The queer report

By Michael Rowe

Originally published on Advocate.com 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.”

What set you in the other direction?
Gant: I used to always kiss hello or goodbye. I remember
we were at our family’s best friends’
home, and I was about to kiss the father goodbye. I
was in second or third grade. I went to kiss him, and he
turned away. I said, “No, no, on the lips!”
and insisted. So he did. And when we left my mother
shamed me. I never felt like such a horrible human
being. She said, “How could you do that? That was
embarrassing!” And to this day I have such a
hard time with it.

Do you ever feel like you’re a prisoner of this
armor-plated persona you’ve crafted, or
have you integrated it into yourself?
Gant: I’ve been dealing with this issue for
years, and little by little I’ve been tearing
down those walls. Playing Ben, for me, has gone hand
in hand with my growth. The fact that Ben doesn’t
apologize in the way I might has caused me to
apologize a hell of a lot less. Ben’s strength
has caused me to root for some of those things within
myself.

Peter, are people surprised, when they meet you, to
discover how your persona and Emmett’s
diverge? And I mean specifically in the arenas of
masculinity and femininity.
Paige: I was an effeminate little kid, and I was raised
by a feminist mother. Issues of masculinity and
femininity do come up for me, though. Almost every day
someone comes up to me and says, “You’re that
guy from Queer as Folk! You’re so much
more attractive in person.” That may be because
I really am more attractive in person, but I don’t
think so. I think the real root of that comment is
that I’m not a big nelly queen in life. I
certainly have my feminine qualities, but I live my life
with a lack of apology that is sometimes misconstrued
as “masculine.”

One criticism of Queer as Folk is that by
showcasing a certain type of gay man—young,
white, buff, handsome—-it’s helping to
keep the community in perpetual adolescence. What
would you say to that?
Paige: I’d say, “It’s a television
show.” Seriously, I have never felt beautiful.
I’m sure that when the six of us are assembled,
people don’t point me out. Regardless,
it’s a TV show. Go to Los Angeles for a week.
The people who play “ugly” people on
television are beautiful people. It’s the
nature of the beast. People want to see sexy people. I
know a plus-size model who is a size 10, and they put hip
pads on her to give her a size 12 ass.

Gant: I have a
slightly different point of view. I think it’s
crucial to the story, because we, as gay men, struggle
with this Adonis syndrome. I think not to include that
would be a travesty. And I think what the show
does—and more so in the third season—is
explore that and watch some of the characters
experience growth around these issues. Some of the
characters can’t, as in the case in our community,
free themselves from it. This is our life!
That’s what we live! It’s all about the gym!
[Laughs]

Paige: And
straights have become the new gays. You can’t tell us
apart anymore. I blame Diesel jeans and Queer as
Folk
. All I do is hit on straights, and
they’re all, “Gee, thanks, but I’m
really more emotionally drawn to women.” You
just can’t tell. They’re all wearing
“low riders,” and they have great haircuts,
and they’re working out. We have a Republican
bigot in the White House, and I still don’t feel a
tidal wave of antigay sentiment. I feel as though that tide
has turned and we are now in much more danger of
harming ourselves. A lot of people have underestimated
the general population’s willingness to be accepting,
and we [as gay people] need to stop apologizing for
ourselves.

As actors who both came out on the cover of The
Advocate
, did you see any variance in the
response you each received, given that your
respective characters are on the opposite end of the
butch-fem spectrum?
Paige: I got a lot of good response to my article but
nothing like the response Bobby received to his.

Why do you think that is?
Paige: Because it was expected that I would come out,
since I played such a nelly character. It was not
expected that Bobby would come out, because he played
such a masculine character. Based upon the letters to
the editor in the next issue, there was a profound sense of
wonder that this masculine man would stand up and say
he was gay. That was amazing! I was completely
sociologically intrigued by it, the fact that anyone who
appears obviously gay, we devalue. I’ve dated a lot
of hypermasculine, hyperbeautiful guys. And underneath
that hypermasculine shell, though, each one harbored a
sense that he was a fraud.

Gant: When I came
out there were some letters saying, “Why do we need
to see these stories about these entertainment people
coming out when there are so many stories that are
more important?” And you know what? That’s
true.

Paige: I heard a
story about a woman in Toronto who worked in a steel
mill. She used to be a man, and she decided to undergo
gender-reassignment surgery. She had to live as a woman for
six months [before the surgery]. She showed up at work
one day dressed as a woman. Now, there’s a
story for you about courage.

Speaking of courage, is there a gay cause that’s
particularly close to your heart these days?
Gant: I’m getting involved with a group called
SAGE—Senior Action in a Gay Environment.
They’re New York–based but nationally focused.
It’s become something of my torch. Young gay
people are often told, “You’re going to
grow old alone.” I was terrified that I was going to
grow old alone—

Paige:
[Laughs] I’m still terrified I’m going
to grow old alone.

Gant: We need to
change both the perception and the reality. Some 20% of
gay and lesbian elderly don’t have people to help
them get their medications and do things for them, as
opposed to 5% of heterosexuals, because of familial
ties and the way things are. I just know that this
isn’t a culture I want to grow old in as it currently
exists—

Paige: Because
it’s so unforgiving. Western culture is unforgiving,
but gay culture is even worse.

Gant: Terms like
“troll” and “old queen” and
“lech”—this is how we refer to
our elderly. Unlike Eastern and Native American cultures,
who revere their elderly, we’re completely
turning our heads away from an untapped resource,
which is the wisdom and experience of our elderly.

Who’s more responsible for that situation? The
young people who are turning their back on the
untapped resource of the elderly or those elderly
gay men who refuse to take the role of
“elder” seriously?
Gant: It’s both. It’s still fear on both
sides. For older folks, it’s the difficulty of
tearing down the walls and getting to a place of
self-love: learning to embrace their age as a gift, as
beauty, in the same way we struggle to accept feminine
qualities as beautiful. It’s something we need
to awaken to.

Paige: I know,
from doing the “George” story line last season
[in which Emmett had a committed relationship with a
man in his 60s] how much impact that story had on
older gay men, many of whom loved the show but always
felt invisible on it. Just the other day, one of the
directors’ uncles came to set and said,
“I just want you to know that to men of my
generation, that story meant everything to us. That someone
as wonderful as Emmett could find someone like George
wonderful sent out such a message.” It was
something that had never been done on the show before,
and it was done with great intrigue and dignity.

What do you think of the notion that many gay men are
reluctant to take on elder-statesman roles? That
until gay men learn to act like men—in the
adult sense—then transition to acting like
nurturing and protective older men, we’re
going to have a culture that doesn’t venerate
the elderly?
Paige: You pretty much hit it on the head.

Gant:
We’re such idiots! We’re perpetuating a really
shitty place to grow old! We’re perpetuating a
prison. What fools we are. In the same way that
Queer as Folk is opening minds with respect to
the beauty and the acceptability of this culture to
other cultures, we need to redefine what constitutes
[our elders].

Certainly the show has raised a number of such issues.
Moreover, it’s become part of our lives and
culture. How does it resonate for each of you?
Paige: I say this with what I hope can be heard as
humility, but it really has become a cultural
touchstone. There is no reference to gay anything in
society at large that doesn’t include some reference
to Queer as Folk.

Gant: Within the
gay community, it’s been interesting watching
people’s expectations evolve, watching them get
dashed, get polarized—the people who love it,
the people who hate it, the ones who hate it even though
they don’t watch it. We constantly have to shed the
idea that we have some responsibility to the community
even though people constantly try to foist that on us.
It makes perfect sense [that they do] because this is
the only show that we’ve got. Will & Grace
is a whole other thing, and I love Six Feet
Under
, but they’ve got four main story
lines, one of which is gay; that’s definitely not the
“gay drama.” So this is the one voice
people have. I think we need to have an open forum to
talk about these things, but along with that open forum must
come open minds. Instead of just casting aspersions,
you need to go and explore what you are denigrating.

Paige: So many
people are responding to the hype. Here’s a true
story about why this drives me bananas: I was in a
very reputable spa in L.A. getting a massage. I was in
the steam room beforehand, and this guy was cruising
me. He’s showing me his dick and telling me how he
has some great coke and wants to go home and get
stoned. Then someone comes in and recognizes me, and
he figures out who I am. And then he’s like,
“Ugh, I hate that show. I just don’t
know anybody like those characters.”

Gant:
[Laughs] It’s so true!

Paige: Seriously,
dude, if only I’d had a mirror to hold up in that
steam room.