Queer as Folk aired at a pivotal time in my life. I was 20 years old. I’d come out of the closet and jumped back in again before finally breaking the damn door off the hinges. I was in my first real relationship when I was introduced to the gang on Liberty Avenue. Not having Showtime myself, I watched QAF every few weeks or so in two or three episode bursts on VHS tapes a friend recorded for me.
Yes, I said V-H-S.
From Justin’s very first rimjob to the melancholic finale that saw Michael and Brian dancing together against the backdrop of a burnt out Babylon, queer people everywhere flocked to this groundbreaking new show. Queer as Folk brought the plight of queer life to the forefront of viewers’ attention at a time when Will and Grace were playing to hetero expectations. It also laid the groundwork for other shows like the L Word, Noah’s Arc, Looking, and Modern Family—all tremendous milestones in queer television.
It had its downfalls…something only time and the privilege of retrospect (not to mention that I’m currently rewatching the entire series) can afford.
First of all, Queer as Folk is as white washed as a Trump rally. The only people of color are either “tricks” or sex workers. Women and their roles in the show are also limited. Besides a couple of lesbians, Justin’s mom (she's barely seen after Season 1), and Debbie, QAF was a real sausage fest.
This lack of diversity is problematic because the queer experience is so vast it can’t be portrayed as a bunch of white guys hitting the bars while on their search for love and sex.
The show is also ageist as shit, insisting anyone over the age of 30 is “gay dead.” Ah, to be gay alive again! And if you aren’t donning a six pack, a bubble ass, and a nine inch cock, you’re as insignificant as the 30-somethings.
Still, Queer as Folk encapsulated what it meant to be queer at the tail end of the AIDS crisis, when much of the country still feared and/or misunderstood the queer movement. And for those of us who had our feet in both the hetero and queer world, the show provided some long-overdue education to the masses.
Allow me to count the ways:
Coming out is one of the hardest things a queer person can do. Whether you’re gay, bi, trans, asexual, or sexually fluid…coming out can seem like stepping onto a high dive with only a tarp held beneath you supported by family, friends, and coworkers—any or all of which could let go at any time.
Coming out can be scary and beautiful and it should never be forced on a person before they’re ready to make that leap.
Queer as Folk exploited various avenues of this rite of passage. Whether it was Justin coming out to his mother and homophobic father, Brian outing Michael to his work “girlfriend,” or Hunter telling his adopted dads that he’s actually straight—“Have you tried not being straight?”—QAF gives us a glimpse into that uncertainty and fear, as well as the consequences coming out can sometimes entail.
Parenting and Family
Parenting is tough no matter who you are. I can only imagine what it’s like to be a gay parent and constantly having to defend that paternity. On a recent episode of Savage Love, Dan Savage ranted at the beginning of his show about queer parents giving hetero people a break. I agree; baby brain is real and sometimes makes us forget ourselves. How else do you explain grown men and women cooing at infants as their vocabulary grossly deteriorates?
Queer as Folk depicted not just the “who’s the mommy/daddy?” questions queer parents are often berated with, but everything from the role of those parents in the child’s life to circumcision, and even divorce.
It also showed us the different ways families look—from Brian’s strained relationship with his father and sister, to Justin crashing with Debbie after his father refuses to let him come home, to Michael and Ben’s adoption of a young sex worker. The role of friendship and community can’t be dismissed. Sometimes blood isn’t thicker than water. Sometimes family is just the people we meet along the way.
Whether it’s Justin getting bashed after prom, a mother calling her HIV Positive son a “faggot” during a custody battle, a drag queen getting the shit beat out of her in a dark alley, or a bomb going off at the happening gay bar—QAF gave us a raw look at the way bigotry has and continues to affect the queer community. The beauty is in the way characters handle their victimhood.
Justin, for example, continues his pursuit of art despite nerve damage from his bashing. Later, when he confronts his attacker, Justin has the power of life and death over the man who had caused him so much pain over the years. His choice to walk away from his attacker breaks the chains of his victimhood, reminding us we still have choices where once they might have been stripped away; that it isn’t our victimhood that defines us—but what we do with it.
Forgiveness isn’t the only way to heal, and it may not even be in our repertoire. Sometimes time is the only tool we have. Still, we can live a life that shines for others. And that is where true healing begins.
One of my favorite quotes from the show is from Uncle Vic:
“Sex isn’t careful, and if it is you’re doing it wrong. It’s messy, and it’s human. And it’s mixed up with other things. It’s a genie that won’t stay in the bottle.”
Queer as Folk gave us an honest glimpse at human sexuality that is still lacking in television and movies. From Brian Kenny’s backroom fuckery, to BDSM and sex work, to the different ways people navigate monogamy and non-monogamy alike, QAF didn’t just dole out the sex scenes, it educated us about this vast spectrum that is human sexuality. Safety and consent are always a theme, whether you’re in the backroom at Babylon, getting fisted on leather night, or just hooking up.
Oh, and the cock shots peppered throughout the series are something more shows could learn from.
I’m looking at you Game of Thrones.
These were my favorite episodes. After all, Pride is what Queer as Folk was all about. Being proud of who we are, the love we have for each other, the communities we build and the changes we elicit—Queer as Folk celebrates it all. From Uncle Vic, whose very presence reminds us we wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the sacrifices of others, to baby Gus, a symbol of hope and tolerance for a future that seemed a never-ending uphill battle for equality, especially in post-9/11, Bush-era America.
Today, marriage is the law of the land.
But the struggle is far from over. Not when queer people the world over are still at risk of suicide, assault, and execution just for existing. Here, America is finally making significant strides for equality. So today, let’s stand with queer people everywhere—beneath that great big rainbow of ours—and ask ourselves:
What have you done today to make you feel proud?