Straight participant Brandon gives gay participant Larry a supportive hug during their week together.

Videographer Chris Davis and sound technician Travis Franklin capture an emotional moment with the participants of the project.

Experiment: Gay and Straight

Twenty years later, groundbreaking project is re-released in the midst of growing LGBTQ+ attacks

Videographer Chris Davis and sound technician Travis Franklin capture an emotional moment with the participants of the project.

June 2023

BY MARK SAXENMEYER

Twenty years ago this month, the documentary I produced, directed and hosted, Experiment: Gay and Straight (EGS), was broadcast on Chicago television, followed by nearly two dozen film festival screenings around the globe–from San Francisco to Montreal, Belgium to South Africa. The project, designed to foster a better understanding between gay and straight Americans, was hailed by American Journalism Review as “infinitely watchable” and lauded with prestigious broadcasting, film and journalism awards. It remains one of my proudest career and personal achievements.

And yet now, two decades later, I watch it with a sense of melancholy. Much of what I think EGS aimed to achieve and celebrate is being publicly and systematically unraveled by some of the most evil and dangerous threats in 21st century America.

I called the project “reality TV with a purpose.” We invited five gay and five straight Chicago-area residents, all strangers to one another, to live together for one week. They discussed a multitude of issues and subjects in hopes of fostering understanding, countering misconceptions, and promoting tolerance–if not acceptance–of the differences between homosexual and heterosexual Americans. Part MTV’s The Real World and CBS’ Big Brother, the reality television construct was admittedly a springboard to draw viewers to the project. But EGS was, and is, so much more.

 

 

Entertaining? Yes. But the project is primarily journalistic in nature, offering insight and information about subjects like gay marriage, gay parenting and adoption, harassment and violence, homosexuality and religion, conversion therapy, genetic and environmental influences, stereotypes, homophobia, workplace discrimination, sexual activity in the age of HIV and AIDS, gays on the “down-low” and in the closet, coming out, growing up gay, gay kids being rejected or disowned by their families, mental health issues, suicide rates, and the impact gays have on American culture.

The 10 participants were chosen from hundreds of applicants. All willingly volunteered; none were paid. They consisted of five men and five women of different ages and races, from different religious, ethnic, cultural, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds. For seven straight days and six long nights, they discussed, debated, argued, cried, laughed and learned. They also cooked, ate, cleaned, socialized and bunked together in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom residential home—with cameras recording it all, 24/7. They left their jobs and families and agreed to be cut off from the outside world—no phones, media, internet, etc.—in order to keep focused on the task at hand.

EGS was hailed as a “milestone” by The Advocate, “revolutionary and daring” by Windy City Times and “compelling television” by Chicago Sun-Times. Most reviews, by both critics and audiences alike, were also extremely positive.

My original plan to commemorate and celebrate the 20th anniversary of EGS was to make it available worldwide, for free, online viewing—for the very first time. And that’s been done; you can now watch the entire 90-minute documentary here. Check out the extended trailer of the film here.

I also planned to check in with some of the project’s participants, to interview them all these years later for their thoughts, memories and perspectives. I’ve done that, too. Keep reading for more.

But instead of just trumpeting the project for its historical impact, I wanted to contrast the cultural and political environment for the LGBTQ+ community—the differences between 2003 and 2023. You know, a simple “that-was-then-but this-is-now” comparison. A “look-how-far-we’ve-come” kind of reflection.

That’s when I became overwhelmed. The more that I researched and evaluated, the more my dismay grew.

Much has changed for LGBTQ+ folks like me in the last two decades (for starters, the acronym was just LGBT in 2003). Yes, there’s been some positive and important progress. But disturbingly, there have been major and vicious setbacks. And they’re intensifying. In fact, if anything, the LGBTQ+ community in the U.S. now faces deeper, darker and more vitriolic attacks than at the start of the 21st century.

The “far right,” as it’s called (I prefer labeling it “the far-wrong”), is relentlessly trying to silence, punish and persecute LGBTQ+ people by eroding and eliminating our civil rights and freedoms. This growing faction of bigots, liars and hatemongers is dead set on removing books and prosecuting librarians, banning plays, songs and musicals with LGBTQ+ content, canceling and threatening Pride parades, ordering dress codes based on “biological gender,” and boycotting corporations that support the community—even harassing their employees.

They’re pushing for laws that prevent educators from teaching students about gender and sexuality, and they’re helping pass bills that allow health care providers and insurers to deny LGBTQ+ patient care on the basis of religious or “moral” beliefs. Most ridiculously, their favorite new obsession is to criminalize drag queens. It’s apparently harmless and hilarious for straight men like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie and Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire to don wigs and dresses, but when gays perform in heels it’s suddenly obscene and perverted—and bomb threats are made. There are even reports of gay bars now being denied insurance and liquor license renewals if they don’t drop the drag.

 

Disturbing headlines of hate in 2023 appear daily in publications across the country.

 

It’s gotten so bad that the Human Rights Campaign just declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans—a first in its four-decade existence. The advocacy group pointed out that more than 525 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in 41 states across the U.S. in 2023. As of this writing, 76 of them been signed into law, more than any other year on record. Most of them are blatantly unconstitutional—and will hopefully be overturned.

And so, as we mark the 20th anniversary of Experiment: Gay and Straight, I think it’s more important than ever for folks to watch it, for the film to reach a new generation. But before you click play, let’s explore how EGS actually came to be.

 

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Back in 2003, the following occurred:

* The U.S Supreme Court essentially ruled that the way homosexuals love one another should not be illegal.

* The Catholic Church declared that homosexuals have “profoundly disordered minds” and are “deviant.”

* U.S. President George Bush proclaimed that gays and lesbians were “sinners” and set out to pass a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

* The Episcopal Church elected its first-ever gay bishop.

* A half dozen U.S. cities and the state of Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

For those on this planet who strived for human rights and equality—three steps forward, two steps back.

At the time, I was a reporter at a Chicago television station and had just completed a different “experiment”—this one was called Experiment in Black and White (also now available worldwide for free online viewing here) that utilized the same “reality TV with a purpose” idea to delve into race relations. We sequestered five Black and five White Chicago-area residents in a house for a week to explore issues like slavery reparations, racial profiling, affirmative action, the use of the ‘n’ word, discrimination, crime, language, behavior, and cultural and sociological perceptions. (Last year, I marked the 20th anniversary of this national Emmy and Edward R. Murrow-award winning series and documentary with a similar piece. Check it out here.)

I immediately pitched a follow-up, Experiment: Gay and Straight. By approaching the subject of sexuality, human rights and discrimination through the eyes, minds and worlds of straight people, as well as gay people, EGS aimed to help a majority group (heterosexuals) and a minority group (homosexuals) find common ground. Taping commenced in the fall of 2002; the 10 carefully selected participants (they were all interviewed in person at length and had to pass extensive background checks) arrived ready to share and defend their strong opinions.

“We intentionally didn’t play it safe,” remembers Kathy Minnis, the project’s senior producer, about the casting process. “We facilitated very differing opinions on all ends of the spectrum.” She says the straight candidates under consideration ran the gamut “from those who thought they were really OK with gay culture who then realized that they had all of these preconceived notions and stereotypes, to those who felt it was a moral issue.”

As for the gay candidates, Minnis, who is now a Reporters Inc. Board Member, points out, “Twenty years ago, people weren’t having open conversations about this stuff. It required an inordinate amount of bravery—something that people don’t necessarily realize in 2023—for those who were gay to put themselves on camera and say, ‘Yes, I’m gay, and I’m going to share my experiences in this raw and hard way.’”

 

To watch the trailer for Experiment: Gay and Straight, CLICK HERE.

To watch the entire documentary, CLICK HERE.

 

During the selection process, I made the decision to “out” myself publicly for the first time, so as to assuage potential participants and potentially skeptical viewers that the project did indeed have both gay and straight leadership.

In an interview with Chicago’s Windy City Times in November 2002, the article began with the line, “The Experiment prompts the show’s creator to do some revealing of his own.” I was 36 at the time, and although I’d been open about my sexuality for more than a decade, with anyone who’d ask, the article stated, “Saxenmeyer discloses his sexual orientation, the first time he’s done so in print, in an effort to assure viewers that the Experiment was produced by dedicated staff members of both sexual orientations.”

I explained, “We received a lot of emails from people who basically said, ‘I hope some gay people are involved in putting this project together.’”

I went on to describe the casting process like this: “We interviewed about 100 individuals in person and we did get our share of extremists. One guy said gay sex was like having sex with a goat, another spent the majority of the interview outlining what he called ‘the different levels of heaven.’ But we ultimately found a group of 10 amazing gay and straight individuals who really fulfilled our vision for this project.”

Several years later, when I was asked to write a chapter about EGS for a University of Illinois-Chicago textbook called Race/Gender/Class/Media: Considering Diversity Across Audiences, Content and Producers, I explained the process like this: “The most important part in putting together this kind of project is the selection of the participants. I needed people who were smart, articulate, engaging, uninhibited, and unafraid to voice their opinions—informed opinions. They also needed to know how to listen and be willing to learn. This was a chance to let their guards down, to throw “political correctness” to the wind, to delve into subjects often considered taboo for polite discussion, and to cast away their fears about being labeled ignorant, a “hater,” or perverted. Perhaps most importantly, though, I had to make sure we weeded out closed-minded zealots and activists with specific agendas, or this Experiment simply wouldn’t work.”

 

The editor of this University of Illinois-Chicago textbook asked Experiment: Gay and Straight executive producer Mark Saxenmeyer to write a chapter about the project.

 

Minnis recalls, “There were people who were like, ‘No way. Being gay is horrible. I’m never going to be OK with it.’ We needed people who were willing to say, ‘Hey, we want to have healthy conversations about this so that when we leave this house, I will understand you better and you will hopefully understand me better.’”

The final 10 participants consisted of three gay men, two straight men, three straight women and two lesbians. They came from all corners of the Chicago area, and ranged in age from 23 to 48.

The five straight participants consisted of:

* Brandon, 44, a teacher and divorced father of two pre-teens struggling with the fact his wife left him for a woman

* Darlene, 48, a married housewife whose grown son had recently been assaulted in a homophobic attack

* Frank, 26, an admittedly homophobic actor/waiter/new dad who said he’d have a hard time accepting his infant son if he grew up to be gay

* Jennifer, 31, an advertising executive who despite her friendships with gay men found lesbian relationships confusing and temporary

* Kyla, 29, a social worker whose religious beliefs prevented her from accepting what she called “the homosexual lifestyle”

The five gay participants consisted of:

* Andrea, 24, an accounting assistant looking for both love and her father’s approval

* Chris, 23, a recent college graduate who refused to live in the closet despite finding that many of his gay peers felt otherwise

* Deo, 33, a child welfare supervisor in search of a suitable sperm donor to father a new baby for her and her partner

* Larry, 31, unemployed, and planning a commitment ceremony with his partner

* Greg, 37 and HIV+, and an AIDS educator who had tried and failed to exorcise his homosexuality through conversion therapy

 

The participants of Experiment: Gay and Straight on the front steps of the Experiment house: (top row) Greg, Andrea, Larry (second row) Deo, Jennifer, Darlene (third row) Frank, Chris (fourth row) Brandon, Kyla

 

In interviews with She magazine following their seven-day experience, Larry said, “I think I was chosen because I didn’t fit the stereotypical gay male mold. I don’t like being called ‘girl’ nor am I the White, thin, hairless flamboyant, or ‘six-pack-guy’ shown on Queer as Folk or Will and Grace. I was chosen to show a little diversity in our community.”

Deo said, “I’ve been in a stable relationship for nine years, we got married (though it technically wasn’t legal), we raise my partner’s 12-year-old child, and we’re planning on having one of our own. I think this portrays any regular family, we just happen to be lesbians.”

Chris explained, “I feel it was only my duty to be myself and discuss issues in the same way I would if the camera weren’t there. I’m not out to sell anyone on how wonderful gay people are—because we’re not. We’re just the same as anybody else, good and bad. I think the Experiment was to open dialogue, not parade around positive images of gay life.”

Jennifer commented, “I believed that gay men are born gay. It’s not a choice, as my gay male friends have repeatedly proven to me. But lesbians, I thought that’s another story. I thought true lesbians didn’t even exist—they’re just bisexual women making a choice.”

Kyla told She, “Before entering the house, I felt that homosexuality was a sin. I thought that two males having sex was barbaric, and two females having sex was nasty. I thought it just wasn’t natural…I also thought it would be a great opportunity to actually speak candidly with gay people since I did not know anyone who is openly gay. I considered myself to be articulate enough to represent what I felt to be the majority opinion.”

 

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The participants were given daily assignments, tasks, and challenges, and were guided through in-depth conversations about sexuality—every hot button topic imaginable. Much of what was expressed by the group echoed the views of the general public—opinions and feelings many people might voice privately but fear or resist saying aloud because of the potentially negative repercussions. In EGS, our housemates were refreshingly and sometimes stunningly honest. There was no tiptoeing around any issue whatsoever.

 

Videographer Leo Brucato records conversations among the Experiment participants during one of their group meals.

 

Chris Davis, one of the lead videographers on both The Experiment in Black and White and Experiment: Gay and Straight, recalls, “We learned a lot from our first Experiment in terms of how to adequately cover everything that was going on in the house, all at once, with 10 people. It was still quite a logistical challenge to capture everything, day and night, but I think we did a pretty good job with a very limited number of cameras and crew members.”

The project premiered as a multi-part series on the news, and we then turned it into a 90-minute documentary that premiered in June 2003 in conjunction with LGBTQ+ Pride Month.

For me, the most moving and memorable moments of the week were Frank’s emotional upheaval when confronted with a question about whether he would have aborted his son if it were possible to know a child’s eventual sexual orientation while still in the womb; the deep bond that grew between Darlene and Greg when she revealed to him that her son was also HIV positive; the literal breakdown of a usually stoic Larry when he verbalized his depression over the fact no one in his family was willing to attend his commitment ceremony with his partner; and the standoff between Kyla and Brandon, and the rest of the housemates, over whether Christianity condemned homosexuals.

When Windy City Times reviewed the documentary upon its release in June 2003, its critic wrote, “The first serious challenge arose when Greg’s HIV status was revealed to the group. Ignorance levels of the straight participants were, 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 time again.”

In her She magazine interview, Jennifer, a straight, single, 31-year-old advertising executive said, “I will admit I was a little freaked out at the thought of a gay man with AIDS being in the house. I wanted to occasionally wipe things down, like the toilet seat.”

Greg told Windy City Times, “No one majorly fought about it but I could tell there was some discomfort.” He continued, “People can change their attitudes and beliefs if they really want to. If they’re really open, they really can.”

 

Experiment participant Jennifer (top) in 2003 and (bottom) in 2023.

 

Jennifer is now 51 and married to the man she was dating at the time of EGS. They have an eight-year-old daughter. She still works in advertising, but the family relocated to New Orleans. “I was less educated about AIDS back then, as we all were,” she explains. “But if you watch the documentary, you see that all changes by week’s end.”

Straight participant Frank, a 25-year-old actor and waiter at the time, was equally concerned about Greg’s HIV status. Twenty years later, living again in Louisville, Kentucky where he grew up and running his family’s 35-year-old deli and catering business, Frank says he cringes when he watches his reaction to Greg’s HIV status. “I’m so much more educated and understanding of anything of that nature today,” he says. “If anything, I want to help. Before it was like ‘Oh my god, I gotta get away from it.’”

Experiment: Gay and Straight is analyzed and dissected in author Christopher Pullen’s 2007 book, Documenting Gay Men: Identity and Performance in Reality Television and Documentary Film. Pullen, a media professor at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom, studies the ways that gays in the media are impacting political and social change, and challenging prevailing ideas and social norms.

Pullen wrote about the documentary, “While religion is foregrounded as a sensitive topic of concern for those opposed to gay rights, [EGS] reveals that those who use such debates as a tool for subjugation do so in a simplistic manner.”

 

Christopher Pullen’s book examines how reality television and documentary film portray gay men, including an analysis of Experiment: Gay and Straight.

 

Pullen pointed out that straight participant Darlene, “as the mother of a gay son and the most senior member of the group, not only counters the idea that religion is a relevant reason for subjugation, she also indicates that her role as a caring mother is a more important reason to find acceptance.”

He continued, “Similarly, although gay participant Greg spent time questioning his sexuality with regard to religion, he reveals that despite this journey he has gained enlightenment and finds a feeling of acceptance in religious terms.

“Therefore both Darlene and Greg invert a stereotype which suggests that religion is the exclusive domain of heterosexuals: Darlene suggests there is no need for religion [in the context of sexuality], and Greg has embarked on a difficult journey concerning religion [as it pertains to his sexuality] which has led him to reconcile his religious faith with his homosexuality.”

Pullen goes on to write, “Conversely, straight participants Kyla and Brandon are seen as using religion in an arbitrary way: Kyla admits that she is living in sin with her partner and therefore may not be adhering to the religious discourse she is advocating, while Brandon has personal issues [with his lesbian ex-wife] which suggest that he may be using religion as an excuse to subjugate.”

Pullen concluded that EGS “positions the relationship between parent and child as the essential building block in attempting to reform dominant ideas concerning the acceptance of homosexuality.”

He specifically cited the conversation involving Frank’s trepidation about having a gay child. “Most provocatively, Frank is subject to a hypothetical moral dilemma, concerning his son, as part of the program strategy. The producers pose a question to Frank (aware that he has a baby boy who he is already missing while he’s in the house): ‘Your wife is pregnant with a boy and modern medical advances enable doctors to learn that he is going to be gay. Would you abort him?’ This topic of discussion puts intense emotional stress not only on Frank but also on other cast members:

Mark Saxenmeyer, host: What would your thought process have been?

Frank: (breaks down and cries; this is edited in a split screen with a photo of his son)

Deo: (female gay participant, commenting in an interview later): Once he pictured his own son, man, if that doesn’t slam you in the face, what does?

Mark Saxenmeyer (to Frank): If you could look into the future and see the son you have now but you knew you had aborted him…

Frank: I hope to God that I would accept it.”

Today, Frank is 45 and his son, Ryan, is 21. Frank left Chicago and split with Ryan’s mother in 2005. She retained primary custody, but Frank says he’s always maintained a strong relationship with his only child. (He married a different woman in 2007 but divorced her seven years later.)

I asked Frank if he’s ever shown Experiment: Gay and Straight to Ryan and he said that he had.

“And what about the part where we posed the ‘would-you-abort-your-unborn child-if-you-knew-he-would-be-gay” question? How did Ryan react?” I wondered.

“It was an awkward moment,” Frank admits, but says they didn’t discuss it further.

 

Experiment participant Frank (top) in 2003 and (bottom) in 2023.

 

“Being who I am now,” he adds, “it wouldn’t even be a question or an issue. I’m such a different person from the guy in that show 20 years ago.”

Frank says he raised Ryan differently than the way his own parents raised him. “I exposed him to everything, so he saw the world as it is, whereas my parents sheltered me to hide me from truths,” he explains.

“The Experiment was like shedding skin in a weird way,” Frank says. “It was a way of making myself a better person. I had a very immature, inexperienced mind that needed to be opened up to growth. It made me look inside myself and learn that the way I was, was not who I should be.”

Brandon, now 64, is still single after his divorce from his wife who left him for another woman. He’s a restaurant union supervisor in New Orleans—and a two-time cancer survivor. His children, Brandon Jr. and Jalena, who make appearances in EGS, are 33 and 31 today.

“I had some unresolved issues back then relating to my ex-wife coming out,” Brandon says. “I was still angry. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why a woman who I made a vow to spend eternity with had chosen to leave me for another woman. I think I would have been more accepting had it been a man. I wondered, ‘Is there something that I’m lacking? What was it that I could have done?’”

 

Experiment participant Brandon (top) in 2003 and (bottom) in 2023.

 

Brandon, who’d been married to his wife for four years when she left him, essentially raised his children by himself. “She told me she was not ready to be a wife or a mother. I was blindsided.”

Brandon hoped that by participating in EGS, he might open a constructive dialogue between his ex and himself, and also help his children better understand both the break-up and their mother’s sexuality. But it didn’t work out that way. “I heard that she thought I came off looking like a fool on the show,” he says. “And after that, I never brought it up again with her.”

Throughout most of the week-long Experiment, Brandon was insistent that homosexuality was a sin, and that gays were sinners. “I was trying to find reasons why my wife left me, and to justify that it wasn’t because of me,” he says. “I know now that it had nothing to do with me.”

Brandon explains that “during the time I grew up, I think it was an embarrassment, for the most part, if you had a child coming out with an alternative lifestyle. For the most part, I think it’s much different and acceptable now.

“I’m also a much different person than I was 20 years ago,” he adds. “My attitude has definitely changed from the time of the Experiment. Today, I think people should be able to be in a relationship or marry whomever they choose, as long as they’re consenting adults.”

Brandon says EGS “made me think more, and to not be as close-minded. And it promoted dialogue between me and my children.”

Though he says he’s still religious, “I don’t have a heaven or hell to put anyone in,” he explains. “I concentrate on me and making sure that I’m doing the best that I can. I can’t be looking into someone else’s closet, no pun intended.” His mantra today: “Get to know a person for who they are. Don’t judge them on who they choose to sleep with or build a life with.”

 

Experiment participant Brandon and his two children (top) in 2003 and (bottom) in 2023.

 

In its review of the documentary after it was released on the film festival circuit, Frameline, San Francisco’s International LGBTQ+ Film Festival, wrote, “In moving vignettes of pain and celebration…the show succeeds in putting a human face on the struggle for acceptance…A particularly poignant moment occurs when Larry, a gay man, can’t remember the last time he cried. He then breaks down over the fact that his family won’t be attending his wedding ceremony. Darlene (the mother of a gay son), hugs him as he weeps, becoming a surrogate mom. Darlene becomes everyone’s mom during the week. This scene seems to trigger a change in Kyla, along with the equally judgmental Frank and Brandon. Will intolerant straights choose to support their new friend, or stick with old stereotypes?”

Pullen pointed to this same highly emotional sequence in the documentary, one that he said “highlights the significance that the discourses of acceptance and equality have for gay people as they are growing up…

“Evidence of this may be seen in the engagement between Darlene and Larry. Darlene, as discussed, expresses acceptance for her gay son and then Larry and Darlene discuss the refusal of Larry’s family to accept his relationship, seen in their unwillingness to attend his same sex partnership celebration. This results in Darlene inciting Larry to stand up to his parents indicating their failings:

Larry: My mom is homophobic…

Darlene: I’m a mom, I’ll be a mom until I die. I don’t care if I have a gay child, a straight child, a bad child. I’m his mom. I thought about that before I brought kids into this world. I’m going to be a mom for the rest of my life. (Darlene goes on to say that a parent who would reject a gay child is unimaginable to her.) They say, “I don’t like you because you’re ‘bad’’ and “Get out of my life.” You do that to your trash, not your blood. I don’t know how some people can be like that. They don’t deserve to have the title of parent.

Larry: I didn’t think a mom like you was possible. Am I asking too much? I will never have what I want from them (starting to cry) and I feel like a wimp [for not standing up to his family…]

Darlene: Why, because you’re crying?

Larry: It feels like I’m letting them get to me, and I’m giving them the ability to get to me. It should not hurt. I am 31-years-old…

Darlene: No, you’re a fucking human! You have a heart!”

Today, Darlene (now 68) is pleased to say that her gay son (also named Larry) is healthy, married, and living in San Francisco where he works as a nurse. “He’s doing great,” she says.

Since EGS, Darlene divorced the husband who appears in the film. “He never watched it,” she says. “He refused to watch it.” She later remarried, moving to Minnesota where she lived with her new husband until he died after 10 years of marriage. She then moved to Hiram, Georgia, about 45 minutes northwest of Atlanta, to be closer to family. There, she met her current squeeze (six years her junior) with whom she now lives. “I don’t feel old—and I was tired of being lonely,” she says.

 

Experiment participant Darlene (top) in 2003, (middle) in 2023, and (bottom) with her son Larry at his wedding. 

 

After EGS was released, Darlene says the responses she received from viewers were mainly positive. “There were a handful of people who said my son was going to hell or that I was going to hell for accepting him,” she explains. “They’d say ‘God says this’ and ‘God says that.’ I just told them, ‘You might go to hell because of the way you think but I don’t think that way at all. God loves us just the way we are.’”

“Religion is man-made but to some people that hold on to The Bible, that’s just an excuse to stay in the dark,” says Deo, now 52. “Those Bible stories were word of mouth for a thousand years before they were written. It was like a game of telephone.”

Deo and the woman she was partnered with at the time of EGS were never able to conceive using in vitro fertilization but they did adopt a baby girl. She’s now a 19-year-old college student named Jasmine.

“At the time they wouldn’t allow a same sex couple to adopt together,” Deo explains. “One of us had to adopt her first and then the other was able to be added as a legal parent later. Fortunately, the law has since changed.”

Deo and her ex broke up when Jasmine was still a toddler and both women embarked on new relationships. But they continued to share custody amicably. Deo has been with her current wife, Jill, for 17 years.

 

Experiment participant Deo (top) in 2003, (middle) in 2023, and (bottom) with her wife Jill and daughter Jasmine.

 

“Jasmine never had an issue with two moms,” Deo says. “And that was such an amazing experience. We always raised her with the truth. When we lived in Chicago, she would go to school and say, ‘I have four moms!’ (referring to both Deo, her ex, and their current spouses). The other kids would say ‘Oh you’re lucky!’”

When the family moved to a Chicago suburb, however, “Jasmine went through some culture shock,” Deo explains. “Not everybody was as embracing and there was a kid who wore a t-shirt that said “LGBT = Liberty, Guns, Bible, Trump.”

Deo says her immediate family has come a long way toward acceptance as well. “My dad didn’t come to my first wedding ceremony. But now, 20 years later, he’ll say, ‘Say hi to your woman for me.’ He and she get along.”

As out and proud as Deo was at the time of EGS, working for Chicago’s Department of Children and Family Services, when she became a social worker at a high school in the suburbs two years later, “I was scared to be out,” she says. “I went back in the closet a little bit. I thought I could get fired. And people do—they do get fired. They still do. I thought a parent could complain ‘I don’t want my daughter in a room with a lesbian.’”

But a year later she did come out. “I remember getting an email from a lesbian student and she wrote ‘Dear Miss Deo, today is National Coming Out Day and I want you to know how much I appreciate having a lesbian role model here in school.’ It really touched me.”

Although straight participant Jennifer says that meeting and getting to know both Deo and Andrea, the other lesbian participant, helped her better understand lesbians in general, she still has questions 20 years later.

“I do still struggle with the ‘lesbian experiments’ that several of my divorced girlfriends pursued once their marriages to men were over,” Jennifer explains. “None of the relationships with women lasted and they ultimately returned to men. Everyone joked ‘they have to get through the lesbian phase…’ yet I’ve never seen this type of behavior from my gay male friends. Why is that? It truly boggles my mind that it’s accepted as almost a rite of passage before the next husband.”

Deo responds, “OK, then a woman like that is bisexual. I think some women—and it pisses me off to say this—think ‘I’m gonna try women next. I’m gonna go lesbian.’ But ‘going lesbian’ is not a choice. No, it’s not a choice. You’re going to go and try and be with women. There’s nothing wrong with it. There’s less of a stigma now. But you’re not gay, you’re just curious or maybe bisexual.”

She continues, “If you want to sleep around, fine. But don’t say things like ‘hey, I was a lesbian in college.’ No, you weren’t! You were horny and drunk, and she was cute. That’s all it was.”

Jennifer’s questions aside, she says, “When my 8-year-old daughter talks about getting married I say, ‘well, that girl or guy will be very lucky to marry you…’ I work hard to ensure that she’s accepting of all relationships and orientations. If my daughter tells me one day that she loves a woman, I will celebrate with her.”

 

    *     *     *

 

In our admittedly manufactured EGS home, this makeshift family had no choice but to keep talking, keep learning, and continue evolving. And when all the other aspects of living together were thrown into the mix, like sharing a bathroom, or making dinner, or playing cards, the contentious issues and animosities eased into the background as the participants got to know each other on a personal level.

 

On their first day together, Greg, Jennifer and Deo choose their beds. Accommodations for the 10 Experiment participants were tight in the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. 

 

Videographer Davis, now the Vice President of The Reporters Inc., recalls, “During the first couple of days, the participants were very polarized. It was always after an intense group discussion that a personal breakthrough of some sort would occur with one or more of them. In order to capture these moments, we [the camera crews and sound techs] needed to be highly tuned in to what was going on and ‘follow the action,’ if you will. At the same time, we needed to kind of melt into the background so as to not interrupt or impede the conversations.”

He adds, “People find it hard to believe but after only a short while, the participants really stopped paying attention to the cameras and that helped bring down walls to reveal real opinions and raw emotions.”

In his promotional exit interview with us, after the participants’ week together ended, Larry said, “We started formal group discussions every morning at 9am and often didn’t finish the day until 11pm at night—with more gay/straight-related articles to read in preparation for the next day’s discussion subjects. Even as we went to bed, we were still thinking about the topics we debated all day. As if that’s not stressful enough, day after day, there was no real “off” switch. We were constantly, by design, around the same nine other people and couldn’t leave the confines of the house or the yard. Even our “breaks” weren’t relaxing because someone was always worked up about something. The books that were provided all had to deal with gay and straight issues so we couldn’t “veg out” on those, the TV was never turned on unless we were instructed to watch a video related to sexuality. Very intense.”

 

In the Experiment house’s kitchen, participants engage in one of many long and sometimes heated conversations that played out all week long. 

 

Andrea, in her exit interview, said, “It was a very emotional trip. We didn’t have the people that we rely on every day there, to provide support. The 10 of us only had each other. Then, having to talk practically nonstop about gay-straight issues, it was important to be emotionally stable and strong every minute of every day. That was probably the hardest part. In the real world, when you have arguments with people you can always walk away.”

Deo, in her exit interview, added, “In ‘real life,’ you can come home and talk about it with your spouse or partner. You get a chance to unwind. There was none of that during the Experiment. I was surprised at how emotional I became. This project really did take a toll on me.”

Had EGS instead asked participants to meet for, say, eight hours a day and then allowed them to return at night to the safe haven of their homes to vent to their friends and family—people who most likely shared their long-held beliefs—that allowance would have simply helped them further enforce and solidify their pre-Experiment opinions. I believed it would have been detrimental to the mission at hand.

Minnis agrees, saying, “That formula of isolation works to create instant community.”

In his exit interview, Frank said, “It was the longest week of my life. Minutes went by like hours and at first I thought I was going to lose my mind and walk out. Patience was a true necessity.”

As they exchanged stories about their children, hobbies, jobs, and travels, the discussions about sexuality would then take on a different perspective. Differences remained, but a deeper appreciation for each other grew.

Frank added, “Everyone in America needs to go through something like this. If they did, they would truly understand why this affected us all so deeply. It was nonstop emotion. I swear I wouldn’t believe it if I was on the outside, but people need to watch this with an open mind and take our word for it that it really made a difference in our lives.”

 

Brandon and Kyla take refuse in an Experiment house bedroom. The two often found themselves at odds with the other Experiment participants because of their religious beliefs.

 

During Kyla’s exit interview, however, she disagreed. “I thought that I would clearly articulate the thoughts of my community,” she said. “I thought my presence would show people that you can disagree with someone’s sexual orientation and lifestyle, but still honor and respect them as a person. Boy, was I wrong!”

She continued, “Despite thinking that my views were moderate, all of the homosexual and two of the heterosexual participants saw them as extreme, to say the least. I was not the most popular person there–but definitely memorable.”

Coverage of EGS by other media was extensive, with generally favorable articles written in gay publications such as Windy City Times, Chicago Free Press, She, Instinct and The Advocate, as well as mainstream print and web-based press such as Chicago Sun-Times, Red Streak, Electronic Media, People, and USA Today. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) even released a press release citing the program’s importance.

American Journalism Review (AJR) wrote, “Reporter Mark Saxenmeyer…knows full well the traditional news brigade will scoff themselves silly over this—and he doesn’t seem to care. What matters, Saxenmeyer says, is that people actually watch the thing, and maybe even lose a prejudice or two. A reality show, he says, is the bait to lure viewers to the substance.”

And sure enough, those traditionalists did indeed weigh in. The Chicago Tribune’s media columnist told AJR, “It’s as if I enlisted somebody to run through downtown Chicago in a chicken suit, then presented it as a news story…There are probably more responsible ways to address gay versus straight issues rather than jamming people together and waiting for the fireworks.”

Today, Minnis still takes great issue with those comments. “Maybe we weren’t reporting on an event that was happening, but we were reporting on very important social issues,” she explains. “The way to really get to the heart of those issues, and have those really important conversations, is truly at an individual level. And you can’t do that unless you create an environment that is a safe space that encourages that connection. The Experiment was a place for these 10 people to really examine issues deeply, and they then became a conduit for societal awareness, education and change.”

Even Variety, whose critic generally hated EGS, admitted, “Various exercises and heart-to-hearts serve to promote a dialogue that results in broadened minds by week’s end.”

My final response to the critics: Yep, we took an unorthodox approach.  It’s because I believed (then, and most definitely now) that most television news coverage of serious subject matter is stale, dull, and redundant. Experiment: Gay and Straight was a fresh voice, an intriguing alternative, delivered with integrity, and poised to redefine the parameters of substantive journalism. EGS might be a gimmick, but if so, it’s a gimmick that helped our participants and our viewers scrutinize their beliefs in a way never before attempted within the parameters of television news.

 

Media coverage of Experiment: Gay and Straight included articles in (top) mainstream newspapers like Chicago Sun-Times and (bottom) LGBTQ+ magazines like Instinct.

 

Viewer reaction to the documentary was truly overwhelming. The housemates each received hundreds of personal e-mails (we set up addresses for them on our website). Here’s a sampling: “Responsible, interesting, serving a higher purpose. Thank you for daring to be different.” “If there was ever a way to help the pain from being gay, this was it.” “Thank you also for helping gay people understand how straight people feel.” “Thank you for being my inspiration and my reason for coming out of the closet. Just by watching, you all have shown me that there truly is a happy life awaiting me.”

Hundreds of educators from churches, workplaces, schools and universities from across the nation and around the globe (in places like England, Holland, Australia, Poland and Venezuela) asked for copies of the program to use in sexuality, psychology, sociology, journalism, conflict resolution, and diversity/sensitivity training classes. We’re also proud to say that more than 40 chapters of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) added Experiment: Gay And Straight to their libraries and held discussions about it at their meetings.

The coordinator of the Gay and Lesbian Student Support Services Center at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana wrote, The Experiment is an excellent piece of journalism, groundbreaking in many respects, and it will be an invaluable resource as we continue to encourage students here to ‘learn from their hearts’ and not just their heads during their university years. As someone who has little patience for much of what is on TV these days, particularly if it’s advertised as reality TV, I was tremendously impressed, even inspired, by how you dealt with the topic of homosexuality in such a creative and heartfelt manner.”

A teacher at Hudson High School in Hudson, Ohio wrote, “My students found themselves identifying with at least one participant in the program. They thought it brought out issues that many people don’t want to discuss. We did have a heated debate when one student said, ‘No one in here would commit a gay hate crime,’ which prompted another student to say, ‘Maybe so, but think about the number of times we hear faggot or that’s so gay in the hallways.’”

In addition, the 10 housemates and I were invited to speak about the project on radio stations, at high schools, universities, and at a wide variety of gay and lesbian organizations.

When we launched the project on the film festival circuit, EGS was accepted into and shown at two dozen international fests in cities around the globe. They included: Auckland, New Zealand; Austin, Texas; Breckenridge, Colorado; Brussels, Belgium; Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, South Africa; Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Detroit, Michigan; Erie, Pennsylvania; Indianapolis, Indiana; Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, California; Memphis, Tennessee; Mexico City, Mexico; Montreal, Canada; New Orleans, Louisiana; Orlando, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Rochester, New York; Salt Lake City, Utah; Seattle, Washington; and Washington D.C.

 

(Top) An audience member’s ballot at the Austin, Texas Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, (middle) a ticket stub from the Austin festival, and (bottom) Experiment participants Andrea, Jennifer, Executive Producer Mark Saxenmeyer, Senior Producer Kathy Minnis, and participant Darlene attend a screening of the documentary at the Breckenridge, Colorado Festival of Film in 2003. 

 

A reviewer for the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Festival wrote, “While each person enters the house with their own reasons and agendas, they find unexpected revelations and truthful moments that shatter their very cores and pave the way for compassion and acceptance. For those soured by (then President George Bush) W’s feverish, far-right, anti-gay crusade, this film reaffirms the potential for pro-gay change in even the most staunchly homophobic individuals. And it’s as entertaining as any episode of Survivor or The Apprentice.”

A critic for Metro Weekly in Washington D.C., reviewing the film for Reel Affirmations, D.C.’s International LGBTQ+ Film Festival, described EGS as “Soul food. Delicious, nourishing and good for the spirit, this documentary positively soars…There’s something about being locked in a house with no TVs, no computers, no contact with the outside world. People talk. Slowly, bit by bit, the walls come down. Through laughter, cigarettes and tears—oh so many tears—the participants see each other as people, not labels. After a while, it’s not just some faggot or straight boy meathead sitting across from you. it’s Frank, father of a newborn baby, or Larry, the burly bear whose family refuses to come to his gay wedding. There’s a telling moment in the Experiment when Larry says, ‘In ordinary life, it’s easy to escape opinions and people you don’t like. You just walk away.’ But nobody does that here. They all stay, and talk…Documentaries are designed to show how the world really is, but the very best ones, I think, also show what the world can be.”

In Dallas, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Orlando and Sydney, Experiment: Gay and Straight was named by audiences and/or juries as Best Documentary.

As a result of the exposure from the festival circuit, I was approached by three different home video companies, and by Canadian television executives interested in buying and rebroadcasting the program. The Director of Programming and Operations for PrideVision TV (now OutTV) wrote, “I am very impressed with the emotional edge, honestly, and quality…it would be an honor to air this documentary on our network.” But unfortunately, because we used contemporary music in the production, allowed under broadcasting rules in the U.S. if a station paid licensing fees to ASCAP (American Society of Composer, Authors and Publishers) we couldn’t afford the rights to those songs for widespread distribution.

EGS also won the National Gracie Allen Award from the American Women in Radio and Television (Best Reality Television Program), the American Scene Award from the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a Siegenthaler Award from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, an Emmy Award from the Chicago/Midwest chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (Outstanding Media Interactivity), a Peter Lisagor Award from the Chicago Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (Best Feature) honors from the Illinois/Missouri Associated Press Broadcasters Association (Best Feature Series) and the national Unity Award in Media from Lincoln University of Missouri (Outstanding Public Affairs/Social Issues Reporting).

I like to think that the accolades poured in because, as Pullen wrote in his 2007 book, “Rather than being tension- or formula-based, Experiment: Gay and Straight emphasizes education and understanding as the operative element in producing harmony.”

 

    *     *     *

 

Twenty years after EGS premiered, I’ve only been able to locate and interview half of the 10 participants for this article. As for the five others, one declined to be interviewed, three didn’t respond to my request, and I couldn’t find the fifth. But I wish them all well and think about them often.

As for the participants I did speak with, they’re both hopeful and concerned about the status of gay-straight relations in 2023.

At the school where Deo works now, she says, “We’ve got a gay-straight alliance group, I run a group for kids who identify as pansexual or transgender, and there are 50 kids in this group! I see kids coming out so much sooner and younger—they came out in middle school. It’s wonderful. Yes, there are still mean kids. A lot of kids still say ‘fag’ or use ‘gay’ in a derogatory way but bullying is less prominent and for the most part kids are accepting. There is so much support now and teachers and staff are handed out materials to place in our classrooms to show kids this is a safe place. None of that was common or OK before. I’m a little envious of how much easier it is for kids coming out than it was when I was their age.”

Jennifer agrees, saying, “The gay kids of today seem to have it so much easier. The young gay men I’ve met in the past couple years all came out very early and with much acceptance. It’s almost like ‘so what, it’s no biggie!’ and they don’t realize—or choose to disregard—that at one point it was a “biggie.’”

She adds, “And then you have the trans kids who are on TikTok doing all kinds of things, and so confident. Not so long ago, this would have never happened. Now they have a platform to express themselves.”

“When you look at the world 20 years ago, compared to now, I believe we’ve made some great steps,” says Frank. “I’m very much supportive of anything that makes people feel more true to themselves. I had a trans employee for nine years. I was the one they would come to when they had problems. I kind of got a window into what was going on. They were ridiculed, people calling them ‘dude’ and refusing to change even after being corrected. I did what I could to help. For me, love always wins.”

As for the future, Deo says, “I’m hopeful. The media has helped with that. You see commercials now on TV with gay and lesbian couples. There are shows about lesbians and gay couples and they’re perceived as normal, and functional.”

 

Supporters gather at the Minnesota capitol in St. Paul when the state legalized same-sex marriage in August 2013. Two years later, it would become legal nationwide.

 

Like many in the LGBTQ+ community, I sincerely thought that after the U.S. Supreme Court recognized same sex marriage in 2015 via the historic Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the pendulum of tolerance, if not acceptance, had finally swung in our favor. Our long fight to attain the right to love each other legally, with the same protections and privileges that straight people have always enjoyed, had been won.

But visibility can be a double-edged sword.

The backlash against progress took full root when Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017:

* He signed a law that undercut President Barack Obama’s anti-discriminatory protections for LGBTQ workers.

* He took steps to remove rights for transgender Americans, including a ban on transgender troops, and adopting a regulation that defines gender as a person’s biological sex.

* His administration vowed to give federal funds to schools even if they discriminated against LGBTQ+ students and it scaled back civil rights enforcements that helped LGBTQ+ students.

* References to LGBTQ+ people were scrubbed from government programs—from protecting LGBTQ youth against sex trafficking to collecting data on LGBTQ elderly people.

* He pushed for religious exemptions to civil rights laws making it easier to discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals,

* Hate-motivated homicides of LGBTQ people jumped a whopping 86 percent nationwide, according to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

Trump’s ascendence, actions, rhetoric and lies gave hate a huge new platform, and today there is even more bad news as a result:

* A 2022 survey by The Trevor Project found that 45 percent of  LGBTQ+ youths seriously considered attempting suicide in the preceding year. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-fifth of gay, lesbian or bisexual high school students did attempt suicide in the past year.

* A 2022 GLAAD study found that seven in 10 LGBTQ+ Americans report experiencing discrimination in the workplace, on social media, in public accommodations and even within their own families.

* In 2020, KFF polling revealed that 30 percent of Republicans said society had gone “too far” in its acceptance of transgender people. In August 2021, NBC News polling revealed the “too far” crowd was at 46 percent. In 2022, those NBC numbers rose to 56 percent, and Pew showed them jumping to 66 percent. In March of this year, they increased further to 75 percent in a Wall Street Journal-NORC poll. And in April 2023, the NBC poll revealed 79 percent of Republicans now think the U.S. has  gone “too far” in accepting transgender people.

“Gay/straight relations definitely improved under Obama,” Deo says. “But the day after Trump was elected, we went 100 percent backwards.”

“I miss Obama,” says Frank. “Truly. I did like him so much. It’s hard to navigate the politics now because we’re going in so many directions and we’re getting away from what we really need to be as a nation— and that’s united.”

“There’s more hate out there than I ever realized,” says Jennifer. “Before Trump I never saw or had to deal with the hate. It’s gotten much worse, and I fear that we can’t co-exist anymore.”

She adds, “We’re teetering dangerously close to acceptance of this hate with our political choices. We’re in a post-Trump society where cruelty and judgment are accepted and encouraged. I worry about anyone not White, straight and Christian. How have we made so much progress on one hand, and then start banning drag shows? What the hell!”

 

To watch the trailer for Experiment: Gay and Straight, CLICK HERE.

To watch the entire documentary, CLICK HERE.

 

Deo adds, “Then, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, it seemed clear that they were coming for gay marriage next. But you’re not going to tell me that I’m not married. No, that’s not gonna happen.”

Brandon is more optimistic, predicting steady progress for the LGBTQ+ community in the future. He explains, “One reason is because just as the Black community became a group that had to be considered when you’re running for office, the same is true now for the gay community. You have to reach those groups if you want to win an election. If you don’t, it’s a losing strategy in the long run.”

As for Kathy Minnis, the EGS senior producer, she says, “I have the privilege of having many friends and family who are out, both gay and transgender, and then I also have friends and family who haven’t come out yet because it doesn’t feel safe for them. They don’t feel safe just living as who they are in this country.”

She adds, “There’s a faction out there that wants to take away rights, and so this is an inflection moment where we have a choice to make as a country and a culture. Are we going to move forward or are we going to move backwards? The fact that we aren’t enlightened enough, 20 years later, to be able to just say ‘love is love’ is why it’s so important that this piece of storytelling exists. The current political and legal attacks on the gay and transgender communities are heartbreaking, infuriating and the reason why Experiment: Gay and Straight, two decades later, is still relevant.”

 

Drag performers are all smiles aboard a Chicago Pride Parade float in 2008.

 

Of course, there is some good news. And maybe, just maybe, it outweighs the bad:

7.2 percent of U.S. adults now identify as LGBTQ, doubling what Gallup found a decade ago. About 21 percent of Generation Z Americans—those born from 1997 to 2003—identify as LGBTQ. Among Millennials—those born from 1981 to 1996—10.5 percent identify as LGBTQ+.

* In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that under the landmark Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights act, barring sex discrimination in the workplace should be understood to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

* When President Joe Biden took office in 2021, he immediately signed executive orders revoking the Trump-era ban on transgender individuals serving in the military and barring discrimination in the federal government on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. He recently announced new initiatives aimed at addressing LGBTQ+ mental health, homelessness, hate crimes and discrimination. And just this month he held the largest Pride celebration in White House history.

* In December 2022, Biden signed legislation writing protections for same-sex marriage into federal law amid fears the Supreme Court might revisit its 2015 decision legalizing same-sex nuptials. (In connection with the shocking overturn of abortion rights established in Roe v. Wade, Justice Clarence Thomas denounced the legalization of gay marriage as “demonstrably erroneous.”)

* In the November 2022 elections, 436 LGBTQ+ candidates won in their races, 100 more than in 2020—a 60 percent win rate overall, according to the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund.

* A June 2023 Gallup poll found that 71 percent of Americans think same-sex marriage should remain legal. The groups most in favor are adults aged 18 to 29 (89 percent), Democrats (84 percent), and infrequent churchgoers (83 percent)..

* A March 2023, a Data for Progress poll of likely voters found that 64 percent of respondents thought that the number of anti-trans bills around the country was excessive and amounted to political theater.

* In April 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice joined a lawsuit challenging Tennessee over a ban on gender-affirming care for minors, calling it unconstitutional.

* In May 2023, the federal government concluded that a Georgia school district’s removal of LGBTQ+ books may have violated students’ rights, creating a “hostile environment” for them.

* Also in May, after suing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and accusing him of waging a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” when Disney spoke out against the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law,” the company then pulled out of a roughly $1 billion investment in the state. In its lawsuit, Disney wrote: “In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.”

* A 2023 GLAAD survey found that 70 percent of respondents believe companies should publicly support the LGBTQ+ community through advertising and sponsorships. And despite the recent “far-wrong” boycotts of Target, Bud Light and others, many companies have moved forward with their Pride Month plans, including Nike, North Face, Kohl’s, Walmart and PetSmart.

* My home state of Minnesota is one of several passing “trans refuge” laws that shield transgender children and their parents from legal repercussions if they travel to a refuge state for care. (Minnesota also passed a measure to fully ban conversion therapy, joining 20 other states.)

In the last 20 years, the LGBTQ+ community has continued to grow and evolve. Just a few years ago, words like “cisgender,” “nonbinary,” “gender fluid,” “gender nonconforming” and “pansexual” were foreign to many people. The word “queer,” which I hated growing up, has been reclaimed by our community and is now a label of pride and strength.

But all of this change has served to further enrage the far-wrong. Hating people it doesn’t understand has become a deranged calling. Often in the name of religion, its leaders propagate pathological lies, claiming to want to “save” children from “grooming” and fight a “woke agenda”—all non-existent nonsense used to stir up the prejudices and resentments of the most painfully uneducated, ignorant, unenlightened, and awful among them.

Some say it’s all an attempt to erase LGBTQ+ people from public life. I’d go a step further. If those who support demagogues like Trump and DeSantis held unfettered power, I firmly believe they’d attempt to eradicate us. The Neo-Nazis among them, the ones that have been menacing Pride events, drag story hours, school board and city hall meetings, and hospitals providing transgender care, most definitely want to see the return of pink triangle armbands and gas chambers. That’s not alarmist. It’s not hyperbole. They invert truth, gaslight, and smother the far-wrong cultist sheep with brainwashing propaganda, all straight from the playbook of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s “Minister for Public Enlightenment.” They are domestic terrorists, plain and simple, and they’ve been emboldened thanks to the cruelty and fascism that their cretinous leaders project and propel.

Of course, I still have faith that saner minds will prevail, preventing the very worst and most heinous impulses of the far-wrong from becoming the law of the land. But make no mistake, LGBTQ+ people will still die as a result of this despicable agenda to demonize and dehumanize us. Deaths from violence, suicide, health care refusals—just to name a few—will increase because of the sheer evil than emanates from America’s Deplorables.

As they persist in trying to ban bathrooms, pronouns and “saying gay,” we must stand united, never become complacent, and fight every vicious indignity. Our straight allies cannot remain on the sidelines, as silence gives the far-wrong permission to proceed with their harassment, humiliation, intimidation, oppression, degradation and terror.

Experiment: Gay and Straight was an attempt, 20 years ago, to bring people of differing sexualities together to alleviate fears, concerns, misconceptions and intolerance. I could have never imagined it would remain so extraordinarily relevant in these increasingly broken and polarized times.

 

 *     *     *

 

The Experiment participants say goodbye to one another as the project wrapped production in the fall of 2002.

 

The 10 EGS participants were willing to risk their reputations by voicing their true—and sometimes unpopular—views publicly.

There’s no doubt that many issues were left unresolved when the participants ended their week together. But there’s also no doubt that rational compromises were made. And there’s absolutely no doubt that both the gay and straight participants in this project, and the gay and straight viewers that watched it then (and can watch it now here online again, or for the first time), gained a better understanding of one another. My ultimate hope is that those who view the documentary today will be prompted to work towards resolving their own issues about sexuality.

Brandon, Deo, Frank and Jennifer aren’t sure if they’d have the time or energy to repeat the experience today, but 68-year-old Darlene (a.k.a. “everyone’s mom” during EGS) says she’d sign up to do it all over again, in a heartbeat. “Yes, because I think that from my life experiences in the last 20 years I know a lot more, and I have a lot more to say,” she explains. “I just might not be able to stay up past 8pm though!”

Experiment: Gay and Straight was simply about bridging a divide—one that was needed then, and perhaps even more so now. Reality television, sprinkled with a healthy dose of journalism, can indeed have a purpose.

 

Editor’s Note: Twenty years ago, the original Experiment: Gay and Straight electrified TV and movie screens, and The Reporters Inc. believes it deserves to be revisited and re-made today. We’ve held discussions about producing a new version of the project with American Public Television and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as local PBS stations from Maryland to Houston. All have expressed interest, and a desire, to broadcast an updated re-make.

A new Experiment: Gay and Straight promises to be a fresh voice and an intriguing alternative to the typical and often divisive LGBTQ+ reporting that saturates the media today. Please contact us at 612-333-3180 or at  if you’d like to help make this project happen.

Mark Saxenmeyer created Experiment: Gay and Straight and served as the executive producer of the project. Mark is now the executive director of The Reporters Inc. You can read more about him on our Team page and he can be reached at . 

 

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