This is the third instalment of my Queer as Folk collection. This post will delve into some of the themes that the show depicted and how they used their platform to bring awareness to sexuality-specific problems. Many audience members will have seen the characters going through these struggles and felt seen and heard. They could have related to the themes and taken advice and comfort from how the storylines worked out. Of course, many of the themes are still present in society today and while they do not affect me directly, it is great to see that they were being spoken about when being gay on television was a rarity in itself.
As always and specifically in this post, adult content will be discussed so only read if you are over 18.
Series 3 – Introduction of Themes, the character of Hunter and Analysis of Events
Introduction of Themes
Throughout the five series, many controversial and difficult issues are faced by the gang at Liberty Avenue and it was amazing to see these being discussed on a television show from 20 years ago. America did not have a great attitude towards LGBT people especially from the government and many religious groups. It was ground-breaking to see such themes discussed so broadly and seriously but still in a way that made the programme enjoyable.
One of the main themes discussed particularly from Series 2 when Ben joins the main cast is HIV. This was an epidemic that affected gay men for many years. In the programme, Ben is HIV positive and this initially causes a big rift between Ben and Michael when Michael’s friends and his mother are concerned for his safety. Ben reassures Michael that he is not seriously ill and with medicine and healthy practices, he keeps in reasonably good health. This is not always the case for Ben or for Vic who has been living with HIV for years at the beginning of the series. He is older than Ben and is in worse health. Despite almost dying just before the timeline of the pilot, Vic is relatively well until his death in Series 4. It showed that despite advances in HIV medication, people could still die even in 2004. The issue becomes more serious when Hunter learns he has HIV at such a young age. Emmett goes through a major scare with a HIV test and after learning he is negative, he tries to become heterosexual. This shows how afraid men were to catch the disease.
Another of the major themes is the homophobia that most of the characters face from relatives, co-workers, strangers and others. Justin is a victim of homophobia from his father when he is told to become heterosexual or leave his house for good. We do not see his father again apart from one incident in Series 4 when he has Justin arrested for protesting. Justin is also the victim of a homophobic attack by a student at his school at the end of Series 1. The student was a closeted gay man as was evidenced by a moment he shared with Justin. He has internalised homophobia about his own feelings and when he saw Justin with Brian at the prom, he was provoked into violence. Gay bashing was something that many people were victims of and still are today by others who are jealous or simply hate them for being themselves.
There was a storyline in Series 4 where Justin joins a gay vigilante group, the Pink Posse who want to patrol the streets protecting gay people from attacks from straight people. Justin believes he is getting revenge for an attack on Darren, a drag queen and revenge for his own attack but after seeing his fellow gang member openly attacking people first for the slightest comment or sometimes unprovoked he knows that violence is not the answer when stopping gay hate crimes. When he is brought face to face with his attacker, Chris Hobbs he understands that killing him would not reverse events or get rid of his anger or pain.
Brian’s family are not supportive of his sexuality and he chose to keep his distance for other reasons but after they find out in Series 1; Brian rarely sees his mother or sister. Brian’s nephew accuses Brian of molesting him which was not true. Fortunately it was disproved but this shows the lengths that some people, even relatives went to when trying to get someone discredited, simply for their sexuality. Brian’s mother blames Brian’s cancer on his sexuality which causes him to call her out for her homophobic beliefs.
The show is always showing safe sex between the characters and any acts taken place without protection are not condoned by any of the main characters. This is an important aspect as while the characters sleep around with many men, they are always careful especially Brian who is the most promiscuous of them all. He makes it a point to always use a condom. Justin brings up safe sex on their first night together and while he won’t have been taught about gay sex, he has heard of the need for protection even between two men. Hunter also brings up the issue of safe sex after Michael and Ben find out he does not use condoms when hustling. Before they convince him to stop, they successfully get him to use condoms.
Many of the characters in the show are parents whether biologically or through marriage/partnership. In the pilot episode we are introduced to the parenting trio of Lindsay, Melanie and Brian. Brian provided a sperm donation so Lindsay could carry a child for herself and Melanie to be parents. Brian initially only wants to be a donor and agrees to give up his parental rights but he then becomes attached to Gus and visits him. Throughout the series, the three of them go through challenges as parents but mostly they all make the right decisions for Gus. When Melanie wants to carry their second child, she chooses Michael as the father which causes many problems and a custody hearing between Lindsay, Melanie and Michael. This is the other side and an issue with three parent adoption. It was interesting to see both sides of same-sex parenting. Debbie is the only parent of the characters who is a main cast member. She acts like a parent to all of the gang and is the perfect supportive mother for a gay man. She can be over the top sometimes but has always been supportive of Michael’s sexuality and has helped him become more comfortable with his identity.
Michael and Ben become foster parents and parents to Melanie and Michael’s baby. They go into fostering unconventionally when they vow to take care of a young hustler when he starts working outside their building. It takes them a few years and a few times to get Hunter to accept himself as their son but with support and care from Ben and Michael, he goes back to school and starts to experience normal teenage life. He even gets a girlfriend and takes part in school activities. This was a positive example of how gay parents can be good foster parents.
During the course of the show, politics is a very important topic, particularly as at the time in the US, the government and many politicians were against gay rights and same-sex marriage. With the Stockwell storyline, the characters go through a cultural change and a repression of their rights in Pittsburgh. It is on a smaller scale than the Presidential Election but as it directly impacts the Liberty Avenue community, it feels very important. Many of the characters protest against Stockwell with Justin creating posters opposing him; Debbie along with Brian, Justin and Hunter tries to find out how Stockwell is covering up the murder of a gay boy. Brian is working on Stockwell’s campaign and initially he is with Stockwell as he doesn’t realise how anti-gay Stockwell is but slowly with the closure of gay clubs and establishments and the presence of police on the streets, Brian realises that Stockwell has to be stopped. He tries to work from the inside but is caught with evidence against him. This plotline showed how even smart men like Brian can be carried along by great politicians and sometimes it takes a while to wake up to how a politician that does not share cultural or societal similarities with you can impact your life.
Another political storyline is Proposition 14. This was not a real bill at the time but rather is based on Proposition 6 that failed to pass in the 1978 election in California. In Queer as Folk, the law is trying to limit the rights of gay people by not allowing them to have joint bank accounts, mortgages, adopt or be together in any legal way. If passed it would affect all of the gay citizens in Pennsylvania. While not all of the gang on Liberty Avenue were living with someone or in a serious relationship, they all felt the impact and the potential directions their lives could take would be diminished. This storyline happens in Series 5 and the bill does pass but we do not see the full effects as it is close to the end of the show. One big change was Lindsay and Melanie moving to Toronto as they had more rights as a same-sex couple and could even marry legally. Throughout Series 5, we see the characters going to different houses and asking people to vote no to Proposition 14, protesting in the streets, fundraising and Justin even got arrested for protesting outside his father’s store. Michael originally does not want to publicly show his support after his shop is vandalised but he soon realises that he has to stand with his partner and community. It is good that the show depicted different points of view as not every gay person like Michael would have been comfortable to publicly condone the initiative for fear of retaliation.
Another big storyline in the show is the issues and consequences of drug use. Initially, it is shown as something that the cool characters do such as Brian getting high in the pilot and Michael and Brian often smoking weed but we also see the dangers of drug abuse. This is an issue particularly in the LGBT community amongst those who like to party. It was interesting to see the changes in drugs as now weed is legal but at the time, it was seen as something more risky to do. Justin has a small storyline in Series 2 where he is invited to a party and drugged. Although this storyline was upsetting, I am pleased that it was included to show the dangers of partying and how even being around drugs and not consciously taking them can be dangerous.
Ted has the most important drug related storyline with his crystal meth addiction. At the start of Series 1, he is drugged by a hook-up and ends up in a coma. This definitely deters him from that lifestyle for a few years but after his arrest and the collapse of his successful business in Series 3, he is lured over to crystal use. It was easy to understand how Ted fell into his depression and couldn’t resist trying to feel better again. When his drug use started to affect his relationship with Emmett and his friends, he started to cut them off as he felt he couldn’t give up the drugs. Eventually he goes to rehab and starts the recovery process but it is not instant and he is still going to meetings at the end of the show. He also reconnects with Blake several times at different stages of their drug use. In Series 1, Blake accidentally put Ted in a coma but Ted meets him again and tries to help him by taking Blake to rehab. When Ted himself is in rehab at the end of Series 3, he meets Blake again who is now clean and a counsellor. They get together again but don’t make it work until reconnecting a final time at the end of Series 5. The difference between Blake in Series 1 and 3/4/5 was a contrast and it shows how seemingly sane people can become addicts.
One storyline that I think many LGBT viewers would have related to especially at the time when there were no laws protecting them was being outed at work or school. Michael was the most afraid of this at his job at the Big Q. He had witnessed his colleagues making fun of gay people and as an assistant manager, he did not want to be ridiculed or bullied for being gay. He even pretended to date a fellow female co-worker at an event because he couldn’t bring his boyfriend. When Michael starts his own business, he no longer has this fear and even creates a provocative gay comic that he sells out of his shop. Brian is someone who also keeps his sexuality a discreet part of himself at work but not in the same way as Michael. Brian is happy to hook-up with potential clients to seal the deal and his assistant, Cynthia knows the truth but he does not flaunt it, particularly to his boss. He often says if he is not having sex with someone then they don’t need to know.
Ted has a more unfortunate situation where he is found watching gay porn at work and is fired. At first he believes it is because he was gay as all his colleagues watch porn as well but his boss tells him it was for using the Internet and even tells Ted that he is free to explore his passions. Justin is a victim of bullying at school by various fellow students but particularly Chris Hobbs. At the time, there was no education about gay sex or even how to treat LGBT people as equals so many students said mean and derogatory things to Justin pertaining to his sexuality. This caused many issues for Justin and culminated in an almost life-threatening injury from which he thankfully recovered.
Hunter is an important character who we are introduced to this series. He is witty, cheeky and often very straightforward with his desires. With Ben and Michael’s help he stops hustling and goes back to school where he does well apart from an incident during a swim meet. He even gets time to understand his true sexuality and has a girlfriend. Hunter is HIV positive like Ben and he is glad to have Ben as a role model for how to handle the virus. Although he does leave Ben and Michael a couple of times, he finds his way back and is accepted into their family.
Analysis of Events
One incident that happened early on in Series 3 involved Brian’s nephew accusing Brian of molesting him. While paedophilia and child molesting is a prevalent problem especially in religious circles; Brian’s nephew, John was using Brian’s sexuality as a weapon against him. He was only 12 but after being surrounded by his mother and grandparents who were all very homophobic, he thought that he could get Brian arrested. It was a response to Brian catching him stealing his money and dunking his head in the toilet. John did not have any positive experiences with Brian and did not see him as a valued member of his family. While John’s behaviour was wrong and he was able to think for himself, his environment and family beliefs were a big part in his accusation. Luckily, Brian is not arrested and because John also took his bracelet that had his initials on, it was disproven. This event showed how law enforcement was quick to believe John despite Brian being the adult with a good job and no previous record that we know. This crime is one more tailored towards the gay community as many people believe that all gay people are perverts and are quick to jump to any conclusions whereas they would not believe an accusation made from a girl to a man or a boy to a woman.
We are introduced to the more problematic side of gay sex with the character of Hunter. He works the streets as a hustler despite being only 15 and the age of consent at the time in Pennsylvania being 16. Despite this he sleeps with many men usually without protection for money. The men that use hustlers are often not out as gay and have to hide their sexuality or they are perverts that want to sleep with underage boys. Hunter was forced into the lifestyle by his mother and he claims to enjoy it. When he comes out as straight and dates a girl, we know that he was only doing it as he had no other choice. He was sexualised at an early age so he didn’t consider whether he wanted to have sex with men. Hustling is not condoned by any of the gang and seen as a crime to sleep with any of the boys. Hunter puts his skills to use when Brian and Justin start investigating the death of a young hustler in Series 3.
Brian has strong character development in Series 3 after he chooses morality and his friends over money. Before meeting Stockwell, Brian was happy to work with any brands as long as they paid him well. Initially, he does not mind Stockwell as he sees him as a legitimate candidate and a way to make money. After his community starts protesting, his point of view changes and Stockwell fires him. When Stockwell closes the sordid establishments that Brian likes to frequent, it is the last straw for him. He secretly works against Stockwell by helping Justin print his posters and organise a protest at a talk by Stockwell. When Brian fears that Stockwell will win, he uses his advertising expertise and creates an advert about Stockwell’s cover-up of the hustler found dead in a dumpster. He pays for it to be on television himself when Stockwell’s opponent won’t run it. This shows how Brian sacrificed everything – his job, money, possessions and emotionless nature to take down Stockwell and restore harmony on Liberty Avenue.
A main storyline was Ted’s dissent into depression and drugs. Ted is usually a character that takes things in his stride. After he was fired from his job as an accountant, he built his own business and became successful even though it took him some time. I think it was the loss of his new life with Emmett and his arrest being in the newspapers that created shame for Ted. He felt that he was not deserving of living in a nice neighbourhood with Emmett so started to doubt himself. When he found temporary happiness with crystal meth, he clung on it tightly and became addicted. When he had nothing else, he knew he could find joy and feel beautiful when on drugs. Addicts often fall into drug use after a difficult period or with mental health problems, both of which Ted suffered.
Justin and Michael’s comic, Rage often reflects the real events in their lives such as Justin’s gay bashing and the villain based on Stockwell. This time, Brian modelled his actions on Rage, his superhero counterpart. Justin gives Brian the idea to save the city when he says ‘If only there were a real life Rage.’ Brian knows that he is the only one of his friends that has the power, connections and money to pull off the advert. He choses to sacrifice everything like Rage would to create a better life for his friends and community.
The final episode of Series 3 uses some different narrative techniques than we have seen in the show up to this point. The episode opens on a couple we have not seen before walking down the street. They are chatting about this and that but when they pass two policemen, they both look unsettled and afraid and the colour turns to black and white. We then see Brian and Justin walking along. Brian has a different attitude to authority and enjoys riling up the cops by kissing Justin in front of them and miming having sex. Justin also says the phrase, “It’s like the Wizard of Oz in reverse” which is exactly what happens with the colours. This is a rare example of the editing and colours of the show matching a specific line. At the end, after the characters all start partying in the streets, someone waves a pride flag across the screen that turns to colour and the colours come back again from black and white to red and and gradually all the colours. There are only two scenes in black and white but it is nod to Justin’s line and the tone of the episode. Also in the streets, we see the couple from the beginning making out. It is very subtle but a great call back to the beginning. The series ends on Justin and Brian embracing showing that love won that battle.
My next post will be about the hardships the group face as individuals and the events of Series 4.