The queer report

Robert Gant and Peter Paige say Queer as Folk has made them reassess their goals and values. In a candid conversation, they report on the show’s evolution—and their own progress in bridging their inner butch and fem

BY Michael Rowe

April 01 2003 12:00 AM ET

It’s a
slate-gray, icy Sunday afternoon in Toronto, and light
outside is obscure. Robert Gant wrapped a Queer as
Folk
night shoot at 7 a.m. and managed a few hours
of sleep before trundling over to Hair of the Dog, a
popular restaurant on Toronto’s Church Street whose
exterior would be familiar to any devotee of the show.
Upstairs, Gant joins a better-rested Peter Paige,
who’s already settled at a table, sipping tea.

It’s
midway through the filming of Queer as Folk’s
third season—Gant’s second season on the
show—and the actors are happy to have a brief
respite, even if it means a caffeine-fueled brunch with a
writer, over the course of which no topic is
off-limits, including, among other things, the
definition of masculinity.

Even though Paige
and Gant in person are at peace with their masculine
and feminine sides, the characters they portray (Emmett and
Ben, respectively) often represent Queer as
Folk
’s extremes of nelly and butch. Amid a
show that has forced gays to confront vital issues such
as HIV-positive–HIV-negative relationships, body
culture, sex obsession, drug use, ageism, fidelity,
and parenthood, these two out actors have had to
explore their own images of themselves and the communities
in which they live.

Let’s talk about the new season—it’s
unfolding in some interesting new directions.
Where is the story going?
Paige: I think the third season is the best season by
far. [Executive producers] Dan [Lipman] and Ron
[Cowen] have said from the beginning that this is the
story of boys becoming men. All of the characters have taken
a step forward. The first season was “Meet these
people and their world,” the second season was
“Look what’s happening to these
people!” and the third season is us [helping]
each other grow up, challenging each other in these
really intricate, intense relationships. It’s about
coming together and coming apart.

Gant: The new
season is definitely about relationships—what works
and what doesn’t. Family—what makes a
family. Much less drugs- and Babylon-centric.

Paige: I’m
hardly ever in Babylon these days. It’s rare I ever
shoot [on that set]. It’s a little
bit—and not because Dan and Ron are kowtowing to
anyone—the season that the critics have all been
asking for. You can’t watch this third season
and say, “Nobody’s in a relationship!”
Everybody is in a relationship!

Including your character, Emmett, and his best friend,
Ted. Is the notion of gay male best friends
becoming lovers a realistic one? Does it happen,
in your opinion?
Paige: More than we think. If you actually ask people in
long-term relationships how they met, half of them
might say, “We met in a bar” or
“at the baths,” and the other half will tell
you, “We were really good friends, and we woke
up one day and said, ‘You’re
hot!’” My best friend only dates within
my circle.

Have you done it yourself, though?
Paige: I’m addicted to chemistry—that
spark that happens when you meet someone and
you’re in awe of how attracted you are to them. No,
I’ve never dated one of my friends.

Ben and Michael are the only visible example of an
HIV-positive–negative relationship on TV. Do you
have a sense that you’re exploring a taboo?
Gant: It’s another level of discrimination.
It’s a phobia within the culture.

Paige: It runs
both ways, I have to say. I know plenty of positive guys
who won’t date negative guys. The prejudices around
positive-negative issues are just more ways we keep
each other separate and alone and isolated.

Gant: It’s
about fear, and the greatest fear is fear of death. In no
other situation is the contemplation of living and dying so
intertwined with love and sex. And it’s more of
a taboo within our culture than anywhere else because
of the devastation we’ve endured.

Paige:
We’ve made one huge mistake with AIDS education as a
community, and that is, we have made it fear-based:
“Use a condom, or you will die.” And at
a certain point you get tired of being afraid. You want to
feel alive. The one thing we need to do to make people
safe is work on self-esteem. It’s the biggest
problem in our community.

Gant: The message
ought to be “Your life is worth saving. Take care of
it.”

Paige:
There’s a place in all of us where we think, Maybe I
should die. Would it be so bad?

What do you hope viewers get out of the Ben-and-Michael
story line—specifically, with regard to HIV
and what it means in Ben’s life?

Gant: That you don’t die! That HIV does
not equal death. You have to take care of yourself.
There are many, many people living perfectly healthy
lives with HIV, with or without medication—and I
think that’s a case-by-case basis. It’s
such a different contemplation when I read posts on
the [Showtime] Web site like, “Oh, I hope Ben
doesn’t die!” That’s where
people’s minds go.

I’m really
happy the show is exploring this. It’s never been
done before. I can’t tell you the number of
letters I’ve received or the number of people
who have come up to me. [Being gay and positive is] doubly
exclusionary. Not only are you dealing with acceptance
around gay/straight, you’re dealing with
acceptance issues within your own peer group. Fear.
People literally afraid of you. It’s such a common
dynamic that’s emerging for gay men to have to
contemplate. Do I date? Do I not date? Positive men
have to contemplate whether to date only positive men
or do they date negative men? And I think the same thoughts
occur to negative men.

Paige: I think
you could ask almost anyone who is positive, and they
would say that they feel like an outsider, like,
“I’ve been abandoned by the
community.” That moment when you are about to have
sex with someone and he opens his mouth—or
doesn’t—to ask about your status is a huge
moment.

The issue you bring up of caring for your health, with
less drug use and late nights—is that
something Ben is going to deal with this season?
Gant: That gets explored. Ben is still in the process of
embracing his status, and so he does still engage in
behavior that is questionable. I have to contemplate,
Should he have a glass of Perrier in his hand, or
should he have a glass of wine?

Paige:
[Laughs] I contemplate that in my life every single
day.

In our first Advocate interview, Peter, you said
that you never felt more masculine and empowered
than when you play Emmett. If being ourselves
means, for some of us, walking down the middle of the
gender line, why isn’t that something we celebrate?
Paige: I got a great E-mail from an acquaintance in Los
Angeles—notorious for disliking nelly gay
guys—who found himself in an argument with
someone about integrity, and he brought up Emmett. He said,
“I realized in that moment that I had great respect
for Emmett and who he is, and I find him attractive
and all these things I never thought I would in a man
who was less than hyperbolically masculine.”
I’m so proud to have been a part of that. The
nicest thing that people say to me is that I give
nelly queens a good name, and I’m glad. Nelly queens
deserve a good name. The more we challenge ourselves
on what we find attractive and what it means to be a
man, the easier it’s going to be on the
generation coming up behind us.

Gant:
What’s been exciting for me, as one of these guys who
only liked “masculine” guys—in
the classic sense of the word—was discovering that I
liked “feminine” traits and found them sexy.
They turn me on. I realized that my previous
perspective was about the fact that I didn’t love
that part of myself.

When you say “feminine” traits, are you
talking about emotional traits like compassion and
nurturing? Or about overt nonmasculinity?
Gant: It’s such a hard thing to pin down, because
they’re such subjective things. My idea of what
that means may be vastly different from what someone
else means. I mean a lightness of freedom, [someone]
who doesn’t exist in the rigid confines of what it
has traditionally meant to be “a man.”
There are certain things that…

Paige:
Don’t be afraid to say it! You’re dancing
around it the same way that people dance around this
issue!

Gant: It’s
true!

Paige:
You’re afraid to say what feminine is! Say it!
It’s OK! You’re assuming that people
have shame around it and that if you admit you like
guys who are emotionally expressive and who use their hands
when they talk, people will think it’s odd.

Gant: I own that.

Paige: I’m
not blaming you; I’m just saying you’re
dancing around it.

Gant: ±o,
you’re right. That’s about my own
embarrassment, me assuming that it was something to
apologize for. I wasn’t even aware that I doing
it, so I’m glad you flagged me for it.

Robert, your character, Ben, is totemically masculine,
and you, objectively, are a big, strong, handsome,
masculine guy. Without qualifying those things—
Gant: I know what you’re about to say. I worked
really, really hard to effect that. I spent years and
years crafting that facade. I have old audiotapes
where I would do the nelliest voices. I was the kid in the
neighborhood who would choreograph routines for all the
other kids to songs like “Boogie Fever.”
I had a whole routine worked out for “Car
Wash.”

Tags: Commentary

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