EDITOR’S NOTE: We first posted this article back in 2007. Over the next week we’ll be highlighting some of our coverage from the past five years.
If this article were being written about important gay male sex scenes on television prior to 2000, it would be extremely short. In fact, it would cover exactly one sex scene. And that wasn’t even an actual sex scene, but more a postcoital cuddle between thirtysomething‘s Russell and Peter, because, well, that’s all there was.
And then in 2000, Showtime decided to adopt a new slogan for its struggling cable network: "No Limits." And to test those non-limits, they let a soapy drama called Queer as Folk premiere with what it called " the longest lick down the backside of a boy of any TV broadcast in history." Queer as Folk was a show that clearly didn’t know the meaning of the phrase "fade to black."
Since then on the broadcast TV channels, however, there hasn’t exactly been an explosion of hot man-on-man action. Still, there are a handful of shows over the years that showed men either about to have sex or having just had sex, all slowly changing the landscape for gay male visibility. Those scenes have been among the most groundbreaking moments in television history. ER, thirtysomething and Brothers & Sisters all made it onto our list because they each represent another step on the long road toward televised sexual parity for gay men.
Still, cable’s where it’s at for gay male sex, even if it’s been toned down since Queer as Folk ended its five-year run. Queer as Folk , Noah’s Arc (which aired on Logo, AfterElton.com’s parent company), and Dante’s Cove (here!) all unabashedly showed their gay male protagonists as fully sexualized, frequently naked characters. Meanwhile, shows like HBO’s Six Feet Under, The Wire and Oz went with groundbreaking story lines, but played coy with the explicit sex.
1. thirtysomething: Russell and Peter
This 1989 scene from the popular drama thirtysomething is the godfather of all gay male sex scenes on television. Titled "Strangers," the episode depicted series regular Melissa’s friends Russell (David Marshall Grant) and Peter (Peter Frechette) in bed together, sharing an intimate moment and a kiss — although the kiss didn’t make the final cut of the show.
For sexiness, it barely ranks, but its importance can’t be overstated. At a time when homosexuality was becoming ever more prominent in the news and closely associated with the exploding AIDS epidemic, television was startlingly devoid of representations of gay men in anything other than stereotypical roles. To show two men simply lying around in bed after having sex, engaging in some comfortable pillow talk just like the other characters on the show, was probably more radical for 1989 broadcast television than showing soft-core porn on cable in 2000 — and not just because of the shock factor. It showed gay men as sexual human beings, not one-dimensional caricatures or joke fodder.
It was a long, long time before television tried anything like that again; airing the episode cost the network more than a million dollars in lost ad revenue. Because of the enormous controversy it caused, "Strangers" wasn’t shown in reruns, either.
Hotness Rating: 2/10
Romance Rating: 8/10
Significance Rating: 10/10
2. Queer as Folk: Brian and Justin
From its very first episode in 2000, Queer as Folk showed its gay and lesbian characters exploring almost every sexual theme possible on film, including the series’ first sex scene, the so-called deflowering of 17-year-old Justin (Randy Harrison) by the man who would be, mostly unwillingly and never monogamously, the love of his life, 29-year-old Brian (Gale Harold).
There had never been anything like it on television before, and there’s not likely to be anything quite that explicit again anytime soon. Not even later shows that include gay male sex scenes that air on gay cable networks (Noah’s Arc and Dante’s Cove) have gone where Queer as Folk dared to tread. In fact, when Logo recently aired reruns of Queer as Folk, it edited some of the sex scenes out.
Which raises the question: Do we need to see it? Queer as Folk went further than most straight-oriented TV dramas — right up to the border of soft-core porn and, some might argue, over it. They explored story lines involving public sex, sexually transmitted diseases and open relationships, and tied those plot elements into explorations of commitment, sexual identity, self-esteem and gay culture. Could Queer as Folk have done that without pushing the envelope with its sex scenes?
Maybe, maybe not. "No limits" isn’t just about sex; it’s about working without preconceived boundaries and trying to do something new. Sure, it was a soap opera with pretty, naked people, and no one’s arguing that it was great art. But sometimes knowing your lovers don’t have to sleep in their underwear or have their sex scenes fade inexorably to black sets you free in other ways, too. (Although, of course, sometimes it is just all about the pretty, naked people.) Fortunately for history, DVD lives forever. You can see Brian and Justin in their first, most explicit, and most romantic sex scenes, just the way the "No Limits" folks intended them to be seen, and decide for yourself.
Hotness Rating: 10/10
Romance Rating: 5/10
Significance Rating: 10/10