A Gay ‘Idol’, and We Don’t Mean Judy Garland

[14 May 2014]

By Michael Abernethy

It’s no secret that American Idol has had LGB contestants before, but the show seemed to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy up until this season, until M. K. Nobilette.

M. K. Nobilette is a lesbian singer. There’s nothing really special about that, of course. Anywhere there’s a gathering of three or more lesbians, odds are pretty good at least one plays the guitar. There are probably more well-known lesbian or bisexual female singers than any other group of LGBT celebrities, outnumbering famous gay actors and lesbian basketball players, and coffee shops around the world are filled with wanna-be’s on open mike night. I fully expect them to form their own union soon.

What makes Nobilette noteworthy is that she is the first openly LGBT contestant on American Idol. It’s no secret that American Idol has had LGB contestants before, but the show seemed to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy up until this season. Now, with sagging ratings, the show is openly discussing Nobilette’s orientation:


This a far cry from the show’s first season, when gay contestant Jim Verraros was required to take down the online blog in which he openly discussed his sexuality. The show claimed it was because the blog gave him an unfair edge with voters; keep in mind this was two years before Facebook existed. Whatever the reason, the move effectively shoved Verraros back into the closet, at least for his Top Ten run on the show.

American Idol producers have long maintained that they leave it up to the contestants to decide whether to discuss their sexual orientation, and Nobilette is the first to take the risk. Still, one can’t help but wonder why she is the first. After all, a gay man, Theo Tams, won Canadian Idol in 2008, and frankly, many viewers are making assumptions about orientation (especially in the case of those like Adam Lambert, who had photos of him making out with another man and in drag leak while he was on the show).

What’s more, numerous reality competition shows have featured LGBT contestants, and some have even won—The Amazing Race, Survivor, even Ghost Hunter Academy—although never on a show where the winner is determined by audience vote. (Those gay winners on audience-based competitions, such as So You Think You Can Dance‘s Benji Schwimmer, didn’t come out until after they had won.)

Then there’s The Voice, which has its own lesbian singer this year, a beautiful but big gal who sings country music. Kristen Merlin is the last member of Team Shakira standing (as of this writing), and thus the only one who stands a chance at being the United States’ first LGBT singing champion, as Nobilette failed to make the Top Five on Idol.


More importantly is that The Voice has always championed its LGBT contestants and allowed them to express themselves openly. In its first season alone, The Voice featured four “out” gay or lesbian contestants, including Tyler Robinson, who chose the show as a venue to come out to his Mormon father. In an interview with AfterElton.com, Robinson noted the difference between American Idol and The Voice: “I feel like some reality shows like American Idol, they don’t really talk about stuff like that, and I think that’s another groundbreaking thing about this show is that we have four contestants on this show, four artists who are all out, who are all proud and we don’t have any issues with who we are”. Another competitor that season was bisexual Frenchie Davis, who had also appeared on season two of Idol and remained closeted on both shows.

It may be The Voice‘s handling of its LGB contestants that inspired the change over at American Idol, or it may be that the show’s decline in ratings is forcing it to reach out to specific demographics in new ways. Still, the producers might be right, that no one has chosen to disclose before now. Take Clay Aiken. In 2008, five years after placing as the American Idol runner-up, he revealed that he was gay, an announcement that had all the shock value of Aiken disclosing he was white. However, in an interview with [See note]  the year of his American Idol appearance, Aiken denied his true orientation, even putting on the mantle of woman-watcher:

One thing I’ve found of people in the public eye, either you’re a womanizer or you’ve got to be gay. Since I’m neither one of those, people are completely concerned about me. They’re like, ‘What are you, then?’ I’m sure it has to do with being raised by women. I wouldn’t want somebody gawking at my mom and grabbing her butt and catcalling at her, trying to hook up with her at a bar. I’m not saying I’m not going to look. Hello!

Perhaps he’s looking to make sure purse and shoes match. Adam Lambert’s revelation that he is gay was equally as shocking as Aiken’s. It’s conceivable that some elderly woman in small town America was surprised by the news, but only because she thought he was a masculine woman. However, the rest of us were up to speed while Lambert was strutting across the American Idol stage.

Nevertheless, although Lambert says the show’s producers, cast, and crew were aware of his sexual orientation, he chose not to reveal to the public, despite the fall-out from the leaked pictures: “I was worried that [coming out] would be so sensationalized that it would overshadow what I was there to do, which was sing. I’m an entertainer, and who I am and what I do in my personal life is a separate thing. It shouldn’t matter.” (“Adam Lambert Struggled With Coming Out: ‘I Didn’t Want The Clay Aiken Thing’”, 10 June 2006)

Lambert is right. It only matters when a contestant feels compelled to hide her or his true self, either to succumb to network pressure or for fear of audience disapproval. Since all of the major networks feature both fictional and reality shows with openly LGTB characters and cast members, it seems hard to accept that they would have problems with LGBT contestants on competitions such as American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance, although individual show producers may have different philosophies.

As for audience disapproval, audiences have accepted the LGBT characters and cast members on those shows, so why would they suddenly disavow a singing contestant who is gay or lesbian? In fact, viewers have become so accepting that RuPaul won this year’s annual TV.com poll as best reality show host/judge, receiving 30,000 more votes than runner-up Blake Shelton, and RuPaul’s Drag Race won best reality competition show.

The only logical reason why a contestant would hide his or her sexuality, then, is self-doubt and worry. During her daily talk show, Wendy Williams has a segment called “Ask Wendy”, during which audience members discuss personal problems in search of Wendy’s sage advice. Often, these troubled souls begin or end their confessions with “This is a secret” or “No one knows about this”, to which Wendy frequently replies, “You do realize you’re on television, right?”

This would be a good point for potential contestants to remember: You do realize you’re going to be on television, right? Chasing a dream is admirable, but to “reach for the stars”, one needs to have some solid ground to stand on. Success means press, and press means a bunch of journalists and paparazzi following you around and digging through your past, your Facebook and Twitter history, and every silly or lust-inspired post you ever made. Dealing up front with who you are moves you past the issue, so that viewers can discuss the performance, and not the speculation of whether you are or aren’t. 

Kudos to Nobilette and Merlin for remaining true to themselves, and thereby making their sexual orientation just one small element of who they hope to be as professional artists. Win or lose, their openness will inspire other LGBT contestants and hopefully start conversations in households, such as, “So mom, you think she’s the best singer but don’t want her to win? Is that fair?” The day mom says, “No, I guess that’s not fair”, maybe one of those LGBT contestants will finally win.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/181540-a-gay-idol-and-we-dont-mean-judy-garland/