Yesterday saw the 15th anniversary of the airing of Queer as Folk. On the 23rd February 1999, Russell T Davies’ Queer as Folk exploded onto UK TV screens with a frank and not always particularly sympathetic depiction of the Manchester gay scene. It was to divide opinion, both gay and straight, and put a big middle finger up to the House of Lords as they legislated on crucial gay rights issues.
Queer as Folk fever broke right into the middle of the debate about the equalisation of the age of consent. In fact, just two and a half months before the series aired, the House of Lords had rejected a bill to lower the age of consent to 16 for homosexual acts. The pedasteric relationship between 15 year old Nathan (Charlie Hunnam) and 30-something Stuart (Aiden Gillen) was the final straw for some gay writers, who suggested the programme was harming the gay cause. Whether or not the programme was the cause, the motion to equalise the age of consent was rejected by the Lords for the second time in April 1999. It wasn’t until the House of Commons invoked the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 that the Lords were forced to accept the equalisation.
At the same time, the programme’s ugly depiction of the uncaring and drug infused sex scene around Canal Street both excited and terrified young gay men for whom the show was one of the best ways to connect and identify with the scene. I’ve heard stories of men inspired to come out and try the scene for the first time, and men so intimidated by the less than favourable reaction to the programme, and stark presentation of difficult issues that they withdrew from the scene, or even went back into the closet completely.
That is the thing about Queer as Folk: there is nothing subtle or hidden from public consumption. Sex is public, the body is God and even love is realised mostly through threesomes and an inability to say no. Even the tender and emotional subject of coming out is both graphic and disparaging ‘ I am that arse bandit, I lift those shirts.’ No wonder people, both gay and straight, shied away.
But it’s been 15 years, and I’m only 19. I live in a world that seems to be so completely different to the world of QAF. But is it really? The climate of reception has changed infinitely, with homosexuality now so much more of a non-issue. But has the scene changed? I’m not so sure. The hypertrophic growth of apps like Grindr into every second of our day has made finding sex infinitely easier. At the same time, a loss of local gay scenes in favour of Gay Streets and Villages has pushed us into living closer and closer together.
We now have a situation where for various reasons our scene hasn’t changed as quickly as the world around us has. Even worse, heterosexual politicians and public figures fully believe that they understand gay culture, and I don’t believe they do. When QAF exploded we were a definite subculture – something alien to politics and the media.
The thing about Queer as Folk, is that it wasn’t written for a straight audience. I don’t, for a second, believe that Mr Davies wrote a word of the script in order to explain, justify or criticise gay culture to a heterosexual audience. QAF was, and remains purely for gay men.. It affords us the opportunity to recognise ourselves, our friends, and our families in an environment that doesn’t shame, instruct or provide a moral judgement.
I firmly believe that the gay scene has, and continues to create, a community culture through which gay men connect and thrive in the same way that religious education and ethnic communities maintain cultural difference. It doesn’t cut us off or distance us from mainstream culture, but shows like QAF and their associated institutions can help us reaffirm our identities in an age where mainstream misunderstanding of our own community’s history threatens our heritage.
That is why it was, and is important to see QAF’s brutal and uncompromising presentation of statutory rape – during a time where we were fighting for a right potentially undermined by the storyline – as vital to our own understanding. QAF didn’t care about the way that heterosexual politicians viewed the dangerous behaviour – the show never condoned the rape. Nathan’s less than desirable experiences were representative of the very full on and often scary baptism into the scene that young gay men often face. His youth is fresh, exciting, and appeals to both the experienced man and the man wanting to take his first steps. His description of losing his virginity as like ‘being stabbed’, except that it’s ‘fantastic’ because it’s a man is brilliant in the way it accurately captures the often flagrant and unashamed manner in which gay men can talk about sex and sexuality – an attitude that we can be proud of – not because it’s any healthier than the alternative, but because it’s unique to us.
A straight man can’t, and never should be able to step into a gay club and feel the same pang as a gay man. Gay culture is ours and we need to protect our unique identity. It is born from oppression, the devastating impact of HIV and AIDS, and a lack of understanding from the straight community. It’s only through cultural icons such as Queer as Folk, that we can protect our shared identity in a world that is (quite rightly) accepting homosexuality and the necessity of equality. While some of you may not feel as intrinsically connected with your gay identity as I do, I fully believe that in order to be able to live as an openly gay man we must understand our history, regardless of what we think about it. For that reason, I am celebrating Queer as Folk’s birthday, and so should you.