June is Pride Month and here at 25YL, we want to look at TV and Film that made us proud with their representation of LGBTQ issues and themes. This week Martin Hearn looks at Queer as Folk.
When Russell T. Davies’ show Queer As Folk first aired on UK television screens in 1999 I was a closeted 13-year-old who had never seen anything solely dedicated to being gay on TV. Smaller homosexual stories on screen in soap operas like Eastenders and Brookside had been met with outrage by both the media and the public. Seeing this kind of backlash had given me cause for concern as it seemed that gay people were never meant to have a happy life. The media’s main messages just kept telling me that I would die of AIDS or have a lonely and miserable existence never knowing what it was like to be a “real man”.
I grew up in North East England in a town called Middlesbrough and boy was it a tough place to exist in; it still is 20 years later. Less than 20 years before I was born it was still illegal to be gay and you could literally face a lifetime jail sentence because of it. LGBT was never mentioned in schools and there was more chance of a teacher throwing around a bit of casual homophobia instead of teaching us about acceptance and tolerance. It was a typical laddish environment that was a struggle to get through and I found myself having to adapt and hide the real me in order to fit in.
Other parts of the country weren’t much better as we still lived under the rule of Section 28, which meant that any public authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. This went for schools too as apparently teaching anyone about any sort of LGBT lifestyle or community would be “undermining real marriages”.
Section 28 was created by the UK government in 1988 as a way to “protect children from predatory homosexuals and advocates seeking to indoctrinate vulnerable young people into homosexuality. Can you see now why I was petrified that I was secretly gay? I needed something to help me; something to show me that there wasn’t anything wrong with being gay; something to give me hope.
Long before Aidan Gillen was Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, before Charlie Hunnam was Jax in Sons of Anarchy, and before Antony Cotton and Craig Kelly had become household names for their roles on Coronation Street or as a prolific voice-over artist… they all went a bit Queer As Folk.
In a dark world that was filled with unapologetic homophobia in the streets, on the screen, in schools, and in the media it felt like a true breath of fresh air when Queer As Folk burst on to our TVs. The world was hostile, but the show was a big gay “fuck you” to that hostility.
For those that don’t know there’s an old saying in Northern England of “there’s nowt as queer as folk” which basically means there’s nothing as strange as people. It was used in the movie The Full Monty when two of its characters are staring at a gay couple. This is where the title of the show was formed. It centered around the gay characters of Stuart Allen Jones (Gillen), Vince Tyler (Kelly), and Nathan Maloney (Hunnam), and sought to give us a glimpse into their lives both on and off the gay scene of Manchester’s Canal Street.
Stuart is cocky, good looking, confident, and can get any guy that he wants on the scene. Vince is his best friend who is quiet, loves Doctor Who, and also loves Stuart. Nathan is 15 years old, new to the scene, and is too sure of himself. Ultimately they are all three versions of the same person that we’ve all probably experienced being at some point in our lives. We’ve all been young, we’ve all gone clubbing for the first time, and we’ve all discovered a new found confidence and cockiness through doing this.
I was the same age as Nathan when I discovered my (very small) local gay scene and I went through a similar experience of finding a confidence I didn’t know existed within me. I dressed outrageously and probably had no business walking around in crop tops and bleached jeans with rips up to my arse. But it was the year 2000 and I was young…that’s my excuse anyway.
I had to sneakily watch the show with the volume turned right down while being perched practically on top of my set so I could quickly change the channel if anybody came near my bedroom. This wasn’t just because I didn’t want anybody at home to know I was watching a show about the lives of gay people, but also because there was sex—graphic sex!!
I had only ever seen two men kiss on TV so now to see two of them having sex on my screen was something I had never experienced before.
On Nathan’s first night on the gay scene, he loses his virginity to Stuart and we were given front row seats to the big event. Nathan doesn’t know what rimming is so Stuart shows him (and pretty much us) exactly what it is. It’s truly amazing to think that two straight actors could commit to this type of scene, and there must have been such a high level of trust between them for it to happen so unashamedly. They did it because it was essential to not just the characters but to the story the show was telling, and even though that sort of scene is something you can see anywhere these days back then it was a first for TV. The sex scenes in the show weren’t necessarily there to shock viewers; instead, they were images of empowerment which said that gay people had sex too, so what? The world wasn’t going to end because of it and it was just as natural as any straight couple getting it on.
Amongst the clubbing, the sex, and the drama were stories of one of the hardest things gay people can go through: coming out. Stuart is out and proud to everyone but his parents, Vince is out to everyone but his work colleagues, and Nathan is on the cusp of exploding from the closet.
There’s a great scene in which Nathan’s mum is tidying his bedroom and ends up stumbling across his gay porn collection. Instead of any shock, upset, or outrage she simply smiles to herself and puts it back where she found it. Nathan is her son, she already knows deep down that he’s gay and she already knows that it doesn’t change who he is as a person.
His father, on the other hand, is a different story, as he doesn’t take the news well and neither do the other students and teachers at school that are bullying him. This is something that I loved about the show, as it felt like it was preparing young people like myself for that big moment. In a way, the show was telling us that ‘yeah, when you come out not everyone might be happy about it and you may face some hostility. But you aren’t alone, you have a place in the world, and you’ll still be loved’.
Most people in the show did have a place to go where they were loved and wanted. They went to Vince’s mum’s house.
Hazel Tyler, played perfectly by Denise Black, was Vince’s free-spirited mother, who liked to go out on the gay scene, get pissed and have a bloody good time. She also cared about everybody else and she acted as a mother to Vince’s friends. She supports other mums who might be struggling when their child comes out; she’s the type of person that everybody needs in their life. When Nathan runs away from home during his coming out Hazel takes him in and gives him a place to stay as she doesn’t want him to run further away and end up in serious trouble. She knows that the world can be a cruel place so she does what she can to make sure people are safe, especially Aleksander.
When we first meet Aleksander (Antony Cotton) he’s camp, loud, over the top, rude, and the life and soul of the party. Surely someone who comes across as happy is totally fine, right? Wrong. We eventually learn that he has been completely cut off from his family and they don’t even acknowledge he exists when they see him in the street.
Eventually, Aleksander attempts to commit suicide, which we can see is a desperate cry for help. He’s hurting, he’s angry, and he does something stupid which he regrets instantly as he calls his own ambulance. It was a small glimpse into the world of mental health issues that—despite only being a brief part of the series—showed us that they existed and that anybody could be suffering from them. I myself was secretly suffering from them and I praise this show for letting me know that I wasn’t alone in that suffering, I was still normal.
In a lot of ways, the show was showing people that gay people were going through the same types of issues as straight people. But it wasn’t showing this to be some sort of lecture to the viewers, it was simply showing a side of the story that hadn’t been shown before. It told us that gay people already had to deal with the same problems as everybody else so we really didn’t need the added threat of homophobia from the government, the media, or the public. We had enough to deal with already.
When homophobes spray paint “QUEERS” on the side of Stuart’s car it doesn’t make him upset and nor does it make him go into hiding. Instead, he and Vince drop Nathan off to school in it whilst the song “Beautiful Ones” by Suede blasts out. It was a massive fuck you to homophobia and a message that homophobia wouldn’t stop us being who we were born to be. We’d had enough of being put down, it was time for things to change.
Queer As Folk wasn’t single-handedly responsible for the changes that came about following its two series run, but it definitely began a big cultural movement that helped. Obviously, it was met with the usual outrage, with a BBC news presenter claiming that the show was propaganda aimed at persuading the public “that homosexuality is normal behavior”. Sigh.
After the show ended in the year 2000 the age of consent for homosexual sex was finally lowered to age 16, which was finally equal to heterosexual sex, after being considerably higher for almost 40 years. Also in 2000 the first attempts at repealing Section 28 began but sadly weren’t successful. The current UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, said at the time that the defeat was a “victory for common sense”. Three years later Section 28 was finally abolished. Gay couples were allowed to enter into a Civil Partnership from 2004 and eventually allowed to legally be married in 2014, although why it took another ten years for that to happen is beyond me. In 2008 it actually became illegal to encourage homophobic hatred. Things were changing, massively.
I’m not going to pretend that we live in a harmonious and completely tolerant society these days as it would be a total lie. We have come a long way in our goal for equality but there are still many miles to go. I wouldn’t dream of holding my partner’s hand or kissing him goodbye in public in my home town through fear of being abused, beaten up, or worse. I see so many straight couples holding in hands in public without a problem so why am I still not granted that same basic right?
Russell T. Davies returned to Channel 4 in 2015 for a spiritual sequel to Queer As Folk with a show called Cucumber. It followed a middle-aged man Henry Best (Vincent Franklin) and his attempts to come to terms with single gay life in the 21st Century following the end of a long term relationship. It was like the plot of QAF had been flipped on its head. Originally we had the story of a teenage boy discovering a new way of gay life and now we had an older man doing the same. It was still a relevant story after all these years and it is, sadly, still one that needs to be told.
Despite being set in the same part of Manchester the show only really has one real link to Queer As Folk, and it’s a heartbreaking one. Henry’s ex, Lance, roams Canal Street after being given mixed signals by a supposedly straight work colleague. He bumps into a familiar face, Hazel Tyler. She delivers a really powerful monologue, one in which you’re waiting for a punchline to arrive, but it never does. She tells Lance how she died of a heart attack while singing on karaoke so now she spends eternity walking up and down Canal Street watching over the place that she spent so many happy times.
Before she vanishes she warns Lance that he must go home. Sadly, he ignores her and is eventually murdered by his work colleague after their sexual encounter goes wrong. It’s a truly haunting scene and so beautifully done that it’s hard not to get upset over it. The message is clear though, we might have come a long way in terms of equality but there is still danger in the world that we need to beware of. We need to look after each other.
If the legacy of Queer As Folk tells us anything it’s that we don’t have enough LGBTQ focused dramas on TV particularly in the UK. It’s depressing that there hasn’t been anything as equally as bold as these shows because we could definitely do with some more. A US remake was developed by Showtime in 2000 that ran for five years, and most recently a 20th Anniversary concert was planned but sadly canceled due to the death of a promoter. The concert would have featured music from the show performed by acts like Faye Tozer, the Manchester Camerata Orchestra, and more. Events like this show how huge the show was and how celebrated it was and still is. Charlie Hunnam has expressed an interest in a revival of the show so maybe we need one more little trip down Canal Street…
I have a lot to thank the show for when it comes to coming to terms with my own sexuality and finding a confidence I didn’t know I had. But mainly I can thank it for showing a scared 13-year-old boy that being gay wasn’t a bad thing, gay people could still live happy normal lives, and that (despite what the media, government, and homophobes were saying) we should be proud of who we are.