'Queer as Folk' 10 Years Later: Creators Recall Backlash From Their Own Community

Ron Cowen and Dan Lipman look back on the show's early start, backlash from the gay community (yes, really) and how eventually shows like 'Transparent' or 'I Am Cait' will be no big deal (and that's really OK).
Courtesy of Photofest

Ten years ago Friday, Showtime's groundbreaking drama Queer as Folk signed off for the final time with an episode about LGBT assimilation that is just as relevant today as it was then.

When the Showtime drama — based on the British series of the same name — premiered in 2000, the LGBT political landscape was considerably different than it is today: Gay marriage wasn't legal anywhere in the U.S. The Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell were still in place. There were sodomy laws still on the books in 17 states. While society was years away from marriage equality, TV was about to get an honest and unfiltered look at the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender culture.

The drama that nobody thought would work — including castmembers — ran for five seasons and 83 episodes (culminating Aug. 7, 2005) and helped change the cultural conversation about what it means to be gay. But now, on the 10-year anniversary of the series finale, shows like Queer as Folk are no longer considered the rarity but the norm. The drama about a group of friends telling stories about gay-bashing, coming out, HIV and AIDS as well as the struggle for equality helped pave the way for series like Glee, Looking, Modern Family and The Fosters.

Here, creators Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman look back at the show's early critics (surprisingly, members of the gay community but not right-wingers), personal safety concerns, the responsibility they felt to get political, if Queer as Folk could work today and the parallels the trans community is enjoying now with Transparent and I Am Cait.

When you first developed the show, how big of an obstacle was it in getting it set up stateside?

Lipman: Because the British show was such a success and visible, HBO wanted to do it as a three- or four-part miniseries, and Showtime — and the producers in Britain — wanted it to be a series. Showtime stepped up and said that they would do 22 episodes — sight unseen.

Considering that at the time, there wasn't anything like this on American television, were you surprised there weren't more obstacles in getting this show on the air?

Cowen: The obstacle was doing it correctly because there was already publicity that if it ever were done in the U.S., it would be a watered-down version and no one would have the courage to do it the way the British did it.

Lipman: That was in the front-page story in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section [at the time].

Cowen: The real challenge in getting it on was to be able to do it in an uncensored way without a lot of network interference, and we were lucky that Showtime was so supportive and agreed with us that we had to equal or surpass the British version.

Lipman: Jerry Offsay was [Showtime] president at the time, and he was very supportive of gay issues and also a lot of gay projects, so this was not an isolated project; it was something that fit into the network's profile.

What was the TV landscape like when you first started this show? How risky a venture would you say doing this show was at the time?

Cowen: In the year 2000, at the turn of the 21st century, it was a very different world. DOMA was still in place as was Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Something like 14 states still had sodomy laws. [Fourteen states had their sodomy laws overturned by the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas. Three other states had their laws either removed by legislation or struck down by state courts between 2000 and 2003.] It was a rather hostile environment in many ways toward gay people, so when we started the show, we were a little nervous about a reaction from the religious right. Our offices were in a building on Wilshire and LaCienega [in Los Angeles] — we were not on a studio lot. There was no guard booth — we were simply in an office building — and we felt rather vulnerable and exposed to anyone walking in the door of the office. We asked Showtime if they could put a security camera outside the door so that our assistant could see who was there before we opened the door. So there was a bit of tension, nervousness and trepidation. Fortunately, nothing [bad] ever happened.

What was the early feedback like after the show premiered?

Lipman: I remember we had major coverage in Time magazine and Newsweek and the Internet was still just beginning. People were generally surprised because they thought that there was no way that this was going to work — even our cast, many of whom said at the time that they couldn't believe that we were actually going to shoot that pilot script, that it was ever going to happen. Not only did it happen, but people thought it was pretty good. It wasn't just a sexually sensational show. It also had good characters, storylines and humor. Most surprising of all, it was a hit. 

Cowen: I think they were more than surprised; they were actually shocked. Because when you do something that has not been done before, especially in a country with a lot of puritanical issues — it's easier to show gun violence than it is sex on TV — and you do something as explicit as what we were doing, some people had trouble seeing the rest of the show. But as time went on, that initial shock wore off. But it brought up certain issues we were really not expecting. 

Such as?

Cowen: Some members of the gay community were concerned that perhaps we were showing things that did not reflect the gay community in the best possible light. But our intention was to tell the truth as we knew it and, to a certain degree, how we experienced it. That was the intention: to show the good and the questionable in a nonjudgmental way. Some people loved that, other people were alarmed by it, other people were concerned that it was not putting the best foot forward in terms of the image of gay people on television or [playing into stereotypes of] what straight people thought of gay people. That was always an issue of contention for us. Those people who were primarily concerned with, "What are straight people going to think of us?" And that was something Dan and I were not concerning ourselves with. We were concerning ourselves with being truthful.

Lipman: The network put a disclaimer on the show, at least for the first couple of seasons, saying, "This does not reflect everyone in the gay community. This is about a particular group of friends." There were people in the gay community who said, "Why didn't you do a show about two lawyers who lived in the suburbs and who were adopting children?" That's not what the network bought. The network bought Queer as Folk and they wanted Queer as Folk, meaning it was about a group of young men and women in their 20s exploring their lives. The show really was about boys becoming men. If it was about young straight guys in their 20s, that would be about sex, too. Because it was flipped over — they were gay guys — a lot of people felt uncomfortable with it.

Cowen: We thought we were going to have a problem with right-wing religious people, but the people who objected to it the most were our gay audience, which surprised us.

Did anything come from the religious right?

Lipman: Hardly a peep. We were on Larry King with the cast, and they had found somebody from the religious right who was screaming and yelling about it on air. But it all seemed kind of contrived and calculated and put together because I don't think a lot of these people watched the show. I don't think they cared about it. 

That's so interesting since it seems like you can't put on a show like The New Normal without drawing a backlash from conservative groups.

Cowen: [Showtime's] position was: You have to pay for Showtime. And that's why the religious right didn't protest it the way they did if it was on, say, NBC. That's how they explained it to us. Whether that is the real reason or not, I don't think I really know to this day.

Lipman: There wasn't any protest from subscribers, either. In many ways, Queer as Folk put Showtime on the map because it got a tremendous amount of publicity and everyone at Showtime was very thrilled with it. I don't think, at least it wasn't shared with us, that the subscribers were canceling their subscriptions.

How did you respond to backlash from your own community?

Cowen: We were disturbed by the reaction from certain people in the gay community and certain organizations that had issues with the show. But I think that's because they felt we were not portraying the gay community in a way they wanted it portrayed. They had a certain political agenda and we were not fulfilling that. But that was not our purpose.

On the other hand, there were responses to the show that we were not expecting that completely surprised us, and that's the reaction from the straight community and from women. That amazed and delighted us because that seemed really out of the blue. No one had expected that the show would have the enormous crossover audience it has and still does. … It took us several years to appreciate that our female audience was even more important than the gay audience was. It occurred to us that a lot of those women are mothers or were going to be mothers, and if they are in any way sensitized to what it is to have a gay child and what gay children have to grow up with, and if they are a little more sensitive and aware because of having watched Queer as Folk, that's really important that they pass that on to their children. Gay people are the only minority group who do not share their minority with their parents. That's something to consider because it means that gay kids are very isolated.

Lipman: Even though there was a lot of criticism from the gay community and gay publications there also was a great deal of support for the show. We did an event at the Paley Center. Afterward, there was a reception at the Beverly Hilton. In the next room, Elizabeth Taylor was having her birthday party. And she was with all of these men — mostly gay — and Sharon Gless [who played Debbie], Ron and I somehow found ourselves in the middle of this. A few of the men came over and thanked us for Queer as Folk because they said — and I'll never forget it — "We are from the flyover states in the middle of America. Where we live, there are no gay bars or there's no gay neighborhoods, and Queer as Folk was our connection to the gay community." Which meant a lot to us. You don't think about that at all: where people do live in areas [without much of a gay community] and every Sunday night, there was their connection.

Cowen: I also remember how many young gay men — particularly teenagers or in their early 20s — appreciated the show because they also felt very isolated. They didn't have a gay community. There wasn't a West Hollywood, there wasn't Christopher Street. For them, Queer as Folk was some form of connection. We got so many letters and emails saying, "It helps us because we don't feel alone." That made us feel like we were doing something worthwhile.

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The show got more political as the series aged — did you feel a social responsibility to explore the legal obstacles for the LGBT community at the time?

Cowen: When we began the show, it was a very hostile environment for gay people. It was very hostile and it grew exceedingly more hostile once Bush became president. We recall his speech in the Rose Garden at the White House saying he wanted to change the Constitution so it would say that marriage could only be between a man and a woman. There was basically prejudice and discrimination from the very top of our government. It was almost government-sanctioned discrimination and hatred toward gay people coming from the top, from the president. That was the atmosphere when we started Queer as Folk, and things got exceedingly worse as the seasons went by, and we realized that we had to address those issues. In the last two or three seasons, the show became much more political. And we were criticized again now, not because of the sex but because we were too issue-based and we were addressing all these political and social issues. We had to say, "Look, we have to do the show that we believe in and we think is important," and we did.

Lipman: We were very aware that this was a moment in time; a window had opened that was going to slam shut. It would make me very happy to say, "There are five, 10 shows on the air all about gay people with gay leads, and they're not just the secretaries or the funny neighbors." But we knew there wouldn't be for a long time. It was an opportunity we could not miss; we had to cover everything. Looking back now, we really did cover everything we wanted to.

Cowen: All the various issues we needed to address, from gay-bashing, to talking about AIDS and HIV, and safe sex, discrimination in the workplace, religious discrimination, adoption and child raising …

Lipman: And an HIV-positive/-negative relationship, which [at the time] had never been done before.

Cowen: We showed wedding ceremonies, even though they were not legal. Our characters got married out of love for each other regardless of how the government felt about it. And we felt that we had to do that, too. We had a social responsibility.

Lipman: The most important thing was that gay people always somehow wind up making and finding their own families.

Cowen: Peter Paige [who played Emmett] said, "They tuned in for the queer and stayed for the folk." Basically, it was a family drama. That's what people responded to after they got over the various issues they had with the show.

Lipman: A lot of criticism came from people who didn't watch the show. Because into the fourth or fifth season, people would say, "It's only about these young guys taking drugs and having sex." We're now five years into the show; that's not what this show is about. The people who actually watched the show knew that.

Cowen: Although I do think the most political thing we did was to sexualize gay people. Some people just saw it as, "Oh, they're just showing a lot of sex." That wasn't the intention. The point was to show it until people would say, "It's no big deal, it's sex, just like everybody else has sex." 

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Was there ever a storyline that you weren't allowed to do?

Cowen: No. The network gave us a very free hand. We'll always be grateful for that. It's so unusual to work in television and be given that freedom.

Lipman: We had a lot of freedom doing the show. It was an amazing experience. The network's motto [at the time] was "No Limits" and they stuck to that with us. Which rarely happens. If there was a story that we missed, it's because of us. We either forgot to do it or didn't think of it; it wasn't because we were ever censored by the network.

Looking back, what was your biggest regret?

Lipman: As Brian [Gale Harold] would say, "No apologies, no regrets."

Cowen: Looking back, it's just a show that reflected the time in which it was written. And it was a very important time. It was a period of transition politically and socially. … Our last season was about assimilation. Now, with same-sex marriage [being legal], people do want to assimilate into the mainstream, and that is how the world has moved on since Queer as Folk. But a lot of issues that people think no longer matter to them, we still see that those issues are still very much there, but they've been either overlooked or forgotten because of the focus on same-sex marriage.

Lipman: When the Supreme Court ruling came out, the next day in The New York Times, one of the lead stories on the front page was, "a historic day for gay rights, but a twinge of loss for gay culture," which is one of the results of assimilation. 

What kind of subjects would you want to explore now if the show were to return?

Lipman: Generational issues would be interesting. Our characters would now be in their late 30s or 40s and are at very different stages in their lives than young gay people who are in their late teens and 20s.

Cowen: If we were writing about it today, we would make more of an attempt to have more diversity than we did because I think we're more conscious of that now. I don't think we were all aware of transgender issues 15 years ago the way we are now. The whole LGBT world has changed. Gay communities aren't so gay anymore, they're very mixed now.

Lipman: There was no such thing as Grindr. We talked to one of our writer-producers who is in Toronto about this and he said people don't go to bars or clubs to meet people anymore, they're doing it on Grindr.

Cowen: At this moment in time, things are changing so quickly. When you think about it, 20 years from now, young gay people are going to say, "You mean you couldn't get married back then?" Or, "You mean you got fired because you were gay?" It'll be like we'd say to our great-great-grandmothers, "What do you mean you couldn't vote?"

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Do you think the show could be created today with the same freedom and sexually explicit content that the original had?

Lipman: Perhaps on cable, but I don't know if Queer as Folk, if it were debuting today, would be as successful. I think, in a certain way, the audience has moved on. I don't think the gay community — and this is a good thing — is as exotic to an audience as it once was. At the moment, people are more interested in transgender people and characters, like on Transparent and I Am Cait

Cowen: I agree. But transgender is more than just about transgender. It goes beyond just that. I think it applies to everyone: Whether you're straight or gay, you have the right to be who you are, not who your parents, your religion, school, government or culture tell you who you have to be because you happen to be a man or a woman and therefore you have to be a certain way. That kind of oppression is ultimately soul-crushing for so many people. There finally seems to be some recognition that you can be free to be who you are, and that's the most important thing that is going on right now.  

Do you see programming like I Am Cait and Transparent picking up where Queer as Folk left off? Are transgender-focused shows facing the same obstacles as Queer as Folk did during its early years? What advice would you have for them?

Lipman: There's always that juggernaut show, and that's what Transparent is. There may be transgender characters in shows, but I don't think there's going to be a spate of transgender shows because that show has really become symbolic/iconic of that movement. When we were doing Queer as Folk, if somebody came to us and said, "Do you think there's going to be a popular, award-winning series about a transgender person?" I would've said, "No, of course not." But yet it has [happened], so who knows what the next thing is? There are so many networks and so much content on TV that it's really hard to know what the next thing will be, but I think people will get used to Caitlyn Jenner and Transparent and that will be no big deal also.

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As in, "We're all the same" and "You're just like us."

Lipman: It was the same with Queer as Folk. People will cease to be horrified, confused or baffled. People are getting it. I remember there was a poll about same-sex marriage during Queer as Folk and how 10 percent of the population thought there should be same-sex marriage. Now it's something like 60 percent. That happened much faster than anyone thought. Who would have imagined we would live to see same-sex marriage or the Supreme Court make a decision like that or the White House lit up with rainbow colors? We never thought that would ever happen. I think the same thing will happen with transgender issues — the majority will quickly accept it and move on. People found out that the comet didn't hit the Earth because there was same-sex marriage; there are no thunderbolts, God didn't punish us. There are so many other horrible issues in this world — terrorism, shootings, drug addiction — that require attention. This isn't something that [negatively] affects people, and everyone should be able to live their own lives and be able to be who they want to be.

Queer as Folk is currently reairing on Showtime with episodes also available on Netflix.

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