By Diane Holloway
Sunday, September 25, 2005
A reality TV show, undone by controversy and canceled before it aired, has changed lives and united families.
Sounds like a sappy ad for "Oprah," doesn't it? But it happened in Austin's Circle C.
This week, Steve and John Wright, a gay, white couple with an adopted black child, are moving into the house that they won in an all-white, upscale cul-de-sac in the Southwest Austin subdivision. The four-bedroom, 3,300-square-foot traditional brick home was the prize in a competition orchestrated by ABC's ill-fated series "Welcome to the Neighbor- hood."
Jim Stewart, one of the Circle C residents on the show who helped select the Wrights, says he used to be "fearful and ignorant of gays" but has undergone a dramatic change as a result of filming the series last January. Now, he not only embraces his new neighbors, but he also has opened his heart to older son Jason, who — unknown to neighbors and producers during filming — is gay.
"I was shocked somebody could start where Jim did and wind up where he did," Steve Wright says. "It affirms your faith in human nature."
Large, expansive and ruddy-faced, Jim is the guy who proclaimed in the ABC promos: "I would not tolerate living next door to homosexuals." His next-door neighbor, Jim Kaiser, describes him as "a redneck with a heart of gold," but that is not how America saw Jim Stewart in those ads. He was lambasted on talk radio and the television show "The View," to name just a couple of national venues.
Jim's emotional journey was key to "Welcome to the Neighborhood," a six-episode reality show in which three conservative white families chose new neighbors from among seven diverse families. Besides the Wrights, there were Hispanic, African American and Asian families, a family that practices the pagan religion Wicca, a pierced and tattooed family, and a family with a stripper mom.
After the promos were blasted as racist and homophobic by civil rights groups and the media, ABC axed the show a week before its July 5 debut.
Meanwhile, the residents of the Alberta Cove cul-de-sac, including the new neighbors, bonded and rode out the media storm.
"You couldn't write a better ending to this story," says John Wright, 33, a kindergarten teacher at St. Elmo Elementary School. "Circle C really took some knocks, and I hope people will realize that was unfair. These are warm, kind, wonderful people who really want to be with us. The show is over. They don't have to be like this now."
Steve and John Wright have become part of a close-knit group of Alberta Cove families that parties every Friday evening at "the wall," a stone fence in front of the Stewarts' house that has special meaning for this neighborhood. Friendships have strengthened at the wall; confessions have been made at the wall; hearts have been broken and healed at the wall.
The Wrights have made lots of friends in Circle C, but they have become especially close to the Stewarts, a relationship that both families say has been life-changing.
Steve Wright, 50, a self-described "soccer mom," who cooks, shops and chauffeurs 2-year-old Eli to and from preschool, says he has been surprised and deeply touched by the experience.
"It's unbelievable," he says. "We've been through an intense thing with these people, four weeks of a sociological experiment. Now we probably know 50 families out there by name, and we go to the wall on Friday evenings. It's an old-fashioned neighborhood where people love each other and raise their kids."
Steve admitted that he showed up on Alberta Cove with his own "preconceptions and defenses." He and John knew that at least some of the people there would not like them, so they entered the fray with a "battle mentality." But the neighbors, including Jim Stewart, accepted them before they realized it.
"I always thought redneck views were set in cement," Steve says. "Jim proved you shouldn't assume anything — or give up on anybody."
Jim Stewart, 53, the unofficial "governor of the cul-de-sac," is a McCallum High graduate and avid University of Texas fan who works in sales for a food processing equipment company. His wife, Karen, 38, who graduated from Texas A&M University, works from home for a multinational food manufacturing company. They have a 10-year-old son, Zachary; Jim's son Jason, 24, is from a previous marriage.
The Stewarts work hard and live well. Their home, like the others in the cul-de-sac, is large and expensive, priced in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. It is tastefully decorated and pristine.
In the first episode of The Show That Never Aired, the Wrights were the first family to arrive in the cul-de-sac, and Jim could be seen rolling his eyes.
"I was turned off, I admit," he says. "They had that public display of affection, which they have every right to do, but it really turned me off. I was fearful and ignorant, which is where all prejudice comes from."
Neither the show's producers nor the other Circle C families knew that Jim had been wrestling with deeper personal issues since Jason came out to him at the wall three years earlier.
"When Jason told me that, I was emotional, crying," Jim says softly. "I said everything negative you can say to him. I told him I would never change. I said I still loved him, but I told him to check the gay stuff at the door. Don't bring it into this house."
After Jason left, Jim says, he wondered what he had done wrong. Why was Jason gay, and "what doctor can we go to to fix this?"
The arrival of the cheerful, outgoing Wrights the first day of filming in January brought those painful feelings to the surface again. "My cross hairs for gays went up," Jim admitted.
Jason, who graduated from Texas State University-San Marcos and works in guest relations at a local hotel, kept a relationship with his father, stepmother and half-brother.
"It was sort of a don't ask, don't tell policy," Karen says.
But Jason longed for a closer connection with his dad (he says they were "distant close"), and the rejection after coming out to his dad was painful.
"It was a very hard time because I couldn't share what I should have been able to share with them," Jason says. "I felt like the child left behind in the closet."
The Wrights already had a lovely home and a happy life. Why did they open themselves up to the trauma and drama of reality TV when "Welcome to the Neighborhood" came calling?
"We don't see families like ours on TV, and we wanted to see one in a positive portrayal," John says.
Producers and casting directors had spread the word that they were looking for a gay couple with children. The Wrights were contacted through their church, the Metropolitan Community Church in far South Austin.
"At first we said no, but then we prayed about it and decided to do it," Steve says. "We never thought we'd win. We went there to tell our story. America didn't have to like us, but they would at least see we aren't scary. We've always been involved in civil rights, and this was a platform to dream of."
John and Steve are a quiet couple, committed to their family, their church and their community. Besides chasing boisterous Eli all over the place, they have a German foreign exchange student, Kathrin Frese, a senior at Bowie High, living with them. And they have been helping out with Katrina evacuees.
The couple have been together four years and started talking about having kids two weeks into their relationship. They had a commitment ceremony at their church in December 2002 and began the arduous road to adoption. John legally changed his name from Gwillim to Wright, hoping to make the process smoother.
They had been trying to adopt a child from Guatemala, but plans kept falling through. Frustration mounted, and Steve says he offered up an "angry prayer to God." The next day an adoption agency in Chicago called.
Eli was born with his intestines outside his body. His health was precarious, and his 23-year-old mother, who had three other children, gave him up. When the Wrights arrived at the Chicago hospital, Eli was 7 months old and had had multiple surgeries. The agency had not found anyone who wanted him — until the Wrights.
"He was so sick, he had tubes coming out of his belly," Steve says. "At first we weren't going to take a sick kid, but this was sort of a direct answer from God, you know? So we really couldn't say no. And we fell in love with him right away."
Today, Eli has a long scar on his tummy but no other reminders of an unhealthy past. He calls Steve "Papa" and John "Daddy," and he is a bundle of fast-moving energy.
The Wrights would like to adopt more children. "We love each other and this kid, and we have a lot more love to give," Steve says.
'I just don't get the gay thing," Jim Stewart said, shaking his head during a poker game in The Show That Never Aired.
"Well, I don't get the redneck thing," Steve Wright countered.
The two men "get" each other now.
What happened? The families got to know each other during filming. They talked about their beliefs and values, issues that stood between them. It was therapy by way of reality TV.
The turning point came when the show was down to the last three families. The Stewarts were having dinner with the Wrights, drinking wine and feeling comfortable.
"What was it like growing up gay in a straight world?" Jim asked John. Jim was shocked when John said he had been chased, caught, spit on and beaten.
"I said to myself right then, 'That's not right,' " Jim recalls, his eyes filling with tears.
A couple of weeks after the show wrapped, Jim called his son Jason and said he wanted to talk with him.
"I told him, 'Dad was wrong. I'm sorry,' " Jim says, choking back tears. "I might have gone forever like I was without the Wrights."
Jim's transformation stunned Jason. The call from his father was one he had been hoping for since he came out at the wall three years earlier.
"It was a complete surprise," Jason says. "Basically he said he accepted me for who I am and that if I ever wanted to talk to him about anything, he would always have an open mind and an open heart. It was such an emotional contact, something we'd never had before. I'm just so happy he's let me into his heart."
Jim's roller coaster continues. After being vilified as a bigot for his earlier comments about gays, he is steeling himself for an onslaught from the other side. He has agreed to speak, alongside Steve, at a vigil protesting the proposed Texas constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Thursday at 6 p.m., Jim and Steve will stand on the steps of the state Capitol.
"It'll create another mess," Jim says with a sigh. "There are a lot of people who think like I did. . . . We as straight people have certain rights. What is the fear of doing the same for a gay couple? I don't want to beat the drum, but I do want to get the message out."
Jim's wife, Karen, who has quietly weathered the storm, too, says she is proud of her husband.
"We're hoping Jim will reach an audience of people like him," Karen says. "Overall, this is still an enormously positive event in our lives."
Jason, whose birthday (Oct. 15) is the same as Steve's, says he cried when he found out his father was speaking at the vigil. He plans to be in the front row beaming.
Alberta Cove has calmed down, for now. On a recent Friday evening at the wall, about 25 regulars gathered — from the cul-de-sac and beyond — to drink, eat and visit. Jim joked, hugged, poured tequila and presided.
The Wrights drove in from South Austin, and several people rushed up to grab Eli from John's arms. Soon the toddler disappeared with the other children.
Not everyone in the neighborhood looks back on the reality TV experience favorably.
John Bellamy, one of the judges, is still miffed that the show never aired. He and his wife, Shelley, their 14-year-old twin daughters and their 13-year-old son are close to the Wrights, but they wish America could have seen what really happened.
The Stewarts' neighbor Jim Kaiser is glad that the Wrights won the house, but he is not too happy with ABC.
"The Wrights are good-hearted people, and they won without changing who they are to do it," Kaiser says. He wishes the show had aired because "the transformation is what the show is about, and Jim absolutely changed."
Norm Powell, a cul-de-sac neighbor who was upset by the controversy that erupted in July, says Alberta Cove has "gotten back to a sense of normalcy." He was especially angry last summer when the neighborhood, which is about 80 percent white, was accused of racism. Powell's son-in-law is black, and his grandchildren are mixed race.
The families who participated in "Welcome to the Neighborhood" are still bound by a confidentiality agreement. They are not supposed to talk about exactly how the show was filmed.
Even with the better-than-expected happy ending, the network refuses to schedule the show or talk about it.
"We wish the Wrights nothing but joy and happiness in their new home and their new community," ABC said in a statement. firstname.lastname@example.org