Queer As Folk turns 20: A retrospective

Lee Williscroft-Ferris considers the legacy of groundbreaking TV series, Queer As Folk, 20 years on.

In February 1999, I was 19 years old and studying at university in Cologne, Germany. Returning home for half-term, I swiftly tuned into the ‘buzz’ around a new ‘gay series’ on Channel 4 – Queer As Folk. For the first time in mainstream TV history, a whole programme had been created that was centred on the lives and loves of a group of gay men. At that time, I hadn’t yet formally come out to may parents. I use that term deliberately as later that year, when I did sit my mum and dad down for ‘the chat’, it came as no surprise to them whatsoever. This was due in part to them having discovered the episodes of Queer As Folk that I had clandestinely recorded onto VHS tape and hidden in my room.

Russell T Davies’ Queer As Folk was important to gay men of my generation; at that time, the AIDS crisis was still fresh in the minds of many, the age of consent was yet to be equalised and social attitudes remained stubbornly stagnant in many parts of the country despite the progress made. The mere fact that a major UK broadcaster had commissioned such a series at such a point sent out a message that ‘our’ lives and experiences were worthy of the time, effort, money and schedule space.

Ten years on, the series, which centred around the (mis)adventures of Stuart (Aidan Gillen), Vince (Craig Kelly) and Nathan (Charline Hunnam), remains highly entertaining; a high-octane rollercoaster ride through the hedonistic lifestyles of three Mancunian gay men, each with their own individual personalities, problems, quirks and experiences. Queer As Folk remains remarkable from the point of view that it did not shy away from a portrayal of ‘gay life’ seemingly at odds with the emerging respectability politics of the time. These were men who had sex (lots of sex), took drugs, drank to excess and were far from immune to the stereotypical image of the ‘bitchy gay man’. This was brave in 1999; while fearlessly depicting death from casual heroine use with a club hook-up and a warts-and-all portrayal of an (underage) schoolboy’s first experience of anal sex, the series also somehow succeeded in making clear that this was a portrayal of a group of gay men and not ‘gay men’ as a homogenous grouping.

The character development in the series is also outstanding. Hunnam’s portrayal of Nathan and his evolution from angry, curious teenager to self-assured young man with the confidence to assert his authentic self was undoubtedly a beacon of hope to thousands of peers. Stuart, meanwhile, is ultimately forced to reevaluate his inherently selfish approach to all areas of life and accept his romantic feelings for his lifelong friend, Vince. The latter, having spent a major portion of the series living in Stuart’s shadow and fulfilling the role of the perceived side of coleslaw to the prime Angus steak, gradually gains in confidence over the course of the series. When the two eventually succumb to their true feelings, the viewer is very much left with the impression that it is a relationship of equals.

There is criticism that could be levelled at Queer As Folk; first, the series deals exclusively with the lives of white cisgender gay men, with the almost complete omission of people of colour, bi people and trans folk. 20 years on, fierce criticism would undoubtedly and understandably be levelled at the writers for this non-inclusive portrayal. However, any historical analysis necessitates a judgement in the context of the time. In the context of 1999, any portrayal of any grouping under the LGBTQ+ umbrella was pretty damn revolutionary. Finally, it would now be unthinkable for the three main characters in a gay TV series to be played by heterosexual men.

The show also includes what some might consider to be unfortunate tropes, including the ‘fag hag’ mother played by Denise Black, and the über-camp Alexander (Antony Cotton). By way of retort, it should be pointed out that Queer As Folk actually served to highlight many issues still tragically prevalent to this very day, from ageism in the gay male community to rampant homophobia and family rejection. That the programme gave these problems airtime 20 years ago is remarkable; that so many of them persist in 2019 is a sad indictment.

For now, though, let’s celebrate what Queer As Folk meant (and continues to mean) to so many of us; the first time our community had been deigned worthy of such extensive airtime. With some great writing and directing, an amazing soundtrack and a plethora of laugh-out-loud moments combined with a multitude of tearjerker scenes, it’s impossible not to find something to love about Queer As Folk.

Follow Lee on Twitter (@xixianykus)

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