Learning from Queer as Folk


So it’s not The Pizza Boy: He Delivers. But Queer as Folk, Showtime’s new series about gay life set in sultry Pittsburgh, is a much needed antidote to those sitcoms and -drams in which the homosexual gentleman (that’s a faggot who’s just entered the room) is a sensitive companion to the female lead whose sex life consists of affection lavished upon a small dog. This pay-cable series goes as far toward a frank encounter with gay sexuality as any movie outside the adult video section ever has.

True, the critic’s tape I received was more explicit than the show that actually aired (thanks to a rating system much harder on gay films than on comparable straight stuff). Still, there’s enough of the old in/out to keep this pervert’s pecker up. Itching to see the fabled rimming scene in its entirety? Stay tuned for the deluxe video edition. For sex addicts who just can’t wait, word is that those unexpurgated critics’ tapes are being auctioned on eBay.

Meanwhile, as the actor who plays Brian, the show’s big throb, reaps the rewards of his perfectly symmetrical smirk, he’s already given interviews boasting that his girlfriend is “very cool” about his walk on the wild side. Attention agents: Not only is this actor STRAIGHT!!!! but he’s out to appeal to that niche of women hip enough “to deal with me as a gay man.” Move over, Rupert Everett. This dude’s every bit as willing to have a kid with Madonna and much more likely to call her a bitch in the morning.

As for Justin, the dewy demon who falls for Brian and won’t let go, the fact that he’s 17 (two years older than his counterpart in the British series on which this version is based) seems to have gone by all but unremarked. But there’s been plenty of buzz about the show itself. Though HBO’s prison drama Oz shows lots of male nudity—not to mention rape—violent images of homosexuality are far more acceptable than what frightens the horses most: relationships. This series is not just about gay sex; it’s about the bond gay sex creates. This unique aspect of gay life has been all but forgotten in the age of AIDS.

Among its many casualties, AIDS has squelched the potential of erotic attraction to cement group solidarity. But this powerful force in human behavior—sublimated in straight male society as the basis for teams, military units, and music combos—was once the central element of gay liberation. These days, it’s fashionable to think of gay sex as a binary act rather than a tribal one. But Queer as Folk recalls the older—and never really repressed—gay model. This is what makes the show groundbreaking, despite its stilted characterizations and flimsy sitcomic reflexes. Unlike The Boys in the Band, whose characters expressed their sexuality entirely outside the group, this drama shows how the ramifications of desire can form the gay equivalent of family.

Consider Brian, whose lust (and more importantly, respect for his lust) makes him the leader of the pack. Not the alpha, mind you. Brian doesn’t measure his macho by the ability to subordinate others; in fact, Brian has no authority at all. But this band coheres around his free-floating desire, and once someone connects with Brian, he—or she—becomes part of the fold. Then the pack expands as each member brings lovers into it. Everyone lives by the unspoken erotics of longing, anger, and love.

It’s only slightly more raunchy than those softcore gay porn films with buff boys greeting the sunrise in each other’s arms.

While the show delves (not always subtly) into the notorious gay fear of intimacy—which is really a male fear writ queer—it doesn’t surround this issue with the usual patina of imminent doom. Yes, gay life can be cruel, but there is also what Jackson Browne calls “tenderness on the block.” And while Brian’s promiscuity certainly springs from terror, it is also presented as a source of nurturance. His feelings for his child and its lesbian mother are no less genuine—and no less alienated—than many a husband’s affections are. When Brian gets hooked, reluctantly, on young Justin, the result is a snarling devotion that’s not so different from what often passes for fathering.

What’s missing from Queer as Folk is that old trope of gay drama meant for a “general” audience: mixed company. Straight society is an intrusive, if not hostile, presence here, mitigated only slightly by each character’s parents. Though the fathers are either absent or abusive, the mothers remain loving, mirroring the scenario of many gay men’s lives. These moms serve as guides to the netherworld and points of identification for female viewers (who are likely to form a large part of the audience). The gay-friendly mother who can’t wear enough pride buttons is the show’s most insufferable creation, but one thing you can count on from Queer as Folk is that she will prove to be richly paradoxical. That’s the way life is, and verisimilitude is the signature of this series.

Sex isn’t what makes the show provocative; it’s the distinct society created by gay desire. But the bonds between these men resemble their relationships with their parents in all sorts of refracted ways. So what ultimately comes across is that gay life is the template for a new kind of family: a lot more flexible than the traditional model, but no less painful or binding.

But about the sex! It’s only slightly more raunchy than those softcore gay porn films with buff boys greeting the sunrise in each other’s arms. Think Last Tango in Pittsburgh and you’ll get the drift. But just as Last Tango was notorious not only for the sex but for the relationship that enclosed it, Queer as Folk draws its power from infusing the kinky with the interpersonal. This show blows up the balloon of porn, so that the players are full of life itself. Once the distancing conventions of porn are shattered, sex resonates with all the hidden dilemmas that actually make it dangerous—and irresistible. Though safety is the name of this game (and the action affirms that AIDS is spread by semen, not promiscuity), the show preserves the riskiness of sex by demonstrating that what’s at play in every roll in the hay is not just the body but the self.

There are many lessons to be learned from Queer as Folk. One of them is that universality can only be rendered by being faithful to the particulars of life. Another is that sexual explicitness has enormous power to deepen a story and convey character. Novelists have long known this, and fought for their right to party. Yet our visual novels—films and TV shows—have been deprived of this crucial narrative device. At the same time, we have created a separate genre for erotic works, in which sex is stripped of its interpersonal vitality. The dichotomy between porn and other dramatic forms is a testament to our abiding puritanism, which insists that you can’t be pornographic and profound. This show points to a future in which the forced segregation of the erotic and the emotional is overcome.

Are you ready for Johnny Depp in flagrante or Jennifer Lopez getting rimmed? I know I am. But then, I’m queer as folk.