The real surprise is not that American Idol finally has an openly gay contestant

One of American Idol‘s top 15 women, Emkay Nobilette, is openly gay, a first for the series. Of course, the show has introduced the world to now-out finalists such as Adam Lambert and Congressional candidate Clay Aiken, but none have been out during the competition, and certainly not at this stage.

During last night’s episode, Jennifer Lopez said, “You’re not the typical American Idol,” and Emkay said, “No, I’m not.” Harry Connick Jr. said, “We wonder: Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing?”

They may have been referring to her appearance, but were mostly dancing around something Emkay, who has been identified as MK on screen, just directly addressed herself. She told the judges, “I’m very obviously gay, and there are always going to be people in America and everywhere else are definitely gonna hate, but I think that in the last two years there have been a lot of things that have really changed that and have really made that a positive thing.”

Harry Connick Jr. said, “Thank goodness.” After the required dramatic pause, Jennifer Lopez said, “The world is changing, I think. We think that you could be an American Idol,” and told her she’d made the top 30.

It’s incredible that it took this long, following years of Idol‘s producers pretending that contestants’ sexual orientation didn’t matter, all while they paraded straight contestants’ sexual orientation all over the stage and screen, never mind acting as if everyone was straight and would therefore be attractive to viewers of the opposite sex.

What’s most astounding is that the show still couldn’t just deal with it. The Voice‘s gay contestants are just there: their sexual orientation may come up in a bio or in conversation, just as it does with straight contestants, but neither the coaches nor the producers make any big deal out of it, whether to congratulate themselves

Perhaps it’s not surprising how much hand-wringing there is, even in this new season, even with new producers, even on Fox, a network that airs Glee. At once, the segment–which you can watch below–seemed both self-congratulatory (Look how progressive we are!) and ancient. American Idol may be changing, but like the lumbering dinosaur it is, it’s being dragged slowly into the new world instead of just stepping confidently into it.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.