With increasing frequency, reality self-help TV programmes are being asked the question: is it malicious entertainment or are the TV crew and participants jointly exposing a social problem? Anthropologist Balázs Boross searched out people who had participated in the programme ‘Uit de Kast’ (Out of the Closet) to find the answer.

In the first instance, they rarely wanted to talk to him. After undertaking a huge Facebook and Google search, Balázs Boross eventually succeeded in tracking down some of the participants from ‘Uit de Kast’ (‘I only had a first name and, in a few cases, a place of residence’) only to be confronted by a closed door. However, he eventually managed to coax ten participants who, in the past few years, had taken part in KRO’s Uit de Kast, a TV programme in which Arie Boomsma supports young Dutch men women who want to come out.


For the classification Science Cowboys, Geert Maarse speaks to scholars who are prepared to go slightly further than their colleagues. Balázs Boross is an anthropologist and is researching the role of the media in social cohesion and identity building. He conducted interviews with participants in the Dutch TV programme ‘Uit de Kast’ (Out of the Closet) and the British programme ‘The Undateables’.

Why did they take part? Did it help them? And what does this type of programme do as far as the acceptance of homosexuality is concerned? Boross: “In the end, it took six months to track everyone down.”

Why was it so difficult?

“Production companies frequently protect their participants. Sometimes their websites explicitly stipulate that they will not provide any contact details. Therefore, I had to find another way. I felt like an investigative journalist. All I had was a first name and the area or place where the programme was recorded.”

And then they didn’t want to.

“In the first instance, they sometimes didn’t. I had to gain their confidence. In retrospect, I discovered that some of them had already been interviewed a couple of times, and hadn’t enjoyed the experience. But some simply wanted to put a full stop behind the whole event.”

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Why is this of interest to a scholar?

“People always have something to say about these types of television programmes. Some people say: these people are being exploited. Others say: they simply want to be famous. As a researcher, I would like to know how the people themselves experience it.”

You asked them why they applied to be on the programme. What reasons did they give?

“In a lot of cases they were looking for support from the programme. They saw that it had helped other people, and thought: maybe it’ll work for me. In addition, it could be a sort of personal sacrifice, something you often see in these sorts of programmes. I also researched the British programme The Undateables and the purpose of that programme is not to find a date, but to create awareness. Participants from Uit de Kast actually said that they’d thought: even if my coming out is a disaster, at least I’m drawing attention to a social problem.”

Aren’t they just seeking attention?

“The problem with this sort of research is that you can never really be sure what a person’s motives are. Reasons are often construed in retrospect. What you can analyse is what people say about their motives. And they all said: I didn’t do it to be famous. That’s interesting. Apparently, it’s simply not done to say that you want to be on television. There have to be socially acceptable reasons: a social mission.”

Did you come across anyone who had regrets?

“Yes. You know what’s interesting is that there’s always a ‘cover story’, a reason the participants give their parents to explain why a film crew is there. They say, for example, that a travel programme is being made or a programme about girls who play football. But then their parents are suddenly dragged into an extremely intimate situation. The participants feel safe in the company of the crew, whom they’ve frequently come to regard as friends. But the parents feel betrayed. And the feeling that your own child doesn’t trust you, naturally that’s painful.”

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Are you gay?


I can imagine that this sort of research would be difficult to do if you were straight.

“That’s not necessarily the case. What makes anthropological research interesting and difficult at the same time is that you have to gain the confidence of someone who, in many respects, is not at all like you. Whether this can be done successfully depends on the situation. Sometimes people want to share their stories, because they can see that the other person is genuinely interested and really listening. But sometimes an interviewee really only opens up if he or she believes that you share something, that there’s a supposed connection. In this sense, me being gay helped in some instances. During the interviews, I felt that the interviewees saw me as a fellow sufferer. Sort of: we’ve gone through more or less the same thing.”

Is that the case?

“No, nothing like. The most important difference between a ‘normal’ coming out and the TV version is that, in reality, it’s never just a single moment. In the programme, it’s presented as a rite of passage. When you’re still ‘in the closet’ you can’t live an honest and fulfilled life because you’re constantly carrying a secret. But stating that you’re gay changes everything. You’re transformed, like a caterpillar’s metamorphosis. That’s a really romantic idea, it implies that there’s such a thing as the ‘real me’. While in reality, it’s a long process. First of all you tell your best friends, next you tell your family, then your work. But there are also moments when you retreat a bit. Even now when you asked me point blank, I hesitated a little.”

So the programme presents a simplified picture. Is that harmful?

“I think it’s a good thing that these things are talked about on TV and that young people are offered role models. At the same time, people should be aware that they’re watching a structured performance. It’s not a documentary. For economic reasons, and to make the production manageable, these sorts of programmes have a recurring formula. The Undateables is a good example of this. During the first season they worked with a documentary cast. There was an autistic participant who had a very good relationship with his mother. And, at a certain point, he practised having a date with her. The producers noticed that provided for some great television. But an authentic scene like that then becomes a recurring element of the programme: a format point in the programme. ”

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“A number of idiosyncratic things have also crept into Uit de Kast. For example that coming out is, in principle, no big deal: Arie Boomsma is there to fix the conflicts. Furthermore, it’s striking that the participants are always the ‘girl or boy next door’ types. This makes it easy for you to identify with them, but it’s also tricky, because the subtext is: it’s fine that you’re gay, as long as you act as though you’re straight.

Have you watched every episode of Uit de Kast?

“Yes, all of them.”

Do you have a favourite?

“There’s a clip from one episode that I always show when I’m giving a lecture. Because it’s so shocking. It’s about a young boy called Robert, who’s from the Antilles and whose parents still live in Bonaire. Consequently, his coming out was filmed there. And it got totally out of control, his mother completely freaked out. It was really heart-rending. This shows that, while the ritualisation might be successful in the Netherlands, the presence of Arie Boomsma and the crew has a totally different effect when you place the programme in an entirely different cultural context.”

You also interviewed Robert. How is he now?

“He’s okay now. But it took years for him to be reconciled with his parents.”

Have the programme’s producers contacted you?

“Not in this particular instance. But I see that there’s a gap between media companies and scholars. They’re often terrified that all sorts of sensitive issues will become public knowledge.”

Not really far-fetched, though?

“No. I came across some personal tragedies.”

Are you obliged to protect the privacy of your respondents?

“They’ve all been on television; however, in my research, they are all treated anonymously.”

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Are there any questions you don’t ask?

“As an anthropologist you learn not to be afraid of asking questions openly, even if they sound really naïve or touch upon taboos. In Uit de Kast there was not a lot of danger of that because, to an extent, I could relate the topic to my own field of experience. However, with The Undateables it was different. I don’t have a disability,’ (chuckling) ‘at least, no visible ones. Consequently, I found myself watching what I was saying, which sometimes led to comical situations. I was having a chat to someone with dwarfism who had no experience with dating. So, looking for a complex narrative, I asked her what the main reason was for her never having had a date. She looked at me as though I were mad and said: my height, of course.”