I came of age with Queer As Folk – the TV show that changed everything for gay men

<span>‘For the first time, Queer As Folk also made being gay seem cool, something you’d actually <em>want </em>to be.’</span><span>Photograph: Channel 4</span>
‘For the first time, Queer As Folk also made being gay seem cool, something you’d actually want to be.’Photograph: Channel 4

When Queer As Folk was first broadcast on Channel 4, 25 years ago this week, I knew immediately that I was witnessing something momentous. The first episode famously featured graphic images of rimming. Sexy and shameless, the series went on to show drug use, pornography and endless “copping off”. This was accompanied by a jolly theme tune, an uplifting soundtrack and a lot of humour – much of it directed at straight people. It was clearly unlike anything I’d seen on TV before. What I couldn’t have realised is that it would change everything for gay men in the UK.

Queer As Folk, written by Russell T Davies, told the story of two gay best friends and their wider circle – including families and found families, boyfriends and casual sexual partners – as they romped through a series of adventures on and around Manchester’s Canal Street. As this had been the setting for my own sexual awakening just a few years earlier – like the character Nathan, as a schoolboy travelling in from the suburbs – for me it carried an extra charge.

Not that it needed any extra charge: the series was full of very explicit, very sexy gay sex. But for the first time, Queer As Folk also made being gay seem cool, something you’d actually want to be.

It was the human drama at the heart of the show – and some exceptional writing by Davies – that helped it attract a weekly audience of up to 3.5 million. Yes, Queer As Folk opened up gay life to the mainstream, but more importantly it showed we experienced the same emotions as everyone else. As the American activist Harvey Milk had argued, if every gay person came out of the closet, it would be harder for straight people to believe we were perverted freaks who represented a danger to society. Queer As Folk proved his point.

But the show didn’t shy away from exploring the downside of gay life. Each of the central characters encountered homophobia, one of their friends died of an accidental drug overdose, and some of their parents expressed disgust at their sexuality. (The only thing missing was HIV, which was all too present in society’s perception of gay men at the time and which Davies more than made up for in his later drama It’s a Sin.) I believe this made viewers support positive social changes and paved the way for legislation such as equalising the age of consent (2001) and the repeal of Section 28 (2003).

Queer As Folk also proved to cultural gatekeepers that mainstream audiences were ready to engage with gay stories – as did the US version that arrived the following year. It blew open the doors to other TV phenomena such as RuPaul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye, films that explore gay experiences such as Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight, and gay pop acts such as Will Young and Years and Years. It took the publishing industry a few years to catch up, but I don’t think I’d have a career as a gay novelist if it weren’t for Queer As Folk.

Now, in my own fiction, I try to explore what’s happened to our community since Queer As Folk was first broadcast, and the show’s impact on a generation who were brought up thinking our sexuality was a source of shame and then had to adjust to a society in which we’re valued, respected and even celebrated. But I also like to explore some of the new challenges facing our community.

In making the gay scene seem such fun, Queer As Folk unwittingly attracted parties of straight women to places like Canal Street, and some of them wanted to ogle us as if we were animals in a zoo. Other factors – such as the popularity of apps for dating or hooking up – have contributed to the closure of many venues across the UK. Yes, the gay community no longer has the same need of a place to meet in secret, a place of safety from widespread prejudice and the near-constant threat of persecution (although hate crimes are unfortunately still an issue). But as a minority population, with minority needs and interests, we’ll always need somewhere to come together, somewhere away from the mainstream. In recent years, I’ve been pleased to see the scene evolving, its focus broadening from booze, banter and sex to encompass queer reading groups, history societies and sports clubs.

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Likewise, there was a time when the Pride movement seemed like it might be losing its way. Post-Queer As Folk, many people thought the battle had been won. Pride events up and down the country lost their political edge and just became drunken street parties and mini-music festivals. More recently, there’s been a growing acknowledgment that they too need to broaden their focus. Manchester Pride, for example, now includes an arts programme and a youth festival, as well as its famous street party, parade and the candlelit vigil that honours all those who died in the Aids epidemic or as victims of hate crime.

Another issue is the division of our community into “good gays” and “bad gays”. In the past, all gay men were considered beyond respectability, but now we’ve achieved equal rights there’s sometimes a pressure to show straight people we’re “just like them”. Gay men who still want to go out partying or sleep around can be reproached for “letting the side down”. But with this we’re straying from the spirit of Queer As Folk: the show was gloriously sex-positive, while also offering us a rare representation of gay relationships and parenting. It celebrated our difference while also demanding equality.

That’s the message I’ll be holding on to for the 25th anniversary of the show’s broadcast. Because being allowed – or even expected – to live life a little more freely is one of the greatest joys of being gay.

  • Matt Cain’s latest novel, One Love, is out now