"Spoiler alert: I’m a queer queen #BachelorinParadise," 24-year-old Demi Burnett wrote on Twitter in late July, mere weeks before she would return to ABC for Season 6 of Bachelor in Paradise after appearing on Colton’s season of The Bachelor. It was a triumphant proclamation of identity, and it was also actually a spoiler for the season and not just a tongue-in-cheek coming out, since Demi later revealed on the show that she identifies as sexually fluid and had lingering feelings for a woman back home. What happened next was monumental for the franchise: That woman, Kristian Haggerty, arrived on the beach and joined the show herself to pursue a relationship with Demi. Suddenly, a series built on heteronormativity and traditional marriage had its first-ever same-sex pairing in 17 years.
Bachelor Nation responded predictably: Though Demi told People she was criticized by some fans for her sexual identity, others — including many of her Bachelor Nation cast mates — shared their support. “I was just being myself and living my life and loving who I loved," she told Good Morning America. "I just wanted to be honest with who I was and follow wherever my heart led me.”
After 23 seasons of The Bachelor, 15 of The Bachelorette, three of Bachelor Pad, and five of Bachelor in Paradise, this current season of the Paradise is the first to feature a queer relationship (Jaimi King, from Nick Viall’s season of The Bachelor and Bachelor in Paradise Season 4, identified as bisexual on the show, but did not pursue any same-sex relationships on TV). Despite having dated women in college, Burnett told GMA she'd kept her bisexuality secret while on The Bachelor for fear of what the other women might think. But now that she's out and enjoying her time with Kristian on national television (as opposed to the show keeping her proverbially straight-laced and Kristian waiting for her chance with Demi back home), the relationship seems to be receiving the respect and validity it deserves — for the most part, anyway.
The significance of a Bachelor franchise show finally giving primetime screen time to not just one queer woman but two who have feelings for one another still can't be understated.
Unfortunately, biphobia and homophobia still exist. But using Demi and Bachelor in Paradise as a benchmark, it seems network television is finally beginning to follow in cable's footsteps in bringing more LGBTQ representation to reality dating shows. As one of the most successful, long-running reality series in television history, the significance of a Bachelor franchise show finally giving primetime screen time to not just one queer woman but two who have feelings for one another still can't be understated.
It's important to note, though, that there are years of precedent for queer relationships on reality TV if you look to dating shows on cable. In 1996, MTV premiered a gay episode of their hit dating show Singled Out. Now, 23 years later, MTV is featuring not just one queer couple on this summer's eighth season of dating show Are You The One?, but eight. In the series’ first ever all-pansexual season, every contestant is open to love with an individual of any gender or sexual identity. The potential pairings are as varied as LGBTQ people are in their intersecting identities of all kinds: There are couples made up of two cis women, two cis men, a cis woman with a cis man, a trans man with a gender fluid partner, and many other iterations that all fall under the rainbow umbrella that is frequently described as queer.
While there are a few group hookups in the Boom Boom Room, this is not a show hinging on bisexual tropes — these people are looking for their singular match. Though they may think they have a type, this season's contestants are open when it comes to who that person is and how they identify — an idea that isn't so radical for most queer or trans people, but remains so for most of the population.
LGBTQ viewers and critics have praised this season of Are You The One? for its nuanced approach to dating while pansexual, bisexual, or otherwise fluid, and it's true that there's perhaps no other dating show out there pushing quite as many heteronormative boundaries on television. But it's taken several decades of not-always-ideal LGBTQ representation to get to this point, where real LGBTQ people are allowed to fully own themselves and their relationships on national television without their existence being framed as a very special episode.
The first gay representation on reality TV stretches back to 1973's PBS docuseries An American Family, which followed the daily lives of an upper-middle class family in Santa Barbara, California, and is commonly considered the first example of the reality TV genre. While it wasn't necessarily part of the plan, some of the series' biggest moments included the separation of the family via divorce, and one of the sons, Lance, coming out as gay. As The New York Times noted in his 2001 obituary, Lance challenged viewers with his outward expression and ownership of his queerness. It was important and completely novel representation for the time period, and as such, it was presented with the same kind of education-meets-entertainment flavor that LGBTQ and other marginalized people have had to balance when appearing in media.
Twenty years after An American Family, The Real World exploded on MTV screens, creating the first real visibility and representation of LGBTQ individuals with cast members like Pedro Zamora, a gay man living with HIV/AIDS on the third season in San Francisco in 1994 and Katelynn Cusanelli, the first transgender woman to be a housemate on Season 21 in Brooklyn in 2009. Throughout The Real World's 27 years on air, the series and spinoffs like Road Rules and subsequent iterations of The Challenge have featured several LGBTQ individuals from all over the gender and sexuality spectrum and of various intersecting identities, including Karamo Brown (pre-Queer Eye fame) and Beth Anthony, the first lesbian to appear on reality television in 1993.
Rarely were queer people previously allowed to be shown in relation to themselves and not just to the greater, straighter world.
More often than not, though, the sole LGBTQ Real World cast mate would be tokenized as "the gay one" on their respective season, meaning he or she had the burden of not only educating others, but representing all queer people — all while their heterosexual counterparts hooked up with one other. Rarely were queer people allowed to be shown in relation to themselves and not just to the greater, straighter world.
In the early and mid-2000s, MTV dating shows like Next and WGN's Elimidate and Blind Date featured a few same-sex contestants looking for love, but much more infrequently than straight people. Though the content frequently hedged on stereotypes, it still seemed like a step forward for a generation who saw zero queer people on early dating and relationship shows like Love Connection. So it was hard not to feel like progress had been made in 2006 when, at the height of her MySpace fame, model Tila Tequila became the star of her own reality dating show.
MTV's A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila was the first of its kind to focus on an openly bisexual woman being wooed by both women and men. But the show still salaciously twisted the premise in a way that played into biphobic stereotypes when it decided that the contestants would not be told that the object of their affection was dating both genders. In the end, Tequila selected a 20-something bro named Bobby over the affable, self-described "futch" Dani Campbell during a heavily watched finale (6.2 million viewers). Things didn't work out, though, and at the end of the second season, she chose a contestant named Kristy, who ultimately turned Tequila down with the disappointing reason that she wasn't ready for a real relationship with a woman.
A Shot At Love was problematic, but it was successful enough for other networks to move forward with their own versions of queer reality shows. Gay men have had two reality dating competitions: Bravo's Boy Meets Boy and Logo's Finding Prince Charming, both of which only lasted one season. Though there have been other LGBTQ-centric shows (including Showtime's The Real L Word, Logo's The A-List, Gimme Sugar, Curl Girls, and Fire Island), they don't often last longer than a few seasons. It's worth noting that series like Love & Hip-Hop or the now-canceled R&B Divas, both of which primarily follow people of color, feature same-sex relationships quite regularly, as does Catfish, which is not necessarily the most positive association, though it frequently highlights just how difficult it can be for LGBTQ people to make connections with one another in person, especially if they don't live in places with massive gay populations and are otherwise further marginalized.
It all underscores the fact that LGBTQ people, who make up 4.5 percent of the general population according to a 2017 Gallup poll, are still treated as niche; special interest programming that won't bring in the same amount of eyeballs straight people might, which is why LGBTQ people are most often allowed on reality shows when they are only one or two of the larger group. Demi's having a female partner on Bachelor in Paradise suggests perhaps broadcast television is leaning into more LGBTQ representation, exposing a larger audience to an unsensational, positive representation of a queer relationship.
Bachelor in Paradise doesn't have any issues with viewership, but this season of Are You The One? is one of the least successful, ratings-wise, despite critical raves. Lower viewership makes it more difficult for networks to see the value in queer and trans-specific programming because they can't make as much money from advertisers buying spots to run alongside the shows. Cable networks (as MTV, Bravo, Showtime, and Logo all are) are willing to take more chances in that way than broadcast, which means better LGBTQ representation is more likely to end up behind a paywall or subscription model, less accessible to the general public — which is why seeing two women in love on ABC has such an impact, especially after years of the network pretending queer people don't exist.
For some people, Demi and Kristian’s relationship is their introduction to a queer couple, and that puts a burden of representation on both of them — two cis, conventionally attractive young white women — essentially having to represent an entire group of people, like any of the other tokenized LGBTQ people who have appeared on a reality show. It also puts pressure on their relationship to be successful: if Demi ends up with a man, some viewers could end up questioning the validity of her sexually fluid identity, but it's also not fair for queer people to demand she stay with someone of the same sex for our own comfort or wants.
Bachelor in Paradise and Are You The One? both make for good TV, but they also help to expand the general population's idea of what it is to be queer when being so no longer means being a single person representing what has been portrayed as a monolithic group. This kind of inclusion helps add to the normalization and equalizing of queer and trans people, which then has a direct effect on how non-LGBTQ people see and treat LGBTQs in the real world, and how LGBTQ people see ourselves and each other.
But there's always work still left to be done. Perhaps this next phase of integration could mean Miley Cyrus popping up on Season 2 of The Hills: New Beginnings with her rumored girlfriend Hills cast member Kaitlynn Carter, or Dancing with the Stars allowing a same-sex ballroom pair. Or, if things don't work out for Demi, perhaps we could see our first bisexual Bachelorette. There's plenty to explore when it comes to depicting queer love on reality TV, and with Demi and this season of Are You The One? paving the way, there's reason to believe that that representation only gets richer and more powerful from here.