In celebration of Survivor’s 20th anniversary, over the next couple of months, Inside Survivor is publishing a series of articles looking back at the show’s history, best moments, and most memorable characters.
Nothing summed up the human appeal of Survivor more in the first season than the relationship between Richard Hatch and Rudy Boesch: reality-TV’s first odd couple. Richard was an openly gay liberal man who unashamedly paraded around camp in the nude. “If I lived my life based on what made other people comfortable, I wouldn’t be living my life,” he once told his fellow tribemates. Rudy, on the other hand, was a seventy-two-year-old Navy veteran—conservative and unapologetically homophobic. “I was big-mouthing the whole time coming over here about being with homosexuals and lesbians,” he grunted in confessional. It was casting that seemed designed for confrontation.
In a surprise to everyone, Richard and Rudy became buddies—and not just buddies but arguably formed the tightest friendship of the season. That’s not to say Rudy completely altered his world-view and started waving rainbow flags at Pride parades. When Early Show host Bryant Gumbel asked Rudy if his bond with Richard had changed any of his preconceptions, the war vet answered with a simple, “Nah.” Rudy was consistently homophobic throughout the season. “When I get home (and) my wife asks me about who was with you, I’ll say a queer who ran around bare-assed half the time,” he said during one episode. When Richard wanted to come out, Rudy refused the conversation. “He was gonna tell me he was queer,” said Rudy—a response very in keeping with the military’s controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” bill which President Clinton passed just a few years earlier.
However, through all this, Rudy respected Richard—and vice versa. “He’s fat, but he’s good,” Rudy said of Richard in a memorable line from the first episode. Both men had served in the military. Richard spent five years in the Army and attended West Point. Rudy was a highly decorated Navy SEAL with a career spanning forty-five years. In that time, he’d conducted covert reconnaissance on the coastline of China, fielded direct calls from President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was awarded the Bronze Star for heroic action in more than forty-five combat missions in the Vietnam War. Rudy sensed in Richard a military-like ability to get the job done. “For a homosexual, he’s one of the nicest guys I ever met,” Rudy said. “You know, he’s got leadership ability, and if these people here would listen to him, he would take ’em a long way.”
If Rudy was aware from the start that Richard was gay, perhaps he never would have warmed to him. “Rudy and I, it’s an interesting dynamic, because if he knew I were gay, that would be probably really difficult for him,” Richard said. “Seventy-two-years-old, Navy vet… I think it would just freak him, but he doesn’t, as far as I know, know that, and I think he feels comfortable talking to me.” Richard didn’t come out to his tribemates until day three; a disclosure which helped him ingratiate after his arrogance initially rubbed people the wrong way. Rudy wasn’t present for the conversation and didn’t find out until it was brought up at the first Tribal Council.
“What do you think of [Richard] now?” Jeff Probst asked, according to Mark Burnett’s account in Survivor The Ultimate Game. “I like him,” Rudy responded matter of factly. Rudy’s opinion didn’t change once he became aware of Richard’s sexuality. “Me and Richard got to be pretty good friends,” he said fondly, before adding the caveat, “not in a homosexual way, that’s for sure.” The camera then humorously cut to Rudy rubbing suntan lotion on Richard’s back. “Survivor has dethroned Will & Grace as the funniest show on TV about homosexuality,” the New York Post claimed after the second episode.
The turn of the millennium was a curious time for gay representation on network TV. A week prior to Survivor‘s debut, Dawson’s Creek aired the first-ever “passionate” kiss between two men on prime-time television. Greg Berlanti—then working as Creek‘s show-runner—had to threaten to quit just to get the WB on board with the idea, and even then, the network had its demands about what could or couldn’t be shown. This situation represented a real concern among the broadcast networks at the time of Survivor‘s premiere: TV shows could include gay themes, as long as they weren’t too gay.
While the previous decade saw more gay characters on TV than ever before, they were still confined to the boundaries of what networks deemed acceptable. “The overwhelming majority of gay and lesbian representations are usually on sitcoms and usually just for an episode,” said Tamra King of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in 1996. It was rare, for example, to see a gay character in a lead role, or even in a substantial multi-episode storyline. More often than not, gay characters or stories were used as a one-off ratings stunt or as a punchline to a hackneyed joke. The “gay wedding” episode became a sitcom favorite—seen in both Friends and Roseanne in the mid-Nineties (neither showed the newly married couples kissing).
When Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997, both in real life and in her self-titled sitcom, it prompted a controversy that consumed the show and DeGeneres’ personal life. Despite her ‘coming out’ episode amassing huge ratings for ABC, DeGeneres clashed with the network the following season. “ABC executives had asked that not every episode be on a gay theme and at one point ordered that a special viewers’ advisory about content be included,” reported the New York Times. The series was axed the following year amid falling ratings.
Even a show like Will & Grace, which debuted in 1997 and featured openly gay lead characters, could only go so far—in the show’s first four years, it only aired one same-sex kiss, and that was a ‘protest peck’ in an episode satirizing NBC’s aversion to scenes of gay intimacy. “Will & Grace is a great show, and it has done an amazing amount for our community,” said Scott Seomin, then entertainment media director for GLAAD. “But it’s a hit because it conforms to the sitcom format to make the majority of this country comfortable. We have seen Grace making lots of passionate noises with her boyfriend. We have not seen that with Will.”
In 2004, Survivor itself fell victim to network pressure when Burnett faced criticism for not including any shots of two female contestants and their same-sex partners kissing at the loved ones visit. The contestants in question were Survivor: Vanuatu‘s Ami Cusack and Scout Cloud Lee, both of whom had their intimate interactions with their partners cut from the episode. Burnett blamed his decision on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who were coming down hard on broadcasters following the Janet Jackson Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” earlier in the year. “I wanted to protect my franchise and didn’t think it was right to show both lesbian kisses at 8 o’clock,” Burnett explained.
This kind of hand-wringing and fear-mongering over homosexuality was reflective of the era. Television producers and network executives worried that too much gay on TV would scare off viewers and lose advertisers, and therefore, ultimately, cost them money. That’s what made the relationship between Richard and Rudy so fascinating—it played out amid all that gay panic. Richard was a gay man who essentially became the lead character on the biggest show on TV. And Rudy was exactly the type of person these networks had in mind when they fretted over offending the sensibilities of Middle America. Now viewers could watch what happens when a homophobe meets a real-life homosexual on prime-time.
As for Richard’s part in all this, he was never offended by Rudy, if anything, he respected the seventy-two-year-old for speaking his mind. It made him a valuable ally for one. Richard knew where Rudy stood; he was easy to read, and once he had his word, he knew the military man would never break it. It took a lot to get under Richard’s skin; he was excellent at compartmentalizing and seeing everything through the lens of the game. He brushed off Rudy’s homophobic language as “fine” because “he is a kind and honest and straightforward guy.”
Not everyone shared Richard’s cavalier attitude, though. Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America, said that Richard’s dismissal of Rudy’s slurs was part of a new trend of TV homophobia, “which takes the form of a ‘gloves off’ approach that many mistakenly see as the true sign of inclusion and integration.” As if to say, the more gay characters on TV, the more acceptable it is to make fun of homosexuality. And America’s acceptance of Rudy as a sort of adorable homophobic grandpa was shocking to Scott Seomin. “Rudy is one thing,” Seomin said, “but America’s reaction to him is something else. If he had called Gervase the N-word, the audience would not have been laughing or applauding. They’d have been gasping… Any attack on any other minority would not be tolerated.”
Journalist John Carman, who interviewed Seomin at the time, wondered whether America was laughing with Rudy or at him. “Some of each,” Carman suspected. “The ratio is a fair measurement of how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.” In 2013, when Rudy appeared in the audience during the live reunion of Survivor: Caramoan, his use of the word “queer” was met with a much more muted reaction than it had been thirteen years earlier, a sign of how attitudes had changed.
All of these complexities are what made the first Survivor season so utterly gripping. At a time when broadcast networks were so cautious about gay content upsetting viewers, here came Survivor, where one of its featured stories was the unconventional friendship between a gay man and a homophobe. Richard wasn’t defined by his sexuality; just as Rudy wasn’t defined by his homophobia. They were both complex characters—one of whom just so happened to be gay. “I think that Richard was so popular because of his scheming,” TV critic Julia Salamon told Advocate. “The fact of his being openly gay became important but incidental.”
The fact there was an out-and-proud gay man on a major mainstream network helped open a conversation to a far larger—and more conservative—audience than any TV show had done previously. That conversation continued as more gay people were cast, not just on subsequent Survivor seasons, but in the countless reality programs that followed. The depictions weren’t always perfect, as reality-TV tends to deal in drama and stereotypes, however, slowly but surely, mainstream America was introduced to a range of gay individuals from all different walks of life.
“With each new out reality player, the palette of familiar “gay types” is gradually expanding…” wrote Advocate’s Erik Meers in 2001, referencing the diverse array of openly gay contestants that came after Richard, from the sensitive Southern husband Bunky in Big Brother to badass lesbian Sophia Pasquis in MTV’s Road Rules. “There’s more of a realization that [homosexuality] is part of the population, and it’s not a monolithic group of people,” Salamon added. “Even in the stupidest situations, that’s got to be positive. I think that familiarity breeds indifference—which is a good thing, in this case.”
In a 2014 interview with the Dom & Colin Podcast, Richard said he’d received many letters from gay viewers thanking him for “simply being me” and for how “it allowed somebody who wasn’t prepared to share who they were with other people, or with themselves, to then go ahead and do so.” Reddit user MattyHdot wrote on the Survivor sub-Reddit forum that the show helped his conservative Christian father warm up to the fact that he was gay. “Although he didn’t really understand what it means to be gay and would make the occasional ignorant comment, being exposed to people like Richard Hatch was really the only exposure he had to the LGBTQ community until I came out,” he wrote. “When I finally did, it was a non-issue.”
The relationship between Richard and Rudy wasn’t perfect—nor is Survivor‘s history of gay representation—but it was authentic, compelling, and in its own subversive way, massively groundbreaking in terms of gay representation on mainstream television.
Stay tuned to Inside Survivor for more 20 Years of Survivor content over the coming weeks, plus contributor Aldo Polanco will be ranking some of the most influential LGBTQ castaways in Survivor history.