Meet The Man Who's Pushed The Boundaries Of LGBT Representation For Two Decades
After he played Emmett on the iconic gay series Queer as Folk, Peter Paige co-created The Fosters, about a family with two moms. Now behind the camera, he reflects on how much things have changed.
It's been nearly 14 years since Showtime premiered Queer as Folk, an American take on the U.K. series about the lives of gay men in Pittsburgh. Aside from its British predecessor, there was nothing quite like it. This was a time before HBO's Looking, ABC's Modern Family, and even the relatively wholesome antics of the boys on Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Seeing LGBT characters on television — especially as unapologetic and explicit as Queer as Folk — was still brand new.
And Peter Paige, who played flamboyant, sometimes flighty Emmett Honeycutt on the series, is all too aware of the evolution of gay representation on TV. He was there in 2000 when Queer as Folk felt like a risky experiment, and in 2013, he co-created The Fosters with Bradley Bredeweg. The ABC Family drama centers on a lesbian couple, Stef (Teri Polo) and Lena (Sherri Saum), and their children — and while it's not the raw, sexually provocative series that Queer as Folk was, it's arguably just as subversive to heterosexual cultural norms. Here is a family that could be yours, with two moms in a loving, committed relationship.
Having existed within the world of LGBT television over the course of his nearly twenty-year career, Paige is well equipped to offer the kind of context few outsiders can comprehend. Sitting outside at a coffee shop in Burbank, not far from where The Fosters films, he did his best to put Queer as Folk's humble beginnings in perspective.
"Will and Grace was on the air, so we already sort of had that moment," Paige said. "But there's something about the comic representation of gay people that, I feel like up until that moment, they had really left out an entire part of what it is to be gay, which is that we actually had romantic and sexual lives."
Even 14 years after Queer as Folk premiered, complicated, three-dimensional queer characters on television remain too few and far between. But we can still see the effect of shows like it, as Paige notes. Behind the camera, he continues the work he's been doing since he stepped into Emmett's sizable shoes and now that television is less resistant to LGBT stories, the struggle becomes finding the right stories to tell — and not limiting characters by their sexual or gender identities.
"It's an interesting balance," the affable, yet direct Paige noted. "It's one we try to find with The Fosters. Yes, it's not about the 'being gay,' but it's also not like 'the gay' is like an asterisk. It's not like 'the gay' is a footnote. And that's certainly my human experience. My life's not about being gay — although one could argue I'm pretty professionally gay — but that's not how I experience life. Being gay is a profound part of who I am, but it isn't all of who I am."
While The Fosters tends to address the issues that queer people face obliquely, Queer as Folk tackled LGBT life head-on. It was a different approach for a different time — a social statement more befitting Showtime's salacious programming than ABC Family fare.
When Queer as Folk debuted, some worried that it was too explicit, portraying a version of gay life in which sex was always front and center. As Paige has learned throughout his years, it's largely impossible to find a happy medium that will satisfy all television viewers. But he's quick to note that the controversial and, at the time, graphic depiction of sex on Queer as Folk was just as essential to the movement as shows like The Fosters are today.
"People within the community complained that the show was too focused on sex, but I think when you actually go back and watch the show, it wasn't," Paige said, leaning forward to deliver his point. "It was focused on relationships, but we definitely kind of shoved the sex in everybody's faces a little bit to say, This is who we are. We're fully sexualized people. Deal with it. Get over it. I really think stopping that apology was where the change happened."
Although there are still strides to be made in terms of how much queer sex television is willing to give audiences, shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones are a far cry from the chastity of past LGBT sex scenes.
"I think by stopping pretending that we weren't sticking our dicks up each other's asses that we then grabbed back a whole lot of power we had been giving away," Paige continued, smiling. "I call it the shaft of the gay rights movement."
For queer people who worry that their identity is reduced to what they do in bed, too much focus on gay sex remains contentious. At the same time, there's a concern from many that TV's most popular LGBT characters — Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) on Modern Family, to cite a common example — are desexualized.
But Paige believes that's relative, noting that the sex lives of the characters on Modern Family are all quite tame, especially when compared to steamy cable fare. And yet, of course, there's always room for more gay sex, particularly since television insists on pushing boundaries on other fronts.
"I wish there was a lot more sex on TV and a lot less guns and a lot less murder. I wish we were talking about learning to have… meaningful sex in our lives rather than different ways that we can kill each other," Paige said. "Sex is amazing and confounding and dynamic and awful and beautiful and it's certainly worth talking about and worth exploring and helping people figure out where and how it's powerful and useful in their lives."
But it wasn't just sex that distinguished Queer as Folk from its predecessors in terms of representations of LGBT life. The show featured different types of gay men that, because they were fully realized, did not reflect conventional stereotypes. Paige was specifically drawn to Emmett because he was out, proud, and effeminate.
"I think effeminacy is something that's really important to talk about in the context of gay media representations, and in terms of the gay experience at large," he said.
For a long time, flamboyant gay characters were the norm — you can see plenty of examples on cringe-worthy episodes of '80s and '90s sitcoms. When it came to LGBT representation, the queen was the default. Writers and producers eventually realized it was offensive to limit gay characters to one type, but that forced a kind of overcompensation in which effeminacy was all but erased.
"There definitely has been this kind of Hollywood swing back from the pendulum of, OK, we're gonna do gay people, we're gonna do queens," Paige reflected. "And then it's like, No, no, no queens. Queen is too much."
For Paige, it was significant to play a character who wasn't overly consumed with acting masculine. Emmett never felt the need to apologize for the way he carried himself or behaved, reflecting a kind of personal pride that Paige still considers to be groundbreaking.
"Up until then, effeminate gay men were the butt of jokes, and were the first to get sick and the first to die, and the most likely to get beaten," Paige said, his voice taking on an air of gravity. "They were essentially victims or clowns. To have an effeminate gay man who was like, No, no, I'm the center of my universe, and that includes everything that every other character could want or need, was really powerful."
But in an attempt to steer clear of an offensive gay stereotype, television writers developed queer characters who might as well have been straight — and would have been, if not for a passing reference to the contrary. And while it's true that there are plenty of gay men who don't look or act like Emmett, there are many who do. To reduce a gay character to a punch line or to force some "ideal" of masculinity is to deny the reality of the queer experience.
As Paige suggests, television and film can open audience's eyes to people and experiences they might not otherwise see, and, in the case of Emmett, that meant a character who, in many ways, defied gender norms, and loved himself all the more for that.
"He was this effeminate gay man who had a sex life, had a love life, and liked himself. That was the piece of that character that was revolutionary to me," Paige said. "That was the thing that I saw between the lines in the pilot script, and it was the thing I hung my hat on. And it was what I think made him important in the scope of television."
By the time Paige and Bredeweg were pitching The Fosters in 2012, the show's gay content was not the toughest selling point.
"There was one family drama on television when we took out The Fosters — Parenthood," Paige recalled, pointing to NBC's series that, interestingly enough, did not feature a LGBT character at the time. "Everybody thought it sounded like a great show, but nobody thought there was a home for it."
But ABC Family, with its tagline, "A new kind of family," decided to take a chance on the series. When The Fosters debuted in June 2013, the network had already established itself as queer-friendly, with the immensely popular Pretty Little Liars featuring a central lesbian character. The only real resistance to The Fosters was the relative simplicity of its story.
"Everyone was like, 'We love the script, but is there a hook? Where's the hook? I don't know if there's a hook.' Because all their shows are pretty high concept," Paige said, his voice growing increasingly high to mimic the anxiety of the development process. "Somebody said, 'The hook is there's two moms.'"
Because The Fosters' storylines don't revolve exclusively around lesbian parents Stef and Lena, it's sometimes easy to forget that their family exists outside of the mainstream. And yet, that's part of the show's implicit power: The relatability of a queer family is still controversial to those who are determined to think of same-sex couples as essentially different from heterosexuals.
For Paige, the normalcy of the family dynamic in The Fosters is more influential at this point than explicit sex would be. Queer as Folk may have forced audiences to confront what LGBT people do in bed, but The Fosters forces audiences to confront LGBT people as loving parents.
"I think the simple truth about The Fosters is, when you watch them, you recognize yourself. You recognize your own family story, some version of it," Paige said. "You're gonna find a way into that story, and I think that's really confounding for people who want us to feel 'other than.'"
With the other writers, Paige approaches the stories he wants to tell from a psychological standpoint: Where are the characters? What do they want? How can they get from one point to the next? The key is not to focus on telling a "gay story," but on letting the characters' sexual identities inform the plot as much as any other aspect of their personalities. And the result is a series that catches viewers off guard by subverting expectations about what a show with two lesbian moms should be.
"Occasionally, the driver of a story is these are two women who are having a relationship and they're having to deal with X, Y, or Z factor because of that," Paige explained. "And that's just simply true. That's simply true to the circumstances of queer lives. But that's not where we start 95% of our stories — 95% of our stories come out of, All right, we have adopted siblings, we have foster siblings, we have their biological son, and here are the circumstances of their lives … And when those are your drivers, your stories don't come out explicitly gay."
Still, Paige knows we're not living in a post-gay world — far from it. He's quick to note that many of the classic struggles queer people face, which were examined in depth on Queer as Folk, continue to permeate gay life nearly 15 years later.
But we have reached a different point in queer storytelling. The coming-out narrative, once the omnipresent plot in LGBT films and television shows, has been done to death. It's not that it's no longer relevant, but that there are newer, more diverse stories to be told, many of which are long overdue.
"I'm glad the average gay and lesbian film festival isn't 14 coming-out films and a film about lesbians," Paige said with a smirk. "I think coming-out stories can still be quite beautiful and rich — we all come out. That's the thing that I think is interesting about human beings… There's still opportunity and resonance in a great coming-out story. That having been said, I'm glad there's lots of others out there too."
While The Fosters doesn't shy away from issues, it's not an "issues show" where characters exist mainly to teach lessons. But at the same time, there is often plenty to be learned from the stories the show does tell. It's a delicate balance, Paige admits, to keep a series that covers contemporary social issues and politics from devolving into heavy-handed after-school special fare.
Paige points to the Season 1 episode "Saturday," in which Lexi (Bianca A. Santos), the girlfriend of the Fosters' son Jesus (Jake T. Austin), and her very religious parents join the Fosters for dinner, along with Stef's father Frank (Sam McMurray). As it turns out, Lexi's Catholic parents fully support marriage equality, while Frank — despite having a lesbian daughter in a committed relationship — is resistant.
"My favorite, favorite episodes of the show are ones where a character will surprise you a little bit with their opinion about an issue — it's grounded and it's real, but it's different than maybe what you were expecting," Paige said. "We really try to avoid finger-wagging. And we really like to explore the gray of an issue, and to have people come down on different sides of something, and to talk about all the different ways, or show us the different ways that these kinds of questions might manifest in our lives."
Now in its second season, the scope of The Fosters' queer representation has grown. In the second half of Season 1, Cole, a young trans man living in Callie's group home, played by trans actor Tom Phelan, was introduced.
On a television landscape with very few transgender characters — and even fewer played by actual trans actors — the addition of Cole was an exciting one. And yet, Paige is quick to note this wasn't a calculated move. Like all of the other characters, Cole was brought on from an organic storytelling standpoint.
"It didn't come out of any, Oh, let's do a trans character. It came out of talking about, 'So Callie's [Maia Mitchell] going into this group home. It's a girls' home. Who's gonna be in this group home?'" Paige said. "Almost immediately one of us said, 'Well, what if there's someone who identifies as trans who's in a girls' home and being forced by the definition of the home, anyway, to misidentify his own gender?' I think we thought that was a really fascinating untold story."
As with Stef and Lena, the power of Cole on The Fosters is how he exists past his trans identity, without glossing over the realities of his life as a trans person. In doing so, The Fosters is able to avoid the criticism of tokenism. "I think he's a whole rich human being," Paige said in a way that's clear he's had this conversation before. "He's the only trans character we've shown on the show so far, doesn't mean he'll be the only one that we do. But I don't know. Tokenism to me is that thing of like, Oh, look, there's a trans character who I don't know anything about, who's not being explored as a human being, who's just there to check off a box. That's tokenism to me. I have to say, I don't think we're guilty of that."
As progressive writers, there is a tendency to sometimes overthink these things, Paige said. "You can police yourself too much," he continued. "You can over-PC yourself." The key is to focus on the honesty of the stories — and sometimes less on the reaction.
When Queer as Folk was on the air, the internet was not the incessant feedback machine that it is today. Now, Paige says, there is always pushback. And for all that The Fosters does for queer representation, it's not immune to criticism. For a man who has been part of LGBT television as much as Paige has, that's nothing new. Because there are so many fewer positive representations of queer people on TV, there is a higher standard to which these characters and series are held.
Paige points to HBO's Looking, a series that, in its first season that aired earlier this year, was criticized for being boring and offering a dull look at queer existence. "Looking to me feels like the show that so many people said they wanted during the Queer as Folk era," Paige noted. "They were like, 'Where are my boyfriend and I? We sit home and watch movies every night' … Looking has managed to be interesting while being very, very, very subtle in their storytelling."
The people who make LGBT television are constantly told they're not doing enough, but Paige has come to sympathize with those who think Queer as Folk was too sex-centric, Looking is not sex-centric enough, and The Fosters desexualizes the lesbian moms at its core. While he doesn't agree with the criticism — "They have sex!" he said. "And when they're not having sex, they talk about the fact that they're not having sex. They're not chaste." — Paige knows where the pushback comes from.
"I understand that we're hungry for representation," he said, sounding almost consoling. "I understand that we are a society obsessed with our own reflection, and the mirror is the 52-inch plasma in our living rooms. We are obsessed with television. We believe it to be true. What we see on television is real for us. It's what is going on in the world. And when you are not represented there, when you are not shown there, you feel invisible. I get that."
But that's why it's all the more important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture: There has been a massive amount of progress made over the past couple decades. Queer as Folk was a significant step in the right direction; The Fosters is another.
As the LGBT community grows and becomes more aware of what its lacking in representation — trans characters and people of color, for a start — it's essential to keep clamoring for more. But that doesn't diminish what got it to this point.
"I really believe that with Will and Grace and Queer as Folk and Ellen, we have changed the world," Paige said. "I really do. I believe that part of the reason the gay civil rights movement has been so expeditious is because of media, and I'm really grateful that I get to be a part of that again."