The first episode of Queer as Folk concludes with Brian Kinney (Gale Harold) driving his 17-year-old pickup from the previous night, Justin Taylor (Randy Harrison), to school. Brian’s jeep had been parked overnight outside best friend Michael’s (Hal Sparks) apartment, where it was vandalised with the neon pink epithet “Faggot” by some homophobic teens.
But Brian doesn’t care. He wears the label like a badge of honour; he refuses to feel any shame. As he says, straight people “can write it across the sky” for all he cares if they can’t deal with his sexuality. As episode one makes clear, Brian does what he wants, when he wants and how he wants. Whatever straight America expects him to be, Brian loudly rejects.
When Queer as Folk debuted on Showtime in December 2000, it made clear that it also cared little about being palatable to the tastes of mainstream audiences. Individual LGBTQ characters were present across both network and cable television programs, most famously in Will & Grace. But Queer as Folk was the first American television show to focus exclusively on the lives, loves, struggles and triumphs of gay and lesbian characters, representing them as multi-dimensional, flawed and fully functioning human beings.
From its first episode, Queer as Folk took on the network’s slogan of "No Limits" and ran with it. The premiere featured the first simulated sex scene between two men on American television. With this bold representation of queer lives and bodies on screen, Queer as Folk announced itself as a show that was taking risks and breaking rules.
Much of the show’s brashness was focused on Brian. He is Queer as Folk’s most uncompromising, provocative character – a far-cry from what American audiences were used to from the clownish Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) and near-neutered Will Truman (Eric McCormack) in Will & Grace.
Brian is everything these men are not – masculine, aggressive, neither inoffensive nor asexual. Brian makes a point of not sleeping with the same man twice. He doesn’t “do boyfriends” and rejects the idea that queer relationships should mirror the form of straight ones. Brian says he doesn’t believe in love – he believes in sex. As he tells lovestruck Justin, “It’s honest, it’s efficient. You get in and out with a maximum of pleasure and minimum of bulls***.”
Brian’s motto, that he lives his life with “no excuses, no apologies and no regrets,” also works as an unofficial slogan for the show, especially in its lack of interest in the world of straight people. While Queer as Folk was certainly generous towards its straight ally characters – especially Michael’s mum, Debbie (Sharon Gless), and Justin’s best friend, Daphne (Makyla Smith) – the political climate demanded this insularity.
Queer as Folk banged right up against George W Bush’s presidency, and that era’s increased anxiety about and hostility towards LGBTQ visibility. From radio talkback to Senate debates, the virtues of traditional gender and sexual roles for women and men were extolled, and LGBTQ people were being pushed, not so gently, back into the closet.
But Queer as Folk ripped the closet door off its hinges. It became more not less political across its five-season run. Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman’s show differed from the UK original most forcefully in this way, taking in stories bout AIDS, workplace discrimination, hate crimes, same-sex marriage and serodiscordant relationships.
Despite this commitment to the social and political reality of being queer in America, Queer as Folk's greatest provocations were around the representation of sex, especially between men. It refused to ignore that gay men have sex – and importantly enjoy having sex – with other men. Characters talked about their desires with frank carnality, naming practices and pleasures in detail, and refusing to sanitise the conversation.
From the backroom at the Babylon club to the bedroom, Queer as Folk’s sex scenes were explicit and sexy, often theatrically composed and shot. But they were also educational. When Brian first has sex with Justin, it’s not just an education for him but for the audience, too. Justin gets to put what he learned in class about safe sex into practice. Brian’s declaration to Justin that “now you know what rimming is” after performing the sexual practice on him, has in fact been an instruction not only to his inexperienced lover but to all watching, including straight audiences.
Queer as Folk pushed the boundaries of the idea of family, too, in a political climate promoting a return to traditional family values. In episode one, Brian’s college friend Lindsay (Thea Gill) gives birth to his son, Gus. Lindsay is a lesbian, living with her partner, Melanie (Michelle Clunie); Brian has donated sperm. In season three, Michael agrees to father another child for the couple. We learn that Brian and Lindsay had a brief sexual relationship in college, and that Michael continues to flame a desire for Brian that began when they were teenagers lusting over photos of Dirty Dancing-era Patrick Swayze.
Brian has a fraught relationship with his own parents and sees Debbie as a mother figure. When Justin’s parents find out he’s gay, he runs away and moves in with Brian, and Debbie treats him like another son. The ties that bind these people are rich and complex, creating a distinct idea of what family is – it might not resemble what their parents have, but it’s no less loving or supportive.
Queer as Folk also subtly shattered the very American idea of heroism tied to conventional masculinity. In addition to the daily acts of bravery we see characters contest – as Emmett Honeycutt (Peter Paige) explains in episode one, “It takes real guts to be a queen in a world full of commoners” – the show took direct aim at an icon of straight masculinity: comic book superheroes.
Growing out of a hate crime storyline that highlights Brian’s true heroism, Michael (a comic book aficionado) and Justin (an artist) collaborate in season two to create a gay superhero comic called Rage: Gay Crusader, inspired by their friend/lover. Right up to the end of Queer as Folk’s explosive final season, Brian, like a real superhero, repeatedly does what other people can’t or won’t, and rescues all of the show’s main characters from something. Through Brian, Queer as Folk asked whether gay men can be considered heroic in America – yes – and if so, what qualities made them heroic: honesty, loyalty, individualism and the courage to defy convention.
The American television landscape after Queer as Folk continues to support the inclusion of LGBTQ characters, from Modern Family to The Good Fight. In 2004, Showtime produced The L Word, which did for lesbian women what Queer as Folk did for gay men, centring their stories and normalising their lives for television audiences.
Looking (HBO) was the first post-Queer as Folk television drama to look closely once again at the lives of gay men. Following a group of friends in San Francisco, Looking also cared little for the sensibilities of straight viewers. It privileged its characters sexuality, but also their ordinariness – Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and his friends and lovers are gay, but they are also many other things. Looking removed any sense of the taboos that Queer as Folk was defying.
In retrospect, Queer as Folk performed a public service beyond its brief that has enabled LGBTQ characters to now just be. It took a world that had for too long been hidden and invisible, and made it ordinary, visceral and authentic without censoring the things that make it unique. As Brian would say, “Deal with it.”
Watch Queer as Folk every Friday night at 9:50pm on SBS VICELAND. The entire first season is also available on SBS On Demand.