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Queer As Folk:
Gay Public Health Pioneer

By Rodger Streitmatter
Media Matters

Queer as Folk, the blockbuster hit on Showtime, has been called many things by many people. Fans praise it as a breakthrough series that offers, for the first time in the history of American television, an upbeat and realistic depiction of gay life that they can't wait to watch. Critics castigate the show as a dangerous step backward because it promotes the stereotypes of gay men as sex- and drug-obsessed hedonists. For their part, gay porn aficionados call Queer as Folk the only thing on TV worth videotaping-and then replaying to get another glimpse of the occasional dangling genitalia. Justin: A sexual pioneer?

I would like to pin yet another label on the program:

A gay public health pioneer.

People in the "critics" category that I mentioned above are, after reading that last line, screaming at the top of their lungs: "Public health! That sleazy show absolutely oozes with unsafe sex-backrooms, one-night stands! Exactly what gay men should not do if they hope to stay alive and healthy!"

Well, yes, it's true that Brian, Michael, Ted and Emmett have all drifted, from time to time, into the darkened room adjacent to the dance floor at Babylon for a quickie.

But, for my purposes, I would like to focus not on those twenty- and thirty-something guys, but on the fifth denizen of the fictitious Gay Pittsburgh that comes to life each week on Queer as Folk.

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I want to concentrate on Justin Taylor because he is depicted as the youngest of the characters and, therefore, the one that young gay men watching the program most closely identify with. (When you're 19, anyone over 22 is ancient, so that includes every member of the cast other than Justin.) And it is young gay men I am most concerned about when it comes to public health education.

According to recent news reports out of San Francisco and other American cities with large gay populations, instances of infection with HIV and sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise among young gay men. Guys who are old enough to remember the devastation of the AIDS epidemic when it was at its peak in the 1980s are-thanks to haunting memories of friends who died-painfully aware of the dangers of unsafe sex. So young men, whose sexual consciousness dates back only to the 1990s, are the ones in the most dire need of educating.

Hence, back to Justin.

In particular, I would like to re-visit the most memorable moment from the premier episode. (The original 22 segments from season number one are now being re-broadcast; the new season begins in January.)

That poignant scene from the first episode unfolded in Brian's bedroom when 17-year-old Justin-played, in reality, by 23-year-old Randy Harrison-had his first gay sexual experience with the program's bad boy, the narcissistic and permanently horny Brian.

The older and worldly-wise aggressor first tells his youthful partner about his own first time. Brian describes being so turned on by seeing his high school coach naked in the shower that he immediately kneeled down on the shower room floor and, while still fully clothed, gave the guy a blow job.

Both shocked and titillated, Justin says, "I bet you were really scared."

Brian says reassuringly, "I guess we're all scared the first time."

The 29-year-old Brian then knowingly directs the blond and nubile Justin, who is lying buff and buck naked among the sheets, to put his legs up in the air.

Anyone who saw that first episode-regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation-remembers this scene, as it ranks among the most sexually explicit in the history of American television. But it is Justin's next statement that I want to highlight.

For just as the eager-to-go young man with his raging hormones is on the brink of engaging in anal intercourse for the very first time, he casts his adorable baby blues up at Brian-twelve years his elder-and says, casually yet firmly:

"Wait. In school we had this lecture about safe sex."

Without missing a beat, Brian pulls out a condom, flashes a smile and responds, with just a touch of cockiness in his voice: "Now we're going to have a demonstration."

Brian, perfectly willing to accommodate to Justin's concerns, gently continues, "Put it on me. Go ahead."
Queer's Brian

I can't imagine a more effective public health lesson.

Justin's words not only provided youthful viewers with an excellent example of responsible sexual behavior, but they also gave those same young men a wonderful three-part tutorial in how they should demand to be treated in a relationship: Say what your needs are. Make sure the other guy hears you. Don't proceed to the next level until you're ready.

Further, Showtime's writers placed that non-preachy gay safer sex lesson smack dab in the middle of what has already become a classic moment in gay TV-indeed, in the gay male culture. It is a scene that legions of viewers have replayed hundreds of times, in their minds and on their VCRs.

In textbook fashion, the folks at Queer as Folk reinforced their powerful public health lesson later in the season. In episode 16, when Justin wanted to start a Gay-Straight Student Alliance at his high school, he caught the attention of the other kids by handing out free condoms. And again in episode 19 when Justin's best friend, Daphne, asked him to be the guy who introduced her to intercourse, he willingly agreed-and provided a condom.

Critics of American television, along with plenty of parents and teachers and health officials, have frequently chastised such youth-oriented programs as Friends, Seinfeld and Sex and the City for the dangerous messages they send to impressionable viewers regarding irresponsible sexual behavior, while the men and women who create those shows protest that the goal of television is to entertain viewers, not to educate them.

Queer as Folk does both.
Rodger Streitmatter, Ph.D. is a member of the School of Communication faculty at American University in Washington, D.C. His latest book, Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America has just been published by Columbia University Press. He is also the author of Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay & Lesbian Press in America (Faber & Faber, 1995) and Raising Her Voice: African American Women Journalists Who Changed History (The University Press of Kentucky, 1994)

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