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Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 2000 / 17 Kislev, 5761

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
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Consumer Reports

Is 'Queer as Folk' what we asked for? -- THE PAY CABLE CHANNEL Showtime has launched a new series "Queer as Folk." Inspired by a British show of the same name (and the British expression, "There's naught so queer as folk"), the series promises an unprecedented "honest" look at gay life.

Of course, that means lots of sex between men and talk about the same. Showtime boasts that the series is "graphic" and "controversial," hoping it will become the sort of hit that the gangster-drama "The Sopranos" has been for HBO.

Now, not unexpectedly, some of my fellow conservatives and traditionalists are upset about the show (though being on a pay-channel makes it harder to criticize). After all, "Queer as Folk" depicts some -- though certainly not all -- of that icky stuff conservatives have long suspected goes on in the gay community. The irony is that "Queer as Folk" offers precisely what many conservatives demanded and gays denounced in their pop-culture fare: gay promiscuity.

In the late 1970s, when Billy Crystal played the first openly gay regular character on a TV series, gay activists complained that he was too flouncy. Conservatives grumbled that he was, for want of a better phrase, too "normal." When AIDS became the defining event of homosexual culture, gay activists took to the streets in protest every time a movie or TV show portrayed a gay character as stereotypically lacking in self-esteem or having too much glandular enthusiasm.

Conservatives in turn denounced the sanitized portrayal of gays. In 1989, ABC's "Thirtysomething" introduced a relationship between two gay characters. They never kissed on screen, let alone got funky, but they were shown lying in bed together talking. Religious conservatives launched a boycott, and the network quietly dropped the characters.

Similarly, in the film "Philadelphia," Tom Hanks' gay relationship was strictly PG, infuriating some conservatives. Gay promiscuity is a fact, they argued, and Hollywood simply wants to mainstream the gay lifestyle without being honest about how decadent it is. They cited path-breaking books like the brilliant "And the Band Played On" by gay journalist (and AIDS victim) Randy Shilts, which documented the world of gay bathhouses and wanton anonymous sex.

But according to Hollywood, gay characters were virtually chaste. Indeed, when HBO made a film out of Shilts' book, the star-studded movie skipped the issue of gay promiscuity, instead putting all the blame for AIDS on Ronald Reagan. On Fox's campy nighttime soap opera "Melrose Place," the only character who didn't jump into bed every night was the gay character, who would often say things like, "I don't do that sort of thing on the first date."

Now look how things have changed. With the AIDS crisis dissipating (for rich, white, Americans), gays and their allies want a more honest portrayal. Meanwhile, conservatives wish we could go back to the days when on-screen gays behaved like Mormons with better fashion sense.

This reversal shows an interesting evolution on both sides of the culture war. Large segments of the activist gay left wing have given up on "mainstream culture," believing instead that they should embrace some of the worst stereotypes about gays. The group "Sex Panic," for example, declares that "anonymous sex with multiple partners" is a defining virtue of gay life.

Simultaneously, conservatives have fallen back to a defensive position on most gay-rights issues (though certainly not gay marriage), saying, in effect, "Do whatever you want, just don't bother us."

Still, it's amusing to note that Hollywood liberals - not religious conservatives - demanded that gays be portrayed as happy eunuchs. And now Hollywood's being criticized for being too conservative.

"Nothing better illustrates Hollywood's duplicitous sexual attitudes than its faux-liberated approach to homosexuality," wrote the New York Times' Stephen Holden in 1998. "After years of the demonization of homosexuals, it's finally OK to portray positive gay characters, but it's not OK for them to have sex." He criticized films like "As Good As It Gets" and "My Best Friend's Wedding" for having attractive, smart, funny and successful gay characters who don't even date.

So now we have "Queer as Folk," which depicts all sorts of gay "dating" - including a relationship between a 29-year-old man and a 17-year-old high school student - details of which would be unprintable in a family newspaper, even with the most clever euphemisms.

Fifteen years ago, groups like ACT UP surely would have invaded Showtime's offices and demanded "Queer as Folk" be withdrawn to the applause of cheerleaders in the press. Instead, the most vocal complaints come from the likes of Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales ,who denounces Showtime's "queasiness" because "Queer as Folk" isn't graphic enough.

Meanwhile, we conservatives have gotten what we wished for: a frank - though still sanitized - depiction of the more unsettling aspects of gay life. The real test now will be to see whether such a depiction helps the arguments of conservatives or of leftist gay activists.

Only time will tell.

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


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