Queer and present danger

America's first gay dating show, "Boy Meets Boy," doesn't break down stereotypes so much as familiarize you with the quirks and prejudices of your own gaydar.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published July 30, 2003 1:37PM (EDT)

Time to calibrate your gaydar, because Bravo's "Boy Meets Boy" (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) is finally here. America's first gay dating show isn't just a dating show, you see. It's a sexual shell game in which a mix of gay and straight suitors compete for "one exceptional gay man" and, oh yeah, a secret cash prize. Of course James, The Exceptional Gay Man (TEGM), doesn't know that three of the men are straight -- boy, won't it be a hoot when he finds out? -- which makes his earnest enthusiasm for his role as the gay bachelor all the more heartbreaking.

Obviously "Boy Meets Boy" is manipulative and deceitful and dirty, but what's really appealing -- or, I mean, appalling -- is that the whole point is for the viewer at home to try to figure out who's gay and who's straight. The message here is that you can determine someone's sexuality based on how they dress, talk, hold themselves. How they hold themselves is the biggest giveaway, actually. The gay guys stand up straight and make eye contact, while the straight men slouch and avert their eyes.

But the point is, it's ridiculous to speculate about the sexual preferences of total strangers ... unless you need to because you want to sleep with them, of course. But on TV? Why can't we just treat all of these guys like human beings and leave their sex lives out of the picture? I mean, just because that one guy's in the military, that doesn't mean he's gay. Of course, they're thinking that we're thinking that he's gay if he's in the military, so maybe they'll throw us off and make him straight.

The truth is, no matter how you feel about "Boy Meets Boy," you will not be able to watch the show without divining which team each guy is on. If you're straight, that is. If you're gay, you do this sort of shit all the time, and you'll mostly just be checking out Dan's abs.

But straight people just love talking about their stupid gaydar, don't they? Even though it's covered in several layers of dust and barely functions outside of its native city, those wacky straights just love to prattle on about how accurate and finely tuned their gaydar is, how they just know from several yards away who's gay. Well, now we're all gonna get a big opportunity to test the accuracy of our dusty instruments. Before next Tuesday, make your predictions and we'll keep a running tab of whose gaydar is the most precise.

Don't give me that look. This is how the human mind works. You present it with a mystery, no matter how mundane, and it tricks itself into thinking that it can solve it with whatever paucity of facts are available at the time: Does J.Lo really believe she'll be married to Ben Affleck for the rest of her life? Is this Coldplay song actually about Gwynnie, not me? Why did God make bags of Skittles so hard to open?

If all minds love a mystery, though, my mind skips straight to the end of the book and then tosses it in the trash. I was shocked by how absurdly certain I was that I knew within seconds who was gay and who was straight.

This guy is talking about the importance of being vulnerable. Gay. This one's got long, styled hair, scrappy facial hair, and he's slouching. Straight as an arrow. Another guy is a chiropractor. Straight. This guy's eyebrows look plucked. Gay. This one is from San Francisco, but he's extremely stiff and dorky. Straight. This guy is extremely cute and has an adorable smile. Gay.

The beauty of "Boy Meets Boy" is that it reveals prejudices you never even knew you had. For example, why do I assume that all chiropractors are straight? Aren't some gay men into scrappy facial hair? Are all supernaturally good-looking men gay? And do I really think there aren't straight men anywhere who would talk, on camera, about the importance of vulnerability?

OK, I really don't think many straight men would do that.

Truthfully, "the mates," as they're called, are a little disappointing, given how great-looking James is. Lucky for James, though, he has his friend Andra there with him, to help him sort through the group. "It's gonna be interesting to see who even concerns themselves with me," Andra says, and she doesn't know how right she is. Andra is tall and blond, after all, and if she gets to hang out with the not-all-gaymates just as much as James does, James may end up with a gaggle of straight finalists.

But the gay dating show already presents a serious built-in twist. In addition to the usual practice of backstabbing and stepping on each other's toes, the suitors could end up making out or falling in love with each other. Demonstrating a promising knack for her role as troublemaker, Andra asks the guys if they're all going to hook up together later. "Interesting question!" one guy responds. Another guy tells the camera, "I probably have a better chance having a date with someone in the house than I do with the leading man." No doubt about that, chumpy.

Do the gaymates present a homogeneous stereotype of gay men, as some quote-happy professor worried in Monday's New York Times? First of all, three of the suitors aren't even gay. Second, could any group be more homogeneous than the backstabbing harpies of "Joe Millionaire" or "The Bachelor"? Unlike the kinds of competitive babes on other shows, most of these men don't seem delusional or histrionic, and few appear to have several years of pageant experience.

By the end of the show, when James dismisses three of the 15 men, it turns out I'm 2 for 3 in my predictions. The military guy is gay, which I thought would be too obvious. Mr. Vulnerable is gay and the chiropractor is straight, just as I predicted.

"For the first time, I was trying to fly within the gaydar," the chiropractor says with a crafty grin in his exit interview. If he'd just mentioned gaydar earlier, we would've known he was straight from the outset without being forced to make sweeping generalizations about his profession.

But then, "Boy Meets Boy" is all about sweeping generalizations -- and thank God for that, really, considering how mind-numbingly dull dating shows have become over their very short lifetime. What's surprising is, once you get your gaydar up and running, no matter how inaccurate it is, it's tough to shut it off. Is Kyle from "Project Greenlight" gay? Is that eyeliner he's wearing? Maybe Ryan Seacrest of "American Idol" isn't gay -- it's just way too obvious! I think they're trying to throw us off. My neighbor has good posture and makes eye contact. Should I mention these red flags to his girlfriend?

As I said, this show is sick and wrong. Send me those predictions, pronto!

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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