I was glad that I binged the American Queer As Folk instead of another round of Friends back in March 2020. Adapted from Russell T Davies’ original in 1999, the show was the first hour-long drama to feature homosexual men and women in the history of American television, as well as the first to include detailed depiction of sex between men. To many’s surprise, it quickly hit first place on the network Showtime’s roster after its initial release, despite the prediction that the viewship would primarily consist of gay and lesbian audiences.
I, for one, was grateful for the large cast in the show, back when I was cooped up at home and socialising on a screen. I remember how I motivated myself at the start of another online day with two episodes (which in hindsight must have been more, since I got through five seasons within two months), and feeling that I, too, was having breakfast at Liberty Diner in Pittsburgh, beginning a new day with last night’s gossips at the queer nightclub Babylon. In fact, I vividly remember several of my lockdown clubbing dreams all taking place in various shapes at Babylon, a place full of glam and glitter, and too good to exist in last year’s reality.
Babylon is where you see the biggest crowd in the show. It appears at least once in each episode, where the group of four friends, Michael, Brian, Ted, and Emmett, would meet up after a long day at work and, for some of them, a day of hiding their sexualities and therefore getting mistaken for being straight. Michael, for example, goes so far as to date a female colleague in pretence, just so his long-awaited promotion at the supermarket would not be compromised. Ted is an under-appreciated accountant, chronically taken for granted at work; at night, his confidence is repeatedly knocked on the dance floor, where young meat is favoured over middle-aged men like him. Brian, good-looking and successful at his job, has to work extra hard to earn respect as an openly gay man. Babylon for the queers in Pittsburgh is a literal shelter: outside on the street, they’re disregarded, insulted, beaten and murdered; inside there’s only them among themselves, huddled together in darkness with some that desire them, and the others that they desire. Sex in the back room is a collective protest. Looking for sex is the extertion of a freedom that’s otherwise hindered in the outside world. And the aggregation of movements and voices exudes a shared power that refuses to be denied.
But the sense of community in Queer As Folk, despite the abounding explicit sex scenes, is not shown through unabashed promiscuity. A sentiment so widely acknowledged among queer folks living on Liberty Avenue, it can only be described as family value. The group of central characters consisting of five gay men and a lesbian couple, Lindsay and Melanie, form a family that literally shares blood, as the two women bear children biologically fathered by their gay friends. But in more abstract – and important – ways, their bond is strengthened by a duty they take upon themselves to protect their own. In the course of five seasons, we see Justin evolve from a homeless teenager banished by his family to an ambitious artist, offered a roof by queer friends and allies ranging from his high school best friend to his first love. We also see Hunter, an HIV positive minor, settle in his new adoptive family and a second life away from teen prostitution. Admittedly, these personal journeys might be less frequently seen in real life than on TV. Yet the message carried in this little soap opera bubble is nonetheless heartening: that the queer community is supportive and inclusive, and that for the very vulnerable, it’s often more loving and nourishing than the institutions and relatives that have failed to accept them.
It reminded me of my own experience with fellow queer folks, from my first Pride in Munich, to Haute Mess at Plush in Oxford, to the ‘Queers Helping Queers’ Facebook group on my year abroad in Berlin – and how they’ve made me feel like I belong, wherever in the world or whichever stage I’m at in life. What also came to mind were the moments of seeing rainbow flags flying out of anonymous windows, or sitting across a stranger in Pride-print clothes, and feeling an instant strike of kinship. Of knowing that, in sharing a self discovery different from our peers but relatable to us each, what makes us similar often catalyses kindness. In the show, people living on Liberty Avenue are so tightly knit, they’re reluctant to leave their turf for bigger houses. As overly sentimental as their decision might seem, I find it understandable: in this community, the expected kinship rarely fails to deliver.
Queer As Folk as a TV production is far from perfect, not the least because of its aggressively Caucasian cast. Yet as the first queer equivalent of Friends, binging it brought comfort at a time when all there was in the world was uncertainty, rising discrimination, and hatred. It was an anchoring feeling, realising that, albeit with fictional characters and events, the pride elicited by the show is genuine, that being queer means having a community that will always have your back.