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02.05.15 10:45 AM ET

Why Lance Bass’s Big Gay Wedding Matters

E!’s airing of the ‘N Sync-er’s marriage will be America’s first televised gay wedding. Is it gross to put your wedding on TV? Yes, obviously. But it’s also important.

We are now on our 19th season of The Bachelor, in which a coven of delusional vamps vie for all of the trappings an interchangeable male whore can offer them: a red rose, an engagement ring, and the 15 minutes of fame that comes when they pretend to want to marry him.

We have turned the nuptials of celebrities into bona fide spectacles, with 11 million people tuning in to a two-night television event celebrating the marriage of Kim Kardashian to Kris Humphries—a marriage that lasted 72 days.

But despite our enthusiasm for these heartwarming stories of true love, there still to this day has not been a televised wedding of a gay couple. Enter E!, and ‘N Sync.

via Facebook

Lance Loves Michael: The Lance Bass Wedding will be just that—America’s first televised gay wedding—when it airs Thursday night on E!. With the sheer amount of visibility the wedding special affords, it’s a landmark moment when it comes to the gay civil rights movement. It’s also a landmark moment in matrimonial publicity.

“We’re an open book,” Bass tells me—and then tells me again no less than seven times during our conversation—when we start talking about the very modern wedding and the very modern tension behind his getting publicity and a career boost for it.

Bass, you might remember, was a closeted member of the world’s most popular boyband, ‘N Sync, until he came out as gay in a cover story for People in 2006. As we’re wont to do as a society when a celebrity comes of the closet, we immediately vaulted Bass to the status of gay poster boy and activist—whether or not he wanted that status or was qualified to be there.

It’s a position he says he’s cautiously accepted, and only after he’s been properly educated on the issues we insist he be a spokesperson for.

“When I first came out, I didn’t really know any gay people, so I knew nothing about the issues that our community had had,” he says. “For a while there I couldn’t speak on anything. That’s why when I first came out I was like, ‘I don’t want to do any interviews or anything. Because I don’t know what I’m talking about yet.’ And it took me a couple of years to really figure out the community, to learn exactly what’s needed.”

Now, thanks to their marriage in December of last year and their publicity tour for their wedding special, Bass’s newlywed husband, pop artist Michael Turchin, has been thrust onto that same pedestal. It’s a role that, considering he did not spend his teenage years in a boyband, he’s had a harder time coming to terms with.

“Before dating Lance I was such a private person,” Turchin says. “So this is all very foreign to me.”

Foreign or not, the Bass-Turchins, at least for the 90 minutes that their wedding special airs on E! Thursday night, are the most unique of gay activists. Lance Loves Michael includes footage of the couple being pronounced husband and husband, kissing each other, and doing everything straight couples do when they get married. The special also features numerous conversations with the stars about their struggles coming out, what being able to get married means to them, and what they hope showing their wedding on TV will mean to young gay people.

But there’s a conflict there. We should and must embrace any gay activist willing to be in the public eye, taking whatever criticism that platform invites and making whatever difference that platform affords. But it also becomes problematic, or at least muddied, when someone—or in this case, people—is using gay activism for the added benefit of fame, or furthering of a career.

To that regard, a reality TV special about a gay wedding may actually be the ultimate LGBT rights equalizer. Exploiting love for fame? It’s not just for straights anymore.

But before taking the most cynical perspective on Bass and Turchin’s televised nuptials, we talked with them about all of that. After all, what kind of person televises their wedding? And if they say it’s for a good cause, can we truly believe the nobility of it all?

Bass and Turchin, albeit, again, while on a publicity tour for their TV special, did seem rather earnest and, yes, even noble about the whole endeavor.

Turchin says that it was actually the night after they were engaged that E! approached them about making a wedding special.

via Facebook

“Immediately, we were like no, there’s no way,” he says. “We don’t want cameras following us. It wasn’t even an option in our mind at the time.”

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But after the E! brass courted them with promises that this would be no vapid Kardashian affair, but instead a PSA of sorts for the cause of legalizing and accepting gay marriage.

“We kind of came to the realization that way more than us getting married, this is going to be a great vessel to show a loving gay couple to the entire world that doesn’t get to see a real-life, loving gay couple go through the motions of getting married,” Turchin says.

“Especially for Lance coming from Southern Baptist Mississippi when he was growing up, he didn’t have other gay role models,” Turchin continues. “He didn’t even know another gay person, so he thought something was wrong with him. So just with that mindset we thought that this could help so many kids in the U.S. and around the world to see a prospering, happy, loving gay couple.”

And to the couple’s credit, looking beyond the goofy groomzilla moments of the special and the eye-rolling sequences about bachelor parties, there are some very genuine, honest moments about what it’s like to be a gay couple in America today.

Bass, for example, talks with impressive candor about his former life as a straight person—both when he was in the closet and before he even knew he was gay—and articulates the almost unexplainable psychological and emotional experience that is. Now, he even has a sense of humor about it all. But has he always?

“Imagine the thick skin you have to get when you’re 16 and in a boy band, because you’re just constantly made fun of,” he says. “Even then, I was called faggot back then more than I am now. I think that prepared me for what I was going to face for when I came out of the closet.”

Even as comfortable he and Turchin are in their skin now—at least comfortable enough to have a camera crew film their wedding—there are moments in the special that make clear that no matter how secure a gay couple is, there is still lingering awkwardness that comes with being gay in a world that is only now slowly accepting it.

There’s a sweet scene at their rehearsal dinner, for example, where they give each other a quick kiss and are both immediately horrified and self-conscious after. It was the first time they had kissed in front of certain family members.

The special spends an appropriate amount of time talking about the very new questions a gay couple must answer when getting married: Who walks down the aisle? Who stands at the altar? What do you say when they’re pronounced married? What gender stands in the wedding party? But it’s a little moment like that—how it’s still awkward for a gay man to kiss his fiancé in public—that is just as profound.

“When you’re gay and you grow up in a society where it is so not P.C. to be gay, you train yourself and your mannerisms in public in a certain way,” Turchin says. “And it’s hard to let go of some of those past things that you teach yourselves to do. Even to this day if I grab his hand in public, there’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Oh god—wait—who’s watching?’”

It’s because of instincts like those that Bass and Turchin have taken the plunge that some of us might judge as gross—it certainly must be an interesting experience to pray for good ratings for your wedding—but they think is necessary.

“It’s all about visibility,” Bass says. “You can’t get educated unless you see something. We always say the best way to change a person’s mind is to get to know someone. And when you get to know a gay person it’s going to change your mind. I don’t think there’s one person who’s ever met a gay person and decided, ‘Oh no I actually hate them more now.’”

While I can 100 percent guarantee that isn’t true, Bass is onto something. Visibility is important. In fact, it’s necessary. And it does have the power to change minds.

“When a lot of people think of same-sex marriage they think, ‘Who’s wearing the dress? How much pink are you going to be using?’” Bass says. “But when you see the special, we’re just guys.”

Gay guys, on TV, getting married. For fame, for good, or whatever purpose, that’s just cool. (And also, for what it’s worth, neither one wore a dress.)