As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in Pittsburgh, so when Showtime premiered the first-ever network broadcast of a gay drama 20 years ago this month, based in Pittsburgh, my interest was naturally piqued.
I was disappointed, and in hindsight maybe tinged with jealousy, after watching the first few episodes in what seems like a lifetime ago. The show’s thumping, gay-central Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh was nothing like the thoroughfare I knew intimately, lined with office buildings and straight bars; more Wall Street than Christopher Street. I understood that the creators wanted to show that gay life could thrive in a smaller metropolis, in the Midwest, but I wasn’t buying that happening in Pittsburgh.
Then, there was that nagging envy. While I was finally coming to terms with my sexuality at 36 in 2000, I was also considered “old” by the characters on the show who were fretting about turning 30. They were young. I wasn’t. I was archaic to them. Past my prime. How dare they.
More so, the clique that they inhabited was foreign to me; perhaps, because I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable with who I was. I lacked a core group of gay friends and a gay bar or club we could call “our own.” The show made me feel like I had either missed out on something exciting or lost the opportunity to live the life of a free and connected gay man. Midway through the first season, I lost interest.
It wasn’t until 2015, after I had turned 50, and was in the depths of a crippling severe depression, that I, for reasons that still remain unclear, decided to binge watch the series in my dark and lonely apartment during a desolate time in my life. This time, Queer as Folk was at once nostalgic and bittersweet. It took me back to a period when I was young, dancing and yearning to be a free gay man. At the same time, I realized that I had misused my gay youth by not being more open to having a network of LGBTQ+ friends. Being gay in my 20s was just a series of one-night stands. Gay men were not friends, just sex partners. My path to gay freedom was pretty lonely.
The show took me back to 1994 when, after moving to Manhattan, I met someone while I was attending acting school. My first so-called boyfriend in NYC. He was cute, kind and fun, and the first two weeks of our courtship gave me a taste of being happy in a relationship with a man. That is until walking home one-night, he stopped me on the street and told me he was HIV-positive, and in that instant my optimism for love and happiness was crushed. I could barely handle being gay, so how could I, in all honesty, handle what was considered a death sentence at that time? I walked away.
During my depression I spent a lot of time reexamining my life, so I was jolted into thinking about that relationship when I hit season two of Queer as Folk. The show introduced the character of Ben, an HIV-positive hunk of a man, who would go on to date the lead character, Michael; albeit, with some bumps in the road, and questions about whether a negative man could be in a loving relationship with a positive one. Michael made the opposite choice that I did back in 1994. He and Ben would go on to be married and live happily ever after.
To me, Ben was the most integral part of the series, and his relationship with Michael, the most significant story line. Their romance gave me pause. What did I miss by pushing a wonderful, HIV-positive man out of my life? Ben and Michael showed that love went beyond someone’s HIV status. It was groundbreaking at the time. And to many, it was shocking – and unacceptable. It wasn’t worth the risk of dating someone whose health was precarious. Moreover, Ben’s virile vitality was not how HIV-positive people were portrayed on television or in films at that time. Michael and Ben’s reality was more like an unreality... or was it? Their story was one that needed to be told at a critical time.
Today, there should be no inhibitions about someone being positive, thanks to antiretrovirals and life-saving medications that make it impossible to transmit HIV (the concept of Undetectable Equals Untransmittable or U=U). But for those who are negative, are they really more willing to be in a romantic relationship with an HIV-positive person? And if so, does a show like Queer as Folk still matter, or still resonate, 20 years later?
Out actor Robert Gant played the character of Ben Bruckner. Gant, an attorney before he thankfully decided to embark on a more creative career, brought a lawyer’s deliberateness to the role of Ben, coupled with a big heart and gentleness that belied his muscular physique. When Gant and I connected to talk about the show, and his vital part, I didn’t expect a 90-minute phone conversation with someone who genuinely reflected on the fictional character he played on television. Gant is kind, thoughtful and circumspect, just like Ben.
“I had always dreamed of playing Harold Hill in Music Man, and even flew to New York in 2001 where the show was playing on Broadway and met with the director Susan Stroman,” Gant relayed during our intimate call from his Los Angeles home. “I was tentatively offered the part of Hill in a national tour of the musical, and to make a long story short, it all fell through. I was crushed, but within the next month, my agent called about Queer as Folk, and my life changed forever. It was one of those cases of life not working out the way you wanted, but the way it should have.”
For those who don’t know, Queer as Folk was based on a British TV series of the same name, and when it premiered on Showtime exactly 20 years ago, it quickly became the number one show on the network. Gant had obviously heard all about the show before he was cast, and harbored a desire to work on something that was so groundbreaking. “The show made a huge splash, and to be considered for a part in the show was humbling to me. I remember when I first read about the character of Ben, a professor, who had to be as comfortable in a classroom as on a dance floor. I remember thinking, this just might be the role I’m supposed to play. It really just felt right from the beginning.”
The audition for Ben took about a month, ending when Gant was told by his agent to fly to Toronto, where the show was shot and in production, for a final audition. He was advised to pack for the trip as if he was staying for a few months, just in case he got the part. “I read for the part again in Toronto, and they immediately gave it to me, but they wanted me to meet Hal (Hal Sparks who played Michael) to make sure there was chemistry, and there was. The next thing I knew, I was in hair and makeup, and shooting my first scene in the comic book store where Ben meets Michael for the first time.”
Gant did not come out personally and publicly until a year into the show, when he graced the cover of The Advocate in 2002. Was Gant a little apprehensive about playing a gay character while he was still in the closet? “I was out personally at the time I took the role, but not professionally. It seems ridiculous looking back that it took me a year to come out, but for all of us the coming out process is a journey, and it was for me too. I do know that when I did, it was really life affirming. I heard from so many wonderful people at the time, and from a lot of people who were positive as well.”
I asked Gant if the fact that Ben was HIV-positive may have given him some trepidation about playing the role? “Actually, the producers didn’t share that information at first, and I learned that attribute of the character halfway into the audition process,” Gant explained. “I was thrilled to have a role that gave voice to the HIV community and the broader LGBTQ community. At that time, if I remember correctly, there really weren’t any high-profile voices on TV, so I think the character of Ben was a seminal moment for our community. I felt proud and grateful for the chance to represent that voice.”
“I believe Ben was the first character that was HIV-positive on television to live such a fully realized life that stopped being about the meds. I know prior to Ben’s arrival, there was Uncle Vic (Michael’s uncle who was HIV-positive.) who had meds lining the counter in Debbie’s (Michael’s mom) home. Ben also had a cabinet full of medication that Michael finds when they’re first together. But once they passed that living to survive aspect, and passed the HIV issue, it was Ben just living his life with Michael.”
I had read that the show received some pushback during its first year for its depiction of Uncle Vic as homebound, sad, and sickly. I asked Gant if he was brought on to illustrate a different side of being positive? “Ben was a departure from that portrayal, and he was mostly healthy, with some challenges along the way,” Gant pointed out.
“When episodes started airing about Debbie having such a pronounced negative response and fear about her son dating an HIV-positive person, despite the fact that she was well aware of HIV by taking care of her own brother, we did hear from a lot of people who thought that was wrong. They even picketed the show; however, we had already filmed the story arc where Debbie eventually accepts Ben. I think overall though, viewers were very happy with the interpretation. HIV-positive was something that TV shows in general related to sickness – and rightly so, because so many people did suffer and tragically died.”
I asked Gant about hearing from people who admired Ben’s character, and wondered if he heard from negative guys contemplating relationships with positive ones, and vice versa? “I heard from people who were in or had been in relationships who were negative and appreciated what they went through with their partners or what their partners went through who were positive,” Gant recalled. “I also heard from people who were afraid about the prospect of what that might look like, interacting or dating people who were poz.”
“I still hear from people about the Ben and Michael relationship, and from every aspect around a negative/positive coupling. People did, and still do, have an appreciation for what Ben and Michael stood for. One of the great gifts of getting to play Ben, was hearing from people around the world that they had someone they could identify with.”
In season three, the show added the character of Hunter, an HIV-positive teenage hustler befriended by Ben and Michael. I asked Gant how important it was to have Hunter as an HIV-positive teenager, and what that meant to the character of Ben. “That was such a great experience and storyline. It was really beautiful for Ben to care for Hunter, and to have that mutual experience of being positive with him,” Gant shared. “Michael and Ben eventually adopted him, and I think it was a lovely parallel of having a father and a child deal together with what was arguably the most challenging thing each of them ever dealt with. I think Hunter also helped Ben come to terms with having lost his previous partner to AIDS.”
While medications and antiretroviral therapy has allowed people who are positive to lead healthy lives, a stigma still exists, and for many who are positive, it’s still an uncomfortable situation to reveal their status to a new love interest. Have things changed all that much since Ben and Michael?
“Obviously, I think and hope that we have changed, and that having that component in a relationship is not such a big deal, since most well informed gay men get the idea of the impact of meds and the new reality of being undetectable,” Gant surmised. “But I think we need to continue to disseminate that message more fully, particularly for folks who still don’t get it, or process it correctly, so that it becomes a non-issue.”
To that end, I asked Gant if the show still mattered after 20 years? “Oh yeah,” he quickly replied. “And in a unique way. I just talked to a guy who had never watched the show, and he was deeply moved by it. I still hear from so many people, and from the current generation as well, about how important the show is, and what it means to them. While aspects of the show are dated in some instances, so many things are all too relevant today. I think the show will continue to be a beacon, because young or old, people are still stepping forward, still coming out, still coming to terms with HIV, and still pushing for equality.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.