Since its debut in 1992, MTV’s The Real World has illuminated televisions nationwide with fresh images of diverse, non-stereotypical and real queer young people including its first season’s Norman Korpi (NYC), HIV-positive Cuban Pedro Zamora (San Francisco), bisexual Filipina Ruthie Alcaide (Hawaii), African-American Karamo Brown (Philadelphia) and athlete Tyler Duckworth (Key West). With its 21st edition, set in Brooklyn, N.Y., the show welcomes its first transgender cast member, Katelynn Cusanelli, who underwent sexual reassignment surgery in Thailand just weeks before cameras rolled.
“I was at the point where I needed to do post-surgical care and that plays out as a part of the show,” she chares. “That was a factor while living there.”
In the season premiere, the full cast of eight (another “Real World” first — it’s typically seven members, sometimes with an eighth “surprise” housemate added later) moves into a giant house situated in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood (which, due to its far-flung placement from public transport, has not been gentrified or hipster-saturated like more predictable and expensive settings like Williamsburg or Park Slope). They include: West Palm Beach-raised, Montana-based Katelynn, 24; snarky, metrosexual, Salt Lake City Mormon Chet, 23; Salt Lake City non-Mormon Baya, 21; Gettysburg, Pa., Iraq war vet Ryan, 23; Kansas City, Mo., teen pageant queen Devyn, 20; San Francisco artist Sarah, 22; muscular Salem, N.H., trainer Scott, 23; and Miami Beach dolphin trainer, J.D. Ordonez, 22.
Katelynn remains mum about being transgender at first, but a couple of housemates quickly prove keen transpotters, including the openly gay J.D. In an effort to make Katelynn feel comfortable and give her the opportunity to disclose her transgender status, J.D. invites her to a one-on-one dinner in Manhattan’s very LGBT Chelsea neighborhood. They indeed bond over the evening’s course, but as the series progresses, so do house dynamics and friendships.
“Real World” producers sought out young people “with stories to tell” for their 2009 edition. Cusanelli, who decided to audition while waiting with a friend at a casting call, felt she not only had a worthy story to share, but saw a great opportunity to contribute to transgender representation in the media.
Familiar with the show and the privacy she would relinquish if cast — even the bathroom’s several showers are partly transparent — Cusanelli was also prepared for the possibility of a conservative, conflict-stirring Puck-style housemate. “It’s MTV’s ‘Real World,’ they’re going to cast divergent personalities,” she affirms. “Singing ‘Kumbaya’ is not how this goes. They’re going to cast someone who is the antithesis of me just to cause drama and there was drama because they cast eight people who are strong-willed in their own right.”
One of those people is Chet, who seems to enjoy, and even encourages, being perceived as gay. However, his conservative, hetero-identified Republican side becomes more pronounced by election night and he wasn’t alone in his political leanings according to Cusanelli. “Scott is a Republican and lies about being a millionaire,” she shares, “and as a result wasn’t at all for Obama!”
In a later episode, the cast appears at the NYC LGBT Community Center’s Election Night Party (where several cast members volunteered). “Chet surrounded by 400 queers watching a black man become president — he was a bit uncomfortable!” she recalls with a laugh. “But Chet is far, far more open-minded than I think people give him credit for. I’m not sure if he celebrated [the passages of] Proposition 8 and Amendment 2. I think that Chet is more for humane treatment of all people rather than rigid dogmatic morality.”
Cusanelli is frank when fielding questions about her cast mates and the experience. That, or she boasts a mean poker face. She dubs Sarah, who previously leaned towards lesbian relationships but is currently involved with a man, a bona fide has-bian. Asked whether rumors that J.D. slept with Anderson Cooper are true, she brusquely replies, “I have no idea! To be honest I wasn’t that concerned with J.D.’s relationships. I honestly don’t give a damn.” And, an admitted tech geek, she was frequently put to use by even the production crew. “Oh, I did so much tech support in that damn house it’s not funny! Production asked me to fix that dinosaur of a computer they gave us.”
Now back in Missoula, Mont., with her supportive boyfriend, Mike (seen briefly in the first episode), Cusanelli admits the experience was life-changing in numerous respects, from her personal growth to chosen family. “I expected to go in and meet six strangers and maybe walk away with a friend,” she says, “but I met seven amazing individuals and walked away with a plethora of friends for life. I have bridesmaids now!”
Does she wish a second transgender cast member had been amongst them? “That was a secret hope of mine,” she admits, “but in a way I’m glad they didn’t [cast a second transgender housemate]. If you get two trans people together they compare their experiences to see whose is more ‘valid.’ Two sets of those hormones might not have been good.”
— “The Real World: Brooklyn” premiered Wednesday, Jan. 7 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Check RealWorldDiaries.com for more information and additional footage.