My long-running relationship with queerness has been more complicated than any depicted on the most dramatic of soap operas. Even Passions. It has been an emotional rollercoaster, a real will they/won’t they, love/hate narrative. I started out rejecting my queerness, and I hated it for years. I fought against my thoughts and impulses, hoping one day it would stop and I would be ‘normal’. Once I accepted it was here to stay, I then felt deep shame, spending every second of my life ensuring that nobody but me would know about it, terrified that people would guess my secret. Then it all changed again when I hit my late teens. I was still so scared of people finding out about my queerness, but I simultaneously became absolutely desperate to seek it out somehow and devour it. I needed to see it, and feel like I was, or could one day be, a part of it.
Along came pop culture to fulfil (some of) my needs. Television and movies, while not exactly loaded with LGBTQI content at the time, became a place I could find and experience community, while also keeping my secret safe. Most of these things were independent movies, or TV shows with one gay character’s small storyline, little dribs and drabs that I hunted down and cherished.
I was still in the closet when the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy premiered in 2003. Queer Eye became the first mainstream TV show I’d experienced that not only featured multiple gay men who discussed their queerness openly, but it posited these men as superior to their heterosexual counterparts. Carson, Jai, Ted, Thom, and Kyan weren’t just ‘accepted’ or ‘tolerated’; they were also men that other men could learn things from.
Carson, Jai, Ted, Thom, and Kyan weren’t just ‘accepted’ or ‘tolerated’; they were also men that other men could learn things from.
It was also different in that it was the first explicitly queer-themed TV show that my heterosexual family and friends would watch and discuss openly. At the time this made me extremely tense – I tried to strike a balance between giving myself away by showing too much enthusiasm, or by acting strangely. And instead of being empowering and a joy to watch, the show itself just made me feel uncomfortable and anxious.
Queer Eye featured a group of men who existed across a spectrum of flamboyancy, from the comparatively reserved Ted Allen all the way to the high camp of Carson Kressley. To me, someone who had not experienced much queerness in reality, it felt like Queer Eye affirmed every stereotype that the homophobic outside world thought about gay men. It told the world that gay men were fashionable, fussy and interested in grooming – that they were different. I didn’t want to be different; I was scared of being discovered, avoiding anything that might signal I was gay (except horse riding), and I was convinced the only way to be accepted and happy was to hide my true self and just fit in. The Fab Five didn’t do any of that. They drew attention to their differences; they celebrated them, and tried to get everyone else to celebrate them as well. At the time, that terrified me. When I imagined coming out to my friends and family, I imagined telling them that I was still the same person, I was still ‘just like them.’ Please don’t reject me, please don’t reject me.
It felt like Queer Eye affirmed every stereotype…that gay men were fashionable, fussy and interested in grooming – that they were different.
Enter 2018 and Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot. The Fab Five now consists of Jonathan, Tan, Antoni (gay John Mayer), Bobby, and Karamo. Coming fifteen years later than the original, the reboot has been necessarily updated in a few ways. The show has left New York, venturing south, to the more conservative Atlanta. Each episode features the guys making over the lives of a man, but they’re no longer exclusively straight men – the season’s fourth episode featuring a closeted gay man is one of its best. The new cast also seem to be much more open about discussing attraction and sex; the show also covers broader social issues, like the episode where Karamo and a police officer have an emotional conversation about Black Lives Matter.
Queer Eye isn’t perfect, of course; it’s still very much mainstream gay, adhering too much to what men should and shouldn’t be like, and binary ideas of what masculinity and femininity mean. (Also, Antoni the food guy just seems to teach people how to cut avocados.) I would love to see a version that includes queer women, and non-binary or trans people; to help truly dissect the ideas of gender roles, and to kill heteronormativity for everyone. Imagine seeing a show where lesbians give advice to straight women on how to shed the ideas about what a ‘woman’ should be in order to impress men, or where transgender men have discussions with cis men to dissect the ways in which social constructions of gender create toxic masculinity.
But even though the show isn’t exactly what I would like to see, this time around, I still really let myself enjoy watching Queer Eye for what it is. There were a lot of changes brought to the show that helped me get on board this time around, but the main thing that has changed is me, and my relationship to queerness. That dynamic has evolved to a place where not only have I accepted being queer, but I truly love it, and I feel blessed every single day that I get to be part of this community. I celebrate our differences, and I adore our differences to other communities.
There were a lot of changes brought to the show…but the main thing that has changed is me, and my relationship to queerness.
No longer am I watching Queer Eye and cringing at how camp someone is. Now I cringe when something is said that seems too heteronormative, or gender essentialist. My favourite Queer Eye expert is grooming guy Jonathan, who embodies every stereotype of an extremely camp gay hairdresser you might be able to think of. It is a privilege to feel safe enough to be able to live as you desire, and it is a privilege to get to watch someone live with that freedom. I want to live in a world where I get to see such blatant and unapologetic queerness on television all of the time.
Society has changed a lot in the fifteen years since the original Queer Eye, and the show itself has made some changes in accordance. But I think people are ready for even more. Or at least, I hope for a show to push the envelope further than the new Queer Eye does, as sweet as it is. It’s still largely a show about affluent, handsome and agreeable cisgender gay men, a group that has already had by far the biggest share when it comes to LGBTQI media representation in the last fifteen years. If society is comfortable with anyone now, it is comfortable with palatable gay men who talk about their weddings. Real societal and legal progress has been made because our community pushes and fights for it. Now is not the time to stop pushing. It’s been a long fifteen years since the original Queer Eye, and I can’t wait to see how queer we all get in the next fifteen.
Queer Eye is available now on Netflix.