This essay is part of Avidly’s “Too Real” series, guest edited by Carissa M. Harris: a series of short, vivid essays focusing on a single moment, scene, or episode from reality tv that has lodged itself in the writer’s soul and refused to leave.
I’ve never been very good at ending things, so let me just say upfront how this ends: A week after watching a pair of goat farmer boyfriends win the 21st season of The Amazing Race and feeling a renewed sense of hope about my relationship, my boyfriend of 15 months and I broke up. I followed him down the back stairs of my apartment and out to the street, trying to get him to talk. He wanted nothing to do with me. He climbed into his car and sped away.
Earlier that fall, I had convinced my boyfriend John to watch The Amazing Race with me. The basic premise of the show is that pairs race around the world (usually to 8-10 countries on 4+ continents) navigating new locations, finding clues, and avoiding elimination. On each “leg” of the race, teams must complete challenges (like searching among 400 sandcastles on a beach in Indonesia or launching watermelons at a suit of armor in England) in order to get clues to another location and eventually to the pit stop at the end of the leg. The last team to check in at the pit stop is (usually) eliminated. On the final leg, the first team to jump onto the finish mat wins a million dollars.
The only openly queer team on season 21 was a couple named Josh and Brent (aka The Beekman Boys). They owned a goat farm in upstate New York. Josh was also a writer whose memoir about being a drag queen in New York I admired. When I heard that he was going to be competing in the race with his boyfriend, they instantly became my favorite team. They were smart and well-adjusted and seemed to enjoy each other’s company. But they were also flawed. They struggled with some of the physical challenges. Many of the other teams wrote them off as real contenders after they finished last in the fifth leg of the race, a non-elimination leg. After that, they continued to struggle, coming in second-to-last in legs 6 through 11. Still, I admired their perseverance, their determination, how they didn’t let the pressures of the race influence their relationship. Even after finishing second-to-last, they kept trying, picking themselves up leg after leg and soldiering on. I came to see Josh and Brent as hapless underdogs worth cheering on, but also as a model for my relationship with John. They were a real, queer couple—something I didn’t have many examples of at the time, in real life or in popular culture, but needed to see to help me visualize what my relationship with John could be.
Before watching season 21, I had convinced myself that John and I weren’t compatible. We got along fine, but I wasn’t ready to commit myself to building a future with him. I wanted to date other people. I just couldn’t figure out the right way to break up with him. I felt like I was in this strange limbo, hanging onto a relationship I knew wasn’t going to work, not knowing how to get out of it. I realize now how unfair this was to him, but at the time I was too emotionally immature to know how to end a relationship. Instead of being honest about how I felt, I continued to hang on while we watched The Amazing Race that fall, week after week, hoping something would happen to change how I felt.
In the final leg of season 21, the race came down to Josh and Brent and a pair of Chippendales dancers named Jaymes and James (And yes, their team photo pictured them shirtless with backpacks and the requisite bow tie and shirt-cuffs). The boyfriends finished the final challenge first, just ahead of the dancers. They caught a taxi to Gotham Hall, where they ran past the eight eliminated teams and stepped onto a big red mat placed at the finish line. Josh fell to his knees, then rose, grasped Brent’s head with both hands, and kissed him passionately—the first kiss between two men I could remember seeing on the show. Then, the show’s host stepped forward and declared them the winners.
When Josh and Brent burst through the doors of Gotham Hall, John and I jumped up off the couch in disbelief. They actually pulled it off, I half-yelled. I hugged John and we held each other for a moment, lost in the joy of seeing our favorite team succeed. I gave John a quick peck on the lips and then leaped around my living room like some crazy fool. Once the initial shock wore off and we sat back down, I looked over at John and felt a surge of hope and possibility. If Josh and Brent could pull off such a spectacular upset, maybe we could make our battered relationship work. We just needed to keep going, keep trying, keep believing in ourselves and what we’d built together.
A week later that feeling faded. John asked if I still loved him and, instead of lying and saying that I did, I surprised myself by actually admitting what I’d been avoiding saying for so long—that I just didn’t love him anymore. Once the words came out I couldn’t take them back, so I let them float in front of me, like a fine mist, as John grabbed his bag and stormed out my apartment door. There was no happy ending where I caught up with John, explained myself, and then kissed him like Josh kissed Brent at the end of season 21—deeply, passionately, holding his face with both hands. Instead, there was just me stumbling down the stairs, calling for John to stop, to wait, to let me explain myself, before making it to the street and watching John’s car turn the corner and drive away.
Bronson Lemer has seen every season of The Amazing Race and would absolutely eat cow lips for a million dollars. He is the author of The Last Deployment: How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq. He lives in St. Paul.