Who Lives, Who Cries, Who Tells Your Queer Story
There were striking similarities between the box that the collected seasons of Queer as Folk were packaged in and myself. It was awkwardly large and a shade of uncomfortable, gaudy white (just like me!); it was both obnoxiously and emphatically flamboyant while self-contained in such a way that belied a tidy seal over a bursting self-hatred (just like me!); and I thought I could hide how flamboyant it was while it glared miserably, lurking in the corners of my parents’ home (just! like! me!).
That was really where the similarities between me and Queer as Folk came to a grinding, screeching halt. At times beautifully poignant, at times grimacingly melodramatic (that brand of early 2000s melodrama that is basically like Sarah Jessica Parker and Queer Eye’s Carson Kressly shrieking “SLUT!” at each other, and can never really be recreated, and probably never should be), the show centered around a group of (mostly male) gay friends and their loved ones as they navigate their romances and lives in the obvious gay capital of the world, Pittsburgh (can you imagine how turn of the millennium PGH just screamed “GAY!” Can you imagine how fun being gay in Bloomfield in 2001 would be? WOW! SO GREAT!) Part of Showtime’s initial push to become premiere television and not just the PeakABoob late night film channel, the show was revolutionary for being one of the first presentations of gay men and gay communities that didn’t render them as monstrous (everything), de-eroticized (hi, Will and Grace), or tragic (everything).
But the show was very distinctly a dick parade. It could be seen as potentially problematic that the first installment of a blog centered around media that influenced the sexuality of a cis bisexual gal discuss Queer as Folk (or QaF, which, incidentally, is the name of a duck-only leather bar in Quebec). The show was not only profoundly lacking in queer female representation—which, to be fair, it was created by gay cis men (life and business partners Daniel Lipman and Ron Cowen) about mostly gay cis men, for consumption by predominantly gay cis men—but QaF stands out as one of the more disheartening examples of queer media which is profoundly exclusionary, to the point of being tokenizing or even demeaning towards people of color, women, trans* individuals etc. To deem the show “problematic” in many ways does not do it justice—QaF almost emphatically did not represent anything other very (very) able-bodied (even the “plain” boys like Ted were slim, gym-fanatics), very white, and very cis men.
So, why, again, would a show that revolved around the most nubile, cis-male bodies (which, to be clear, as a thirteen-year-old, I thoroughly enjoyed watching fuck each other silly, and really still do) be the jumping off point for this blog? Why not start with The L Word (OH, BITCH, WE’LL GET THERE WHEN I HAVE THE ENERGY) or any 90s era Star Trek (BITCH, I SAID WE WILL GET THERE) or Orange is the New Black (really? OITNB? What am I, eighteen? And riddled with internalized homophobia and patriarchal conceptions of lesbianism? Girl, bye.) The queer women of QaF, mainly Mel and Lindsay (Michelle Clunie and Thea Gill), in the minimal screen time they received, were plagued by misogyny (men repulsed and befuddled by lady sex!! Hilarious!) and the tropes of queer women in media and in the general popular consciousness. They were relatively de-sexualized or quixotically sexualized. They endured an affair with a straight cis-man that functioned as a defining plot point. And while I certainly won’t equivocate about the attractiveness of Michelle Clunie and Thea Gill, aside from the PAINFULLY sparse sex scenes they were “allowed” (and it really did feel like an “allowance,” female sexuality noxiously intruding on the dick parade at hand), the most palpable, lesbian sexual energy I felt was often radiating from sweet Soft Boy and show narrator, Michael Novotny (Hal Sparks).
So, why, make QaF my very taut, muscled launchpad? First of all, like so many of my favorite Top Chef, America’s Next Top Model, and Bachelor(ette) contestants implore moments before getting the ax—I’m not here to make friends. I desperately need your approval and participation and support in everything I do, but, like, I don’t need you to be my friend, OKAY?? But more critically, and probably more accurately, I need to start with QaF because my model for queerness—for existing as a queer body in many ways (most of those ways problematizing, self-effacing, and self-diminishing); for navigating my place in the matrix of queer desire and sexuality—started with QaF. Coming to terms with sexuality that was outside of the norm as a kid who didn’t particularly flourish as a social butterfly (look, I said I don’t need you to be my friend now, and I apparently didn’t need ANYONE to be my friend as a tween OKAY, IT’S ABSOLUTELY FINE), a reliance on media representations of what queer or gay or bi or whatever should look like was tantamount to feeling somewhat safe and less isolated (if not artificially). TV and movies were both models and respites.
And since I was despotically suffocated by an overwhelming internalized homophobia/queerphobia/biphobia (and I had run out of episodes of The Nanny and The Real World to obsessively watch and re-watch trying to play an awful game of Where’s Waldo: Queer Characters Edition), QaF was the perfect, cover-all-my-bases outlet. I could watch the most graphic queer sex allowed on screen (even though depressingly little of the sex didn’t involve men). I could try to steal the utter gold pick-up lines used by Pure Sex Brian Kinney (a cosmically underused Gale Harold) and use them to catalyze all the wild teenage sex I absolutely was not having (like the indomitable best from the series premiere, “So are you coming or going? Or coming and then going? Or coming and staying?” (!!!!!)). And, most importantly, I could catch glimpses of queer women and queer female fucking (emphasis on GLIMPSE for all the aforementioned reasons) while telling myself my parents wouldn’t figure out “my situation,” because this was a show about gay men! Naked gay men! I’m just interested in only the nakedness of the men and observing the naked male culture! Wow, aren’t I budding sociologist and not a deeply ashamed, horny, closeted bisexual!!
But there is a more subversively significant reason for making QaF my first TuesGays With Morrie roundtable. In her recent, incomparable standup special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby (ha! Did you think you could get through a queer blog without a Gadsby mention?) talks about the nuances of articulating identity, and deciphering where identity fits, as a queer, "gender non-normal individual." She agonizingly attests to not only the self-deprecation and humiliation that accompanies so much “comedy” as a queer person, but also declares that “knowing your place” as a gender non-normal, queer person is very easy because, simply, you don’t have a place. Nothing was more viscerally clear to me as a fourteen year old—I did not fit. Not into most clothes. Not into most conversations or social situations. Not into comfort with intimacy or my body. And certainly not into the ideal of what a straight, female individual should look or act like. I won’t claim the wretched denouncement of “fat, ugly dyke” that Gadsby attests to being violently labeled with and, more or less, adopting, but I’ll acknowledge that as a “fat, aesthetically displeasing, sexually confused spaz,” not fitting was achingly real.
And to compensate for and cope with not fitting, I latched onto gay men and gay male culture. Gay masculinity and gay male culture—or the limited examples I could access and seamlessly ingratiate myself into as a tween/teenager—was not dissimilar to straight male culture that I had latched onto; but rather than being emblematic of placation, fear, and trauma, gay male culture and gay men became emblematic of some pseudo-escape that allowed me a more complex form of erasure that straight male entwinement allowed. I could safely explore and express my identity (to a certain extent) while being viscerally reminded that I did not fit—but there were ways in which I could sublimate myself that made “not fitting” feel painfully like “fitting in.” Aside from a very healthy infatuation with pulsating club music (which, strangely, my father had catalyzed, buying me techno mixtapes at the Heathrow airport that I would listen to as an eight-year-old), I became fixated with the more destructive facets that I thought would allow me to fit, and that I misconstrued as synonymous with being queer. Unleashing and actualizing my intractable body dysmorphia. Using excessive substances as relaxants for extreme anxiety around sex and intimacy. Weaponizing outlandish internalized homophobia/biphobia into extreme, even dissociative snark. These elements were fixated on while never allowing myself the space to grow or the space to develop actual relationships with people around me, and never realizing how complicit I was in my own erasure.
But these were, of course, the bleakly unhealthy elements of gay culture that I found necessary to cling to and manifest, because entropy and self-deprecation are sickeningly easy and addictive things to absorb into when what you know best is abuse and external/internal loathing and distress. When you are incessantly told that your sexuality is deviant, and that your marginalized status as a woman (and a not particularly aesthetically appealing or conforming woman) further problematizes your deviant sexuality, that indoctrination, coupled with your own anxieties and traumas, makes the methods of harm and deprecation that lie in your control infinitely appealing. And QaF was a signifier of this. QaF could be my first installment simply because, other than The L Word, it dominated 85% of my Gay Screen Time from age twelve to sixteen. But QaF needs to be my first post because it symbolizes the unbelievably complicated relationship I had with my sexuality through the lens of other peoples’ sexual identities, and through self-abnegation.
But QaF, in retrospect, also represents the often gorgeous and vulnerable and wonderfully protective relationship I had with gay men and gay male sexuality. So many of my close friends, who nurtured and protected me and continue to do so, were and are gay and bisexual men. In my process of “coming out,” I never had, and truthfully still struggle to connect to, queer female friends and communities, but I constantly had gay and bisexual male friends and communities to rely upon. QaF is symbolic of the model and mechanisms of erasure I thought I deserved, but it is also a symbol of something that showed me the world and the people that would support me, and would provide me a safe space. But identity and the things that influenced your identity cannot be properly discussed unless the positive and detrimental qualities are explored.
That was a nauseatingly long and annoying sentimental first post, wasn’t it? Let’s cut to the chase then. In terms of QaF holding up to modern standards? The aforementioned paucity of diversity in every realm is GLARING. Does that make it worth skipping? Absolutely not. But indulge on Netflix streaming with that readily in mind. In terms of production quality—utter garbage today, but shockingly enjoyable nevertheless. Overall enjoyment and meaningfulness? The show unflinchingly and humanely presented HIV/AIDS storylines; hate crime narratives and discussions; discussions on (limited) forms of masculinity; and a final season that is horrifically perspicacious and foreboding to watch in a post Pulse attack era. Enjoyment? There’s decent writing! And genuine attempts at emotion! And hot boys fucking! And more hot boys fucking! Honestly, it makes Looking and other “edgy queer shows” of today look like literal Amish jokes. Showtime and QaF pulled very few punches. Will you have the emotional attachment or impetus to unleash your queerness that I did? Probably not. But you’ll get to glimpse into what it was like to come out and attempt to identify in a not-long-ago but pretty different time. And you’ll get to watch #ForeverDaddy Gale Harold whip his dick out. A lot. Which like. Why are you even hesitating?