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OPINION: Revisiting Russell T Davis classic Queer As Folk 25 years after it first aired

Photo by William McCue on Unsplash

Take a poll of millennial gay men about coming out and stories of anxiously watching Russell T Davies’s 1999 series Queer As Folk on the lowest possible volume after parents have gone to bed – one finger resting anxiously over the remote controls power button will feature highly.

For many of us, huddled around our TVs: this was the moment we first felt seen, and it wasn’t the sex on tap, extravagant lifestyles or the tub-thumping clubs that made Manchester’s Canal Street seem like a Utopia – it was a place where we fit in, where what made us different was celebrated, and showed us that our sexuality opened a door to a world filled with colour, excitement and possibilities.

‘Queer as Folk’ followed the lives of three gay men in Manchester’s iconic gay village. The series brings us on a journey through three main stories, teenager Nathan Maloney’s (Charlie Hunnam) explosive coming out, shop manager Vince Tyler’s (Craig Kelly) coming to terms with his place in life, and magnetic narcissist Stuart Allen Jones’s (Aidan Gillen) coming to blows with a hetro-normative establishment that refuses to respect him.

With these core stories, Queer As Folk truly excelled in creating recognisable and authentic depictions of gay male life, virtually all of us could relate to the chest-out confidence of Stuart on his turf as he struts along Canal Street, to the anxious Vince concerned about the repercussions of having his sexuality revealed before he felt safe to do so or to newly out Nathan looking for a community to protect him.

Released at a time when public attitudes towards homosexuality and Gay Rights, while trending more tolerant, remained mixed. With stigma and prejudice against gay men and lesbians enduring and discomfort around portrayals of same-sex intimacy still palpable.

The reaction to this unapologetic portrayal of an alternative lifestyle made by queer people, for a queer audience was savage – the shows received more complaints than any other programme broadcast on TV at the time. The tabloid press judgement was equally harsh, with Daily Mail writer Lynda Lee-Potter suggesting that there should be an “intense sadness that actors are being exploited in this way” and conservative commenters pointed out that the show flew in the face of traditional moral values and was at odds with Margaret Thatcher’s homophobic Section 28 a law which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools and sought prevent access to positive representations of LGBTQ people or lifestyles.

Notwithstanding a less than enlightened early 00s reading of the LGBTQ community, and some questionable story choices the fact that over two decades after it was first released the inclusion of unvarnished and unashamed depictions of gay sex are still among the most hardcore of taboos is proof that Queer as Folk remains one of the most radical and fearless tributes to gay life and an epoch moment in the representation of LGBTQ lives in modern media.

The show came to an end with something of a whimper after a second series comprising only two episodes with relations somewhat soured between the show creator and Channel 4, but the legacy of Queer As Folk was just revving up for take-off signalling the beginning of the end for depictions of queer people as sexless stereotypical caricatures.

In the more than two decades since Nathan first stood anxiously at the end of Canal Street there has been an explosion in the diversity and volume of queer characters, storylines and experiences seen on screen – shows such as Will & Grace, The L Word, Pose, Schitts Creek and It’s A Sin, celebrate the diversity of the LGBTQ community – providing entertainment and tackling political issues such Homophobia, drug addiction, HIV & AIDS, Marriage and Coming Out head-on and showcasing the colour, humour and beauty of queer life.

Radical and transgressive – Queer As Folk was among the first to give us our own voice and a platform to start telling our own stories – undoubtedly it contributed to wider acceptance for queer people and changes in attitudes.

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