– Claire Cregan
I was nine years old when the original Queer Eye For The Straight Guy first aired on television. My sister and I used to watch it all the time, and I remember discussing our favourites, laughing at their antics, and being inspired to want to cut my entire ponytail off just like Kyan did to The Straight Guy every few episodes. When the show ended after five seasons in 2007 I was thirteen and had just started high school – the beginning of a whole new chapter of my life.
I’m 24 years old now, and when Netflix dropped a reboot of this classic show – now simply titled Queer Eye – a couple of weeks ago, I was both sceptical and excited. I remember that watching Queer Eye For The Straight Guy used to be a really light-hearted fun time that had been something to look forward to each week for my sister and I, and I was worried that a new version with a new cast would ruin those memories. I hadn’t seen any trailers or promo photos or articles for the new show so I had no idea what to expect. The only chatter I’d heard online about it was quite vague but it did mention that it was a good show, if not a little emotional.
Encouraged by this, I figured it was worth a go and that it would probably be a pretty fun nostalgic trip, and that seeing the transformations at the end of the episode would probably be a little more emotional now that I was old enough to understand what a makeover could really do for someone. That was understandable.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the 24 years worth of repressed queer emotion that would burst out of me after watching approximately 25 minutes of the show and exchanging a few texts with my sister. I was meant to watch the first episode for a light-hearted lunchbreak. I ended up literally rolling on the floor, bawling harder and louder than I ever have in my life.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to unpack what happened. Not least of all so that I can articulate it for myself and shoot it off into the ether so it’s not sitting heavily on my heart and mind.
The first fifteen minutes of Queer Eye were a whirlwind of fun and familiarity. The format and feel of the show were immediately familiar, with that special brand of up-beat excitement and playfulness making me nostalgic for the original show and glad for this reboot. Bobby, Antoni, Karamo, Tan, and Jonathan; the new boys were funny, they were stylish, they knew their stuff, and they brought that on-brand chaotic energy to their initial meeting with The Straight Guy (in this case, the lovely Tom) as the original gang always did. This felt good, it felt right.
What was immediately very different about Queer Eye though was the positivity.
Now this certainly isn’t to say that the original boys weren’t positive, but the reboot boys were so pointedly positive and supportive that it really stood out. Tom’s whole Thing was that “you can’t fix ugly” and the boys just weren’t having that. They immediately and continuously jumped on this negativity and insisted to Tom that that wasn’t true; he was a handsome guy, he was a good guy, he had amazing eyes, he had good strong lines in his face and jaw, etc. etc.
It was made very clear from the get-go that these five guys weren’t going to be trying to trick or mask Tom. Instead, they were going to be highlighting his features and giving him a strong dose of positivity and encourage confidence, self-worth, and self-love in this 57-year-old southerner.
It was ten minutes in to the first episode. I started to get emotional.
Cut-to twenty minutes in to the episode, and an exchange that Bobby, Jonathan and Tom have in the car.
Jonathan explains, “we’re going to go to this gorgeous mattress shop, we’re going to roll around in bed a little…” to which Tom excitedly replies “alright, can’t wait!” and everyone in the car laughs heartily.
There is a moment a minute later in the store itself where Bobby and Jonathan pile on top of each other on a mattress in a fit of giggles. Tom jumps on top too, having an equally fun time. I took a short video of this and texted it to my sister, commenting on how the show still had the “good ol stuff like this.”
My sister replied:
“So much low key no expectations male/male physicality and affection. The way that straight guys would happily cede to all the touching and hugging and playing because that’s how ppl have fun was probably the idea queer eye planted deep inside me that butted up against ‘no homo’ culture so hard once I hit high school. It’s crazy to think about.”
Until I sat down to watch Queer Eye on Thursday and until my sister articulated this so concisely, it hadn’t consciously occurred to me that Queer Eye For The Straight Guy had also taught me this at a very young age. I had forgotten what a fun, bouncy, positive vibe had always been at the heart of this show. I mean it’s hard not to cultivate that kind of energy in an environment dictated by five gay men who have made-for-television personalities; you’re always going to have a good time. But this was just an example of what you find more widely in the LGBTQIA+ community. I didn’t know back then that this was unusual, and that a lot of people – especially men – didn’t act like this. I know now, years later, that this easy, fun, flirty energy that I love so much is so distinct to queer folks.
In this community that blurs, subverts, and actively breaks down the constraining and outdated concepts of gender roles, toxic masculinity, and feminine = bad, there is a distinct lack of judgement and anxiety when it comes to the way people behave, speak, dress, and interact with each other. So long as you’re being respectful to others, go for it. (This is of course generally speaking and I do appreciate that the LGBTQIA+ community has its own issues around misogyny, masculinity, etc., but that’s not what this piece is about)
These comfortable jokes in the car and the mattress shop hit me hard as it became so clear that I had been lacking that vibe from my life for years. I had forgotten how incredibly buoying that distinct queer energy was to be around. It’s been a little over a decade since the original show finished – I was nine years old when it started and thirteen when it finished.
I’m 24 years old now, and I don’t really have a group of queer friends. I have a couple of queer friends from high school but one lives in a different state now and I don’t see the other as often as I should. Other than maybe the one day a year that I get to hang out with my sister and her queer friends in Melbourne, my life has been distinctly devoid of that fun, flirty, queer energy since Queer Eye For The Straight Guy stopped showing all those years ago. This is always particularly obvious when I do catch up with my high school friend. There is a such a distinct easiness and joy to our conversations and way with each other, and I always come away feeling full, happy, and emotionally and spiritually nourished.
This isn’t to say that I don’t feel great around my straight friends (whom I love dearly); but it’s a different kind of great. Queer Eye and my sister were able to clarify this and by extension shine a light on a lot of my experiences with and feelings towards gender roles and toxic masculinity – or even just ‘mainstream’/’normal’ masculinity, which has always made me uncomfortable and, honestly, kind of scared me.
Making conversation in the car, Tom asks if either of Bobby or Jonathan is married. Bobby says that he’s married and that he and his partner have been together for thirteen years. But then he specifies; “been together thirteen years, married for five – because of course it wasn’t legal to get married until five years ago.”
Bobby says this in such a painfully casual, matter-of-fact way. ‘Oh, of course we all know that until a few years ago my rights, my happiness, and my love was not considered equal or permissible by law? Right?’
It’s just a fact. It’s fucking heartbreaking; the way he has to just add that on as a casual little caveat and that the conversation moves on straight away afterwards was such a slap to the face. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that Australia has just a few months ago legalised same-sex marriage, and that the process that eventually, finally ended in this legalisation was an unnecessarily expensive, messy, and hurtful one. It was horrible, it was scarring, it was depressing, and it was dehumanising. Just when I had begun to put that from my mind, Bobby’s comment was a harsh reminder of the fact that LGBTQIA+ people everywhere in the world have to fight every day for equal rights. And I’m talking about marriage, never mind countries where homosexuality is still illegal and punishable by death, or places like Chechnya where gay men are literally being rounded up into concentration camps.
But, as Bobby implies, that’s just the way things are. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight and scream and march to change things, but it is an accurate account of reality for many in the queer community.
“Because – of course – it wasn’t legal to get married until five years ago.”
It’s hard, and it’s tiring, and any progress we make we are just meant to be quiet and grateful about it and forget about the years of persecution and inequality. As if it hasn’t had a huge psychological and emotional impact, as if it doesn’t continue to, and as if even those of us living in first-world western countries don’t constantly feel like this could all be snatched away from us at any moment. I mean, the POTUS tried to ban trans folks from serving in the military and the VPOTUS is a supporter of conversion therapy. This is our reality.
Look, I know that Bobby’s comment was casual and that a lot of people probably didn’t think that much about it, but it honestly did bring all these things up for me. It triggered a flood of pain, of grief, for so many things I’ve experienced personally and taken on collectively. Tom’s next question could have made this all Too Much, but Bobby and Jonathan’s (and even Tom’s) reactions were brilliant, informed, and made me realise how easy it can be to move on and up.
Tom (to Bobby): are you the husband or the wife?
Bobby: umm…that is a misconception.
Jonathan: let’s break that down, let’s unpack that.
Tom: okay…okay, let’s do it, I don’t know.
Bobby: that’s a little sexist, Tom.
Tom: well I’m sorry.
Jonathan explains that he gets that a lot when he has been in relationships, but that it’s important to remember that the lines of gender normativity are becoming more and more blurred – even in heterosexual couples – and that whether you are a more feminine or a more masculine energy, “there’s gorgeous strength to be had in both.” Tom agrees, “absolutely”.
A few things happen here.
Bobby and Jonathan could have just laughed Tom’s question off, but they stop and take a moment to educate him on the fact that what he said wasn’t okay, and why. They don’t lash out, but do it in a very simple and friendly way, and Tom was more than willing to listen and take on board what they had to say. Not only that, but he apologises.
Now I am very aware that this interaction happened in the context of a reality television show hosted by five gay men, but the fact stands; pulling people up on their variously offensive comments or behaviour and educating them in a respectful way can and does work. This is such an important lesson for all of us in 2018.
We live in a world where hatred has been given the okay in a way that we haven’t seen in a long, long time, and it often feels hopeless and like nothing can be done to combat what seems to be a deeply and widely entrenched network of institutionalised sexism, racism, homophobia, abuse of power, and all other manner of unacceptable behaviours. Starting small, with every day interactions like Bobby and Jonathan do here is an easy way to make it feel like you are doing something to actually start making a change. We can’t all be writing groundbreaking takedowns on Hollywood media moguls for The New Yorker, but we can have small, every day, positive interactions with the people around us and in our communities.
I’m so glad this scene was included. I’m so glad it went the way it did and was conducted the way it was. It made me so happy.
The car devolves into another light-hearted joke, and then we cut to the interactions in the mattress store itself.
By this point, I was extremely emotional.
I had started texting my sister about how wonderful Queer Eye was so far, for exactly the reasons mentioned above. It went from low-key heartbreak, to positive and educational interactions, to easy, flirtatious fun. The main feeling underpinning the whole show so far – I was still only about 22 minutes in – was an unapologetic and joyous sense of confidence and self-love. Later in the season I would learn about Bobby’s experience growing up in the religious south, Antoni’s search within femininity and masculinity to find who he actually is, the religious and cultural pressure Tan was under (he addresses this as a joke, but like much of the light-heartedness in the show, there is clearly a great deal of history behind it), and Karamo’s experience as a gay, black man.
But I didn’t need to know these things immediately to have the response that I did halfway through the first episode. As soon as the Queer Eye gang showed up on my laptop screen I could make some informed assumptions about them and some of the general experiences they might have had throughout their lives. Yet here were these five people who were not only clearly the happiest and most authentic versions of themselves, but they were here to help someone else. They were here to help The Straight Guy find a sense of confidence and self-worth, to teach him how to love and care for himself, and that he is worth it.
Let me tell you something.
Confidence, self-worth, self-love? These things generally don’t come naturally to queer folks. Obviously I cannot speak for an entire community, but in my experience these things take a LOT of work because growing up there was no one to tell us that we deserved or were capable of such things. We had to learn it ourselves, teach ourselves.
I am queer. It has taken me 24 years to figure that out, and every single day is very much still a journey of figuring various things out.
The first time I had a crush on a girl I was eleven years old. So why did it take thirteen years to get to the place of relative stability, confidence, and happiness that I am lucky enough to be at today?
Well when I was eleven I didn’t know that I had a crush on this girl, I just thought that she was really cool and interesting and that I wanted to spend all my time with her and hug her and laugh with her – even though I met her exactly once and this all happened over the duration of a single sleepover birthday party of my friend’s. How was I to know that it was a crush? I didn’t even know that such a thing existed for girls.
Yes, I had been watching Queer Eye For The Straight Guy with my sister since I was nine but that didn’t mean that I had all the answers, all the information, all the role models to set me up for a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. I understood that these five men were gay and I understood that Ted and Thom were both married to men, but I didn’t actually understand what that meant. What I mean is that I had no understanding of the social or political context of what it meant to be gay. I had no understanding of the fact that Ted and Thom’s marriages weren’t legal in the United States, I had no understanding of the fact that the premise of the show worked off queer stereotypes, and I certainly had no understanding of the fact that this show was a gamble and was important because there were so many people out there who thought heterosexuality was the only acceptable and correct way to be and that gay or queer people shouldn’t be allowed to live, never mind be allowed on our television screens.
Even though I watched Queer Eye For The Straight Guy for years there was never any discussion about what it all actually meant. No one told me. Parents, school, friends, no one.
All the show had taught me was that some men liked men rather than women. Don’t get me wrong, this was a very important lesson, but without the surrounding conversations I had no way to contextualise this information or really understand it or extrapolate anything from it. I certainly didn’t know that same-sex attraction was an option for women. I mean there was no Queer Pal For The Straight Gal was there? And there weren’t many other non-heterosexual ‘goings on’ in popular film or TV at the time that I was exposed to because it was still very much a Sometimes Food. In fact I can tell you the only other two times I was made aware of queerness by the media.
I saw Brokeback Mountain with my mum at the cinema. I thought it was very good – touching, sweet, sad. I was ten so I didn’t understand why the film was such a Big Deal. Something I did understand was that sometimes gay men get killed. I filed that away as something that just happened; just the way it was.
I also remember reading that Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of Green Day, was bisexual. I got very into Green Day when I was eleven and had a special issue of Kerrang magazine all about them that I carried with me literally everywhere, I mean I even took it to school with me most days. One of the pages had an A4 photo of Billie Joe with a quote along the lines of “I think I’ve always considered myself to be bisexual.” I ripped this page out, along with a bunch of other poster-pages, and blue-tacked it to my bedroom wall. I understood that this meant he liked boys and girls. So now I was aware that boys were allowed to like girls, or boys, or they could like both. But again, I had no idea that this was something that a lot of the world made a huge deal out of and fretted about and marched about and argued about.
I started high school in 2007 and immediately became infatuated with a classmate of mine. She was so smart, so funny, and I thought she was a ray of sunshine.
I started rotting from the inside out.
I knew there was something wrong with me, I knew I wasn’t supposed to or allowed to feel this way about a girl, I knew I had to keep it a secret, I knew that she would never like me back, I knew I had to continue to just be her friend and to carry on and suffer in silence.
How was I supposed to know any different? No one had ever told me or shown me that it was even possible for girls to like girls. I’d been watching Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, I’d seen Brokeback Mountain, I’d idolised Green Day. They were all men. They were all American. There were no examples of women or girls being attracted to each other, so what I was feeling must be wrong.
I didn’t know that it was even possible for this to Be A Thing until my sister told me one night – in tears – that she was dating one of her girl friends. I had been agonising over the way I felt about my friend for about a year, but it wasn’t until that night that I realised I might not be the only one and that my crush might actually be a real thing that existed and was a real option. I didn’t tell my sister about my crush, but she was my very first queer female role model and she opened my eyes to an entire new world.
The lack of conversation, visibility, and popular examples of girls who liked girls meant that even though I knew now that it was something that existed, I still thought it was something I should be ashamed about and hate myself over. There weren’t any happy-go-lucky queer girls out there giving people makeovers and teaching them fun and useful life-hacks. How was I supposed to know that I was allowed to thrive and succeed?
I had a crush on this friend for the whole five years of high school. I eventually told my closest friends (who were very supportive) and became more and more aware of the fact that there were girls and women out there who liked other girls and women, not least of all two of my classmates. But Brokeback Mountain showed how you had to hide because same-sex attraction led to a lot of pain for a lot of people, and some people hated you so much that they killed you. My own parents’ marriage broke down over issues of sexuality. I started teaching myself about LGBTQIA+ history and as far as I could tell it was fraught with a lot of grief and hardship, with the occasional parade or fun television show. I had already internalised a lot of this pain and hatred. Over the first few years of high school I channelled this into frequent self-harm, only stopping when I replaced that with anorexia in upper school. If I couldn’t control my feelings then I had to gain a sense of control some other way. Self-harm and anorexia were not only ways that I could feel like I was in control of something in my life, but they were a way to redistribute my pain, and they were time-consuming and provided a distraction. As far as I was concerned I wasn’t deserving of happiness or care or health; I wasn’t worthy of love, I was broken and wrong.
I hated myself. I tried to destroy myself.
Since graduating high school and entering the real world, every single day has been an active attempt at recovery. Every day has been an uphill battle for me to try to learn to love myself. The first five and a half years were slow-moving to say the least. I quickly became the heaviest I had ever been, I drank far too much, I hung out with the wrong people, I variously self-harmed, fasted, binged/purged on and off every now and then, and was at one point suicidal. Medication, the support of family and friends, and a trip to New York (among other small, every day things) got me out of the super destructive behaviour, but I was surviving – making do – rather than thriving.
It wasn’t until last year when my family was dealing with anxiety and depression, I came out to my mum, my high school crush passed away, my Nan had emergency surgery and a long stay in hospital, and I had an extremely lucky escape from a car accident, that things actually started to actively get better.
There’s nothing like a reminder of how fucking short life is to really make you appreciate every minute that you have on this planet. It’s a cliché for a reason.
Each new slap in the face from mortality made me more willing and able to distance myself from negativity and destructiveness. Whether that meant letting go of an abusive friendship, or making myself believe that I deserved to be happy and healthy; it was time.
2017 was easily the worst year of my life, and easily the best too. By the time I sat down to watch the first episode of Queer Eye last Thursday I had learnt and accepted that I deserved to be on this planet, that it was okay to not have all the answers yet, and that I was a good person who deserved love not just from others but, most importantly, from myself.
Since the final straw – my car accident in October – I had happily and healthily lost 18kgs, shed all guilt about leaving an abusive friendship, made sure my friends knew exactly how much they mean to me, told my sister that I love her multiple times (we hardly ever actually straight up say that to each other, even though we’re annoyingly tight), stopped trying to be one thing or another and have settled quite nicely on “queer”, have stopped talking down to myself altogether, have made every effort to encourage those around me to be positive and look for the good, and have met almost every single day with a bright smile and palpable, delicious joy.
It has taken a long, long time and even though I had support from family and friends it has been up to me to actually make a change and really accept myself. But I got here. I can always do more, we can always strive to do more, but I am happy.
So what the fuck does this have to do with Queer Eye?
CONCEPT: a television show in which five gay men teach other people how to have confidence and love themselves. Sure, they get them some new clothes and furniture too, but the new Queer Eye is very focused on the core ideas of self-worth and self-love.
NOT ONLY have the Fab Five endured adolescence and come out (no pun intended) swinging, sashaying, and absolutely slaying in terms of their own confidence, talents, and attitudes, BUT they are out here teaching straight dudes how to do the same.
A minority group that has historically been persecuted and oppressed and had to learn to love themselves because society didn’t, helping a majority group learn to be confident and love themselves and that they are worth it.
In the words of Jonathan himself, “CAN YOU BELIEVE???”
I have a very loving mother, my sister is my best friend and has been openly queer since I was about sixteen, and I’ve done most of my growing up in the naughties and in Australia. Yet I still went through a lot of pain and uncertainty, I still only came out to my mother last year, and I still feel uncomfortable about certain things.
Some queer kids aren’t as lucky as me, some don’t have the support or love of friends and family, some don’t live in an accepting society. I’m lucky enough to be finding my feet and, honestly, thriiiving these days, but some queer folks never do find their feet, some never get the chance.
Love and support is so important. But representation is just as important. If you can’t point to any examples of role models or people like you then you start to think that you’re alone, and that you’re wrong or a mistake in some way.
I was lucky enough to have Queer Eye For The Straight Guy and later my sister as important jumping off points, and eventually I sought out as much queer media as I could to help me try to figure out who the fuck I was. Honestly, I’m still figuring bits of it out and probably will be for a long time. But I’m so grateful that I even get the chance.
The original Queer Eye For The Straight Guy was the very first time I was exposed to the LGBTQIA+ community. Granted, it was only the G and it was only male, but it was still something different, alternative. It was the beginning of a long, loooong journey. This, and the other 4500 or so words I’ve drivelled out here, was what was dragged up and circulating in my head during those first 22 or 23 minutes of Queer Eye.
I sent a much more general and succinct version of all this to my sister as I continued watching. She texted back a minute later. I read her reply and all of these experiences, all of these realisations and traumas and connections that I had made about my life since Queer Eye For The Straight Guy up to that very moment in which I was watching Queer Eye hit me with full-force at the same moment.
“Always try to cling to that feeling of not realising you exist, because it’s the solid unshakable base of all good progressive work across all minority boundaries.
Remember how derailing it was to not realise you existed.”
I literally gasped, slid off my chair onto the floor, and sobbed harder and louder than I ever have in my entire life.
That was it. That’s what all of this had been about, had come from.
It took me about 30 minutes to compose myself enough to be able to sit up and text her back.
Reading that, and emotionally reliving the last seventeen years or so of my life in that moment gave me the same feeling that I had when I had my car accident. And, again, I know this is a total cliché but it really is how I felt both times; everything was so clear and simple. I was hit with about three or four very tangible thoughts about who I wanted to speak to and see in that moment and what I wanted to do with my life in the near future.
But also, more generally, it felt like closure.
After my high school crush passed away, we thought we were going to lose Nan, and I had a car accident, I consciously decided to treat every day as the gift that it was. I was happy, I was healthy, I was literally grateful just to be alive. But I wasn’t aware of how much of this baggage from the last two decades or so of my life I was still carrying around with me, tucked away in there.
But literally wailing uncontrollably on the floor like some sort of cartoon character felt good, and it felt important. It felt like I had purged all of that pain, grief, confusion, and terror from myself. It felt liberating. It felt like I could finally and entirely move on with my life.
So that’s what I’m going to do.
My main hope is that I can not only continue to be happy and healthy myself, but that I can be somehow visible and loud for others and affect some kind of change. I have no idea what form that would or could take. Maybe I’ll start writing again, maybe I’ll help create content, or maybe I’ll just get out into the world more, I don’t know.
What I do know is that I want young queer folks in 2018 and beyond to know that they exist. To be able to point to a role model or see someone whom you can identify with in some way has so much power and potential for comfort, safety, and change.
Queer Eye For The Straight Guy did a small portion of that for me back in the early naughties, and I’m sure that Queer Eye is doing that for numerous young folks today. Queer content and media is certainly far more accessible in today’s digital age than it was in 2003, but there is still a lot more we can do. We need to have queer voices just as loud and just as mainstream as heterosexual voices in film and television and books. We need queer politicians and policies. We need to have conversations with each other within our families and communities and schools. We need to let young queer folks see that they aren’t wrong and they aren’t alone.
I hope I can be a part of this somehow, just like Queer Eye was and has been for me. I want to do more though, we can always do more.
We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.