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. 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 thirteen through fifteen of Season One. You are invited to follow along on Netflix, where all five seasons are currently streaming.
Of all the possible storylines in the world, Emmett Honeycutt had to walk into this one?
Only halfway through its first season, Queer as Folk decided that it was time to tell a story about conversion therapy, and centered the storyline on the show’s resident confident femme, Emmett Honeycutt. Emmett finds his way to “See the Light,” a vaguely Christian talk therapy group that apparently encourages the clearly queer membership to date other members of the group.
That Queer chooses to make its most confident queer character — save maybe for Brian Kinney — the one who ends up in conversion therapy isn’t nearly as strange as the reason Emmett finds himself among the soon-to-be-former gays: after an HIV scare, Emmett swears off men forever. So, the natural next step is … renouncing gayness and fucking women?
The conversion therapy landscape in the 2000s was much different than it is now, though it’s still pretty bleak. When this show aired, all forms of conversion therapy were legal in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Now, 14 states and D.C. have banned conversion therapy for minors. No state has completely banned the practice for people of all ages, though California has introduced legislation to do so.
While Queer as Folk often gets criticized for being overly sexual, it doesn’t get recognized for the (sometimes too jarring) way it deals with shame around sex and sexuality. In earlier episodes, Emmett went to get an HIV test and spiralled down a shame k-hole over his sexual history. As it turns out, Emmett’s sexual shame runs so much deeper, as he’s willing to renounce his sex life to fulfill his promise to God that he would not touch another man if he turned out to be HIV negative.
After a lackluster sexual encounter with another woman from “See the Light,” Emmett and the show do away with conversion therapy. As a viewer, I felt like the detour into the subject was a little cheap. There’s so much emotional territory to explore. Did we do this all for a scene of Emmett attempting a maudlin thrust into a woman?
American Puritanical bullshit rears its ugly head in these episodes in other ways, as well. While Emmett is questioning his own sexuality, uptight Ted questions whether he’s ready to let loose and let a leather daddy whip him out of his own boring sex life. While the storyline doesn’t really go anywhere (at least in these episodes), Folk plumbs the very real feeling of being both repulsed and fascinated by kinks that we wish to engage in. Often, gay men need to give themselves permission to want to stray outside of heteronormative conceptions of sexuality — there’s a top and there’s a bottom and you put it in and that’s it! — and explore the larger buffet of sexual options that comprise queer sexuality.
Speaking of heteronormative conceptions of sexuality, let’s talk about Brian Kinney. As time goes on, I realize that, in most instances where Brian is on screen having sex (and it’s a lot!) he is usually portrayed as a top. I couldn’t help but wonder: Is Brian Kinney positioned to be the apex sexual being of Queer as Folk purely because he is the closest to being a total top on the show?
So much of the show is about the anxieties surrounding queer sexuality and intimacy. Arguably, Brian Kinney is the least anxious of the group regarding his sexuality. He knows he’s a bussyhound and is happy with his endless litany of sexual partners and is often the member of the group who seems most comfortable in his sexuality, often encouraging those around him not to fear their own sexuality. But are we hearing this from someone who doesn’t get penetrated on the regular?
Has Queer as Folk actually been selling us a story about a top this whole time? I feel gaslit.