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Queer as Folk at 20: How Russell T Davies’ groundbreaking gay drama changed my life

Channel 4's groundbreaking gay drama left its marks on a whole generation of LGBT people, writes Juno Dawson

By Will Stroude

This article first appeared in Attitude issue 305, February 2019.

February 1999, and I was 17 years old. At that point, frankly baff led by myself, I’d told a select handful of friends that I thought I was probably gay.

Being from a working-class family near Bradford, we didn’t as yet have the internet, so I got all my celeb gossip from Teletext. Yes, Teletext. CHANNEL 4 SLAMMED FOR “GAY SOAP” screamed one headline.

In 1999, even the word “gay” was rarely seen in the media. Jack McPhee had come out (fictionally, in Dawson’s Creek) and so had Ellen (both fictionally and non-fictionally). I sat up straight in the middle of the lounge. A gay soap? On Channel 4? Tonight? Clearly, this was something I had to see.

Not out to my parents, I set the VCR in my bedroom which existed exclusively so I could watch Doctor Who tapes to record the first episode of this mysterious Queer as Folk. The next day, the sixth-form common room was abuzz with gleefully homophobic discussion. “Did you see that Queer as Folk? He fucked him up the arse! He licked it!”

My friends Beth and Phyllis, conversely, described it as the hottest thing they’d ever seen on television. I couldn’t get home fast enough. There, I met Stuart (Aidan Gillen): suave, deadly and – to my very sheltered self – evil, lovable everyman Vince (Craig Kelly) and sweet twink Nathan (Charlie Hunnam), who possessed confi dence I could barely dream of.

Gay men, on TV, holding down executive jobs and owning swish fl ats, drinking, clubbing, shagging — simply living their lives. Gay men, being alive. As a queer kid in the Nineties, I had never been told I could have a future beyond possibly dying of a plague. Suddenly, here was a future.

So, 20 years ago, Queer as Folk changed my life. OK, 10 years later, my life took another wholly unexpected plot twist, but I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest Russell T Davies’s show was the single most influential piece of culture to a certain generation. Of course, there had been art, theatre, dance, music and literature before 1999, but for about 15 years the only gay people I saw on television were being cradled by Princess Diana on Aids’ wards.

In QAF, we were allowed to live again. In TV terms, it was a masterpiece. The first episode in particular is a study in must-see TV. Hunnam’s glistening back had the whole nation talking and tuning in for the second episode in which the characters opened out into their full selves: an insecure lothario, hopeful romantics, Doctor Who fans, fiercely loyal friends, fathers, sons, brothers. Gay men got real for everyone to see.

Russell T. Davies remains the only person I have ever lost my shit over when we met on the set of a Doctor Who DVD recording in 2009. I had my witty opener all planned: “Hey Russell, thanks for teaching me what rimming is!” Instead, I turned to jelly and said, “Thank you so much for changing my life.” What the fuck? And that, basically, is why I had to transition! It was a case of witness protection.