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The queer report

The queer report

Qaf

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

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.

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