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Chip and Joanna Gaines and the anti-gay controversy over HGTV's Fixer Upper, explained

HGTV’s renovation stars are now fixtures in a culture war.

Fixer Upper/HGTV
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The stars of HGTV — the Home and Garden Television network — are patron saints of aspirational living. Jonathan and Drew Scott, better known as the Property Brothers, help people purchase rundown shanties and transform them into plush oases. On Love It or List It, Hilary Farr and David Visentin rehabilitate homeowners’ current digs while also helping them decide if they want to move. A variety of other personalities and programs cover everything from flipping houses to buying real estate overseas.

At the top of the HGTV pantheon are Chip and Joanna Gaines, the stars of a show called Fixer Upper.

The Gaineses are based in Waco, Texas, and have a superhuman knack for turning dingy houses into something you’d see in a catalog or a lifestyle magazine: chefs’ kitchens that resemble high-end Southern restaurants with double-cut bacon and braised pork cheeks on the menu; modern country living rooms where the couch is topped off with a too-precious pillow with a saying scrawled on it; bedrooms that look like they’ve been transported from a $500-a-night Big Sur bed-and-breakfast. And then there is the shiplap.

There are no HGTV home improvement angels more popular or desired than the salty-sweet combination of Chip and Joanna Gaines. Their talent combined with their easy chemistry — he goofs off; she rolls her eyes — has made them bona fide stars.

Fixer Upper is in now in its fourth season, which premiered November 29. But it’s only in the past year or so that the Gaineses really rose to mainstream prominence. In October, they were the subject of a People cover story and profile. Their book, The Magnolia Story, has been on the New York Times best-seller list for the past six weeks. And Fixer Upper’s ratings are a crown jewel for HGTV.

“When the season-three finale aired in March, its nearly 4 million-strong live audience topped everything that night — including the penultimate episode of FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson and a CNN town hall with Trump,” the Hollywood Reporter notes.

But the Gaineses’ popularity — alongside speculation about their offscreen religious beliefs and politics — has landed them at the center of an anti-gay controversy. Like a lot of celebrities, and especially because the Gaineses are, in a sense, reality television stars, there’s a desire to know whether their offscreen lives match up with what they’re selling on camera, from their parenting styles (they have four children) to their love lives to everything in between.

In particular, their faith and their beliefs on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights have come into question due to the anti-gay views held by the pastor of their church.

BuzzFeed brought up questions about the Gaineses’ pastor and why Fixer Upper never features gay couples

Though they don’t discuss it much on Fixer Upper, the Gaineses are devout Christians, a fact they’ve talked about in interviews like this one with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. And the center of this controversy is a BuzzFeed article by Kate Aurthur about the Gaineses’ church in Texas, the Antioch Community Church.

More specifically, the Gaineses’ pastor, Jimmy Seibert, is against same-sex marriage and supports conversion therapy. In her BuzzFeed story, Aurthur asks two core questions: If their pastor is against same-sex marriage, does that mean the Gaineses are too? And why hasn’t Fixer Upper ever featured a gay couple while other HGTV shows have — is it because the hosts believe what Seibert preaches?

Aurthur writes that she asked the Gaineses to comment for her story and did not receive a response. But she draws a fairly direct line between statements that Seibert has made in the past and what the Gaineses might believe. Specifically, she cites Seibert’s comments that most LGBTQ people are LGBTQ because they were abused, and that he believes it’s possible for gay people to become straight if they commit to doing so:

[Seibert] expands on that notion: “We can change, contrary to what you hear. I’ve worked with people for over 30 years — I have seen hundreds of people personally change their direction of same-sex attraction from a homosexual lifestyle to a heterosexual lifestyle. It doesn’t mean they don’t struggle with feelings, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t hurting, it doesn’t mean it’s not challenging. But they have chosen to change. And there has always been grace there for those who choose that.”

Conversion therapy is banned in five states and Washington, DC; the American Psychological Association states that conversion therapy and ex-gay ministry (the idea that sexuality can be changed through religion) can be dangerous:

[S]uch efforts [conversion therapy or ex-gay ministry] have serious potential to harm young people because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.

Given that Seibert believes you can change LGBTQ people’s sexual orientation and encourages it, his position on same-sex marriage (hint: he’s not a huge fan of it) and his stance that businesses should be able to refuse service to LGBTQ couples on the basis of faith shouldn’t come as a surprise.

But whether Seibert’s beliefs are also held by the Gaineses isn’t as clear. There’s an obvious connection between Seibert and the Gaineses in that they attend his church. But how much they agree with his views is uncertain. What we do know is that there hasn’t been a gay couple featured on any of Fixer Upper’s 40-plus episodes to date (the couples featured also tend to be white); that fact was the apparent impetus for Aurthur’s article. And when asked for comment for the BuzzFeed article, the Gaineses declined to respond (after the story was published, HGTV made a statement that its shows do not discriminate against LGBTQ people).

The Gaineses’ lack of response and BuzzFeed’s article have generated several questions.

Is the lack of gay couples featured on Fixer Upper the Gaineses’ choice, and if it is, then is it discrimination? Though Aurthur doesn’t mention it in her article, HGTV canceled a show in 2014 because one of its hosts went on the record asserting that LGBTQ people were a scourge of the earth. Knowing that, where might the Gaineses fit on the network’s judgment scale?

Fixer Upper isn’t about Christianity or LGBTQ rights or any social issues — it’s about putting small clocks into living spaces and blowing up kitchens. And if the show isn’t positioned to address those things, and if the Gaineses aren’t promoting their faith or Seibert’s on the show, is it fair to judge the show on the grounds of speculation about their faith? Should the Gaineses respond? Do they have an obligation to?

If their wholesomeness and kindness is an integral part of what they’re selling, do we deserve to know the entire truth before we buy into it?

The Gaineses have (involuntarily) become a right-wing poster couple in a political culture war

After Aurthur’s article was published, conservative websites and writers lashed out at the publication, calling it an attack piece intended to ruin the Gaineses’ reputation and career and to denounce Christianity by way of liberal politics.

Hans Fiene at the Federalist published an article titled “BuzzFeed Wants to Destroy Chip And Joanna Gaines for Being Christian and Wildly Popular.” Kaitlan Collins at the Daily Caller went a similar route, alleging that “BuzzFeed Is Trying to Destroy One of TV’s Most Famous Christian Couples.” At National Review, David French added, “Buzzfeed Demands: ‘Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a Christian?’”

French’s piece even discusses the issue of depression, anxiety, and suicide in the LGBTQ community, but fails to acknowledge that this depression can stem from bigotry that cites religion as an excuse:

America’s gay communities are beset with elevated rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. America’s transgender communities suffer from truly shocking rates of suicide. These are sad realities. Is it out of bounds to respond by speaking of God’s transformative grace? I know men and women who are alive today because God rescued them from the deepest emotional and psychological abyss.

The roundabout logic French uses — that gay people would be less sad if they just listened to God, whom he argues has told people that it’s okay to discriminate against gay people and make said gay people sad — is really something.

But the common thread running through all of these pieces is that the authors believe BuzzFeed is a leftist publication and that Christianity is under attack. There’s a bit of glossing over of Seibert’s quotes about conversion therapy and discrimination against gay couples (you can hear those quotes in full in this 2015 sermon he gave in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage), as well as generalizing the BuzzFeed piece with the declaration that “liberals hate the Christian faith.”

That’s not exactly fair.

There are a multitude of Christians who don’t believe what Seibert believes about conversion therapy — a 2014 YouGov poll found that only 8 percent of Americans believe conversion therapy “works.” And there are also a multitude of liberals who identify as Christian — a 2016 Pew Research poll found that 44 percent of Catholics identify as Democrats, versus 37 percent who identify as Republicans.

These conservative pieces are just as guilty of what they’re accusing BuzzFeed of doing: flattening the argument over the Gaineses’ religious beliefs to drum up identity outrage and fuel a political narrative. And in their push to polarize, they’re overlooking entire swaths of people — possibly including the Gaineses, who, like a lot of Americans, could identify as Christian but not act fully in lockstep with their church or their pastor.

What the fight over the Gaineses’ beliefs is really about

HGTV has a long history of leaning toward the progressive in the types of people it features on its shows.

Same-sex couples are featured in many of its programs. The network airs programs like House Hunters International that sometimes feature non-American same-sex couples, and shows like Property Brothers and Love It or List It have had same-sex couples who had their homes renovated. And the channel stated on December 1 that all of its current programs are open to LGBTQ couples.

“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,” an HGTV spokesperson said in a statement to BuzzFeed after Aurthur’s article was published.

As mentioned above, in 2014 the channel canceled a proposed show, Flip It Forward, because its hosts, David and Jason Benham, were vocally anti-gay. The Benham brothers are sons of a man named Flip Benham, the leader of an organization called Operation Save America, who has gone on the record in saying that “Jesus hates Muslims” and blamed the 2012 Aurora massacre on Democrats. David Benham spoke to a conservative talk show in September 2012 and said, “Homosexuality and its agenda ... is attacking the nation,” plus some nonsense about "demonic ideologies."

If Chip or Joanna Gaines had said something on the record similar to Seibert or to the Benham brothers, the motivation for Aurthur’s BuzzFeed article would be more clear, since HGTV seems to have a policy against discriminatory speech and practices. But the crucial detail here is that as far as we know, the Gaineses haven’t said anything similar to Seibert or the Benhams. In fact, they haven’t really publicly positioned themselves to be LGBTQ allies or enemies, nor have they used to the show as a mouthpiece for their church.

Chip Gaines tweeted on December 3 that in the wake of the BuzzFeed article, people should not attack Aurthur or Gina Mei, who aggregated Aurthur’s piece for Cosmopolitan:

It seems Gaines sensed the vitriol and outrage brewing, and anticipated the attacks Aurthur received after publishing the piece.

And on December 4, Gaines obliquely tweeted about the controversy, implying that he and his family are standing by the church:

What we’re left with is HGTV’s assurance that there’s no LGBTQ discrimination on any of its shows — including Fixer Upper — and the Gaineses’ silence. And we’re all free to read into those statements as much as we want.

But at the heart of this controversy is the deeper politicization of entertainment and the growing trend of politics becoming an aesthetic in our movies, our music, and possibly even our home improvement television shows.

There’s unfortunately more to Fixer Upper than a deep fidelity to pendant lighting and open floor plans. And somehow, a show whose premise is the furthest thing from politics has become, for people on the left and the right, completely defined by it.

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