Arts & Entertainment
4 min

The rise of queer programming is a decidedly British trend

While the UK pushes deep into queer programming space, Canada is left behind

A clip from Russell T Davies’s Queer as Folk. 

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In 2015, queer British television is inspired by erections.

That, at least, is the inspiration behind Queer as Folk (UK) creator Russell T Davies’s latest drama on the UK’s Channel 4, slated for 2015.

Davies tells The Independent that “[a study on the erection] divided the hard-on into four categories, from soft to hard: one, tofu; two, peeled banana; three, banana; and four, cucumber. Right there and then, I knew I had my drama.”

That drama is called Cucumber and stars The Thick of It’s Vincent Franklin. While Davies’s earlier work chronicled a young character’s coming of age through the navigation of a new gay world, Cucumber will explore queers across generations, from Franklin’s Henry Best, a 46-year-old newly single bachelor, to a character played by Freddie Fox, a strapping young lad who becomes the object of desire for the winsome protagonist.

At a screening for Cucumber held by Channel 4, one scene had Franklin’s character shouting, “We all live together in a great big house, being gay!” With little else revealed, this could prove to be a queering of cult classics like the already fairly queer Tales of the City or, perhaps, Melrose Place — well, without dead bodies being found in the shared pool.

Although, given that Channel 4 is reportedly hoping to “outrage the Daily Mail,” perhaps a tinge of Twin Peaks mystery, Red Shoe Diaries sexuality and a nod to early “blue movies” isn’t completely out of the question.

Peter Wegner, head of drama programming at Channel 4, told The Independent, “In a drama looking at the details of people’s sex lives, whether gay or straight, of course you are required to bust taboos or ask probing questions. There’s no doubt people will find it challenging, but it’s asking intelligent questions in an original way.”

Davies will also be debuting two shows to accompany Cucumber: Banana, which will air on E4, and Tofu, which will explore the lives of real people and air exclusively on Channel 4’s website.

Next year, the British network plans to release three other queer projects: Carol, a film adaptation of The Price of Salt that explores a lesbian affair and stars Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett; a currently in-development film titled Underage & Gay and My Million View Sex Change, which follows young women using Testosterone Diaries to track the progress of their sex changes online; and Gay Love: Sex and Apps, which follows a man searching for a partner using geo-location-based sex apps like Grindr (akin to the work of Toronto’s Jaime Woo, who explores the nature of these apps in his debut book, Meet Grindr).

Channel 4’s big push for queer content is unprecedented. Yes, HBO has Looking, there is a gay couple in ABC’s Modern Family and queer characterization is shown in some form in Orphan Black, Girls, Archer, The Good WifeTrue Blood and more, but there has never been such an onslaught of gay programming from one non-queer-specific outlet. Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and NBC’s Will & Grace airing episodes in the same year isn’t quite the same thing.

And that lack of a hearty, supportive push can also be seen at Canadian networks, where sporadic placement of gay characters stands in for full-on programming.

Early examples occur in the late 1980s via the efforts of comedians on the sketch comedy shows CODCO and Kids in the Hall. CODCO’s most celebrated and recurring queer sketch was titled “Queen’s Counsellors,” a segment that focused on the exploits of two effete Newfoundland lawyers. And it is nearly impossible to ignore Kids in the Hall and its place in queering prime time, as it was home to “Steps,” a comedy bit about gay cruising on Church Street in Toronto; “Sappho Sluggers,” about a lesbian baseball team; and “Dracula,” a series of bits about a fey character with a hunger for “rough trade.” (If only Scooter McCreight’s Trade night at the Black Eagle existed back then, right?)

While Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001) has had its share of gay, bi and trans characters (like Adamo Ruggiero’s character Marco Del Rossi), Degrassi Junior High (1987) and Degrassi High (1989) merely discussed issues of homophobia and homosexuality without featuring LGBT people in the main cast.

After Degrassi came the spin-off series Liberty Street, in 1995which featured Billy Merasty playing Nathan Jones, Canadian television’s first depiction of a gay native man. Following the short, one-year run of Liberty Street, the same producers created Riverdale, which also continued in the theme of including a token gay character as part of the ensemble cast.

But it wasn’t just the realm of fiction that featured gay characterization, as networks, beginning in 1995, began to explore “queer” as a concept through documentary-style storytelling and cultural reporting.

Cable 10% was launched in 1995 and debuted on Rogers Community Television. It lasted for six seasons, and its name changed to 10%-Qtv in 1997. The station’s programming was created by a committee of volunteers who aired documentaries and feature reports on Canadian LGBT life and news. Similarly, CHUM/City TV launched QT: Queer Television in 1998, a weekly look at LGBT culture, hosted by Irshad Manji (it was the queer, documentary-style equivalent of Fashion Television).

And here and there, from the 1980s to today, gay characters continue to pop up in Canadian media, from gay bed-and-breakfast owner Sacha Martinelli (played by Salvatore Antonio) in 2001’s Paradise Falls to U8TV: The Lofters housemate Mathieu Chantelois to the married bear baristas in 2009’s Being Erica. 

Their existence as characters is, of course, crucial. Exposing the LGBT community gives it a face — whether you agree with each representation is a whole other can of worms. But while Channel 4 is setting an aggressive pro-queer networking precedent in the UK, Canadian media is still merely a sporadic collection of queer identities on mainstream television.