TLC has created an arsenal of wildly successful reality television shows by sensationalizing the stories of unusual people. But what happens when the network's search for ratings gold comes at the expense of vulnerable LGBT people?
On January 11, TLC aired its controversial one-hour special, “My Husband's Not Gay.” The show followed the stories of four men who admit to being attracted to other men but choose - primarily for religious reasons - to pursue heterosexual relationships. LGBT groups like GLAAD called the show "downright irresponsible" for its promotion of the widely discredited idea that people can choose to not be gay. By the time the program aired, over 100,000 people had signed a Change.org petition calling for it to be cancelled.
TLC dismissed criticism of the program, stating that the network "has long shared compelling stories about real people and different ways of life, without judgment."
And it's not wrong. As The Atlantic's Emma Green notes, TLC has developed a reality TV line-up that revolves around sensationalizing unusual stories:
Inevitably, this controversy will win the show more viewers. Because this is what TLC does: It finds people living atypical lives - usually ones in tension with "progressive" cultural norms - and turns them into spectacle. This approach to programming succeeds, wildly, because it's a pure distillation of the appeal of reality television: self-righteous voyeurism.
The same can be said for TLC's obsession with the Duggar family - the extreme conservative stars of the network's wildly successful “19 Kids and Counting.” The show's novelty comes from the Duggar's unusually "traditional" and religious values - especially with regards to sex.
But what happens when the desire to highlight "different ways of life" ends up mainstreaming virulent anti-LGBT ideologies?
The central criticism of “My Husband's Not Gay” is that the program might lend credibility to the idea that gay people can - through prayer, therapy, or sheer willpower - choose to lead straight lives. A number of the stars of “My Husband's Not Gay” have made careers out of defending and promoting the harmful practice of "ex-gay" therapy, and TLC's show provided them with an opportunity to bring their work to a national audience.
Some have dismissed warnings about the show, suggesting that most viewers will intuitively realize that the shows "heterosexual" stars are, in fact, still just as gay as ever.
But there are a great number of audience members - especially given the public's ongoing widespread misunderstanding of sexual orientation - who might take away a very different message. As Slate's Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart wrote:
[B]y ignoring the possibility that most gay men will never feel enough attraction to a woman to have the sort of intimate, romantic bond people expect out of a marriage, these men are doing far more than sharing their personal experience--they're suggesting that orientation change is a viable alternative for gay men and lesbians more generally. As a strategy for reconciling homosexuality with Christianity, this one is the most toxic. It is the one that destroys lives, breaks apart families, and endangers vulnerable young people.
The problem with a show like My Husband's Not Gay isn't that it might convince open, comfortable gay people to give "ex-gay" therapy a try; it's that it could influence the people most susceptible to these kinds of messages - conservative parents of LGBT children and closeted LGBT adults in religious communities, for example - to buy into the idea that being LGBT is a choice. It's the kind of belief that can have painful, damaging, and even fatal consequences for vulnerable LGBT people.
In the case of the Duggars, the harm caused by TLC's reality programming is even more obvious. Over the past few years, the network helped transform the family from a peculiar television novelty into a powerhouse in conservative politics. The Duggars have used their TLC fame to advance an ultra-conservative social agenda, including an effort to dismantle even basic protections for LGBT people.
In November of 2014, TLC faced criticism after it was reported that Michelle Duggar, the matriarch of the Duggar family, had recorded a transphobic robocall in a campaign to undermine an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The family also donated $10,000 to the campaigns of the LGBT ordinance's opponents, generating significant local and national media attention. Voters ended up repealing the city's non-discrimination ordinance, prompting the Human Rights Campaign to ask "Does TLC Know What Its Celebrities Are Up To?" TLC refused to comment on its continuing promotion of the Duggar family after the repeal vote.
Mainstreaming extreme anti-LGBT figures and ideas might draw audiences, but it also does real harm to some of the most vulnerable LGBT members of TLC's audience. Both the Duggars and My Husband's Not Gay raise serious ethical questions about TLC's willingness to tolerate anti-LGBT messages in pursuit of higher ratings.