Like many American gay men, I've got a little secret — and it's called The A-List New York. Currently showing on Viacom's LGBT-focused network, Logo, this same-sex send-up of Bravo's hit Real Housewives franchise charts the high-drama antics of six gay New Yorkers working in fashion, media and modeling.
The A-Listers, like the real Real Housewives, engage in heavy doses of self-indulgence and -aggrandizement — brought to life against a backdrop of bars, boutiques and fitness facilities. Brazenly touted by Logo as New York's "gay elite," this crew of homo hot messes has become the must-see TV series that everyone loves to hate.
The reasons to revile The A-List — whose final "reunion" episode airs on Monday — are as understandable as they are enjoyable. At this moment of crucial LGBT activism, the show's half-dozen leads indulge in some of the sorriest gay-male stereotyping ever witnessed on the small screen.
These men are venal and vain; bullying and bitchy; uncouth, uncultured and almost unanimously unsympathetic. Perhaps worst of all, they're not even particularly nice looking! That Logo would even green-light such a damaging display suggests that entertainment Armageddon may well be upon us. Or at least it will be next season, when the series expands to include Los Angeles and Dallas incarnations.
Although The A-List has received scant "mainstream" media attention, critics from major outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post have properly skewered its political incorrectness. But beyond the obvious clichés and caricatures, The A-List's greatest offense is its unfathomable lack of diversity. Indeed, despite taking place in a city that's 55 percent nonwhite, The A-List has few leading characters of color, and no African Americans. Of the six main protagonists, just two — Brazilian model Rodiney Santiago and Canadian photographer Mike Ruiz — could possibly count as ethnic minorities.
At a time when LGBT people are fighting to end "Don't ask, don't tell" and quell a quasi epidemic of teen suicides, many might ask why whitewashing on trash TV should even matter. The problem is that it's not only D-list programs like The A-List that render invisible black members of the LGBT community.
Of the 23 regular LGBT characters on shows in the 2010-2011 prime-time season, not one is African American, according to GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), the leading LGBT media-watchdog group. As GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios puts it, "Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender African-American people remain largely invisible in the media today."
With issues such as photo shoots, skinny-dipping and personal training propelling The A-List's narrative, the show is clearly in a far lower league than an Emmy nominee like In the Life. But the fundamental question remains the same: How do black-free shows arrive on TV in 2010 from networks long versed in the language of diversity and inclusion?
In the Life Executive Director Michelle Kristel blames her program's omission on tight budgets and even tighter production schedules. Interviews with black LGBT leaders were sought "but did not work with the realities of our shoot time," Kristel says. "But in no way is this acceptable," she concedes. "We clearly must try harder in the future."
Fair enough — particularly from a program with a demonstrated record of multiracial representation. Far less forthcoming, however, was Logo, which, despite repeated requests, refused to be interviewed for this story. Instead it submitted a standard PR-department statement and referred us to True Entertainment — the company that produces The A-List — but True never responded to our e-mails or voice messages, either.
Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition — the nation's largest African-American LGBT advocacy group — attributes black media invisibility to the "gaystream's" traditional "one issue at a time" mentality. "We are all working with limited resources," she says. "But because it already feels marginalized, there's this notion that the [larger] LGBT advocacy agenda can't handle other issues of oppression."
A quick look at the Sundance Channel confirms that this is clearly not the case. Indeed, just days after The A-List ends, Sundance's new show Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys begins. Here, too, the producers exploit a classic LGBT stereotype: gay men and their straight female best friends. But unlike The A-List, this show has actual black folks on it — Crystal McCrary and Nathan Williams, one of the program's four "couples." The suits at Sundance seem to think that gay black characters are worthy of airtime. So why not Logo?
Perhaps it all comes down to sex — which the Sundance couples will not be having. In defending The A-List, Logo's PR machine cited its black gay drama Noah's Arc as proof of the network's commitment to multicultural programming. Yet with its all-black cast, Noah's Arc is as mono-racial as The A-List.
And it also begins at the top. Earlier this year, "Trevor," a personal friend who is both black and gay, attended an early A-List casting event along with a white buddy. While his friend was warmly received, Trevor was informed that casting black men on The A-List was "proving a challenge" because of an inability "to find white men willing to date them."
As a longtime veteran of New York's real A-list media scene, Trevor was neither surprised nor disappointed. The event was more of a cultural curiosity than part of a quest for reality-TV stardom. But it does confirm that mainstream TV-show creators — both gay and straight — are still worried about who exactly is coming to dinner.
As neighborhoods from Harlem to West Hollywood confirm, mixed-race gay couples are hardly a rarity. Ironically, that's true even on The A-List. Because despite those miscegenation worries, the show's longest-lasting partnership is interracial: between white salon owner (and lead cast member) Ryan Nickulas and Desmond P. Smith, a black financial-services executive. What's more, with his Wall Street salary and $4.1 million Manhattan penthouse, Smith is the only real A-lister — and certainly A-earner — "on" the show.
We don't actually see much of Smith on The A-List — he's relegated mostly to references and quick background shots. With finance still one of America's most homophobic industries, perhaps Smith kept a low profile for the sake of his career. Or maybe he simply wanted to avoid the televised "only one" syndrome — the experience many black folks have of being the only African American in the room.
Whatever the reasons, even a character like Smith couldn't save The A-List, which Human Rights Campaign spokesman Fred Sainz calls "a sensationalist, C-list-quality show whose lack of racial diversity is only the beginning of its problems." Still, I'll be tuning in Monday night as the white boys (and Santiago) revisit past rivalries and rehash former showdowns.
This time, however, they'll be joined by some color — African-American talk-show queen Wendy Williams, who's hosting the reunion episode. Known for her outlandish wigs and oversized personality, Williams is a fitting choice to keep the cast in check. And as a woman who's certainly "all woman," she enables Logo producers to leave those jungle-fever jitters at the studio door.
David Kaufman is a New York-based writer who regularly contributes to the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Time and Monocle.