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Successful 'Experiment' Gay and Straight Show on TV
by Gregg Shapiro

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Experiment: Gay And Straight airs on Chicago Cable Channel 21 (CAN TV), with an additional 45 minutes of previously unseen footage, on June 27 at 10 p.m. and June 28 at 7:30 p.m.


During the summer of 2002, more than 800 Chicago residents applied to take part in an unprecedented television experiment. The goal was to explore and examine the often explosive issues of sexuality, human rights and discrimination by having a group of 10 people—five gay and five straight—live together under one roof, a la The Real World, for one week. Described as 'reality TV with a purpose,' The Experiment: Gay & Straight, was co-hosted by the series' creator Mark Saxenmeyer and Darlene Hill, both of whom are on-air personalities for the Chicago Fox affiliate, WFLD. In an attempt to bridge a gap between cultures and lifestyles, the 10 strangers would be living together in a Roscoe Village home.

The participants were as follows: Darlene, a 47-year-old housewife from Southwest suburban Tinley Park, who is the mother of a gay son; 31-year-old Larry, an African-American gay man from the North Side of the city who is planning to have a commitment ceremony with the man he has been in a relationship with for six years; Frank, also from the North Side, is a 25-year-old straight actor and waiter (an enigma if there ever was one), who is engaged to be married to the mother of his infant son; HIV+ Greg, from Portage, Ind., is a gay, Latino man who works for an AIDS Hotline and also counsels gay youth; a child welfare supervisor from the South Side, Kyla is a 28-year-old African-American woman who lives with her boyfriend; 23-year-old Chris, a recent graduate of University of Illinois, grew up in Mt. Prospect, and came out to his parents as gay when he was 20; also a resident of the North Side, Jennifer, 31, is an advertising executive with a boyfriend and a gay male best friend; Deo, 32, is another North Sider, who has been in a nine-year- relationship with her female partner; a 44-year-old divorced, straight man from Chicago Heights, Brandon is an African-American man whose wife left him for another woman; a single lesbian from North suburban Hanover Park, 24-year-old Andrea rounded out the residents of the house.

Having left their jobs and families for one week, the participants were sequestered in their new living quarters without television, telephones, radio, computers or any contact from the outside world. They were about to embark on a week of assignments and challenges meant to elicit a meaningful dialogue. Their first duty was to split up in male and female teams and shop for groceries (the men) and arrange the furniture that was delivered to the house (the women).

The first serious challenge arose when Greg's HIV status was revealed to the group. The ignorance level of the straight participants was, frankly, shocking, particularly in this day and age. Bible-thumping Kyla and Brandon were the greatest offenders when it came to saying hurtful things and being clueless about the effect their words would have on the others. The issue of religion, and the way it has become a weapon against the gay community, came up time and again throughout the program. Kyla and Brandon's inconsiderateness seemed to know no bounds as they fell asleep when the housemates were watching a movie about Matthew Shepard.

Darlene, who reminded me of the Sharon Gless character on Queer As Folk, turned out to be the most fascinating resident of all. After watching the movie, Darlene revealed that her gay son had been bashed. Among the other 10 distinct personalities, smart and self-assured Chris stood out, as did Jennifer, who the viewer could see changing her opinions as the days went by.

Kyla, who one participant described as a 'walking ignorant bitch,' and Brandon remained close-minded even after the first few days, while Frank could also be seen going through the same changes experienced by Jennifer. After successfully completing a trust challenge described as a 'gay/straight bonding exercise,' the winners were permitted to have an evening-long visit with loved ones.

I can't stress enough the impact that Greg's presence had on his housemates. In another intimate revelation, Darlene told nine other residents that her son is also HIV+. When Larry, in a particularly vulnerable moment, revealed that he had been abandoned by his parents for being gay, the hypocritical Kyla was anything but compassionate. Eventually, Kyla found that she was the target of hostility, and began to be shut out by both straight and gay house members. I'm not sure how sincere Kyla was when she admitted to having her thought process changed, but she, and also Brandon, eventually came around and released some of their prejudices.

As a reward for all of their hard work, the residents were treated to a night out on the town which included a visit to one straight bar (John Barleycorn) and four gay bars (Sidetrack, The Closet, Circuit and Spin), where a good time appeared to be had by all. In the end, the Experiment, proved to be a successful one. New, and perhaps lasting, friendships were begun, as old prejudices were pushed aside, and 10 people learned to get along in spite of their differences.

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