Today marks the 20th anniversary of Queer as Folk‘s premiere on Channel 4.
If you’re looking for some inspiring tale about how the show helped me to come out, you’ll be disappointed. In 1999 my family only had one TV and it would have been safely tuned to ITV, so I never saw any of Queer as Folk at the time.
I was certainly aware of the controversy, with the usual suspects in the Daily Mail and Express clutching their pearls over the series. I do remember a fellow passenger on my school bus making his displeasure clear at the giant billboard advertising the series every time we drove past it.
The BBC has a nice article about the anniversary, making the point that it was the first time gay mens’ lives had been depicted so frankly on screen. This was two years after Ellen announced she was gay to an entire airport, and EastEnders and Brookside had featured lesbian and gay characters too, but you rarely saw them indulge in anything more erotic than peck on the cheek. Queer as Folk broke many taboos, and for curious straight viewers who tuned in, it was probably their first exposure to things gay men enjoy, like Doctor Who and rimming.
A few years later BBC Choice (remember them?) showed the US version, so this was the one I saw first. By this time I did have a TV in my room, but I was still deeply closeted, so it was with the sound turned way down and with one hand on the remote at all times, in case mum or dad entered without knocking with a cup of tea. And it was only in 2009, when E4 repeated the series for the 10th anniversary, that I actually saw the original UK version in full.
Things have moved on in the last two decades. We have LGBT politicians and LGBT sports stars, and taboos around the subject are disappearing – when Tom Daley came out in 2013, it was freely discussed on Children’s BBC. But it still feels unusual and daring to have LGBT characters front and centre on a TV show, rather than in a supporting role. And while you will find lots of shows willing to drop in the odd sly reference to Grindr, depictions of gay sex on screen are still very rare, at least in mainstream film and TV.
QaF remains a seminal series, well worth watching if you’ve never seen it. I can even forgive it for introducing the world to Antony Cotton.
If you’re in the UK, every episode of Queer as Folk is available on All4.