Warning: Spoilers for a few seasons of The Amazing Race
In the bloom of my middle-age, a presidential election occurred in which the counting of the votes took several days and I decided, during that time, to begin watching a reality television competition program called “The Amazing Race.” 11-12 teams of two with existing relationships compete in “legs” on a race around the world (usually spanning 4+ continents, 40k+ miles and 8-10 countries), put in situations that require them to navigate new places, interact with locals, perform physical and mental challenges, learn about other cultures and not kill each other. The winner of The Amazing Race earns a cool million buckaroos.
I’m not a fan of reality TV competition shows in general, but I’ve been in the same location for a year and was craving vicarious travel. It’s also incredibly stressful to watch and witness but the stakes are essentially zero in the grand scheme of things, which made it the perfect distraction on election week. The election eventually ended, obviously, but I kept on watching The Amazing Race. Honestly, I loved it, because I love geography and travel and shows that aren’t about dating! They visited countries rarely showcased on other travel shows, like Seychelles, Mauritius and Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein! This thrilled me!
However. 32 seasons later, I am here to register an official complaint with CBS: there are not enough lesbians on your show. Not enough bisexual, queer or lesbian women. Simply! Not enough! Egregiously not enough.
The Amazing Race encompasses so much of what queer women enjoy: sleeping outdoors, fighting with each other, bossing people around, traveling on a very tight budget, competing against straight people, logic puzzles, physical challenges, climbing, falling, carabiners, pants that turn into shorts, sensible shoes, not showering, building shelters, not asking for directions, befriending the locals, harnesses, unlikely friendships, being jacks of all trades, kindness to strangers, cheering each other on and riding large animals.
Although it wasn’t until the mid-2010s that LGBTQ characters became a mainstay on scripted series, reality TV was always slightly ahead of the curve — although as in most things, gay men came first, like Richard Hatch winning Survivor in 2000 and Norm in The Real World’s debut 1993 season. The Amazing Race, too, had a gay male couple in their inaugural season (filmed in 2001), and by Season Four, they had their first gay male couple winning the tournament. In total, 43 gay male contestants have competed on The Amazing Race. Some have returned for All-Star seasons, meaning in total, there have been 54 appearances by gay men on The Amazing Race.
And honestly, I do love that for them. While resolutely failing every other minority group (including bisexual men and/or trans people), The Amazing Race has done a pretty okay job with gay men, including delivering many of my favorite teams including Oswald and Danny (gay best friends who prefer luxury travel, TAR’s first Latinx team) and The Beekman Boys (who are famous for their farm show but to me, Josh Kilmer-Purcell remains an author who wrote a book I love). The Beekman Boys weren’t our only celebrity gays, either — YouTuber Tyler Oakley appeared in two later seasons, TV writer and actor Mike White competed twice with his gay civil rights activist / clergyman Dad Mel, and former New Kid on the Block Jonathan Knight competed in Season 26 with his husband. We had gay couples, teams of gay best friends, gay guys with straight best friends, gay guys with a family members. Sporty gays, effeminate gays, rich gays, poor gays. That said, like most CBS reality shows that launched in the early 2000s, they were almost entirely white — just 7 of the 43 gay contestants were people of color, and the only Black gay men to compete were eliminated in the first round of their season.
On this tip, at least, there is finally some hope: CBS pledged last year to have 50% people of color on their reality shows going forward. (You can read more about some of the plethora of micro-aggressions and bias and outright racism endured by contestants on these shows over the years here and here and here. The Amazing Race is considered one of the better franchises, but especially in early seasons that’s… not saying much, which you can read about here here, here, here.)
I was honestly stunned to arrive at Season 9 and still be 100% lesbian-free. Surely, I thought, there’s a girl out there playing basketball or memorizing the flags of the world just itching to compete.
Every season I simply rooted for everybody who is not straight and white. I remained unclear why the producers of the show continued stuffing this cast to the gills with these twentysomething straight cis white couples and pairs. How many Best Friends From College who love God and hate snakes would I have to watch drag a bull through a pit of mud or scream at each other over a giant watermelon pyramid before I have earned, for example, more than four (4) contestants of color per season or one (1) lesbian?
Every season begins in the air, a drone sweeping an as-of-yet unidentified landscape. The camera lands upon a patch of earth, where the extremely nice and comforting host Phil greets us and introduces the season.
The contestants arrive in pairs of two: in convertibles down a palm-tree-lined stretch of highway, in airboats through the Florida marshland, towards the Red Rocks amphitheater in the back of a pickup truck at sunset, on desert buggies between the giant wind power turbines of Palm Springs. We’re introduced, one by one, to each team of two. I watch with anticipation for the inevitable lesbians in Patagonia fleece vests. Season after season: nope.
The cast for Season 10 (2006) imbued me with deceptive optimism as our contestants gathered atop a grassy knoll. Finally, I thought, the show was paying more attention to diversity. We had the first-ever Indian team, the first-ever Muslim team, the first-ever Korean team, two Black Moms from Alabama and father-daughter team Duke and Lauren in which the daughter was… A LESBIAN.
Duke loves his daughter dearly but struggles to accept her sexuality. Unfortunately, Lauren and Duke got lost in Vietnam on Episode 3 and thus became the third team eliminated from the race. At elimination, Duke held a bandana-adorned Lauren while she sobbed and, when Phil prompted him to say something about his daughter, he said that whatever makes her happy makes him happy. Good for them! I obviously cried because that’s where I’m at in life.
My deceptive optimism about lesbians taking up more space on the show continued when Season 12 (2007) featured its first lesbian couple: Kate and Pat, a priest and a deacon, respectively. With a 16-year age gap between them, their ages combined still made them S12’s oldest competitors.
The racers head out to Ireland to hike up a hill in the rain, take a ferry to a farm, ride a tandem bike through the mud (still raining), ride a high-wire bike over a windswept ravine suspended 200 feet over the North Atlantic (rain hasn’t stopped) and load a donkey with peat and walk it back to the farm – the lesbians were very good with the donkey, by the way. But, after catching the latest flight to Amsterdam and struggling with their remaining challenges, the lesbians found themselves laughing in a ditch of mud, glad they found joy in this experience despite their eminent elimination. Second team cut.
Our next lesbian couple, Los Angeles Power Lesbians Carol and Brandy, arrived in Season 16 (2010). Close your eyes and think about red wine and the most expensive biker pants you can buy at REI in 2010 and the White Lesbian Haircut of the era and you can see them.
This season also featured Caite, who you may recognize as the Miss Teen America contestant who went viral with her word salad. In the first episode, teams were gradually recognizing and then gossiping about Caite, and one of the teams who’d participated in the joking relayed to Caite and her idiot boyfriend Brent: “The lesbians were like, “oh where’s her tiara?” Did “the lesbians” really say this? We’ll never know. Also, so what if they did? Also, what about everybody else who was saying much worse things about her? Luckily, lesbophobia took it from there! Caite, Brent and their allies adopted a singular mission: get Brandy and Carol eliminated.
They eventually succeed, using a U-Turn (a penalty that forces a team to do an extra challenge, which can lead to them coming in later than intended) to knock them out after 6 episodes. Brandy made her mark, however, as the only person to start a fight at the finish line (all losing teams gather at the finish line to cheer on the final three teams), when Caite (who came in third) began to apologize to them for the U-Turn and Brandy immediately rejected said apology. At this point it was clear Carol and Brandy would not be staying together after the show.
Despite this incredible display of the type of traditional reality-show drama that usually evades The Amazing Race, the producers apparently had had quite enough. That was that.
In total, a whopping 11 episodes of The Amazing Race‘s 373 episodes featured queer women who were identified as queer by the show.
However, unbeknownst to me, there was one (1) additional lesbian lurking in our midst.
Season 18 (2011), which featured returning teams with “unfinished business,” was fantastic for me personally because my two favorite teams placed first and second, which rarely happened. The winners were Kisha and Jen, sisters from Chicago eliminated mid-race in Season 14 ’cause they had to pee. I cried when they won because, again, I will take an irrelevant emotion anywhere I can get it these days.
They were the second-ever all-female team to win the Race. Kisha was also, it turns out, the first (and only) lesbian winner. I did not know this at the time because nobody told me. I had to find out on REDDIT.
“I think it was CBS’ decision, just because this is a race so I think the teams have certain labels and we were the ‘athletic sisters’ and they really want(ed) to focus on that aspect of our relationship,” LaKisha told Reality TV World in a post-race interview, regarding why her lesbianism wasn’t mentioned on the show despite being an openly gay woman.
That interview and others inspired a reaction from CBS, who said her sexual orientation would’ve been mentioned if it had been a “major story point” of her Amazing Race participation. They pointed out in their defense that Luke, a gay man who competed with his mother that same season, was also not declared to be gay even though he is in fact gay. According to aforementioned gay father/son team Mike and Mel, Luke wanted to be cited as gay as well, but a producer told him that Luke was established as deaf and being established as gay would interrupt “what they are trying to do here.” (Luke was identified as gay when he returned for another all-star season.)
What if “what we were trying to do here” included providing representation?!! Just an idea.
Three other queer women appeared on the show, although it appears that at least two of them were not out to themselves and/or the world during filming.
1. Rebecca Cardon. Appeared in Season 5 (2004) with her ex-boyfriend Hellboy, a manchild with two tiny ponytail nubs at the forefront of his shaved melon of a dumbass head. Several years later, Rebecca appeared on reality TV again — this time as Jackie Warner’s girlfriend on Work Out. Rebecca, who hadn’t considered herself bisexual prior to meeting Jackie, was featured on Oprah as a “woman who left men for other women.”
2. Becca, from another one of my fave duos, Team Fun. They were matched up on gimmicky season 29 (2017), which gathered a group of complete strangers and determined teams by a “school-yard pick after a pre-race challenge.” Becca and Floyd clicked immediately and became fast best friends. When they returned for all-stars in Season 31 (2019), they said at the beginning that they were dating now. They were actually joking but I believed them because this show had stripped of all my faculties and was unable to see what was right before my eyes: a climbing instructor who wears zany socks. Becca came out on instagram this past June.
3. Alana, from Season 32 (filmed in 2018) competed with her boyfriend (now-husband) and came out to the world (it seems she was already out in her normal life) as bisexual on her instagram in October 2019.
Y’all, there was a season of YOUTUBERS and there was not one long-distance lesbian couple five months away from a breakup video amongst them. There was a season where established couples battled “blind date” teams set up by producers and nope, not a lesbian! (Although it was truly cringe-worthy to see how profoundly they failed with the one gay couple they matched). WHAT THE F IS HAPPENING.
I was inspired to write this because yes, we are short on content but also because The Amazing Race is so short on lesbians and a trip to Googleville revealed that this pressing issue had not yet been addressed by a news outlet. All that turned up was one Reddit thread from 2015 that asked: “I think there have been something like twenty teams of men in relationships, and maybe two of women in relationships.This seems statistically odd. Does anyone have insight as to why this might be?”
The thread is short and the theories were paltry. One suggested that it’s an all-TV problem, which is true, and was much more true in 2015, and that maybe “some people can’t seem to handle the concept of lesbians without over-sexualizing them.” (?!?!) Another said that TAR casts based on stereotypes, and “it’s easier to differentiate a stereotypical (more feminine) gay couple from the usual alpha male pairs, and harder to differentiate a stereotypical (more masculine) lesbian couple from the possible athletic and competitive female-female pairs.” I don’t buy that either. On the Survivor reddit, a five-years-ago thread asks this question across all CBS reality shows as apparently the Lack of Lesbians is more widespread than I was aware.
I have no theories, only a suggestion: let a lesbian go cage-diving surrounded by crocodiles already.