When You Learn What It Is To Be Gay Through Television

What do Courtney Act, Will & Grace, and Queer as Folk have in common? They were the basis of my queer education. The early 2000s was a weird time for queer people. We weren’t being discriminated against as severely as before, but education on the topic was non-existent. Change was in the air though. In America, Massachusetts legalised same-sex marriage in 2004 which was followed by Canada in 2005. Here in Australia, unless you lived on Oxford Street in Sydney, being gay or queer was still taboo. Queer personalities had started to penetrate the mainstream though. Courtney Act was on Australian Idol in 2003, which was my first exposure to a drag queen. I had no idea what a drag queen was, or the fact that Courtney was one. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I actually thought Courtney was a real woman – something I acknowledged to her when I met her in 2015, to which she laughed off. My lack of knowledge on her being a drag queen comes down to the absence of education on the queer community in 2003. Australia was changing for the better. Sadly, for a young queer kid in Darwin, Northern Territory, change was not coming fast enough. 

There is a joke we often tell in Darwin: Sydney is ten years behind London, and Darwin is ten years behind Sydney. We didn’t even have Channel Ten, so Courtney’s run on Australian Idol went completely unwatched by the Darwin community. I was lucky enough to learn about Courtney through the internet, which had made queer culture more accessible. It was during this research that I learned the term ‘drag queen’. What else didn’t I know about? And why wasn’t I being taught about it at school or by my mum?

So why is this story about Courtney important? It shows the education gap for queer children to learn about who they are and where they fit in. Rather than be taught in school about the LGBTIQ+ community, students of the time learned nothing. The 2000s didn’t have terms like ‘toxic masculinity’, and gender norms were ingrained into us. It seemed taboo to be an openly queer person in small rural towns. Perhaps it wasn’t and the situation was better than through the eyes of an eleven year old. It felt like you couldn’t talk about the subject with anyone, so I was none the wiser. If you confided in anyone, you were ostracised. I was already an outcast at school for being highly effeminate and weird; there was no way I was drawing more eyes to myself. So I found safety on the internet. Luckily for me, my family wasn’t tech-savvy enough to look up my past searches – that could have been a very sticky situation. I knew I was different, so I had to figure my sexuality out myself. Courtney Act was the starting point and I turned to television for my next lesson.

Will & Grace is a show I still idolise to this day, but for different reasons. In 2003, the characters of Will and Jack were the first glimpse I had at an openly gay cis male. Unknown to me, Will and Jack were portrayed as gay stereotypes – thank the political climate of the time. No one was complaining, because the queer community was happy to have representation. In 2020, watching the revival, the show has come a long way, no longer walking that fine tightrope to please the broader community. Officially the producers couldn’t push the boundaries too far and men kissing on the show happened only a handful of times in the original. In the revival, they had the attitude of being out loud and proud. They were making up for lost time. Nothing was off the table. Watching the revival also showed me how much I had grown. In 2003 I was the outsider, wanting to learn all I could about gay people. In 2020, I was the insider who knew every joke, every pop culture reference, and every gay buzz word. 

The other show which was integral to my development was Queer as Folk. I am showing my age here, but there used to be a TV guide magazine you would receive each month when you subscribed to Foxtel. Being the obsessive kid I was, and still am, I studied the TV guide back to front. I struck gold one night when I found a show called Queer as Folk. I knew queer was a gay word, and my curiosity increased tenfold. I stayed up one night to watch it. I didn’t have a TV in my room so I had to run the ultimate risk of watching it in the lounge room. 

If my mum caught me, I knew it was all over. First, she was a Nazi in terms of keeping a strict bed schedule. Being awake and watching TV past bedtime was the first cardinal sin I was committing. Second, if she caught me watching this show, a show about gay people, my secret was out. What if she walked in on a sex scene between two guys? The idea mortified me, but I had to run the risk, I had to know more about this show. To say I was shocked and flabbergasted the first time I watched Queer as Folk would be an understatement. 

From the beginning of this episode, there was graphic gay sex. I am pretty sure my mouth had dropped open in shock for the full forty minutes of the episode. It is so funny to think I missed all of the dialogue in that episode. I was watching it on such a low volume, I couldn’t hear anything. The visual was more than enough. I learned being gay was natural. I had opened the floodgates and my repressed sexuality came out in a tidal wave. I knew it could never be locked away again. I couldn’t pretend I was straight anymore. Well, not to myself anyway. Funnily enough, my mum bought me season 1 of QAF for my sixteenth birthday. If she only knew I was watching it in secrecy from 11 years old. 

Queer sex education and positive role models need to be adapted into the curriculum. No 11-year-old should be learning about it through the television. There are also benefits from teaching queer kids about positive role models in the community. Professor Annamarie Jagose at the University of Sydney says “Queer inclusions in curricula have the potential to make a meaningful difference to schooling environments, especially to understanding and confronting inequalities.” I would love to have read a queer text in school, and I am sure others would have too. Jagose suggests that having queer role models that students identify with will create a positive and healthy environment. Jagose even goes on to say that there may be a relation between queer discrimination and poor academic results. She says, “There is clear and overwhelming evidence that the wellbeing, mental health and educational achievement of LGBTIQ+ young people is often poorer than their cisgender and heterosexual peers.” This shows why training in schools is essential to create a safe teaching environment. From there, queer students could study queer texts to have positive queer role models.

Queer Australian writer, Benjamin Law, has a similar opinion to Jagose. In an interview with SBS he says, “I was writing the kind of book that I wish I had growing up, which just didn’t exist back then.” Again, we see the hole in the education system that was present for queer kids in the early 2000s. How Law outlines his writing goals are similar to my own. Law and I were so deprived of queer literature growing up that we aim to fill it ourselves. Puberty is hard enough, it’s worse for queer people. This is why education is so vital.

With the implementation of Safe Schools and the growing acceptance of the queer community, we can see there is change in schools. Learning to accept queer children from an early age will help close the discrimination gap. We can already see the gap closing in literature. In 2019 Growing up Queer in Australia, which Law edited, was release. It details stories similar to mine where we all realised we were unique and how we had to navigate our individuality. 

When I went to the Growing up Queer in Australia segment at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year, I found that others had shared my story. Two of the three guys, Nathan Mills and Samuel Leighton-Dore, did the same thing as me. They admitted that they stayed up and watched Queer as Folk in the dead of night as well. The other person on the panel, Phoebe Hart, told me when she did the Edinburgh film festival, Courtney Act told her the same thing too. How crazy that I had the same experience as my idol! The best thing about being gay or queer is that we all find camaraderie in our stories. That is why this anthology was so critical, it showed us that we are all bonded by our identity as queer people. Mills, Leighton-Dore, Courtney and myself all had to fill the education gap ourselves. 

The fact that we were all watching this show, in secrecy, shines a light on something. Education about being queer was non-existent at the time. The lack of knowledge about being queer in the 00s was a fundamental flaw in our development. In 2020, LGBTIQ+ young people aged 16 to 27 are five times more likely to commit suicide. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, aged 16 and over are nearly six times more likely to meet the criteria for a depressive episode. Yikes! Can you imagine what it would have been like in 2003? I am so thankful for all the progress made in recent years, especially the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2017. I have to wonder, though, are the gaps in education about being queer filled? Or are we still living in a ‘find-out-for-yourself’ world?

The same-sex postal survey seemed to be a turning point for queer people in Australia. So much has changed since then. There is much more education and exposure to queer culture now than in 2003. Children do not have to stay up late at night to watch a show about gay people on low volume. Rural towns such as Alice Springs, Broome and Wagga Wagga have their own pride parade now. Children in these small towns who identify as queer can be seen. It is great to see change, but as we saw from the safe school data, we have a long way to go. I am glad to see that change is happening and hopefully we can do more to help these queer Australian children who are suffering from mental health issues.

In a world where it is easy to feel alone and detached, having a similar experience to Courtney taught me that I am not a freak, that I am not alone. Having the same dream as Benjamin Law made me feel like I had a place to belong. With the launch of Rupaul’s Drag Race Down Under, we will have more queer faces on TV. Hopefully, their stories inspire the next generation of queer people. By closing this gap, queer children are closer to getting the right education in schools and no one will have to stay up to 2am and watch Queer as Folk to learn what it is to be gay.

Hi, I’m Jakeb. I am in my final year of my BFA and I couldn’t be more excited to be co-president of the QUT Literary Salon this year. I consider myself a poet with interest in Ekphrasis and confessional poetry. I also like to write fiction, specifically crime. You can find my work on my website.