Debate: Queer As Folk has shocked TV audiences with its explicit portrayal of gay men. Great, says James Sherwood, finally there's a TV show telling it like it is. Not so, says Chas Newkey-Burden, QAF is a dangerous parody of gay life
A C Grayling
A. C. Grayling is an English philosopher and founder of independent undergraduate college, New College of the Humanities. He is the author of several books including The Refutation of Scepticism (1985), The Meaning of Things (2001) and The Good Book (2011).
Sunday 28 February 1999
It's ironic that, despite the saturation of gay men in broadcasting and drama, we still make such a mess of portraying our lives on the small screen. Having only just recovered from the appallingly camp Tom in BBC2's Gimme Gimme Gimme, we are asked to digest the ridiculous and dangerous stereotypes of Channel Four's Queer As Folk.
The recent television dramatisations of the Stephen Lawrence case have shown how accurate and responsible broadcasting can educate the public. While I accept the main intention of Queer As Folk is to entertain rather than educate, it is little wonder gay men face such ignorance while these sorts of programmes tap into tired stereotypes for cheap thrills (the bedroom scene between Stuart and Nathan got most tongues wagging on and off the screen.)
The morality of a sexual liaison between a 15-year-old boy and a 29-year- old man is not the question. What is worth asking is whether Baroness Young and her fellow homophobes in the House of Lords could have been handed a better gift a mere fortnight before they are asked to lower the age of consent for gay men to 16.
The fantasy continues when Stuart drops Nathan off at school for some more conventional education. Facing homophobic bating from the gathering throng, Stuart sees it all off with a witty one-liner before triumphantly driving off. While it would be nice if such bigotry really could be disarmed by wisecracks, the bitter experience of gay teenagers is that brutal playground homophobia, often resulting in teenage suicide, is not so easily discouraged.
The action may take place in Manchester's gay village but Queer As Folk is surely set in the fertile imagination of someone who has swallowed a few too many "Free, Gay and Happy" pills. In this wonderful world, gaggles of glamorous gay men jump from party to party and bed to bed, barely stopping long enough to check their mascara and bulging bank balances. The packed bars of Soho and Canal Street may suggest otherwise but many gay men have moved beyond the ghetto and its enforced "gay straitjacket" lifestyle. For us, the characters in Queer As Folk are little more than a comical reminder of the superficial lifestyle we left behind years ago. It makes you yearn for the 1980s and Brookside's Gay Gordon or Cuddly Colin of EastEnders, characters who, for all their exaggerated earnestness, at least had a role in the shows which went beyond their homosexuality.
To argue such a point is to be accused of self-loathing: it's nothing of the sort. Portraying gay men on television is always going to be problematic because, in our need to be different, most gay men would prefer to be depicted as a braindead paedophile like Stuart, than an intelligent, charming, responsible man like Cuddly Colin. People talk of the need for gay role models on television, and there were precious few around when I was a teenager. But I would have been far happier if the series had left out Stuart - a lonely, shallow queen chasing young boys around.
Queer As Folk is the first "no apologies, no punches pulled" gay drama on British TV. And guess what? Cute gay men do have sex after all. I was beginning to wonder. Were TV your only contact with homosexuality, you'd be forgiven for thinking gay boys camp it up rather than get it up, and share a flat with Kathy Burke. Queer As Folk's hero Stuart works in PR, lives in a piss-elegant loft and cruises Manchester's gay village like the vampire Lestat.
I know Stuart. Hell, I used to date guys like Stuart. As stereotypes go, he is more credible than the gallery of comedy queers on TV with hands like wet spaghetti and zero sex appeal. The fact that Stuart is no angel is a plus. He's a horny little devil with the morals of an alley cat and the face of an angel.
Stuart's "find 'em, f--- 'em and forget 'em" attitude isn't the cosy, queeny acceptable face of homosexuality we've come to expect from TV.
Good. It seems homosexuality is fine on mainstream TV if the gay man is either sexually frustrated (Gimme Gimme Gimme) or suicidal and butt- ugly (EastEnders). Queer As Folk paints an accurate, if uncompromising, sketch of the gay scene. There will always be non-scene gay men who will twitter over their camomile tea about being misrepresented. Of course, every gay man isn't like the whore of Babylon on E. But after watching Stuart's seduction technique on 15-year-old Nathan, all I can say is chance would be a fine thing.
The moral outrage brigade will always play the "Not in front of the children" card when two gay men get into bed together. It's not that they actually object to two men shagging each other senseless behind closed doors (like hell they don't). No, it's the fact that impressionable young boys, confused about their sexuality, will take one look at Queer As Folk and - hormones raging - run down Old Compton Street shouting, "Come and get me".
Personally, at 15 I was desperate for a man like Stuart to "corrupt" me. Girlfriends assure me this isn't just a gay thing. At that age, we're all gagging for it.
The Daily Mail's Lynda Lee-Potter went so far as to call for a return to censorship after watching the first episode of Queer As Folk. Well, switch it off, dear. The rabid hysteria which two men making out provokes is not unleashed when a man and a woman have sex (all too often in my opinion) on screen. If gay sex turns your stomach over (pardon the pun) then swap channels.
And what about all those corruptible adolescents susceptible to "gay propaganda" like Queer As Folk? If you weigh-up hetero versus homosexual sex on TV, I think you'll find the heteros have the advantage when it comes to getting the message across. I don't think something as fundamental as sexuality is influenced by television drama. Biology has come up with a much more effective litmus test. You either get an erection watching Stuart and Nathan or you don't.
I remember the excitement as a teenager of watching the Film on Four adaptation of EM Forster's Maurice on my black and white TV in my bedroom at midnight. I can honestly say I knew well before I got an eyeful of Rupert Graves' naked bum that I was gay. But I can't even begin to tell you how thrilling it was to see a positive gay relationship portrayed on TV.
Almost as thrilling as getting a peek at Rupert's bare butt.
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