QaF and its men

Some reflections on coming to the end (a month ago) viewing the complete run of the U.S. Queer as Folk, concentrating on the male characters and the actors who portray them. Cause I’m a gay guy and that’s my territory — and, yes, there will be shirtless men — though I’m not disregarding the women.

The original central cast (five gay male characters and two lesbian characters), with the cast identified by the actors’ names:


Extended discussion to come, with material from the Wikipedia article on the tv show marked by the tag (Wik); other commentary is mine.


Queer as Folk is a drama television series. It is an American–Canadian co-production. The series ran between December 2000 and August 2005 and was produced for Showtime and Showcase by Cowlip Productions, Tony Jonas Productions, Temple Street Productions and Showtime Networks in association with Crowe Entertainment…

Based on the British series created by Russell T Davies, Queer as Folk was the first hour-long drama on American television to portray the lives of gay men and women. Although it was set in Pittsburgh, PA, much of the series was actually shot in Toronto and employed various Canadian directors known for their independent film work (Wik)

The seven original central cast members, with their counterparts in the earlier UK version (set in Manchester) that provided the model for the US production:

Gale Harold as Brian Kinney (UK version: Aidan Gillen as Stuart Alan Jones)

Randy Harrison as Justin Taylor (UK version: Charlie Hunnam as Nathan Maloney)

Hal Sparks as Michael Novotny (UK version: Craig Kelly as Vince Tyler)

Peter Paige as Emmett Honeycutt (UK version: Antony Cotton as Alexander Perry)

Scott Lowell as Ted Schmidt (UK version: Jason Merrells as Phil Delaney)

Thea Gill as Lindsay Peterson (UK version: Esther Hall as Romey Sullivan)

Michelle Clunie as Melanie Marcus (UK version: Saira Todd as Lisa Levene)

To these add:

Robert Gant as Ben Bruckner

Sharon Gless as Debbie Novotny (UK version: Denise Black as Hazel Tyler), Michael’s mother

Jack Wetherall as Vic Grassi (UK version: Andy Devine as Bernard Thomas), Debbie’s HIV-positive brother

Brief characterizations of the core men, all (Wik):

Brian Kinney: a veritable sex machine [and a total top]. At 29 years old, he is living life for the now. He is his own man and believes in having sex for the sheer joy of doing it. While he and Justin have an on-and-off-again relationship, Justin is the only one of his sexual encounters that Brian finds himself falling in love with and the only one he continues to have sex with after the first night [also, I think, the only one he kisses]. He makes his living as an advertising executive for Vangard, and later on builds his own [advertising] company


Justin loses his virginity to Brian at the age of seventeen and falls in love with him. He runs away from home after coming out of the closet, primarily because his father is not accepting of his sexuality. Nicknamed “Sunshine” by Debbie [Michael’s mother] because of his bright smile and cheery disposition, Justin is queer-bashed at the end of Season 1. [He is also a talented artist.]


Brian’s best friend since adolescence, Michael secretly harbours feelings for him. He enjoys reading comic books, particularly Captain Astro adventures. He starts the series as a manager at a Kmart-like department store, the Big Q, but eventually follows his dream of opening a comic book store. From Season 2, he and Justin create the [gay superhero] comic book Rage


Originally from Hazlehurst, Mississippi, Emmett is the most flamboyant of the group. He goes through several jobs, including shopkeeper at a clothing store called Torso, porn star, naked maid, party planner, and correspondent for a local news station


An accountant with low self-esteem who envies Brian’s lavish lifestyle, Ted is constantly rejected by men at gay clubs around Pittsburgh and eventually struggles with an addiction to crystal meth. He is a few years older than Michael, Brian and Emmett.

Add Ben Bruckner, an HIV-positive gay studies professor at Carnegie Mellon, who eventually becomes Michael’s husband:


(Robert Gant is the one muscle hunk in the gay male cast.)

Brian is nominally the central character. He has to be dominant, in sex and in business, and his sense of his worth seems to be closely tied to his ability to draw men to him sexually, in great numbers (even at work, not just at the gay clubs), so aging is painful for him (Ted, who seems largely to have “aged out” of the world of mansex, is a cautionary, even frightening, example for him).

Brian and Justin serve together as the Dark Prince vs. the Light Prince, not just in hair color, but as yin vs. yang: they are Priapus vs. Apollo, powerful maturity vs. youthful beauty (Brian is almost 30, Justin only 17, when they first hook up), driving energy vs. enticing attractiveness, in fact sexual top vs. bottom. Together they become a single sexual and affectional entity, but also constantly in opposition to one another.

Michael, Brian’s friend from childhood, serves as Brian’s foil here. Despite many travails, Michael eventually achieves a stable union, with Ben, of a sort that will probably never be available for Brian and Justin.

The characters Lindsay and Melanie provide extended depictions of lesboworld, in counterpoint to the depictions of fagworld. And then there’s Sharon Gless’s wonderful character Debbie: brassy, protectively (and interferingly) maternal, fearless and outspoken, living for her brother Vic and for her son Michael and his friends — until she too finds unlikely love and also, after decades, sexual pleasure (in a nice plot twist, she gets cock-sucking lessons from the boys). (Gless played the character Christine Cagney in the tv series Cagney and Lacey back in the 1980s.)

There are tons and tons and tons of simulated sex – for the men, mutual jack-offs, cock-sucking, ass-fucking, and rimming; for the women, breast worship and lots of very steamy muff-diving.

Oh, and I’ve left the character Emmett to last, because I think that he is in a sense the moral center of the series. Emmett is a self-described nelly bottom (but with a high-end pornstar dick), full of banter but also defiant courage. Wise-cracking but also wise about people and their relationships: he’s genuinely in sympathy with other people, and he has a lot of self-knowledge, so he’s a truly good friend. He tricks a lot, but in the series, manages to have three boyfriends, each unlikely in his own way: a much older, very rich man; his friend Ted; and a professional football player. Ok, I have a thing for nelly queens with hearts of gold and great senses of humor, so I love the character, portrayed so well by Peter Paige.

What I saw here was an analogy to the characters in the Mozart/Schikaneder Magic Flute. That opera is nominally about Tamino and Pamina, the high priest Sarastro, and the Queen of the Night, but I’ve maintained for some time (on this blog) that the moral center of the piece is the Vogelfänger Papageno — apparently simple and artless, but utterly steadfast in his relationships and a perceptive observer of the other characters. More important, he’s not a stock type (handsome prince, noble ruler, etc.), but a real human being, with human frailties, a sense of playfulness, and bonds of affection to those around him. Tamino is, I grant you, a handsome and noble young man, but it’s Papageno I’d want for a friend, Papageno I’d want to be like. (Note: Schikaneder wrote himself into the character and then played him in early performances of the Singspiel.)

So it is in QaF. The character Brian combines aspects of Tamino and Sarastro in Zauberflöte, and like them the character is always in danger of becoming a mere archetype — in this case, just an embodiment of Priapus on the hoof. Over the years of the series, the writers worked hard to humanize Brian in lots of ways, to provide him with moral purposes beyond his drive to fuck anyone with a dick and win any competition he finds himself in, and by and large they succeeded.

The character Emmett, however, arrives on screen with all of his adorably human characteristics right out in front: he’s empathetic, loyal, self-mockingly funny, and vulnerable enough to risk getting his heart broken. I’d want him as a friend and I’d want to be like him (except for the nelliness, which I admire but don’t perform well).

A final note:

Initially, most of the actors kept their real-life sexual orientations ambiguous in the press so as not to detract from their characters, causing much speculation among the viewing audience. Since that time, Randy Harrison, Peter Paige, Robert Gant and Jack Wetherall have stated that they are gay, Thea Gill has stated she is bisexual, and the rest of the cast have stated they are straight (i.e., Gale Harold, Scott Lowell, Michelle Clunie, and Hal Sparks) but have for the most part avoided public discussion of their orientation. (Wik)

This is really admirable. I believe that the actors and the creators of the series decided together to take this route so as not to have the actors appear to be distancing themselves from homosexuality and potentially insulting lgbt people. I’ve known a fair number of real-life counterparts to the Brian character, and Gale Harold really nails them; the actor’s sexuality should be irrelevant to his performance. As for the Justin, Ben, and Emmett characters, it’s fine that the actors got to put something of themselves — three radically different personas, I note — into their performances, but they were also, you know, acting their roles, with subtlety and complexity, and that’s what counts.

As for Sharon Gless, she’s brilliant in her portrayal.

One Response to “QaF and its men”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    it’s Papageno I’d want for a friend, Papageno I’d want to be like.

    Plus he’s a baritone, and therefore by definition more interesting than any tenor.

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