BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 23 APR 19

Queer as Folk: What Can We Learn From Channel 4’s Unapologetic Portrayal of Gay Experience?

Twenty years since the original series, there is still much to be done in confronting regressive prejudices against the LGBTQ+ community

BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 23 APR 19

In 1999, Channel 4 took a risk on a controversial new drama called Queer as Folk, pitched from a young screenwriter named Russell T. Davies. The series followed the lives of three gay men, Stuart (Aidan Gillen), Nathan (Charlie Hunnam) and Vince (Craig Kelly) on Manchester's scene around Canal Street. Three weeks after the pilot episode, the beer company Beck’s revoked their sponsorship for the show, allegedly because of a scene in which 29-year-old Stuart rims 15-year-old Nathan after picking him up at the end of a Thursday night. 

Lead character Stuart Alan Jones was anarchic and without the tragedy or self-deprecation so often ascribed to gay characters. His life focused on continuous sex: marriage wouldn’t have been an option, neither would a consistent relationship, or even sleeping with the same person more than once. To anyone bigoted, Stuart dealt spectacular retribution. After a car dealer makes a homophobic remark, incorrectly assuming he is straight, he test-drives a Jeep off the forecourt directly through the dealership window — a reasonable response in my opinion.

In series one, Nathan Maloney finds refuge from his classmates in the clubs of Canal Street. It is in these spaces that he finds an intergenerational family, less conservative and more fun than the one he has at home. His style and self-confidence develop as he becomes aware of his sexual currency in a youth-orientated market place, from a slouchy jacket in episode one to full Brian Molko-esque tight shirt and choker by episode four. The transformation is encapsulated in a memorable scene where Nathan confidently struts through the school corridors in time to ‘Sexy Boy’ by Air (1997). 

Queer as Folk was the first time many people had seen empowered gay characters on television, characters who directly opposed the stereotypes of shame and death widely imposed on gay men at that time. 20 years since the original series, the perception of LGBT+ people in the UK has improved, with hard-won rights and freedoms – including the repeal of Section 28, a law banning the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, in 2003. 

However, LGBT+ people in the UK still face many challenges, with trans people continuing to experience horrific amounts of discrimination and abuse on the street, in the workplace and in the media. Recently, some schools in the West Midlands have suspended their ‘No Outsiders’ lessons – a curriculum introduced to promote equality and diversity – following outrage from parents. Having daring and relatable LGBTQ+ characters and storylines on television is essential to confront these regressive prejudices and assure people that they have supportive communities.

When Channel 4 launched in 1982, it had a radical remit to provide an alternative to the other terrestrial channels. Their programming was left-of-centre and aimed at LGBT and POC audiences. Throughout the 1980s, they produced films and series including My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), In The Pink (1986) and Out on Tuesday (1989), all of which incensed the then Conservative government because of their depiction of same-sex desire. In more recent years, reality shows have overtaken television, and the mainstream has subsumed many marginal issues.

In a similar vein to Queer as Folk, when Nighthawks (1978) was screened on television it came under scrutiny from sections of the LGBT community and general public for its realistic portrayal of gay experience. It follows a teacher named Jim (Ken Robertson) on his constant, almost ritualistic search for love. He lives a double life, straight-presenting geography teaching during the day, scouring London’s cruise clubs and bars for men at night. The film culminates in a breakdown of these compartmental identities when his students confront him with questions about his sexuality that he can't avoid. If Stuart is the product of a swaggering new labour generation, Jim represents a more brooding 1970s gay man. 

The title Queer as Folk refers to a northern English proverb ‘there's nowt so queer as folk’, meaning ‘nothing is as strange as people can be.’ Queer, as we might use it today, is a reclaimed word accounting for a broader range of non-normative sexual, gender and political identities. It would be refreshing to see mainstream television shows focus on a more intersectional understanding of queer issues. Aspects of the Channel 4 series haven’t aged well. It’s very white, it’s very gay and it’s very male. However, treating it as a point of departure (that has a certain necessary ‘fuck-off’ flavour), might not be such a bad thing.

Main image: Queer as Folk (1999), video still. Courtesy: Channel 4 and Red Production Company  

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and assistant editor of frieze based in London, UK. His book Death (2023) is out now from Tate Publishing.