‘Queer as Folk’ Rewatch: Queer Mythology, Queer Spaces and Bathroom Stall Hookups

Queer as Folk premiered almost two decades ago on Showtime. Its depiction of gay life among a group of Pittsburgh friends is intriguing, problematic, heartwarming, cringe-inducing and often corny. But the stories it wants to tell often have a lot to say about gay life in 2018. As such, INTO is embarking on a rewatch of the entire series, all five seasons and 83 episodes. In this week’s “Rewatch,” staff writer Mathew Rodriguez revisits episodes one through three of Season One. You are invited to follow along on Netflix, where all five seasons are currently streaming.

It’s probably appropriate that the very first episodes of Queer as Folk are so concerned with the mythology of gayness, as Queer as Folk feels like a part of so many queer men’s mythologies. Like the show itself, my own mythology begins with the opening credits. Sure, it’s just men bumping and grinding on each other to nondescript club music, but it’s also loud — louder than most of the program. The theme music was my signal to turn the volume on my TV all the way down. I’d watch the show almost silently, my face only a foot or so from the screen. And, of course, there were the two men dancing, one man’s dick butting up against another one’s butt cheeks.

via GIPHY

There are a lot of shows I had to watch in secret, but none of them felt as naughty as Queer as Folk. I’d watch shows like Real Sex on HBO, aware that if I were caught, my mom would disapprove. But I knew that watching Queer as Folk would get both disapproval and questions, so I watched it as silently as possible, remote in hand, ready to channel surf if my mom happened to get up to use the bathroom. At that moment, my room had become a queer space and I was hypersensitive to the heterosexuality surrounding it.

Folk chooses to begin its narrative in a queer space: Babylon, a Pittsburgh club that the boys frequent. It’s there we meet three of the series’ protagonists and we get our first view of life inside a queer space: it sucks. The show depicts three of the characters — nerdy Michael, anxious Ted and fabulous Emmett — as uneasy inside the space, which is something I never quite picked up on while watching when I was younger. I, of course, thought that going to a gay bar would be great — being around other people, meeting a guy. Of course, the sex in the bar depicted in the show was equal parts titillating and frightening, but I wanted it.

Now, watching the show as an adult, I can see that it depicts queer spaces as fraught with tension — it’s where our insecurities bubble up, but also where opportunities present themselves. While Ted, Emmett and Michael are all handsome, none of them reach the same levels of pretty privilege as Brian, the hypersexual man for whom the club is akin to a hunting ground. Michael thinks he’s too nerdy, Ted thinks he’s not hot enough. And though Emmett is proud of his femme nature, he’s also aware that femininity is not always prized among his fellow gay men.

And then there’s Justin, the 17-year-old twink who is there cruising for dick and to find himself. When I used to watch the show, I felt like it wanted me to identify with Justin, because I too found myself scared and excited by the prospect of one day going to my first gay bar. (There was one rumored gay bar in my town. When you walked by, it always looked like it was closed. Black curtains blocked sunlight from the inside and I never saw anyone enter or leave.) But, being that I was a fat brown teenager who cocooned into a fat brown adult, I never fully saw myself in Justin. For one thing, I never thought of myself as someone who could catch a Brian.

Brian Kinney is by all accounts the hero of the series and he gets an almost theatrical entrance. Before we get to see him, the characters all talk about him and how hooking up at Babylon is a cakewalk for him. He’s what we’re taught to desire: white, generically handsome. That Justin desires him is no mystery. So often, we desire hot guys to validate our queerness as a kind of co-signing.

The age gap between the two is even more dramatic than the one presented in Call Me By Your Name. While Elio was 17 and Oliver was 24, Justin is 17 and Brian is 29, just on the cusp of being gay-and-30, its own stigma in a youth-obsessed culture. In that sense, the two enter into an almost symbiotic relationship. Brian offers Justin the experience and adjacency to coolness he so craves; to Brian, Justin makes him feel young, a prized thing in queer culture.

In Justin and Brian’s first sexual encounter, the show weaves together a bevy of queer tropes. Justin lies about his sexual experience to seem more grown-up. Justin wants the moment to be perfect, but it goes awry when Brian has to go to the hospital for the birth of his son with Lindsay, one half of the show’s resident lesbian couple. Justin has an image of what his first time will look like, and the show tears it asunder. He cums on Brian’s sheets; Brian gets mad. He has to go to the hospital and help name a baby. When he finally gets back to Brian’s house, he and Brian have an ecstasy-fueled fuckfest that leads Brian to be upset that he stayed the night. The show expertly plays with the tension between Justin’s desire to be the hookup that stays and Brian’s desire to have Justin hoof it home.

But Folk is also concerned with queerness in and out of queer spaces and the politics of code switching in heterosexual circumstances. Much of the first episode centers around Babylon and Brian’s apartment while the second episode zeroes in on queerness in straight-slash-neutral spaces. Ted must hide his webcam-jerking page from his boss. After an all night cum-a-thon with Brian, Justin goes back to high school where his sexuality makes him the subject of ridicule. And while Michael spends nights at Babylon trying to get laid, he presents as straight to coworkers and even allows an older coworker to joke about a gay couple walking through the store he manages by making a “limp wrist” movement. He even allows her to try to set him up with a newly-single female coworker.

The only one who the show presents as finding balance between their queer and work personae is Brian. As much as the show admits that he is an oversexed, quasi-sociopathic monster, it also refuses to leave his list of qualities so short. Rather, it applauds his unique talent to be 100% Brian at all times. An advertising executive who consistently gays up his marketing pitches, Brian is able to seduce a married man simply by cruising him in a professional setting. Brian’s queerness is just too strong to crush. While Michael withers among his coworkers, Brian is strong enough to turn any space queer.

Speaking of bathroom stalls, Michael and Brian share a kiss and fondle in a bathroom stall at Babylon one night. The show leaves no sexual area gray. While the friends confess they shouldn’t sleep with each other, Michael and Brian do have one sexual memory: they came out to each other when they jerked off to Patrick Swayze together. At one point, the show toys with the idea of Michael and Brian turning from best friends into lovers. That itself is a long-standing part of queer mythology: the idea that one day, your best friend will turn to you, tell you he loves you and cease all the pain of dating. But Brian pushes the brakes on that, in an early instance of the series’ habit of playing with the idea of gay fantasy vs. gay reality.

And finally, we have to talk about the place where the show is most harsh: its treatment of women. Now, it’s a bit *too* easy to point out that most of the men on the show, especially Brian, are misogynistic pieces of shit. In a lot of ways, Brian’s misogyny is part of his monstrous side. Casual misogyny among queer men is an all-too-common problem, but the show makes Brian’s misogyny far too casual. It doesn’t seem to condemn it to the level that it should. No one checks him on the way he speaks about queer women. Nowhere is that tension more evident than in Brian’s relationship with Melanie, Lindsay’s partner. (I won’t go into it too much here, but there are still 80 episodes left to go to zero in on that issue, because it deserves its own space.) 

At the same time, Brian is the only male character on the show (so far) who is actively trying to queer a family structure that includes both queer men and queer women. Though he was fucking Justin while Lindsay was giving birth to his biological son, Gus, Brian is fiercely protective of his son, even to the point of stopping his religious circumcision ceremony, protesting against anyone attempting to change his body while he’s still such a young baby.

At its core, mythology explains. Why do we have the four seasons? Well, because of the love between Hades and Persephone. Coral exists because Medusa’s head is rolling around the sea turning everything to stone. Similarly, Queer as Folk is obsessed with queer mythologies and undertakes the hefty task of explaining the mechanics of queer spaces by diving into a cast of queer individuals. As with many shows, it often succeeds and sometimes it fails. But, just as I learned as a baby gay who turned the show down to the lowest decibels for fear of being found out, the show has a lot to say if you listen carefully…

Damon Dash Runs Up on Lee Daniels at a Diana Ross Concert Asking for Money He’s Owed

Stunt queen Damon Dash is suing Lee Daniels for money he’s owed to help Daniels, who is gay, make his first film. But Dash was not content to just serve papers. Dash confronted Daniels at a Diana Ross concert and then posted the video on Instagram, tagging People Magazine, Oprah, Halle Berry and TMZ.

I straight up loaned this dude Lee Daniels @theoriginalbigdaddy 2 million to pay for his dream of being a director…it was the money I was using to fund my movies and stay Indy…he promised I get my money back in months…then he makes precious and goes missing so he doesn’t have to pay me…then then Butler…empire…same shit Why does this dude feel like he doesn’t have to pay me?…why do I have to look crazy to get my money back…or go to court…ask @theoriginalbigdaddy why he doesn’t feel like he has to pay me even though he has it…what type of shit is this.. #paywhatyouowe I’m going to put this whole thing on my ig tv in a few… true definition of a culture vulture @culturevultures_book …eats off the culture but Robs the culture at the same time… see you back in court Lee your gonna pay me what you owe…please everyone ask him way he doesn’t think he has to pay me… @tmz_tv @vanlathan @theshaderoom @deadline @worldstar @voguemagazine @people @pagesix @oprah @halleberry

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“I straight up loaned this dude Lee Daniels @theoriginalbigdaddy 2 million to pay for his dream of being a director,” Dash wrote. “It was the money I was using to fund my movies and stay Indy…he promised I get my money back in months…then he makes precious and goes missing so he doesn’t have to pay me…then then Butler…empire…same shit Why does this dude feel like he doesn’t have to pay me?”

According to TMZ, Dash is suing for $5 million. Dash previously sued Daniels for $2 million for an alleged loan he never got back.

Of course, Dash’s criticisms of Daniels come after years of Oscar winner Mo’Nique criticizing Daniels for blackballing her from Hollywood after winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her performance in Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.

Mo’Nique went on both The View and The Breakfast Club earlier this year to talk about her beef with Netflix, though she also did talk about her ongoing clash with Daniels, who she says made sure she lost out on some coin after she refused to work for free to promote Precious.

Several people online have pointed out the hypocrisy of listening to Dash while ignoring Mo’Nique.

Maybe Mo’Nique just needed to make her point at a Diana Ross concert … or maybe we just don’t listen to black women.

The Vixen Speaks On Season 10 Reunion and How RuPaul and ‘Drag Race’ Fail Black Queens

The Vixen came to the season 10 reunion ready to talk about her time on the show. The Chicago queen is one of the most talked-about queens to ever sashay into the workroom, forcing the fandom to confront its racism and talking about what it means to be a Black queer person in America without apologies.  

But The Vixen’s time on the floor during the reunion was cut short after a back-and-forth with RuPaul that led to her exiting the stage. In an exclusive interview with INTO, The Vixen spoke about what was going through her mind as she walked out, why she wouldn’t let the show make her the one to blame and what it means to hold the door open for the next generation.

Going into the reunion, did you think that RuPaul would bring up the confrontation between you and Eureka?

Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, in interviews leading up to it and the week we were in LA for all the filmings, it’s a question that me and Eureka both still get asked about. So I knew that would be something that the show would want to talk about because me and Eureka were unresolved when I was eliminated, so I knew it would come up.

Ru specifically brought up “poking the bear” during the reunion and you recently talked on social media about wanting to move past that catchphrase. What do you think about her and others still using it?

Well, I think typically when people use it, they’re trying to follow the narrative that I’m this uncontrollable angry person and when we first started saying it on the show it was more of a …  the conversation between me and Monique was like, “If you take me to that place, then that’s what happened,” and now it’s like assumed that I’m always at this angry level. I literally have to be provoked into that. It’s not a place I enjoy going to.

“It felt like I was talking to a Reddit troll.”

At one point, with the drama between Aquaria and Miz Cracker, RuPaul asks you if you were “stirring the pot” to throw them off their game. Do you feel like Ru read a lot of negative intention into everything you did?

Yeah, it felt like I was talking to a Reddit troll. It was like, with her being a person in the public eye, you think that she would understand that I had more layers than that. It just seemed very vapid and I think even on the show I did a good job of showing that I was a person with intention and that there was more to me than trying to get under two girls’ skin for some type of reason. It was an insult to my character. It was very out of touch with who I am.

You said during the reunion that, before you saw the fight playback on TV, you really beat yourself up over it for months, because you thought you were a monster. What were you beating yourself up about?

You know, everything had gone down and I left the show feeling very misunderstood. I didn’t feel like I was going to be accepted or that anyone … I felt like once everything came out, I would be seen as this one-sided evil character and that I had done something atrocious. Even with the fight with Aquaria — when, the day after Untucked with the whole “leave me alone” conversation, the next day when we talked to producers again and did our boy interviews, no one gave me any indication that I had done something good. It was like they wanted to steer away from the conversation. It was more like, “Do you really think she tried to create a narrative?” I was surprised it even aired and that the audience accepted it the way that it did. It felt like the show thought that I was petty for making it about race.

The Vixen/Adam Ouahmane

You were surprised that the show would air a conversation that called itself out?

I don’t think they did it with good intention. I think they did it to show me in a bad light. But then with Monet, I think having Monet’s part air, too, I think only added validation and then the validation from the All Stars and former contestants that came out online and had my back, I think that really changed the story. But I don’t think the show expected that to be a good day for me.

During the reunion, you spoke about the way Eureka came up to you after the fight and wanted to produce a kind of “ending” for the cameras. Were you hyper aware at that point, especially after you talked about how black queens come off on TV, that another conversation with Eureka might play into her hand and make you look bad?

Yeah, that’s why later in the next episode, I didn’t want to give her a hug or any physical confirmation, because I was like, “I know you’re trying to put a bow on this” and I’m not going to make you feel like it’s OK because it’s not. I don’t want the audience to think that it was magically solved.

I have to ask, because I don’t think non QPOC can understand: Is it mentally tiring to always think about how you’re going to come off on TV?

On TV?! In the world! I was recently in London for a gig and I went alone because it’s expensive to go and I had a panic attack because it was the first time traveling so far away and not having anyone to kind of be an ally in situations for me. Because of the show, people are looking for a story like, “I worked with The Vixen and this happened…” I was very stressed out about not having anyone there to speak on my behalf. Even going out as a tourist, I was very afraid to be in public without someone to back me up, knowing I was so far from home in that I didn’t have a safety net, someone who could speak up for me.

Because you see it all the time on the news that person of color was asserting themselves in a conversation and they end up dead. So I had a big realization that I carry that with me more than I knew.

What do you think about RuPaul telling you several times that you have a choice to be silent?

I think that sends a horrible message to people of color who want to be on the show, people of color who watch the show, that their only option is to be silent or to be persecuted. That’s exactly what I was talking about in London: you feel like you have no voice in this world. Why would anyone want to put that message out?

Tell me what you were thinking the moment you decided to remove yourself from the reunion.

So, I think, any time I had an answer for a question, it would be like, “But you said you were here to fight!” And it felt like Ru was trying to redirect the story to make sure I was at fault. And so I kind of just realized that there was no way for me — that my side was not going to be told that day. And so I was like, “OK.” It would’ve been one thing if the girls were coming at me in that way. Technically, Ru is there to be a moderator and it felt like I was having a fight with her.

I don’t think any of us ever go on the show expecting to have a battle with RuPaul. So, that wasn’t why I was there. I knew that the reason I even bothered to do the show — a day before we shot the finale and two days before the reunion, I found out that my mother was in the hospital with a tube up her nose and so I called my mom and I said, “Do you want me to come home?” And she said, “No, if you don’t stay for the reunion, they’ll say you’re being petty,” so I was taking time away from family and a serious situation to be there and the reason I was there was being completely overlooked. So that was always in the background of my mind and I’m here because I have to be but I really want to be with my mom at that moment.

So, once I realized that I wasn’t going to get that opportunity to thank the fans or talk about all the amazing stuff that happened since the show … Right now I’m on two “most influential” lists, I’ve like been honored and covered by all these publications and done some really great things that other Ru girls never got to do before because of what I did on the show. To be there at the reunion, it almost felt like they wanted me to apologize for these things that have given me a better life and made a difference in viewers’ lives. It’s like, “This is not what I signed up for and this is not going to get better,” so that’s why I left.

“Technically, Ru is there to be a moderator and it felt like I was having a fight with her.”

 

After you left, RuPaul invited the queens to comment on your exit and your attitude. Do you think it was fair for her to open up the floor like that while you weren’t in the room?

No, because I think the interaction was between me and her, so it really was for her. That’s what gets me about this whole thing. I wasn’t in the moment having a fight with Eureka. Me and Aquaria are so great. All of this has been resolved and I think instead of revisiting it and talking about it objectively, there was this intention of pointing the blame. I don’t know, a lot of times we get asked, “What have you learned since the show?” and I didn’t go on the show to learn about myself; I came to show the world about myself. I came as a fully realized person. It was just this game of trying to make me be ashamed of what I had done. Even after I left the room, there’s this thought that … I think Eureka understands me. Aquaria gets me and she’s been very supportive. To expect the girls to chime in in a way. I can imagine they’re terrified because they don’t want to say anything that would agitate her or hurt me, so.

After you left, RuPaul argued with Asia, who was defending you, saying you had left the room as a way to de-escalate the situation, and Ru said, “At one point you have to say ‘There is nothing else you can do’ and ‘you gotta let people go”‘ and that you, The Vixen, have to be willing to me meet people halfway. What do you think about her assessment?

Well, that’s what kills me about television. Literally this thing has just played out in the room and she’s talking about it as if facts weren’t facts. I wasn’t the problem in the room. The room was the problem. I didn’t leave the room because I was the problem. I left the room because I was the target. I think that’s really shady to make it out like I’m this lost soul who needs help. I have literally — They put the words in my mouth! My Cher character during the Rusical said, “No regrets, dammit!” They wrote that for me to say. It baffles me that they want me to be ashamed of … and what kills me is that it’s been preached to us since day one that we have to own our story. “Don’t be afraid to be who you are in front of the camera. If you own up to it, you’ll be fine!”  I’ve owned up to my personality and I haven’t apologized for it.

But because it has started this conversation on real issues, which they glossed over — they skipped over the most important conversation of the series! I think so much of the conversation that we’ve started has been about the problems of the fandom and I think this reunion shows the problems on the show. I think when [the issue] first came out, the show was fine with me pointing fingers at the fandom, but I think this reunion shows that the show has some growing to do and has to take responsibility for what comes out of it.

I also feel like what Ru said, that’s something a lot of QPOC youth hear, too. Like, “I can’t help you if you don’t act right” — it’s very much in the spirit of respectability politics.

Yeah, even like the reason I look up to RuPaul or ever looked up to RuPaul, is — there’s an awards show she was on years ago when she was presenting with some actor named Uncle Miltie [Milton Berle]. I remember she was there in full drag presenting with this older actor and I guess the shtick he was trying to present was this tongue in cheek, “It’s a man in a dress” [thing] and Ru was not having it and she was very Vixen in the moment. She spoke up and she called him out on it and she raised hell and it was very inspiring to see someone say, “You’re not going to make a mockery out of me.” Here we are years later and that’s the reason I took the journey of the show and it’s being done to me by the person who inspired me in the first place.

Asia O’Hara becomes very emotional when you leave the room and says that, especially during Pride season, it’s so unfortunate that the queens let someone leave the room without trying to help her. Do you think a queen coming to you would’ve helped in the moment?

I think, and this is how I explained to the girls later, if you saw a black kid on the street being stopped by the police and a cop pulls a gun on him, there’s nothing the kid can do. He can’t make one move: he can’t reach for a cellphone or put his hands in the air. That’s how I felt in the moment. The only way I was going to be saved was for someone else to step in. One false move and I was going to take the bullet. That’s why I left. And so I think it is really sad for Ru to say that I couldn’t be saved. One, I don’t need to be saved. I wasn’t an issue. I don’t think I needed help. Apparently, based on how things went, the reunion wasn’t designed to help me. They weren’t interested in talking about the good I’d done or interested in addressing issues or celebrating what my journey has really been. I think they wanted to teach me a lesson about speaking up and they failed really horribly.

Well, it’s telling that Ru chose to begin the segment by saying that she was going to talk about your confrontational moments and now how you started a conversation about racism on a national level.

The fact that that was the first thing they wanted to talk to me about. Not even like, typically you get a “How you been?” and you look at Vanjie’s segment, it was more like, “How has your life changed since it started?” My segment started from the gate like “Vixen, why are you such a bitch?!”

“Here we are years later and that’s the reason I took the journey of the show and it’s being done to me by the person who inspired me in the first place.” 

Did any of the queens reach out after the reunion?

Yeah, so when I went up to my room after, when I walked off stage, I walked directly to my hotel room. A production assistant followed me, I gave her the microphone that was still on me. I got out of drag the fastest I ever had. A producer came up to try to get me to come back down and by that time I was already in jeans and a t-shirt. That conversation didn’t go well. And a few of the girls, Asia and Miz Cracker especially, had stepped out, they had taken a break and they talked to me and wanted me to know they loved me. The following night I talked to most of the girls and they just wanted me to know that I was supported.

Later, RuPaul says that you and she came from the same place, but she does distance herself from you and says, “I fucking learn how to act around people and I deal with shit,” in reference to you walking away. What’s your take on that?

That’s the problem, you know what I mean? And I understand that to get to the level Ru has gotten to you have to play the game and you have to deal with shit, but you would at least think that she’s gotten to this point and I’m glad she acknowledges we’re cut from the same cloth, because I felt like I wasn’t recognized on the show, like we spoke a different language.

But I think that’s exactly the reason that she should’ve been more of an ally, because we are cut from the same cloth. The point is to make it better for the next generation, not become part of the problem and make it harder for the next one. I didn’t make Black Girl Magic so Black girls have a harder time getting gigs. You should open the door even wider fo the next generation.

But she’s just become a part of the system.

Hero Image Credit: The Vixen/ Adam Ouahmane