GAY TIMES May 2004

Terry Sanderson’s new autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

Like most reality TV shows, Making Babies the Gay Way made gruesomely riveting viewing. The cameras followed four gay couples as they each tried for children, using a variety of non-traditional methods. And everywhere the participants went, so did the cameras – bedroom, lavatory, the lot.

Why do they do it, I thought. What motivates people to go on TV and spill their guts for the entertainment of the nation? The present mad obsession with reality TV give almost unlimited opportunity for “ordinary people” to get on the box and expose themselves to ridicule or judgment. But, I ask again, why do they do it?

Gay people, I suspect, do it for two reasons. The first is that they hope they will increase understanding of whatever aspect of gay life it is they’re trying to raise awareness of. The second is that they are incorrigible exhibitionists who’ll do anything to get their 15 minutes of fame.

It all started with Oprah Winfrey in the States. In the early days of her seminal chat show in the 80s and 90s, she’d regularly have gay people on, encouraging them to talk about their experience of coming out and trying to make their families understand the situation. Oprah was the doyenne of such programmes – liberal, compassionate and genuinely interested in the stories of the people she brought on to her show. There is little doubt that she played a part in promoting understanding.

But Oprah quickly spawned imitators, many of whom have been less benevolent. The Oprah style of sympathetic enquiry was rapidly replaced by the Jerry Springer freak-show approach.

Mr Springer – and lesser competitors – seemed to have no problem finding trailer-trash fodder for their confrontational family massacres. If a family was at war, or a relationship strained, no expense would be spared in making sure the wounds were reopened right there on set. Indeed, the show was adjudged a failure if someone didn’t end up sobbing or a chair hadn’t been flung.

Inevitably, it led to murder. In 1995, The Jenny Jones Show (described in court as “the ultimate in bad taste and sensationalism”) invited a gay man on to describe the secret sexual yearnings he had for a work colleague. The colleague, stunned and humiliated by the revelation, turned out to be lethally homophobic and later went to the young man’s house and killed him.

After the talk shows (Ricki Lake, Trisha and some even trashier) came the reality documentaries, where film crews would follow people in their jobs, to watch them doing some other interesting activity – such as abusing their customers at airports. All very fascinating for those of us safe in our armchairs, passing comment about people’s stupidity or their repulsive lifestyles. But what happens to those people when the camera crews have packed up and gone and the temporary TV stars have to face their neighbours or parents – who they just happen to have been slagging off on BBC2 the night before?

Television is monstrous in its appetite for new flesh. It chews people up and spit them out at an incredible rate, leaving them to clear up the shit that the programme has probably left them in. But, hey, these idiots did it of their own free will – and the TV company has the signed waivers to prove it.

Which brings us back to Making Babies the Gay Way. Gay parenthood is a hot topic, of course, and a legitimate subject for general debate. But this wasn’t general. It was very personal and intimate. I don’t know whether this was the effect the producers were aiming for, but I squirmed a I watched and blanched as men and women in the street were invited to make bigoted, ill-informed comments about how wrong it was for “poofs” to bring up kids.

Making Babies was no informed discussion. It was pure Roman arena-style entertainment, with the prospective parents put on display for the audience to cheer or boo as the mood took them. There was emotion, intrusion, tears and anxiety: all ingredients that were bound to cement the prejudices of those already unsympathetic and to undermine the confidence of those fighting our corner.

But why do the participants allow themselves to be used in this way? Had the producers persuaded them that they would be presented with dignity and as trailblazing heroes? If they did, it was a forlorn hope.

The lesson to be learned from this is that going on reality TV is a dangerous business. It can make you into a star (if you happen to be Will Young and win Pop Idol) or it can make you look like a berk (and if you already are one, you’ll look 20 times worse on TV).

When Quentin Crisp allowed a TV company to film his home life, he knew precisely what he was doing, his eccentricity, he realised, would play well with a TV audience and his story created sympathy. Mr Crisp was very much in charge of the way he was portrayed and the rest is history.

But for those of us who aren’t so wise, the risks are enormous. Not only will everyone – but everyone – come to know your intimate secrets but because you’ve put them in the public domain, they’ll assume you’ve given them carte blanche to be as insensitive as they like when telling you what they think.

Be aware that when a TV company invites you to participate, they’ll ask you to sign an agreement that lets them do what they like with what they’ve filmed. They can edit it in any way they want and however well you imagine you’ve performed, a skilled editor can still make you look idiotic. And you’ll have agreed to let them show it on cable and satellite stations ad infinitum. Just when you thought you’d got over the trauma, it’ll pop up again on UK Gold.

It’s flattering to be courted and cajoled by the researchers from the programme. They’ll make you feel like the most important person in the world as they persuade you into taking part. And you’ll be whisked about in a flashy car and maybe offered big fees for what seems like little effort. But as soon as filming’s over, you’ll be dispensed with. The researcher who seemed to friendly and thoughtful will now move on to the next project. You’re yesterday’s product. You may have arrived at the studio in a big, chauffeur-driven car but it’s likely you’ll be going home on the bus.

If you’re going to do one of these shows, the first thing to remember is that you are a commodity. No-one in TV cares about you, however charming they are at the start. You’re there to make them a living and, if they’re lucky, a reputation.

Not all producers are as exploitative as this, of course. Some are genuinely committed to exploring the topic they’ve taken on. But increasingly, it’s about hysteria, sensation and confrontation. You’ve seen Wife Swap, right? Well, stand by for the gay version.

Secondly, make sure you get paid. TV producers are aware that “ordinary people” (that is, anyone not sanctified by being a “broadcast professional”) don’t know the drill. You haven’t got an agent to advise you so unless you ask for money it probably won’t be offered. They’ll give the impression that you’re doing them a favour – or even that they’re doing you a favour – and money will never be mentioned. But, of course, they’ll be getting a fat pay cheque and the programme will be making a profit for the TV company. Given that all this cash will be generated at the expense of your dignity, at least get the most generous cut you can screw out of them. Don’t be shy – they aren’t.

If you’ve got showbiz ambitions, reality TV is not the route to fame. Talent will be spotted in the appropriate place if it’s there. Putting yourself through the reality TV mill will get you, at best, a few minutes of infamy that will be forgotten by the viewer almost as soon as they’ve hit the remote to change channels.

Meanwhile, your appearance might have long-term implications for your private life that aren’t worth any amount of attention.

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