A version of this story was originally published June 2014 on Out.com
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 cycnical 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.”
This will be the 15th anniversary of its breakthrough, and ready 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 Harold) 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.
On That First Sex Scene
Randy Harrison (Justin): “I swear to God the sex scenes didn’t [freak me out]. I had done graphic sex on stage already, and I just thought, It’s exciting that it’s going to exist. I mean, I got frustrated with shooting sex later on in the series but, at the beginning, I just remember I was desperate for those images when I was a gay kid growing up. There were some foreign movies at the indie movie rental places that were about gay stories and sexuality that weren’t pornography. When you’re that desperate – they’re so powerful. Especially to me as an adolescent it was – Oh my god, life-changing. So I was really excited that I was going to be a part of that for other people and telling a gay story that was going to be on television.”
Gale Harold (Brian): "Randy and I talked about that scene a lot – I think we were both kind of terrified. Not terrified by the subject matter but terrified that we were so exposed. It was Randy and myself and a room full of men. It was kind of like being under a microscope. It was very strange. I can’t speak for Randy, but there were parts of it that were just an incredible adrenaline-high. It was so revealing and so intense and you could just – and this is a really bad pun but, all those pricks just like Shakespeare said, we were being being poked from every fucking angle – you’ve got large nuts and small nuts just looking at us, looking at us – whatever they were fucking doing. We were looking at each other and trying to find a way to hold it together. I’ve said this a million times: I was really lucky that I was doing that entire show with Randy because he’s very intelligent, really soulful and we just had some parallel interests."
Scott Lowell (Ted): "I think if you don’t have the first scene between Brian and Justin you don’t get why this kid just saw the face of God. You don’t get the next five years of the series, and you don’t get why he puts up with this asshole or this truth teller. If you don’t see that night and what happened, there and that chemistry, you won’t get it. And similarly with all the other characters and how it effects them emotionally is critical. Maybe there is some gratuity to that kind of stuff, but I don’t think that at all. I remember watching the pilot episode and that first sex scene—that was the first time I have seen gay men engaging in any physical activity that didn’t involve front-to-back. I noticed his ankles on his shoulders and I was like, 'Oh, well I guess that makes sense.' And that was eye-opening to me as well."
On Why the Sex (and Love) Scenes Mattered
Hal Sparks (Michael): "I was the one who said that I really wanted my sex scenes to have meaning. I wanted gay couples and gay individuals who were watching the show, were told by everyone around them that their sexuality was a lifestyle choice or just physical, to see the love in the sex. To see the physical connection compounded by love. Because that’s why I think gay or lesbian is a much more valuable word than homosexual—because homosexual denotes to a physical connectivity and gay and lesbian is about relationships. What I wanted them to see was two gay men together, not two homosexuals. To some to degree, what you were seeing in the Brian sex scenes—from an outside perspective—was two homosexuals: people who are sexually-driven but not emotionally connected. By contrast, I thought it was my responsibility along with the character that I was in the scene with, that we had to deliver the answer to that. We had to have as much love as Brian had partners, and that’s a lot.
"If you’ll notice, I made a very distinct choice for the majority of the time Ben and Michael had sex facing each other. I made a very distinct choice about that because his relationship was about eye contact, about love, about the bonding of two human beings. once he found someone he was ready to give himself over to, that wasn’t an issue at all and it actually made those scenes more meaningful and in some ways more humorous and when we had the people against gay marriage coming door-to-door and interrupting Ben and Michael having sex—which was hilarious and one of the most fun scenes we had to shoot—but at the same time the sex scene in the kitchen that precedes it, we had crew members coming up to us after saying, “I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know how you can go there in front of a bunch of people.” I didn’t have a problem with the nudity or the actual sex scenes as long as they had meaning; as long as they don’t put the character you’re playing in jeopardy of changing, of turning into something they’re not temporarily, and that was always a good thing."
Lowell: "There was big learning curve for me in a lot of ways. It was very loose and we were very frank with one another. We could ask any questions that we had, but the biggest hurdle for me was the psychological one. In terms of figuring Ted out, I figured that we both were hopeless romantics, being that he loved the opera and he was always searching for the perfect guy—and he had this unrequited crush and I felt that familiarity with him. Whoever you’re playing opposite of, you find something beautiful in them and when you kiss them, you kiss them for all you’re worth. It’s just a switch you throw in finding what’s attractive in your partners. I think I got lucky, too, because I got some pretty boys to make out with and that made it easier.”
Robert Gant (Ben): "What’s interesting, porn was available but was still very stilted versions of sex. What I mean is that it was more athletic and contrived. What we were expressing on [Queer as Folk] was in a loving setting. We were really mindful in our scenes, but we did have our rough scenes as well. More than half our audience were straight women. It was interesting for some of these women viewing these characters that they could see having a relationships with, but were viewing them having sex with men. There was an educational factor for us. One particular incident with Hal, where we literally were talking about if he was going to have both legs up, or have one leg up… [laughs]."
Peter Paige (Emmett): "We had sex meetings anytime we had a sex scene. It was mainly to make the guest stars comfortable at the end of the day, but it was incredibly useful for all of us. I don’t think we talked a lot about that, I can remember Gale asking me the very first season if he was doing it right, and I was like, ‘Yeah, harder!’ I don’t think we thought a lot about that, but I do remember friends of mine, lifelong, straight ally friends of mine calling me after they watched the pilot, saying, “I didn’t know that two guys could have sex face-to-face. Like, they thought we could only have sex doggy style ALL THE TIME. And these were lifelong gay allies. So it was definitely educational."
On Their Favorite Moments
Lowell: "I feel like I also got to deliver the best speech in the entire show. It’s in the first season of the show and this character was trying to turn straight and we had to rescue him, and we finally decided to let him go and Ted says essentially, 'Let God love you exactly as you are.'
"I loved the challenge of Season 3 and going through all the crystal meth stuff. Just because we worked so hard to get it right and, at that time, that’s something that was just starting, crystal meth in the gay community. And so I thought I felt that I had to get it right and make it ugly as possible, so that’s something that I definitely loved."
Paige: "I am most proud of the crystal meth storyline between Ted and Emmett of anything they did in five years because it was so important and so timely and is still so timely. It was so human and it was so hard and awful to shoot, but I’m so proud of it. I also loved doing the football storyline, that was the most fun that Emmett got to be and those are probably two of my favorites.
"Plus, full credit goes to the costume designer [for my outfits], but we sort of struck a bargain. It was for every fabulous outfit, I was in sweat pants in another scene. And not just for comfort because, yes, it’s great going to work in sweat pants, but more because I wanted to make sure he didn’t become a caricature. I know a lot of queens and I don’t know ONE who sleeps in a nightie. And even if they went around in a kimono, when they go to bed, they’re in boxers. It was like, 'How can we stitch this back to the real human being underneath all this?' "
Harrison: "I love the end of the first season—it’s one of my favorite things. I love Kinney coming out and love that he showed up to [Justin’s] prom. It’s kind of this adolescent fantasy come true and I think that some of the people most affected by the show were very young and were adolescents when they were watching. But we fought through a couple storylines that I hated. But sometimes just because it’s a series that goes on and on for a long time, you end up kind of playing one thing for a long time and in order to create a different plotline for change – suddenly Justin wants to get married, suddenly he’s sort of a different character. And it’s hard when you have to make that shift. I remember the Pink Posse thing being difficult—shaving my head and finding that militant anger, because it wasn’t a direct reaction to the beating. It was like a season-and-a-half later, I think."
Gant: "Playing an HIV-positive character, that was living with it, was an extraordinary thing to be a part of and express. Also, we focused on spirituality, which we haven’t seen much with gay characters. I think it did tie in with HIV and his holistic focus on living his life. He was much more focused around the prospect of a healthy relationship and more about what that looked like. Ben also represented a character that was involved and grounded. I liked that he was more balanced and offered a grounded approach to a lot of situations. I appreciated the exploration that we made around steroids, as well. There were so many different expressions of gay cultures, what people struggled with, the desire to feel beautiful was an important story. The steroid thing was powerful extension of that because it was a bolstering of that wall to protect myself and create that facade that is going to make me lovable. it was also a shield against his own fears that were in the background that he seemed to be dealing with in a mature way. He certainly had his fears around the HIV issue but he decided to bolster himself with focusing on his body."
On Influencing the Plot (or Not)
Harold: "I think that I really responded to Bryan’s relationship with Michael’s mom Debbie [played by Sharon Gless]. She was Brian’s surrogate mom. It’s a really cliché trope how gay men in in North America and his relationship to his mother. But I do know from my friends and some things that I’ve read that that’s a very hard topic and it can be very volatile. I thought in terms of the bigger arc and the entire show that he didn’t really have anything to hold onto from these perspectives. Brian’s relationship with his father and his mother, the problems they had just dealing with him, he was blessed by his friend’s mother. She comes to his rescue, and I think that for me is something that had a really long life that we never really had a chance to get deep enough into it. We did play with it and Sharon and I found a way to put maybe enough of it out there to really start to paint a picture but – that canvas is somewhat blank. I would have loved to go deeper into that. I loved working with Sharon, and she’sgot a little Irish in her and my character was Irish. I just wanted to go deeper into that, you know? Because who wouldn’t? From a dramatic point of view, there’s so much there. Sometimes I think about what it would be like if Debbie and Brian would have gotten into just horrible, difficult financial difficulties and go on some Bonnie and Clyde run, you know? I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, unfortunately."
Harrison: "At one point, I thought that Justin should top Brian. Because, I know it didn’t honestly look like right – because people were used it. I was like, 'This is the most hetero-normative relationship ever, more than any of the straight couples on television.' I wanted Justin – I just feel like I was playing a part written for a female character and not a gay man. I’ve never been in a relationship where there wasn’t a certain amount of give and take. Not just like sexual versatility but also like the power dynamic."
Sparks: "I fought to keep Michael in the closet the whole run of the show. There were conversations with execs about him coming out of the closet in year two, and my problem with it was it would be a Pride March after that. When you’ve got, at that time, 70 percent of gay people in the States living in an area where they couldn’t feel safe being out or at least support it, it didn’t make sense to have this kind of cartoon of equality going on. Because, arguably, you had that in Will & Grace to some degree, you had this understood acceptance.
"The only thing I felt that was bad was after Michael’s kind of stint with his friend at work, the girl he liked, he’s like, 'Can we be friends?' and she was really great about it, and she goes, “You didn’t have to be afraid. You could have told me; I would have understood.” And then we never saw her again. And I felt like she would have been a great straight ally. And as a straight person on the show, I kind of felt that we had a lack of straight allies. Although they turned out to be closeted sometimes. Like, wait a minute: Brian had some kind of tractor beam in his penis that could make anybody gay."
On What It Means for the Future
Sparks: “I’m not worried about my son watching it when he gets older because when he’s the age where he would watch something like that the world will be different – at least that’s what I’m shooting for. And my dream is that he thinks it’s no big deal. I mean, it will be awkward to see his dad do sex scenes in general. But not because it’s gay."
Paige: "People continue to discover it, and that's amazing to me. I hear almost every day that people just watched it with their kids. The clothes are a little dated, the hair styles are a lot dated, but not the stories. Because we’re still fighting the same fights. The emotional stories are eternal. Emotional stories are the same stories that Shakespeare told, and the Greeks. It’s love, trust, betrayal, and heart break. It’s what being a human being is. It may look funny, but I think it’s pretty recognizable."