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‘Queer as Folk’ feels the chill

Drama wraps amid a changing climate on gay rights
/ Source: The Associated Press

An unexpectedly cold breeze swept the hotel’s poolside cafe where writer-producers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman were discussing their Showtime series “Queer as Folk.”

They’d left a late spring snowstorm behind in Toronto after wrapping filming there on the fifth and last season of their racy, radical gay drama and had anticipated sunny weather.

But the California day turned out to an apt metaphor for the chill that has descended on American tolerance of homosexual rights since “Queer as Folk” first aired.

“Look at where the gay community was five years ago and what’s happened since the (2004 presidential) election,” Lipman said, citing efforts to oppose same-sex marriage, gay adoption and other issues.

The social shift has become integral to the show. This season, “we deal with the fact there has been a step back, the rights of gay people seem to be slipping and there’s a backlash,” Lipman said.

Based on a British program of the same name, Showtime’s version focuses on four homosexual friends searching for love (or for alpha male Brian, sex) and happiness in Pittsburgh.

The social climate may have seemed less hostile in 2000 but the show, airing 10 p.m. ET Sunday, still had a rocky start.

On the edgeWith its depiction of the wildly promiscuous nightlife relished by Brian (Gale Harold) “Queer as Folk” became a lightning rod for those who condemned it as a slap at gay respectability.

The program created a serious quandary for one civil rights group, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

“We received complaints from some of our donors saying we should not support the show,” said GLAAD spokesman Damon Romine. “But we did so anyway at some risk to the organization. We recognized that this was an important and groundbreaking show” depicting non-stereotypical characters.

“Queer as Folk” was honored with a GLAAD media award for best drama in its first year and has been nominated each season.

Cowen and Lipman were startled by the gay backlash (and, they add, happily surprised at how many straight viewers embraced the show’s unvarnished humanity).

The men, who are personal and professional partners (“An Early Frost,” “Sisters”), refused to back down, taking on such difficult and charged issues as drug and steroid addiction, HIV and AIDS and gay-bashing.

Critics who focus on the freewheeling bedroom antics that especially marked the show’s early seasons are missing the bigger and evolving picture, Cowen argues.

“They say, ‘Oh, it’s overblown soap opera or it’s shallow characters.’ But I think anybody who watches the show with any regularity would take issue with those remarks. ... Most of the characters are in relationships, having children, and are very focused on career and family.”

Younger gay viewers, some who feel isolated by their sexual orientation, have written to express gratitude for the show’s honesty, Cowen and Lipman said.

Difficult choicesThe conflicts in the final season, which concludes July 31, are internal and external. Brian and childhood friend Michael (Hal Sparks) are at odds over Michael’s decision to embrace a quiet suburban life with partner Ben (Robert Gant) and their adopted son.

Brian, despite the loyal affection of Justin (Randy Harrison), remains intent on unfettered sexuality that, he argues, is surrendered by gays in a vain attempt to assimilate in the straight world.

The other pals face struggles, too.

Geeky, hardluck Ted (Scott Lowell), after overcoming an addiction to methamphetamine, is fighting the signs of age he figures will end any chance at romance.

Stylish Emmett (Peter Paige) finds pop culture fame when a local newscast hires him to bring his queer eye to straight guys — but can he play by the rules and keep his homosexuality cute, not threatening?

For the women on “Queer as Folk,” the stakes are high: Lesbian couple Lindsay (Thea Gill) and Melanie (Michelle Clunie), despite welcoming a second child, have split over Lindsay’s heterosexual affair.

Michael’s mother, Debbie (Sharon Gless) is enjoying domestic bliss with her police detective fiancé but has refused to marry until her son gets the legal right to tie the knot.

It’s ironic that “Queer as Folk” opened the doors for more gay programming, including Bravo’s “Queer Eye” shows and Showtime’s “The L Word,” as gay civil rights lost ground. But Cowen and Lipman say they intended to mirror the world, not change it.

That, and make an engaging drama.

“It’s a good time for the show to end,” Cowen said. “We fulfilled our intention, to show these boys we met five years ago who have now evolved into men with grown-up relationships and responsibilities.

“It’s been like a long novel and we got to the last chapter, and it’s a very satisfying ending for us.”