist sentiments).

Other dating shows have also featured individual episodes involving LGBTQ people, but it wasn’t until 2016 that Logo revisited the “Bachelor”-inspired formula with “Finding Prince Charming.” Hosted by out singer Lance Bass, this time, thankfully, there was no cruel twist.

More recently, shows like MTV’s “Are You The One?” have made strides to better capture nuances unique to LGBTQ people dating and figuring out their identity. Unlike “Bachelor”-inspired shows, “AYTO” assembles a group of people trying to find their “perfect match” among the other contestants. The eighth season of the show, which ran in 2019, was the first to feature an exclusively “sexually fluid” cast, per the show’s parlance, and has been hailed as one of the best.

HBO Max has even gotten into the genre with the holiday rom-com-inspired “12 Dates of Christmas,” which placed its three leads in a castle to find love among a pool of suitors. Featuring a gay lead during the first season made the show particularly significant because there is still a noticeable lack of LGBTQ rom-coms during the holiday TV season.

Reality dating competitions have slowly but surely improved when it comes to LGBTQ representation, and so far, the response to Underwood’s coming out in Bachelor Nation and beyond suggests that trend will continue.



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