Cast of 'Queer as Folk' On Why the Sex Mattered to a Movement

By: Jerry Portwood

When Queer as Folk premiered on Showtime in December 2000, we'd never seen anything like it in the United States. After months of hype, in which gay men had been promised that they were going to get the sexiest, taboo-shattering show on television — that even starred openly gay men — people tuned in ready to be disappointed. But the first episode didn’t fail to titillate.

Right there, in super-saturated hues, we saw Brian Kinney and high school blonde Justin Taylor get naked and begin to go at it. It was the first simulated sex between two men shown on American television, and the camera didn’t do a shy pan away. After plenty of deep kissing, we saw a tongue between ass cheeks and then anal penetration that looked the way it felt: full of pain and pleasure.
It was the pay-cable network’s ploy to join HBO as must-see TV. And it worked. This magazine featured Gale Harold and Randy Harrison embracing on the December 2000 cover and a fashion feature inside that included co-stars Hal Sparks, Peter Paige, and Scott Lowell. The show thrived for five seasons (joined by the lesbian version, The L Word), growing its fan base to include a majority of straight women. Although it was a landmark occasion, and it went on to feature many TV firsts — including the first legally wed gay couple, first gay adoption, and HIV-positive/negative couple — it remained a guilty pleasure, maligned by many.

Many remained cynical because they had watched bootleg VHS copies of the original, U.K. version created by Russell T. Davies and loved the dark irony and gritty cinematography. It wasn’t just that the beloved characters’ names had been lost in translation; the U.S. version felt resolutely American—which translated into optimistic, enthusiastic, and a little bit cheesy.

Over the past 10 years, however, something changed. Every TV show seemed to have a gay character, men and teenage boys kissed on network television, and people seemed more interested in engagements and wedding ceremonies than they did about the things that happened in the bedroom. Sure, it was progress, but didn’t this pioneering relationship drama make it all possible? 

“I get a little bit pissed at times about how forgotten we can be to certain extent, and how we played a major part in paving the way for actors to feel more comfortable playing gay roles,” says Hal Sparks, who was known to most people at the time as the host of E!’s Talk Soup, and is now starring in a family friend show on Disney. “I remember an interview with Heath Ledger, he was talking about Brokeback Mountain and he said at one point, ‘We’re getting a lot of mention and credit for this movie and what we did in it, but we’re not doing anything that the guys on Queer as Folk don’t do every week.’ And I was really proud of that and I really had a lot of respect for him for saying that. And it meant a lot – because we were doing it when it was a career-ending threat.”

Next year will be the 15th anniversary of its breakthrough, and in case people do forget the show, Showtime has been airing marathons of Queer as Folk seasons this month and will continue to show repeats through November.

Read to reconsider the series through a new lens, Out spoke to the six main actors — including Robert Gant, another gay actor who joined the cast as HIV-positive dreamboat Ben in Season 2 — about how the show affected them and changed their lives. Surprisingly, all of them still love their involvement on the show, taking pleasure in remembering it all these years later, and seemed to have no regrets. Although viewers who are just finding the show for the first time, or returning for a repeat experience, should be forewarned that its not quite the show you may remember. The soundtrack was an essential part of Queer as Folk’s appeal, and many of the songs have been replaced with bad replicas of classics due to music licensing agreements. So if you remember that moment when Brian (Gale Howard) is receiving a blowjob at Babylon while The Stooges’ “I Need Somebody” blares over the speakers, you’ll be disappointed to find it absent. Despite these changes, the show remains a bellweather for much of the progress of queer representation on American TV in the years that followed.

>>> First: On That First Sex Scene

Tags: TV, Queer As Folk