Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1999

Diesel Balaam assesses the controversial Channel 4 series Queer as Folk.

Relax! It’s Only Television (and I like it!)

by Diesel Balaam

“It certainly doesn’t do us any favours” my friend Julian lamented, when I met up with him recently in Balans restaurant in Soho’s Compton Street. What was he talking about? Like everyone else, Channel 4’s ground-breaking new drama Queer As Folk by writer Russell T. Davies. This is the series which has allegedly caused outrage over scenes depicting rimming, under age sex, toilet sex, insemination babies, drug taking, and all the other things we all know go on, but which we patronisingly assume the hetties have to be protected from.

Filmed in sexy widescreen, Queer As Folk (QAF) is a lavish production, featuring three young, confident – nay, brash – gay men, and their adventures both on and off the gay scene. There is Nathan (Charlie Hunnam) the coming-out 15-year-old schoolboy, who loses various virginities to Stuart (Aiden Gillan), then falls in love with him and pursues him relentlessly, despite Stuart’s promiscuous indifference to this passing trade. Stuart is tough and good-looking, but arrogant and selfish with it, yet strangely likeable at the same time. When a schoolchum of Nathan’s starts flapping his wrist and shouting “Ooh, give us a kiss”, it is Stuart who has the balls and the presence of mind to issue the rejoinder “I’ll give you a good fuck you tight little virgin – you won’t be laughing then!” Finally, there is Vince (Craig Kelly), a fan of science fiction, an amusing obsession which infuses his whole personality and dialogue – “The chicken has landed!” he announces, when Nathan returns to haunt Stuart in the second episode. Then after he meets an attractive woman in a straight pub for a drink, he tells Stuart “You know, in some strange kind of parallel universe, I’ve just met the woman I married.” QAF is one of the few pieces of television I have seen where a vibrant, well-written script, fully rounded characters, and high production values have all been fused together for our (not their) entertainment.

QAF is not gay television, that usually insipid gruel occasionally and grudgingly served up throughout the 1980s – it is queer television with a capital Q. The title refers as much to the early-90s T-shirts bearing the “Queer As Fuck” legend as it does to the antiquarian saying “There’s Nowt So Queer As Folk.” This is television by and for ourselves, not a lame Cashman-esque appeal for tolerance.

Nonetheless, the tunnel vision of some old-style “gay rights” campaigners does not allow them to accept QAF on its own post-modern terms of tongue-in-cheek enjoyment. Angela Mason, the director of the Stonewall gay lobbying group complained: “It certainly didn’t challenge any stereotypes. All the gay men wanted to have non-stop sex and all the lesbians wanted babies ...”. Of course, nobody “in the know” talks about stereotypes anymore, but Angela Mason – who increasingly resembles Neville Chamberlain in a skirt – is only really interested in appeasing (and deceiving) the heterosexual majority, not demanding equality on our own terms.

I think four important points need to be made here. Firstly, QAF is a TV drama, not a documentary or Public Information Film. It is both futile and wrong to try and police the representation of gay people in order to ensure that TV programmes conform to a narrow and assimilationist “gay rights” agenda. Secondly, as any first year media studies student could tell you, TV is not an all-powerful tool of change. It cannot simply “inject” a message – positive or negative – into the minds of its audience. Thirdly, the TV audience is not passive, it interprets messages differently, and these may be misinterpreted, refused, or “negotiated” by the audiences receiving them. Lastly, heterosexuals are not stupid. The notion that if we all put on our Sunday best and smile sweetly for the cameras, then “they” will immediately grant “us” our “rights” is absurdly naive in the extreme. Moreover, television cannot change society’s attitudes on your behalf – you have to do that yourself by living as openly and honestly as you can.

Besides, in my experience, most heterosexuals like their gay friends to be colourful and a little bit larger-than-life – that is what makes us special in their eyes.

Finally, the reason that everyone loathed John Inman in the 1970s sit-com Are You Being Served? was not because he was a silly and frivolous gay man (and, of course, most gay men are), but because as more or less the sole representation of gay men, he became, by default, a signifier for the entire gay community. Today, all that has changed, and thanks to programmes like Queer As Folk we are beginning to see a multitude of representation, good and bad. Furthermore, hasn’t anyone noticed how gay people and the camp aesthetic now occupy the mainstream of television culture? Winton, Barrymore, Clary, Savage, Kelly, Norton, Toksvig, Cameron – the list is growing all the time. So relax! It’s only television after all.

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Created : Sunday, 1999-04-18 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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