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2002 - April

The Post-Gay Gay Icon
New York Magazine
by Simon Dumenco
April 29, 2002

He's hot, he's talented, and he's out. No surprise that Queer As Folk star Randy Harrison has legions of fans. But who'd have guessed how many of them would be women?

Since this is the gay issue, and Randy Harrison is one of the stars of the gayest show on TV, Showtime's Queer As Folk, we might as well get the gay question out of the way. Which, actually, is exactly what Randy Harrison has done. "I told my close friends and my parents when I was 16," he says. And then he did something else: Unlike most gay actors, he never bothered to go back into the closet.

"I had a conversation recently with these gay movie producers about how in Hollywood pretty much everybody behind the scenes is out. But the actors still aren't. In a way, it just seems like it's too late for established actors to come out, because they've been part of the illusion, this mass manipulation, for too long." The machinery is still grinding away, says Harrison. "In L.A., people's publicists package them with other people to create the appearance of a relationship — they call the press and say, 'Be outside this restaurant at this time and you'll see this actor and that actress, and they're together.' Once you're caught up in that, you're fucked."

"How many people have done what Randy's done?" asks Ron Cowen, the co-executive producer, with Daniel Lipman, of QAF. "In terms of gay history, how many actors at 24 years old are out and are as successful and in as visible a position as Randy is? I can't think of any. In a way, he's a first."

Now let's get the "is he acting or just playing himself?" question out of the way. Short answer: He's acting.

Queer As Folk, for the uninitiated, shows a particular slice of gay culture: the sex-crazed, club-hopping milieu. For this reason, it's both loved (for its frankness) and hated (by those who think it reflects badly on the gay community). But when Harrison — who lives in the East Village when he's not shooting in Toronto — first got the part, he actually had to do research on gay nightlife: He went to Splash in Chelsea, "because I really hadn't been to a lot of gay clubs. I've always felt like a dork in gay clubs. Like I don't have the body thing, and I'm not into the body thing. And the first gay bar I ever went to when I was living in Atlanta, I felt more isolated than I ever have in my life. I thought, My God, is this internalized homophobia? Is this self-hatred? Eventually, I realized I'm just a gay man who hates dance music." (Harrison's partial to the White Stripes, Clinic, early Bowie, Lou Reed.)

In person, Harrison is quietly intense, and his look — wire-frame glasses, an exceedingly bland tan sweater, unremarkable jeans — is so understated that it doesn't even qualify as geek chic. On QAF, Justin's nickname is Sunshine because of his generally cheery disposition — though that's been changing a bit lately. In this, Queer As Folk's second season, Justin has gotten more nuanced: He's been recovering from a brutal gay-bashing in last year's finale.

"His character is taking some turns now," says Sharon Gless, the Emmy Award–winning actress (Cagney & Lacey) who plays the proud-mom-of-a-gay-son on QAF. "And sometimes I like just standing back and watching him work. Randy is a phenomenon." Gless says Harrison recently filmed a scene in which his character displays a dark edge. "The transformation he did from being this sweet child to being cold — cold! — was astounding. And I thought, Oh, my God, this kid is good."

Now let's get the personal- and professional-history stuff out of the way. Randy Harrison was born in New Hampshire, but his family moved to Atlanta when he was 11. (His dad is the CEO of a paper company; his mom's "a thwarted artist and a genius"; his older brother is a bank manager.) The acting thing happened in preschool: "My parents couldn't find a baby-sitter, so they brought me to a production of Peter Pan when I was 5. I was transfixed. I knew I wanted to be onstage after that."

His gay-style résumé has always been paltry. "I was so grunge in high school. I wore huge flannels and Doc Martens and cords." Post-high school, he survived the brutal (and renowned) theater program at CCM, the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, even though he wasn't exactly popular with the faculty. (The program director boycotted his rebel production, with a group of fellow students, of Shopping and Fucking.)

He moved to New York, and then, having never before appeared on-camera, got cast in Queer As Folk after one audition and two call-backs.

"Thank God they were desperate," he says of the QAF producers.

Now let's get the instant-fame thing out of the way. Here is the typical fan reaction — not just to Harrison but to the entire QAF cast — according to Harrison's co-star Peter Paige: "Obsessed! Screaming, crying, 'Ohmigod, ohmigod!' "

If you're picturing hysterical homosexuals, think again, because that reaction actually comes from teenage girls, says Paige. And lots of older women, too (though they're not nearly as rabid).

It's a weird quirk of mainstreamed gay culture that QAF is a hit with straight women. At a recent first-season-DVD-signing session at the Lincoln Center Tower Records featuring Harrison, Paige, and co-star Gale Harold, "it was like 'N Sync or something," says Harrison. "I think we signed 700 or 800 boxed sets." At $90 a pop.

Okay the graphic-sex thing. It's time to get that out of the way — because QAF really can be steamy, at least as steamy as, say, Sex and the City.

Harold, the straight actor who plays Justin's boyfriend, Brian, says, "A lot of it happens in editing, although Randy and I are certainly making out and simulating sex. We're comfortable enough with each other to be able to give them enough raw material, you know what I mean?" For his part, Harrison says, "The sexuality required for the role never scared me at all."

And then, finally, to bring things full circle, let's get the future out of the way. As in, does an out-at-24 actor have one?

Apparently, yes. Next week, previews begin for the MCC Theater's A Letter From Ethel Kennedy, directed by Tony winner Joanna Gleason. It's Harrison's New York stage debut. And later this year, he plays the "head of a group of total outcasts" in Bang Bang You're Dead, a scathing Showtime movie about high-school violence.

It's a breakthrough role for the breakthrough actor because Harrison's character is straight.

"I'm still associated with the gayest show on TV," he says, "but the fact that I got the coming-out over with means the gay-actor thing will be on the back burner. At some point it'll be, 'He came out so long ago nobody even cares anymore.' "

Lazy writers?
The Wockner Wire
by Rex Wockner
April 11, 2002

In my previous column, I ripped Showtime's "Queer as Folk" for predictable plots, plodding directing and a lack of finesse, complexity and nuance. Since then I've watched several more episodes, and I'm not done ripping yet.

"QAF" is supposed to be realistic, at least for a subgroup of gay men living urban ghetto lifestyles. But in at least two instances this season, the show was flat-out wrong about things that can be fact-checked easily. That drives me nuts.

Instance #1: Ted took a Viagra, developed a priapism condition, and walked around with a hard-on for several days, with his doctor's knowledge. How stupid is that?

Here's what the Physician's Desk Reference says about a Viagra-induced prolonged erection: "In the event of an erection that persists longer than 4 hours, the patient should seek immediate medical assistance. If priapism is not treated immediately, penile tissue damage and permanent loss of potency may result."

If the writers didn't know this, they should be embarrassed. If they did know it, and chose to use the plot device anyway, they're lazy.

Instance #2: Ted starts a porno site and when Emmett strips before the Web cam, the site suddenly has hundreds of new viewers within a few seconds.

Huh? If viewers were not already at the site, they would not have known that Emmett started stripping. You can't increase hits on a Web site in a few seconds by putting something provocative on it. If we changed the picture on my PlanetOut column from a headshot of me to an alleged picture of Tom Cruise kissing John Travolta, it would take several days for word of our stunt to filter through cyberspace and up the column's hits.

The "QAF" writers surely knew they were outside the bounds of reality on this one. That's lazy in a show that purports to be realistic. It is annoying and distracting.

Showtime, we're thrilled (thrilled, I tell you) that you're airing "Queer as Folk," but we deserve the same professionalism and artistry that HBO gives to "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under."

Realistic Rosie?

Writer Michelangelo Signorile and I had a 90-minute debate on the phone about whether it really can be the case that Rosie O'Donnell has, as she says, never been discriminated against for being, as she calls herself, a gay woman.
I say yes, Mike says no. I believe her because I can only count five instances in which I may have been discriminated against for being gay in 23 years of being "out."

My gayness may have been the reason I was fired from a newscaster position in 1979 and a paralegal job in 1987, but I can't be certain. In the case of the law firm, it was true, as they said, that they didn't have enough work to keep me busy. But the firing came right after I appeared on local TV news as a spokesman for a gay AIDS group.

In the case of the news job, they said, "It's just not working out" when it was, in fact, working out fine and I had just gotten a raise. Shortly after getting the raise, I made my first trips to the local gay bar and had some brief phone conversations at work that may have tipped off the assignment editor, who sat near me, that I was gay. I may have been canned for being gay.

The other instances are a severely Catholic friend who ended our friendship when I came out, a probably closeted friend who ended our friendship rather than (I theorize) accept his own sexuality, and a macho friend who ended our friendship based on his discomfort.

That's what I recall from 23 years of not making my sexuality a secret. Michelangelo argues that I no doubt am careful about where I kiss my boyfriend in public, etc., and that this is a form of being discriminated against on a daily basis. I sort of get that, but I'm really not very careful about where I kiss my boy, and no one has ever smacked me and called me a homo, or chased me down the street with a tire iron.

I have a theory that people who expect to experience discrimination may encounter more of it. I have gay and transgender acquaintances who seem to get discriminated against almost weekly. On the other hand, those of us who view our homosexuality as perfectly normal, and don't make it into an hysterical elephant in the living room, maybe end up having that reality reflected back at us by most people who figure out we're gay.

I think that's exactly the case with Rosie, who I think has handled herself fabulously in recent weeks.

Is it just moi?

Is it just me who keeps being irritated by "Queer As Folk"? It turns out, I'm not alone. I asked some friends for their assessment.
Writer Larry Kramer told me: "It's like soft porn and useful late at night. I am living in Pittsburgh (where I had my liver transplant) at present and let me tell you that nothing, but nothing, in "Queer as Folk" exists in this town. You can't even find the gay bars, much less the gays who go to them."

That's another realism issue I didn't mention. Places like the dance club Babylon exist only in very major cities and only get that busy on weekends, not throughout the week like in the show's version of Pittsburgh.

Writer Michael Musto of the Village Voice told me: "The show often seems as quaint as 'Our Town' ... but it still has a certain power. Yeah, it's too cute at times (the Viagra plot, Sharon Gless's outfits) but just when you think it can't surprise anymore, Brian goes to church and realizes he had sex with the reverend! And Hal Sparks sings! The characters are one-trick ponies, but it's a fun enough horse show. Still, I wish one of them would pick up a book now and then."

By far the strongest criticism among my buddies came from Sean Martin, creator of the Doc & Raider cartoon that runs in gay papers. "Is anyone else getting as sick of this melodrama as I am?" he asked. "That last episode (the supposedly lesbian great-aunt; the dead guy in the dumpster; the 'oh my god he's going off with a stranger who might kill him!') really hit a low for predictable, yawningly pathetic TV writing -- and on something that's supposed to be as cutting-edge as 'QAF' claims to be. Christ, I get better entertainment value listening to the gossip from our local drag court."

And that's my QED on "QAF." Quod erat demonstrandum. I promise to shut up about it for the rest of this season.