Queer as Folk’s original boy wonder, mild-mannered Michael Novotny (Hal Sparks), is obsessed with comic books. It’s one of the first things we learn about him, and in the sixth episode of season one, he gives us a little more detail about why for him, as a “gay boy”, a passion for superheroes makes perfect sense. Comic books have taught him some important life lessons:
“One, there are a lot of villains out there, so you’d better develop some secret powers. Two, if you have a good body, you can wear tight clothes. And three, it’s always good to be part of a dynamic duo.”
That’s where Brian Kinney (Gale Harold) comes in. Michael has been Brian’s adoring sidekick since high school – they care about and protect each other. But where Brian is defiantly out, Michael isn’t. Like all comic book superheroes, Michael has a "secret identity". For most of season one, while pursuing a relationship with chiropractor Dr David Cameron (Chris Potter), Michael continues to live a double life, remaining closeted at work. He is repeatedly unable to tell his co-workers he’s gay, and he lives in daily fear of being unmasked.
To negotiate their own secret identities, many queer kids turn to comic books for stories about outsiders with whom they can identify. In season two, when Michael – now the owner of his own comic bookstore – is invited to speak to college students, he gives a little more insight into the superhero’s appeal: “Yet with all the villains and the monsters and the evil forces that were trying to destroy them, somehow they survive. That’s what comics have shown me, that despite everything, we’ll survive and we’ll win.”
That’s a powerful message for young queer people to receive when struggling to find a place in a world that repeatedly tells you that you don’t belong. It’s easy to understand the attraction of nerds with secret identities or outcasts with superpowers – figures that provide both an escape from reality and a sense of the extraordinary. Indeed, the closer you look, the queerer the alternate identities of misunderstood, masked superheroes like Batman, Spider-Man and Superman read, even if they were never intended to be by Bob Kane, Stan Lee and Jerry Siegel. In particular, there’s a powerful queer subtext in the X-Men comics. With their mutant superpowers, the X-Men are outsiders fighting for what’s right in a world that seeks to destroy them for being different.
Beyond Michael’s comic book fetish and these important points of personal identification, Queer as Folk is really interesting when it explores the everyday heroics of being queer in a hostile political climate. Across five seasons, the way the series subverts accepted ideas about American heroism as exclusively the domain of straight men is perhaps its most powerful legacy. Michael’s friend Emmett (Peter Paige) orients us in the season one opener, explaining, “It takes real guts to be a queen in a world full of commoners,” and we repeatedly witness Queer as Folk’s characters displaying real guts in their day-to-day lives.
We see this especially in 17-year-old Justin Taylor’s (Randy Harrison) story arc, as he comes out, confident about who he is and what he wants. Justin is repeatedly bullied and harassed at school. Although his mother grows to accept his sexuality and admire his personal strength, Justin faces increasing pressure from his father to hide who he is and give up seeing Brian. But in the face of these injustices, Justin only grows stronger. As Brian’s new boy wonder, he realises he has to be true to himself, even when that means living without his family’s approval or with the threat of violence.
But it’s through Brian that Queer as Folk elevates these daily acts of heroism to superheroic status. His actions inspire Michael and Justin to create their own comic book, Rage: Gay Crusader in season two. On the night he first meets Brian, Justin ascribes something otherworldly and remarkable to him: “I just saw the face of God. His name is Brian Kinney.” When Brian is in a car accident, he reminds his concerned friends, “I’m invincible.” Queer as Folk emphasises time and time again that Brian, like an “earthbound god”, is simply not like other men.
Like a superhero, Brian is marked out from society and has grown up without having a relationship with his parents, especially his father. Adding to his superhero status, Brian repeatedly steps up and does what others refuse to. He’s honest – usually brutally so – and fiercely loyal to those he loves. He often hurts them, too – as he repeatedly does with Michael – in order to teach a lesson that is ultimately valuable. As a result, Brian often outwardly appears to be Queer as Folk’s villain, while he’s actually secretly protecting others.
Brian lives by an uncompromising code of his own making, refusing to conform to the requirements of straight America. As he says: “No excuses, no apologies and no regrets.” But he’s also ambivalent about his status as a hero. In season two, when he’s presented with an award for intervening when Justin is attacked, he tells Michael, “You want a hero, buy a comic book.”
Although Brian tells Lindsay he doesn’t believe he’s part of a "queer community", he repeatedly steps up and acts on behalf of that community. His greatest moments come when the stakes are highest. When Ted (Scott Lowell) ends up in a coma after a drug overdose, he leaves Brian the responsibility of deciding what to do if the time comes to turn off a life-support machine. As Lindsay (Thea Gill) explains, “You’ll do the right thing, whatever that is.”
Further into the series, Brian doesn’t think twice about risking everything he has to take down a homophobic politician. He’s devoted to fulfilling his overriding sense of justice, rather than what is lawful. As Lindsay, always the voice of reason, reminds Brian, “We need to take care of each other.” And on Queer as Folk, there is nothing more heroic than that.
Watch Queer as Folk every Friday night at 9:50pm on SBS VICELAND. The entire first season is streaming now at SBS On Demand: