The last two decades have seen a swath of reality dating shows sweep on — and sometimes off — TV screens, with series like The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Married at First Sight, Love Island, Are You the One?, FBoy Island and 90-Day Fiancé garnering notable and even rabid followings.
But much of that programming, despite ongoing efforts to racially diversify casting, has largely reflected one type of relationship: straight couples. Of course, there’s also been a handful of series — Logo TV’s Finding Prince Charming, Bravo’s Boy Meets Boys, Max’s 12 Dates of Christmas and one entire season of Are You the One? — that have featured either entirely gay or a notable number of LGBTQ contestants.
But mostly queer people are sprinkled in if they’re present at all (think Dating Around, Ex on the Beach, Bachelor in Paradise and The One That Got Away), a piece of a larger whole inadvertently asked to represent the entire LGBTQ community. The reality is that reality has made little space for anything outside one very specific version of “boy meets girl,” resulting in a single person or couple whose presence stirs mostly controversy — or curiosity — over their identity.
The rise of streaming has disrupted this a little in recent years, with one of the biggest efforts in Netflix’s The Ultimatum: Queer Love. Debuting on the platform May 24, the all LGBTQ-contestant season features queer women and nonbinary contestants as navigating a single question: Do they want to finally fully commit to the person they came with, or do they want to give it up for a possible future with someone else on the show?
Ahead of the show’s debut, spoke to Queer Love producer Chris Coelen about the decision to do an LGBTQ-fused Ultimatum season after Marry or Move On, the historical lack of queer representation in dating reality series, how the show handled a whole history of stereotypes about LGBTQ people and how a landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision paved the way for this season of the Kinetic Content-produced The Ultimatum.
You decided to do a queer-focused season pretty early on in The Ultimatum‘s run. When was that decision made, and why did you make it?
This was something that Netflix and I talked about from the very beginning, so it wasn’t a decision that happened after the first season. This was something that we were really interested in doing from the very first moment that we sold the show. It felt like this particular season — this particular iteration of The Ultimatum — was something that we should do. Personally, I am very committed to telling lots of different kinds of stories. I’m proud like that our company has done that for a long time across different shows. But for me, the most important thing is really to tell human stories, regardless of who people are. Across all of our shows, I’m absolutely fascinated with the uniqueness of people’s stories.
A long time ago as an agent, I was involved with helping to sell a show called Boy Meets Boy for Bravo, which was one of the earlier forays into queer love stories on reality television. This is a brand new, unique opportunity with The Ultimatum: Queer Love, and I’m really proud of it. This is a cast of people that aren’t typically featured, that are representative of people who aren’t necessarily seen in reality TV dating. I love the people who participated in this show and their willingness to be vulnerable and share their stories in pursuit of finally getting answers to these questions that they came into the show to get. I think it’s just a really fun, compelling, interesting piece of television.
It’s also just nice to see how queer relationships not only operate similarly to heterosexual couples — in the sense that they are relatable to everyone as well — but also how they are different and unique outside of our heteronormative culture.
I do think there has been a real lack of shows that do feature queer people and I am a huge believer in telling stories that everyone can relate to. I’m not a queer person, but I love telling a huge diversity of stories. What we tried to do with Queer Love — and to be honest, what we tried to do with every show that we do in this space, whether that’s Married at First Sight or Love is Blind or Perfect Match — is to dig into the complexity of people’s stories and backgrounds, past, point of view, identity, so all of what makes them who they are as human beings, and surface that surface the things that are relevant to them. So if [contestant] Aussie [Chau] is grappling with being nonbinary, for instance, that’s extremely relevant to Aussie and, hence for me, relevant to the story you see on the show. In the same way that you watched Love Is Blind in season three, where Bartise [Bowden] and Nancy [Rodriguez] are talking about abortion — that’s because that was relevant to them. They had different opinions on that issue. There’s Kyle [Abrams] and Shaina [Hurley] during season two talking about religion. Whatever it is that’s relevant to people, that is what we as producers and storytellers are committed to trying to do with these shows. To allow people through these shows to surface and confront in the best sense of that word.
It’s definitely one thing to be one couple among a diverse group representing a community’s experience and quite another to be completely among people who are all of your community and whose experiences, like your own, are the norm.
You know, we got some positive attention around Perfect Match for showcasing — and it was really just a little bit — of conversations about bisexuality. I was like, “Wow, I can’t wait for people to see Queer Love,” because that was such a spoonful on Perfect Match. Being able to put this show out in the world is really exciting for those reasons.
Let’s talk about the contestants. There have been a few gay male dating shows, and there was one season of Are You the One? where everyone was basically part of the bi-plus community. This is an LGBTQ-focused season, but the contestants are largely cisgender queer women and nonbinary folks. Can you talk through how and why you selected the contestants you did?
In terms of the people that we have on the show — in any show that we do in the relationship space, ultimately, we want to bring people together that we think will have an interest in one another or there are multiple options for each person, if the format is dictating that you get to choose a potential partner. Is there multiple options for people to choose from? I think that’s certainly the case with this show. This show’s core conceit is that “I’m coming in with an original partner, there’s something that’s holding us back from making this lifetime commitment, so I have the opportunity to explore what might turn into a lifetime with someone else.” That someone else has to come out of a pool of people, that is interesting to me as the person making that choice. So that’s the first and foremost prerequisite. I like that we did with this show a pan-regional approach. Sometimes we’ve drilled into just one particular city. There are some shows that we’ve done a nationwide casting. For this, we wanted to try — to the extent we can — reduce geography as a factor for people. That was an important consideration. Our casting team, in putting together a group of people for any shows that we do, we will try to make sure that on paper there’s some potential compatibility within the pool of participants. But you never can tell until people are together.
You’ve spoken generally about wanting to explore the things that impact relationships and love regardless of who is on your show. But where did you get to go that you hadn’t because you had an LGBTQ cast?
There are always topics just by the sheer nature of who the participants are and, of course, yes that are relevant to this particular group of people that wouldn’t be relevant to the people in the Marry or Move On season. But we don’t produce the show with really any sort of heavy-handedness or any hand — not even heavy. We just set up the parameters of the show and then allow people to go through the process in the way that they want to go through the process. I think the things that I, and we, discover along the way are surprising us, hopefully, in the same way that they’re surprising to the participants. Some of the twists and turns of the relationships were really interesting, I think the participants themselves had some self-discovery that then becomes interesting to me as the producer when they’re talking about, “I’ve never dated a masc-presenting person,” or “I’m only interested in someone who presents in this way.” You know, there’s some interesting talk about u-hauling [a stereotype about lesbians quickly moving in together or seriously committing to each other soon after meeting]. There’s questions of, is this too fast, is it not fast enough? Obviously in this format, it’s fast, right? I just think watching people discover themselves is fascinating. And again, for me, that’s what the show is about. It is about discovering yourself outside all the noise of other people, and sometimes that is unpredictable or heartbreaking.
With some of the representation that has existed in reality TV, it’s grappled with stereotypes and ignorance about the queer community. There’s even one example from Love Is Blind in season one that caused a lot of discussion — that really brought a specific community discussion to a big, public platform. Were you conscious of the negative historical portrayals of LGBTQ folks in reality while doing this?
Well, I would say there are two answers to that one. I think part of the excitement around producing this show is because the history of reality television, broadly, is lacking in fully diverse representation of the populace. I’ve talked to some of the participants on the show who were really, in a very moving way, grateful that as queer people they were — and I heard this from probably three or four different people at different times — allowed to really go through this process and live it in a way that was fully, authentically their own and tell their own stories in a way that is true to them as individuals and that nobody was trying to portray anybody in any way. So it’s twofold. One, yes, absolutely. I am aware of the history and am really excited about the show coming out of the world of sharing these stories. But simultaneously, with that in mind, I think it made the objective of being hands-off and just allowing people to be themselves and authentic — even though that’s the case on every show that we do — top of mind on this particular program. Some of the people on the show feel like there is an opportunity to represent this community. With that in mind, nobody allowed that weight of potential responsibility to hold them back from diving in a way that was full.
There’s some pretty obvious reasons why it’s taken so long to see LGBTQ people in the reality space, but it does seem like the 2015 Supreme Court decision — Obergefell v. Hodges — has made it more possible culturally. However, this show is releasing during a time when some of that progress is being met with explicit, unapologetic anti-LGBTQ hate and legislation. Why is a show like this important right now?
[Contestant] Tiff [Der] talks about that decision and about how this show wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago and the weight of that just briefly. Representation does matter. But I want to go back and talk one for one second about Carlton [Morton] because obviously Love Is Blind is a show we produce. I love that you said that that surfaced conversations through reality TV. I talked to the cast of Love Is Blind every single season about that particular story and lots of other stories. But I always talk about that story from a particular point of view, which is that Carlton — who described himself as bisexual or fluid and told us the producers about his feelings about himself and his experiences, but didn’t share with Diamond — said, I want to get married to a woman very explicitly. He chose to not tell Diamond that information. What I always say is that we never tell people what to say on any of our shows ever. But it’s fascinating for me to think about what would have happened with Carlton if he had revealed that information to Diamond. Would her reaction have been different? Maybe it would have. But, what I felt from her more than anything in the moment, was he had lied and hadn’t told her the whole truth. If he hadn’t told her the truth about that, what else was he hiding? Maybe that was her truth, or maybe that was her spin. We’ll never know. But the reason I tell that story is because I always want people to own their truths and own who they are, and to be confident in that with any part of who you are.
That goes back to talking about the Supreme Court. Why does the show matter? I would say it matters for a couple of reasons. Just the sheer fact of being able to represent people on screen who a huge portion of the population relate to in very personal ways, but yet don’t see themselves reflected in other shows in the way that hopefully this show does reflect common experiences and feelings. But I also think — though we aren’t preachy producers or storytellers — media matters a lot. And what is so exciting about Queer Love to me, is if you are queer, and you’re watching it, it’s exciting, and it’s a great show. If you’re straight, and you’re watching it, it’s exciting, and it’s a great show. I find this time and time again: There is much more that unites us as human beings than that separates us. I really believe that, and it is such a polarized time, but telling stories of people of human beings from different perspectives, different identities, different in every “big D” diversity sense of that word is really important. It’s important that not everybody’s experience is the same. When you really understand where people are coming from, what they’re going through, you find a lot to relate to. Setting aside that I’m a TV producer, this is one of the most exciting things for me as a human being and an exciting opportunity I’m really privileged to have. I hope as many people watch this as possible. It’s one of the best relationships shows — full stop — that is out there.
Interview condensed for length and clarity.
The Ultimatum: Queer Love is currently streaming on Netflix.