Photos by Jack Plunkett and Mandy Jeronimus
When Queer As Folk came out in 2000, I was in the midst of being newly out myself. It was the beginning of a wave of TV shows and movies where gay people were allowed to be more than a punchline. We were still mostly sassy best friends, but it was better than Limp Wristed Hairdresser or Humorless Gym Teacher. All of a sudden, there was this show on the air that was about gay people. Not just gay people and how we react to straight people's lives, but how we navigate our own. How we live, how we love, how we screw up, and how we come into adulthood, all laid out on our TV screens.
Ten years after the last episode aired, the ATX Television Festival got together the creators and some fan favorites from the cast to talk about the show and what it meant to them and the fans.
When Queer As Folk's first season aired, many of the themes it dealt with (coming out at work, being out in high school, falling in love with your hot best friend) were pretty universal coming out experiences. "What's everyone going to think when they FIND OUT ABOUT ME???" "What's love and what's friendship?" "Do I still get to go to prom?"
As the seasons progressed, Queer As Folk not only addressed the changing political climate, but let the audience see how the increasingly conservative rhetoric affected gay people through this specific group of friends.
The show was populated with a diverse set of characters that, at first, seemed to come from a stock of gay stereotypes. Very quickly, though, Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman gave all of these characters shades and dimensions of their personality that made them more rich and real than a "type.”
Brian Kinney, the leader of the pack, was handsome, wealthy and put-together. He had a different guy every night, and in a lesser show, could've been exactly what straight people are afraid gay men are: selfish and promiscuous, trolling for their next prey. Instead, they colored him with other qualities that made him human. He gave sperm to his best lesbian and actually ended up being a caring father and unflagging friend. He pushed away Justin, the young high schooler of the group, once he'd "had" him, only to begin falling in love with him and answering that, yes, sometimes we do get to go to prom.
Even Brian Kinney, with his motto of "No excuses, no apologies," was afraid to come out to his parents and avoided it until his father was dying. Showing this crack in his bravado made him that much more real. During the panel, the creators said that Gale Harold, the actor who played Brian, even refused to discuss his heterosexual orientation while publicizing the first season for fear of taking anything away from the audience believing in his portrayal of Brian.
When asked about taking the job, Gale said “I had no hesitation to play that character.” His concerns with the part were much more personal, with Harold confiding that “My primary concern was not to let down friends of mine that I’d grown up with who may not have been out, but they were dear people to me, and I didn’t want to do a disservice to them.”
Similar sentiment was shared by showrunners Cowan and Lipman, who played Emmett Honeycutt, the "sassy queen" of the group. They both wanted Emmett to be more than a cliché, and show that this self-described "nelly bottom" had more grit and guts than you could find in the burliest of men. (Also, kudos to Peter Paige for "paying it forward" in terms of gay visibility by creating The Fosters, a show currently on ABC Family, and celebrated by ATX, about a family headed by two lesbians.) Said Lipman, “Emmett’s character was based on someone I knew who was a gym buddy of mine, and he painted his fingernails and toenails and he was very queeny. He was an accountant at one of the major studios and one day we were talking, and everything dropped, and he was the most forceful, powerful person telling me about this thing. And then as soon as he finished telling me about this he just went right back.”
Cowan shared similar sentiment about Emmett, saying “I felt very protective of his character and rather offended by people who could only see him as a queen. Especially gay people who would be ashamed, those members of our community who can’t pass.”
One of the most interesting topics that was discussed, though, was how the show had a large heterosexual female following. There were plenty of jokes about the plenitude of handsome (often shirtless) men on the show, but then Cowen got serious for a second and said "Even though we wrote the show thinking our audience was going to be gay, ultimately I was happier that women were watching the show, because women have children, and I thought how very important it is for those children who are and who are yet to be to have mothers who have seen Queer As Folk and who understand what it is to be gay so that they will be more sensitive and loving to their children, and maybe we could’ve helped that along a bit." I remember watching the show when it first aired and thinking "Finally! A show just for US!" I couldn't be more pleased to have been wrong.
It was clear to see how much this show meant to so many kinds of people when, upon the cast and creators both entering and leaving the theater, the entire crowd stood and applauded at once. Not one of those standing ovation trickles of fans getting up and clapping one by one, but this wave of loud and grateful applause and a feeling of, as Emmett would say, "Fuck 'em all if they don't like it."
It's great that the current entertainment landscape leans toward gay characters being "just part of the gang," and I support this inclusive approach. Listening to the cast and creators of Queer As Folk, though, it's also important for gay programming to talk about the fact that we are all unique, and that's something that should be celebrated.
Thanks for teaching me that lesson when I first came out, QAF, and thanks for reminding me again at the ATX Television Festival.