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Investigating Discovery+

When It Comes to LGBTQ+ Representation, HGTV Is Still a Work in Progress

The home improvement network has a long way to go to counter its straight, white, conservative image.
  • Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent; Davina Thomasula and Kristin Leitheuser; and Keith Bynum and Evan Thomas. (Photos: HGTV; Primetimer graphic)
    Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent; Davina Thomasula and Kristin Leitheuser; and Keith Bynum and Evan Thomas. (Photos: HGTV; Primetimer graphic)

    In Investigating Discovery+, Primetimer staffers and contributors comb through the Discovery+ catalog to identify hidden gems and take a closer look at breakout series.

    In early 2020, HGTV staple House Hunters made headlines when it featured its first-ever throuple searching for the perfect home with a three-car garage and expanded bathroom. The episode, "Three's Not a Crowd in Colorado Springs," wasn't the first time House Hunters centered queer home buyers — it's actually one of HGTV's more diverse franchises — but it resonated with viewers, especially more optimistically-minded fans hoping the installment reflected a shift at the notoriously traditional network.

    Three years later, viewers are, for the most part, still waiting for that to come to pass. Though HGTV currently has two LGBTQ+-led home renovation shows on the air — Bargain Block and The Nate & Jeremiah Home Project — they're drowned out by the overwhelming amount of programming featuring straight (and almost always white) duos released by the network and its parent streaming service, Discovery+. Even the throuple episode, which was initially well received, has since been criticized for offering a "sanitized version" of alternative relationships, with writer and social commentator Roxane Gay telling the AV Club, "Anyone who's hung out with polyamorists knows that's not representative of the community at all."

    It's no secret that conservatism is practically baked into HGTV's DNA. (For many Americans, the concept of homeownership is a thing of the past, in large part due to the worsening housing affordability crisis.) While the network's biggest stars avoid explicitly discussing politics, many operate from a place of traditional social and religious values. For years, Chip and Joanna Gaines, who parlayed their success on Fixer Upper into Magnolia Network, have been dogged by questions about their involvement in the evangelical Antioch Community Church and their relationship with pastor Jimmy Seibert, who is staunchly anti-LGBTQ+ and supports conversion therapy.

    Furthermore, Fixer Upper's original run featured only straight homeowners; when this fact came to light in 2016, HGTV issued a statement denying any intentional discrimination. "We don’t discriminate against members of the LGBT community in any of our shows. HGTV is proud to have a crystal clear, consistent record of including people from all walks of life in its series," the network said at the time. While Joanna Gaines briefly discussed the matter in a 2021 profile in The Hollywood Reporter — "The accusations that get thrown at you, like you're a racist or you don't like people in the LGBTQ community ... it's so far from who we really are" — they have been careful to avoid any specific mention of Seibert or their views on LGBTQ+ marriage beyond generic platitudes about approaching every situation "from a position of love."

    To be sure, HGTV has taken steps to address this problem over the past decade. In 2014, execs canceled Flip It Forward, hosted by brothers David and Jason Benham, after they said "homosexuality and its agenda" are "attacking the nation" at a rally in support of a North Carolina amendment that sought to prohibit same-sex marriage. Three years later, in the wake of the Gaineses' controversy, the network aired a pilot featuring its first married gay couple, PJ and Thomas McKay, and though Down to the Studs wasn't picked up to series, the McKays went on to partner with HGTV on a web series. Finally, in January 2021, it all came together when Keith Bynum and Evan Thomas became the first queer couple to land a multi-episode HGTV show, Bargain Block.

    Bargain Block sees Bynum, a creative artist and designer, and Thomas, a construction expert, buy multiple houses on the same block as they work to revitalize a neighborhood in Detroit. Working with shoestring budgets, Bynum and Thomas buy abandoned and dilapidated homes for as low as $1,000 and do the demolition and remodeling themselves, all while living in each house until it's ready to be sold by their friend Shea Hicks-Whitfield. Typically, their homes are priced in the $75,000 range (and they come fully furnished), a figure designed to appeal to first-time buyers looking for affordable housing.

    Like many of the network's hosts, Bynum and Thomas' chemistry comes through in the way they banter — with lots of pop culture references and subtle jabs — or butt heads over a project. And yet, it often feels as if their loving relationship has been sanded down or made more palatable for a more traditional viewership base. In the intro that plays at the beginning of each episode, Bynum describes Thomas not as his boyfriend or fiancé (the two have been engaged since 2017), but as his "partner in life and business," a turn of phrase that seems deliberately vague. And even though Bargain Block offers a peek at their "home life" in the sense that Bynum and Thomas are actually living in these fixer-uppers, they're rarely shown being affectionate with one another; the physical nature of their relationship is gestured at when they blow up an air mattress in each living room, but otherwise, it's left unacknowledged.

    If Bargain Block is somewhat of a letdown when it comes to queer representation on HGTV — and that's without getting into the gentrification of it all — The Nate & Jeremiah Home Project offers a more successful model. Also released in 2021, the home design show follows Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent, the stars of TLC's Nate & Jeremiah by Design (titled Nate & Jeremiah Save My House on Discovery+), as they help people get a fresh start in their current homes. In each episode, they meet with a different family to determine what they're willing to get rid of, Marie Kondo-style, before renovating the existing property into a home that better reflects their lifestyle and personal taste.

    Berkus and Brent have been on Discovery-owned networks for years, but Home Project may be their most personal show yet. They often discuss each design project with their children, 8-year-old Poppy and 5-year-old Oskar, and they speak candidly about why it's so important for them to live their authentic lives, both on and off camera. After a brief stint in Los Angeles, Berkus and Brent, who became the first same-sex couple to marry at the New York Public Library in 2014, returned to New York and settled into their old apartment in the West Village. Home Project makes their connection to the neighborhood clear: Scenes of them walking from their apartment to their design studio are dotted with B-roll of Stonewall Place and businesses proudly flying Pride flags. At times, their romantic journey becomes just as central as their design work, as when Brent explains why they were so determined to repurchase their West Village apartment. "It was the first place I stood in and realized I could have a life and family with this great love," he says.

    While The Nate & Jeremiah Home Project is an important step forward for HGTV, there's still plenty of work to be done. The network's queer couples, as well as solo stars like My Lottery Dream Home host David Bromstad and Magnolia Network's Brian Patrick Flynn, are all made up of cisgender white men, and their overall blandness (which seems to be by design) fails to encapsulate the diversity within the LGBTQ+ community.

    At the very least, HGTV is shaking things up this summer with Small Town Potential, hosted by Davina Thomasula and Kristin Leitheuser, but the engaged women are still just as white as the men currently remaking homes in the Detroit and New York areas. The Hudson Valley-based show has also had a bumpy road to the screen — it was scheduled to premiere June 14, but was yanked at the last minute and pushed to August — which doesn't bode well for its potential impact. (HGTV didn't respond to a request for comment about the delay.)

    But even if Small Town Potential ends up being a hit, three queer couples don't make up for nearly three decades of conservative-tinged programming, not to mention the hold people like the Gainses have over the home renovation market. Bargain Block and The Nate & Jeremiah Home Project may be significant milestones, but in terms of LGBTQ+ representation, HGTV is still very much a work in progress.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: HGTV, Discovery+, Bargain Block, The Nate & Jeremiah Home Project, Small Town Potential, Jeremiah Brent, Nate Berkus, LGBTQ