Fifteen years ago, a show came out on television that had some people balking, some people celebrating, and a lot of people laughing. It was called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and it was all the rage in many circles. It was 2003 and I was a freshman in college, so most of my television obsessions included Desperate Housewives, American Idol, Grey’s Anatomy, Will & Grace, The OC, Law and Order SVU, and let us not forget to honor the last season of Friends. Binge watching didn’t exist then (Get this, kids: There was no streaming because we still had to plug our desk top computers into the wall to get internet. FaceBook wasn’t even invented yet!) so many times we would all plan watch parties at someone’s house and over-imbibe while shouting harsh criticisms of Marissa Cooper’s poor life choices at the television.
I remember watching an episode here and there of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but it wasn’t my favorite show. If I am being truly honest, I would stop on it while channel surfing, enjoy a few good laughs, and then move on with my day. At that time, the show seemed like a big deal because it highlighted five openly gay men on television who said and did stereotypically gay things, so it seemed funny. I didn’t watch the show to empathize with people who were different than I was; I watched it to laugh at what the funny gay men said.
Fast forward to today. I am turning 35 years old this month, I don’t watch a lot of television, and I haven’t had cable in nearly 10 years, so when I want to sit down and watch a show, I am going to be pretty intentional about it. I have a laundry list of shows and movies people have told me to watch, and maybe one day I will actually put a dent in that list. A few people had suggested I check out the reboot of Queer Eye, so I added it to my mental list, but didn’t prioritize it. I didn’t have anything against it, I just thought it was another kitschy feaux-reality show designed to make people laugh at “the silly gay men”. I am not really a fan of shows that mock people just for the sake of mocking people (The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, every single survival-themed show, etc.).
I could not have been more wrong. So many people started asking if I had watched the show, telling me that it is not what it used to be and that it features really important conversations that need to be happening in mainstream culture. Now that caught my attention! I was hooked within the first episode. The “Fab 5”, or the hosts and core cast members of the show, are five really unique, insightful, intelligent, compassionate men who want to help people become healthier versions of themselves. (I confess, Jonathan is REALLY extra and sometimes gives me a migraine, but his heart is good and his grooming advice is solid.)
During the first episode, the Fab 5 visit a man who could very well be my own father. I was crying within 10 minutes of the show starting. Tom, the man being transformed, is a 60ish year old Georgia “good ol’ boy” who lives alone, eats at the same Mexican restaurant every day, wears the same grungy t-shirt, cargo shorts, pulled up white tube socks, and orthopedic shoes every day, is overweight, has a mangled mess of beard and facial hair, has lupus with bad flare ups, and all he wants in life is to win back the love of his life so that he doesn’t have to face life alone. Tom is an ultra-conservative, redneck type who does not stray from his comfort zone. His friends nominated him for the show because it hurt them to watch their friend – a generous man with a kind heart – isolate himself and physically start to fall apart.
I was so nervous when the Fab 5 pulled up. I was convinced that they would come in, gay guns blazing, tear the guy’s life apart, and shred his confidence to bits. I COULD NOT HAVE BEEN MORE WRONG. They entered this man’s home with respect, extended him endless dignity, wept with him over his lost love and loneliness, asked him about the disease that wrecks his confidence, kindly inquired about his diet and lifestyle, and asked him what HE wanted out of this experience.
Over the course of a few days, the Fab 5 took Tom to stores that were affordable for HIM, found a grooming routine that worked for HIM, and helped him do the things HE wanted to do to improve his overall health and wellbeing. Antoni, the Food and Wine specialist on the cast, taught Tom how to make healthier versions of his favorite foods as opposed to telling him he just needs to change his whole life. Tears were welling up in my eyes during the entire show.
I am almost finished with season one, and am in awe of the honest and raw conversations that the Fab 5 have with the men they are transforming. They talk about family discord, faith, death, the tension between the Christian church and homosexuality, the tension between police officers and black men, divorce, parenting, hope, grief, shame, body issues, cultural issues, and so much more. And they hold these conversations in a way that are vulnerable, true, impactful, and transformative for all parties involved.
With all of the junk that is on television (like most of the shows I used to watch), why aren’t there more shows that highlight what is actually happening in human hearts and lives? Where aren’t there other shows that teach us how to have really scary conversations without hurting each other or creating more polarization? For me, Queer Eye has very little to do with sexuality or fashion or grooming tips. It has EVERYTHING to do with people treating other people with dignity, which is so rare right now in any context of life.
In church yesterday we sang a song called Open Up, and it made me think, “How different would the world be right now if we all did just that: open up?”
May your love cause us to open up
Cause us to open up our hearts
May your light cause us to shine so bright
That we bring hope into the dark
Regardless of what political ideologies we align with, how we describe ourselves, where we call home, how much money we have, what faith we do or do not practice, where our kids go to school, where we give or don’t give our money, whether we use turn signals or not, or who we do or do not agree with, my prayer is what we all – myself included – learn to open up and have hard conversations that matter while extending dignity to others.