A reflection of Russel T Davies’ show, and what it meant for the LGBT community

 Words by Stephen Arkley

The year is 1999. Nearly half of the U.K population think that homosexual sex is “always or mostly wrong”. Section 28 is still in force and would remain so until 2003. The gay age of consent is 18. Five years before that, the age of consent was 21.

It’s a bit of a myth to say that homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967. It was legalised. Which means to say it was decriminalised under specific conditions: above the age of 21, in complete privacy, between two people, with nobody else present in the house. Just a year before Queer as Folk aired, seven men in Bolton were convicted of homosexual offences, with two given jail time.

Following the AIDS epidemic, the British press were severe in their reaction to anything LGBT related. When Byker Grove ran a gay storyline just a few years earlier, The Sun called for producer Matthew Robinson to be sacked.

So when Queer as Folk first aired, just over 23 years ago, on the 23rd of February 1999, the climate very much ran against it. Channel 4 pushed the show back to a 10 pm slot in fear of its reception. But the show was paradigm-shifting. Not just for all the gobsmacked homophobes who watched it. But for the LGBT campaigners and HIV activists. 

The show made no mention of condoms or safe sex. HIV and AIDS were never spoken of. Friends of the characters in the show had died a few years ago but it was never given a name. 

A representative for Stonewall mentioned at a press event that the show was a “missed opportunity”, that he had never met any gay men who were sexually promiscuous or who did drugs.

Following the AIDS crisis, most gay representation of the time was sanitised. Gay men were sexless, in long-term, committed relationships with their boyfriends. Hetero relationships minus the weddings and kids. Queer as Folk changed all that. Gay life on Canal Street was shown as what it was: unrelenting. Life ran fast and hard.

The characters in the show partied, shagged anything that moved and did whatever drugs they could get their hands on. The intention wasn’t to sanitise the gay community, to tidy it up and brush away anything unseemly. The intention was to show the gay community as they actually were, based on Russell T Davies’ own experiences on Canal Street which included the wonderful and the shocking and horrific.

I think today’s LGBT representation is cheap in comparison. I will frequently wake up now to find a cascade of articles by the gay press on the tiniest crumb of representation from Disney or Netflix. 

I agree with Russell T Davies when he said that the bisexual representation in Loki was “a ridiculous, craven, feeble gesture towards the vital politics and the stories that should be told”.

We should demand more than a background gay kiss that will just be airbrushed out when it comes to screening in other countries.

Russell T Davies has devoted his entire career to telling these stories, of gay men who fall in love with women, of straight men who fall in love with men, of all the nuances and ambiguities that elude our boundaries and our categories. It’s perhaps cliché to say at this point, but Pride started with a protest. We shouldn’t be complacent with the crumbs of LGBT representation we get from corporations today, instead, we can and should demand more. 

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