Art and life - 'Queer As Folk' back with marriage in mind

Thursday, April 29, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- Producers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman figure they have bragging rights when it comes to putting the "queer" into television.

Their Showtime drama "Queer As Folk" preceded "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" by three years. Unlike Bravo's G-rated makeover show, Cowen and Lipman also brought steamy, unabashed gay sexuality to TV.

They're unabashedly proud of the show's impact.

"Now people are used to seeing gay personas, gay characters," Lipman said. "I think 'Queer As Folk' had a little something to do with people perceiving gay people in a way they hadn't before, and with gay people perceiving themselves."

In the fourth season (9 p.m. Sunday) and with a significant change in the political and social climate, Cowen and Lipman are eager for viewers to take note of the show's immediacy.

"Gay people and gay issues certainly are in the spotlight now, in a way they have never been before," said Cowen, citing the growing controversy over gay marriage.

"I don't think 'Queer As Folk' has ever been more relevant than it is now," said Lipman, echoing his personal and professional partner. Their other credits include the groundbreaking AIDS movie "An Early Frost" and the NBC series "Sisters."

An insult and threatThey have been stirred by the fight for same-sex marriage and the resistance to it, which they called an insult and threat to homosexuals. Their creative response is an emboldened show.

It started its 14-episode run this month. Showtime, which this season started the lesbian drama "The L Word," hasn't announced whether "Queer As Folk" will return for a fifth year.

In an earlier season, two lesbian characters engaged in a sweet commitment ceremony; this year, the producers said, there will be a wedding. Gay bashing, which in the first season was greeted with a sense of helplessness, sparks a far different response this time out.

Justin, played by series co-star Randy Harrison, hears an impassioned call to arms at a community meeting and joins a vigilante group -- the colorfully named Pink Posse -- to target attackers.

"That speech is very important because it raises the question of how much are you willing to take before you stand up and say, 'I've had enough and I'm going to fight back,"' Cowen said. "It's certainly a question that needs to be asked, when is enough enough?"

He said he had enough when President Bush supported a constitutional ban on same-sex nuptials.

"It's creating second-class citizens, it's making gay people subhuman because they don't have the same rights as everyone else," Cowen said. "It opens the door for prejudice, perhaps even violence, because the president is saying gays are not the same as straight" people.

The show was completed well before it started airing, making inclusion of the marriage issue seem prescient. But the producers credit their alertness to time spent in Canada, where the series films.

Same-sex marriage has been declared legal by provincial courts in three Canadian provinces which, together, represent more than half the country's 32 million people. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin promised to introduce a bill to legalize it.

"It certainly made an impression upon us as Americans living in a foreign country that gay people have certain rights we don't back home," Cowen said.

He and Lipman say they're grateful to have a forum in "Queer As Folk" and point out they never shied away from using it.

Cowen ticks off a list of issues they've tackled, including AIDS discrimination; relationships between HIV-negative and positive men; drug and steroid addiction; and adoption.

The wide-ranging topicality may have been clouded early on by the show's sexuality, embodied by freewheeling stud Brian (Gale Harold), Cowen suggested.

"People were so shocked they didn't see the other aspects of the show. All they saw was Brian's behavior," he said. That included club carousing and a succession of one-night (or shorter) stands.

Cowen and Lipman contend the sex scenes were honest, not gratuitous. To them, it was a chance to finally give homosexual passion a bit of the screen space reserved for heterosexuals.

But they discovered that not all gays felt the same way.

"A lot of gay people feel it's dirty laundry and they don't want people to see it," Lipman said. "But sex is a big part of the gay community. To deny it ... is not real."

Others in the gay community embraced the depiction, he said, and he believes time will vindicate the approach. He likes to imagine the show in DVD collector boxes with a place on fans' shelves.

"I always felt 'Queer As Folk' would be a reflection of where gay people stood, where the issues were, where the gay community was at the turn of the 21st century," he said. "So we try to be as reflective of what's going on as possible."


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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber"at"ap.org

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