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It’s been almost 10 years since Showtime’s Queer as Folk ended its five-season run and, while much in the LGBT political landscape has changed since then, the ground-breaking drama still remains as relevant as ever as the fight for equality marches on.
The series, created by producing and life partners Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, will celebrate its 10-year anniversary Friday at the ATX Festival with a reunion moderated by The Hollywood Reporter. Ahead of the session, Cowen and Lipman spoke with THR and looked back at the show’s early struggles — none of the major agencies would submit talent for the show — as well as the cultural impact of the show that offered an honest and intimate look at the lives of a group of gay men. The duo also share their idea for a potential reboot, and break down how the show set the stage for more contemporary series like Glee and Modern Family.
Looking back, what kind of early obstacles did you face?
Cowen: The biggest obstacle in putting the show together at the beginning was casting and staffing the writers’ room. It was very difficult for our casting director, Linda Lowy (Scandal, Friday Night Lights), to get the major agencies to submit talent. There wasn’t a single major agency that submitted any talent for the show.
Lipman: They were really afraid of this. Usually when you go to a casting session, you’ll see 50 people and of those, there will be one or two “NAs” who were not available. Linda would call and say we have 25 people coming in and we’d get there and only have four. You’d look at the casting list and it said NA up and down. It was very discouraging.
Cowen: Actors that we knew actually told us that their agents told them not to go up for Queer as Folk. [And] the reason was obvious: it was because of the content of the show, it being a show about gay people. I guess people were concerned that if they were on the show, it would stigmatize them.
Lipman: We had to go to the network to get approval with the cast, and usually you have two people for each role — or more — and you never go in with one. The character of Brian is such a linchpin to the show; if we didn’t have Brian, we didn’t have a show. And we didn’t have Gale [Harold, who starred as Brian] until the day before. We had to go to the network at 7 a.m. … and the night before we had no Brian. Linda called us at 5 p.m. the night before and said, “He’s here, come over right now.” And there was Gale. Gale is very charismatic and enigmatic and read the scene. We both wondered, “Is he really fabulous or are we desperate?” And he was really fabulous. But lot of people didn’t show up.
Who didn’t show up?
Lipman: There was one actor, I don’t remember his name, who was a candidate to play Brian before we met Gale, who said he would do it for one season and then leave. The gamble was: would the show succeed and have a second season? Maybe this actor would like it and extend, but Ron and I decided that it was too much of a gamble.
Do you remember who that was?
Cowen: I don’t remember. Linda was calling talent agencies she’d never heard of [to cast the show]. We found Randy [Harrison, who played Justin] in a lucky way: there was a talent agent in New York who would submit people on tape to Linda, who was in L.A. The casting director in New York would send her people she thought we should see, and there was no one who was right for the part. As we were getting more desperate, one of us asked her if we could see the tapes she didn’t send and maybe there was somebody there. And there was Randy.
Lipman: I remember at the beginning, Michelle [Clunie, who played Melanie], Peter [Paige, Emmett], Scott [Lowell, Ted], Thea Gill [Lindsay] and Hal [Sparks, Michael] were so passionate about doing this, they didn’t have to have their arms twisted, they wanted to do this. And Sharon Gless [Debbie], we never saw anyone else other than Sharon for Debbie, who was the last part to be cast. [Then-Showtime president] Jerry Offsay called and asked what we thought about her. We didn’t know if she would do this. She was doing a play in Chicago and, on her own dime, flew to L.A. to meet us. She didn’t care that the part was big or small; she just wanted to be part of this.
How do you think Queer as Folk helped to break down the stereotypes about the gay community? At the time, there was nothing like this on TV — broadcast or cable.
Cowen: It wasn’t pretty! (Laughs.) It was very groundbreaking for that time. Back then, the portrayal of gay people — if you could call it that because it was so sparse — was showing them in a light that we were not comfortable with, as either minor roles or as clowns — people who were there to be laughed at. Or they had no sex life, which I don’t think any gay characters on TV had a sex life before Queer as Folk. Portraying sex on our show was very important; it was our most radical and political statement. It was also the most difficult thing to do because no one had any experience in doing this before, particularly the actors, who weren’t just incredibly brave, but also very committed, who really believed in the importance of what we were doing and were brave enough to stand up for that. Most of the cast was straight.
Lipman: Scott Lowell and Gale Harold are both straight and they wouldn’t reveal if they were gay or straight for the first season because they didn’t want anything to detract from the show. They wouldn’t tell us.
Cowen: We talked about showing gay people as sexualized, complete human beings and how important that was. Everybody, up until then, gay people had never really seen themselves as portrayed as sexualized in a movie or on TV. It’s very disturbing psychologically over years of your life to never see a reflection of yourself in the media. It’s as if you don’t exist or only part of you that isn’t really you exists on TV or on film. We knew this may have been the only chance to do this.
Lipman: Not only had you not seen something that reflected you, but this was taboo. This sexuality wasn’t something people approved of. The American version of Queer as Folk was designed as a celebration of gay life, and we were really taking the constraints off of everything. At that point in time, it was a window that we were lucky enough to be part of. There was Queer as Folk, Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy — people were interested in gay people and these characters were beginning to appear as both real and fictional characters on television. People were entertained and began accepting them — and started to care about these characters. It was an interesting time at the turn of the century to see this. A lot of people were startled; Ron and I were even startled.
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How did you approach writing the sex scenes?
Lipman: We had never done these kind of scenes and had never seen this kind of thing [on TV]. The sex scenes would explore all kinds of emotions: you can be angry, elated, manipulative; you can do whatever you want sexually. It’s not just having sex. They were like arias.
Cowan: It was psychological. They reflected the interior life of the character at that moment, and we tried to use sex scenes to do that. People have sex for many different reasons — it can be joyous and celebratory, it can be self-destructive, it can be out of anger, loneliness; there’s so many different emotions and reasons. We discovered that as we went along.
How did Queer as Folk help set the foundation other LGBT-scripted programming like Glee, Modern Family — and Paige’s The Fosters — in addition to other LGBT-themed shows that followed it?
Lipman: It made it acceptable and watchable. As Peter once said, “People came for the queer and stayed for the folk.” People were curious, but they really connected with the characters and it didn’t matter that they were gay. We got so many emails over the years saying as much.
Cowan: The networks and studios realized that there is an audience for a show about gay people. We all found out with Queer as Folk that over half our viewing audience was women. This is an enormous demographic and it’s the probably the primary reason, in terms of audience, that we were on the air for five years. No one expected that.
Lipman: At the time, Showtime had done a lot of gay programming. We all knew Queer as Folk would get some degree of attention, and they were perfectly happy with it finding a niche gay audience when it launched so it was a real surprise that it crossed over. And it wasn’t just in the U.S.; people are still buying DVDs all over the world.
Cowan: I wouldn’t be surprised if more people were seeing the show now than when it was on the air.
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And I think we’re in the midst of seeing transgender programming break through in the same sort of renaissance as well.
Cowan: That’s the next wave.
Queer as Folk didn’t shy away from social issues. When you first started, did you come into the series with a list of topics you wanted to be sure to address?
Cowan: In the beginning, we were adapting the British show and we made a lot of changes. Jerry’s marching order was to use as much of the original as a launch pad and then go off and do our own show. There were eight episodes of the British show, and early on we discovered that there were stories we wanted to tell that had social and political meaning. A very early story was Michael working at the Q-Mart. We discovered that there was story about discrimination on the job and Michael had to keep his gay identity a secret from woman who had a crush on him. And we discovered early on with that story that there were a lot of political stories we could also tell.
Lipman: We had written [1985 NBC TV movie] An Early Frost years before and, not by design, that and Queer as Folk became bookends for our career. We were coming off that very political and emotional story. In setting up Queer as Folk, we knew it had to be about what gay life was like in the years 2000 to 2005. There were a lot of political things going on that we had to address because this is what the gay community was dealing with. We didn’t know how we could not do a show like this without issues without being preachy. People were not aware of a lot of things; when you’re not gay and you don’t live a life as a gay person, you’re not aware of some of the politics. Everything we did was always heightened because the characters were gay. If they were straight, it may have been a ho-hum story, but the fact that they were gay and had to overcome things, it was eye-opening to a lot of people.
And the show was one of the first to really paint an honest portrayal of living with HIV/AIDS.
Cowan: Writing about AIDS was very important to us and has been since the ‘80s because we were part of that time and lost so many friends. Writing An Early Frost was the most traumatic thing we’d ever done because we were talking to people knowing people who were going to die because it was a death sentence. It left a mark on us for so many years; it took a long time to recover from doing that. The Uncle Vic (Jack Wetherall) character was an AIDS survivor in his 50s who expected to die and blew out his credit cards thinking he’d never have to pay them off and as it turned out he lived. We thought that was a very compelling story: What do you do when you thought you were going to die and you don’t and now you’re $20,000 in debt in credit cards? That was an opportunity to write the next step in the AIDS story. From 1985-2000, the portrait of AIDS changed so dramatically — it was no longer a death sentence. We needed to write about that. As we went along, we introduced other gay characters who were living with HIV, which was important to us.
QAF also took on hate crimes and gay bashing very early on in its landmark prom episode.
Cowan: We knew early on how we were going to end season [one], and what would happen to Justin. The Matthew Shepard story affected us deeply. We were drawn to using that as a story and exploring hate crime.
Lipman: We took the Matthew Shepard story with Justin and gave it a hopeful ending that someone could survive that. When you’re in the process of writing story arcs and you hear about the “Pink Posse” or “Gift Givers” — people who wanted to get AIDS so they didn’t have to worry about it anymore, you have to incorporate these things. And when you hear about George W. Bush giving a speech in the Rose Garden saying he vows to change the Constitution of the U.S. so gay people will never be able to marry, you have to address it.
Cowan: Queer as Folk was written in a time when DOMA; Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; sodomy laws and gay couples couldn’t get married anywhere in the U.S. We were writing the show in a very different time than it is now. In our minds, it would have been highly irresponsible not to address these issues. Dan and I always kept it in the back of our mind that this would have been the only chance in our lives to write about these things.
Let’s jump to the series finale: A lot of fans were disappointed that Brian and Justin didn’t wind up getting married at the end. What was behind your decision to send Justin to New York?
Cowan: We decided with the network that season five was going to be the end and we had 13 episodes to end it. At that time, the issue of gay people assimilating into mainstream culture was starting to become very prominent. Now, 10 years later with gay marriage, it’s something that many gay people are dealing with and making important life decisions: Do we assimilate? Do we stay in our gay community? Are we separatists? With every minority group who has gone through this — Irish, Jewish, Latino — the question becomes how much do we give up our individual identity to become “one of them,” meaning the majority. We decided that should be the major arc of the last season. So we made it about Brian and Michael. Michael and Ben (Robert Gant) got married in Canada — which was invalid in the U.S. but they considered legal for themselves. Michael fathered child, and together they adopted Hunter (Harris Allan), a male prostitute who was HIV positive — and they brought him into their lives and homes. Personally, that was one of my favorite stories. And they moved to suburbs and raised a family.
Brian was at the other end extreme end of the spectrum. I think he was rather hetero-phobic and a very self-declared separatist. He and Michael had a falling out and ended their friendship over it because Brian called Michael a “Stepford f—g,” meaning he had become a fake straight person. In Brian’s mind, there was only one thing worse than a straight person: a fake straight person, meaning a gay person who was trying to imitate the way straight people lived their life. … At other end of that spectrum, there was Brian and Justin, who weren’t the kind of people who necessarily wanted to get married, raise children and move to the suburbs. That’s not who they are as characters, even though they tried to be. Not everybody is cut out in this life to get married, have children and move to the suburbs; that doesn’t make them a less valuable or important human being. You don’t have to get married and have children to count in this country.
That’s part of the reason we decided that even though they approached getting married, they realized that it wasn’t for them and it involved too much sacrifice. And not sacrificing was an enormous theme in Queer as Folk. Somebody does not have the right to ask you to sacrifice who you are to earn their love, that was a theme that started with how Brian talked to Justin’s father, who told Justin that he could live in his house as long as he wasn’t gay. And Brian said that wasn’t love but hate. Brian realized in marrying Justin, that Justin would be sacrificing going to New York to pursue his promising art career. And Justin realized in wanting Brian to get married and settle down, he was turning the tiger he fell in love with into a house cat. That was a big sacrifice to ask of Brian, even though he was willing to make it and he loved Justin enough to go through with that. They had a moment of realization where they both knew they were asking too much of each other, which did not mean that they no longer loved each other or that they would never see each other again. I frankly don’t understand where those ideas came from.
Lipman: Brian is the most moral person on the show; he had his own code and was always honest. That rubbed off on Justin; he was Justin’s ideal. The two of them transcended their society around them. They had their own code and realized they didn’t need rings, a ceremony or rituals that others need to know that they love each other. They will always love each other even if they have other relationships with people. That is their core relationship. And they’re confident enough to have that and that’s why they were able to do that. Justin went off to New York, which is an hour away from Pittsburgh. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t see each other. They just weren’t married in the traditional way that Ben and Michael were.
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A lot of the political issues addressed on the show are still very relevant today. Have you thought about doing a revival?
Cowan: Gay marriage has overshadowed everything; and there are so many other issues that gay people still have to deal with that haven’t gone away. Many of the issues we were dealing with then are still going on today: there’s still discrimination in the workplace where you can still be fired for being gay.
Lipman: Not every state has a same-sex marriage bill.
Cowan: There’s still religious persecution. There’s still politicians who want to fight for death to take our rights away, starting with gay marriage. AIDS and HIV is still a problem. We went to a World AIDS Day conference and showed An Early Frost there and the CDC and World Health Organization said the number of HIV infections is down worldwide 50 percent — except among gay men, where it’s up 22 percent. The response from the gay community was that we’re just not getting through to younger gay men. And you wonder what it takes to get through. There’s still crystal meth abuse, which we did a big story on with Ted. These things still all exist and they probably aren’t going to go away. The Supreme Court can’t make a decision on Monday and on Tuesday everybody has changed their minds.
Lipman: We’d be open to it, depending on the venue of a reboot. I think what would be interesting would be to explore our characters who are now in their 40s and bringing in a new generation and seeing how that mix would go. As an example, we were talking if Gus — Brian and Lindsay’s child who is now say, 17, the age that Justin was — and if he was gay. How different his views would be from his father. That kind of thing would be an interesting thing to explore. People who are now mid-teens and 20s and possibly in their 30s have a very different view of what it’s like being gay. It’s not that way all over the country but certainly in a more sophisticated place but where you’re educated and brought up, there’s a much different view of being gay than when Ron and I were younger and how people perceived being gay. For me, in the 70s when I was in my 20s, that was a time where gay people were really establishing themselves and people were coming out at the same time as feminism. It was an explosive time.
Cowan: It would be interesting to see the next generation and see how people chose to assimilate.
Have you had any serious conversations with anyone about revisiting the show?
Cowan: No one has really talked to us about that, no. Showtime hasn’t expressed any interest in that. As far as we know, no one has approached us about that.
Lipman: But if we were approached, we would take it seriously.
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