Eighteen years ago tonight, Channel Four played the first episode of a new 8-part drama series, written by “children’s television writer” (as he was often called in the press) Russell T Davies: Queer as Folk.
The show was a warts-and-all deconstruction of gay life in the late 1990s. It didn’t hold back on the many alien elements of how gay life could be: drugs, an unequal age of consent meaning that the age of consent concept itself was ignored, blackmail, forced coming out, casual sex, loneliness, even bad gay parenting. The world presented in each episode was not a perfect one by any means, and wasn’t the one you’d choose to portray homosexuality in a good light.
But something about the brutal honesty of the show and how the characters remained likeable whilst being flawed struck a chord with an audience that I suspect even Channel Four didn’t think they’d reach: ordinary straight people.
The day after the first episode aired, I went into work buzzing from the programme but knowing I had nobody to talk to about it: I wasn’t out at work and the people I worked with were definitely not the type to be watching such filth.
Everybody watched it. It was the talk of the office for days. Everybody loved it. The straights speculated on the bits they didn’t understand, and before I knew it I was out and being asked to fill in the details (what did he mean “they didn’t tell you about that one”? and suddenly you’re explaining rimming to a 60 year old lady in a cozy cardigan).
Queer as Folk seemed to be a turning point. Casual homophobia at work dried up immediately, as even the most beery men switched from making gay jokes to saying “yeah, just like Stuart in Queer as Folk!” instead. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, gay life was normal real life. It was fine.
After 8 weeks of QaF, society itself seemed to shift. Before long, the unequal age of consent was equalised, the Tory Section 28 that banned discussion of homosexuality was abolished, gays on TV became normal, and we were on our way to Civil Partnerships and eventually equal marriage.
And I put all of this progress down to the after effects of Queer as Folk, and credit Russell T Davies with sparking much of this heady progress. Thanks, Russell. And happy birthday, Stuart, Vince and Nathan.
Both seasons of Queer as Folk are available on Channel Four’s All4 on-demand service, together with Russell T Davies’s later gay dramas for the network, Cucumber and Banana.