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How Queer as Folk Became a Defining Gay TV Show

Yon an era of increasingly frequent—if often imperfect—queer representation in media, it might be difficult for the young target audience of Peacock’s new reboot of the classic Queer as Folk to imagine that a show following a group of gay men in Pittsburgh living relatively average lives could have created a new paradigm for how gay and lesbian stories would be told on television. But a little over 20 years ago, the original incarnations of Queer as Folk did just that—first in the United Kingdom in 1999, and then a year later in the United States.

So often called “ground-breaking” that the description might start to sound trite if it weren’t also true, Queer as Folk put gay people and queer storylines front and center in a way that even other media of the time prominently featuring gay characters, like Will & Grace, had yet to do. In doing so, it had a significant part in setting the stage for other quintessential queer dramas, including The L Word, the L Word reboot (Generation Q), glee, Genera+ionand even, yes, euphoria.

Queer as Folk also contributed to broader shifts in public sentiment toward the queer community in both the US and UK, and provided many young queer people’s first exposure to gayness not framed as either a mildly interesting sideshow attraction alongside a straight person’s “real story,” or an abject tragedy. While the concept of “representation in media” is often paid ineffectual lip service, Queer as Folk was the real, ridiculous, sexy, messy, multi-faceted thing.

Peacock’s reboot of Queer as Folk was released on June 9th. Here’s what to know about the US and UK versions that came before.

How two versions of Queer as Folk were made

original Queer as Folk was created in the UK by writer and producer Russell T Davies—perhaps best known for his work on Doctor Who—and was nearly called Queer as F-ck. The eventual, slightly less vulgar name is to play on the Yorkshire colloquialism, “Well, there’s nowt so queer as folk” (in essence, “People are weird.”).

Davies was itching to write something he felt accurately captured not only the realities of being a gay man in Manchester, but also the broader experience of growing up and discovering who you are. The show premiered in 1999 on Channel 4, and followed by three men and their friends in Manchester’s Canal street area, known as the Gay Village. It had an initial run of six episodes, with two more made later, bringing the total to eight. The show brought 2 million viewers to Channel 4, topped only by ER.

The US version of Queer as Folk was created by Daniel Lipman and Ron Cowen when another show they were working on for Showtime fell through, and they decided to pitch Queer as Folk in its place. They had just read a piece in the Los Angeles Times about the UK version, arguing that nothing of its outrageous ilk could ever exist in the US because it featured too much sex, too many drugs, too little condom use, and so on. Lipman and Cowen got their version greenlit and swore they’d make it even raunchier than its UK counterpart.

The US Queer as Folk is set in Pittsburgh, Pa. and follows a similar but expanded cast of characters: five men and their family, friends, and lovers. At the end of its first season, Queer as Folk was Showtime’s highest-rated show, garnering a much higher viewership than the network had anticipated. It ran for five seasons, earning six GLAAD award nominations and one win, for Best Drama.

Who were the characters?

Both versions of Queer as Folk followed homogenous main casts of white, cisgender people, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s. Though each version provided unprecedented gay representation, the lack of diversity in race and gender expression in the show leaves out any representation of trans people and people of color in the queer community. Rather, both versions of Queer as Folk encapsulate the pervasive sameness of television representation in the late 1990s and early 2000s—another convention that’s slowly and imperfectly begun to change, with shows like Pose and Our Flag Means Death.

The UK version of Queer as Folk followed by a main cast comprising Stuart Jones (Aidan Gillen), a successful and aggressive ad executive, Vince Tyler (Craig Kelly), his best friend who is also in love with him, and Nathan Maloney (Charlie Hunnam), a cocky but naïve 15 -year-old—whose young age prompted backlash from viewers from the start of the series. Among the supporting cast are their friends and family members, including Stuart’s friend Romey Sullivan (Esther Hall), a lesbian who uses Stuart’s sperm to conceive a baby with her partner.

The US version closely copied this template, and the show’s longer run gave it ample opportunity to explore and give depth to its characters. Stuart became Brian Kinney (Gale Harold), Vince became Michael Novotny (Hal Sparks), and Nathan became Justin Taylor (Randy Harrison) and gained two years, aging him to a slightly less scandalous—and legal in Pennsylvania—17. Romey became Lindsay Peterson (Thea Gill), and she and her partner Melanie Marcus (Michelle Cluney) feature prominently through the series. The core trio’s expanded friend group includes the shy and somewhat cynical Ted Schmidt (Scott Lowell) and the effusive, more effeminate Emmett Honeycutt (Peter Paige). Michael’s mom, Debbie (Sharon Gless) is also an essential part of the cast, embodying the loving mother hen energy that too few LGBTQ people are afforded.

How was Queer as Folk received?

Predictably, both the UK and US Queer as Folks received somewhat mixed early reception from both conservative forces unhappy to see a show centered on gay people airing on a major network, and queer people who felt the show relied too heavily on stereotypes and lacked diversity. Beck’s Brewery, a beer company that was initially slated to sponsor the UK version, pulled its support part-way through the first season in response to conservative backlash—then attempted to rescind its rescindment after facing backlash from queer people disappointed with the company’s initial decision .

During the run of the UK Queer as Folk, the Parliament’s House of Lords was debating whether to equalize the age of consent for sex between men with that for straight sex. In 2001, Parliament established an equal age of consent. Thinking back on the ruling in an interview with GuardianDavies said, “I don’t for a second think that Queer as Folk was responsible, but it was part of a cultural moment.” The UK version was also criticized for not featuring the AIDS crisis in its plotlines, considering how severely it was affecting the gay community at the time the show was made.

The US version used its five seasons to more fully address the issue, through multiple characters’ experiences—a portrayal that many considered deeply meaningful. When the show premiered, gay marriage was illegal in every state in the country, and 14 states had sodomy laws. Three years into the show’s run, then-president George W. Bush stood at a podium in the Rose Garden to affirm his staunch opposition to same-sex marriage.

Both versions of Queer as Folk tackled issues beyond sex and romance, delivering meditations on parenthood, aging, friendship, and identity that were resolutely, intrinsically queer and decidedly universal. What’s more, they were good television—vibrant, silly, occasionally witty, often over-the-top, and just the right amount of unrealistic. Today, both versions are remembered by many as deeply, personally important, and culturally iconic, a profound legacy the reboot aims to continue.

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