THE BLOG

The Gay Culture Every Queer Should Know About

04/22/2015 04:53 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Has a book, movie, TV show or song ever changed your life?

For me, it was a late-night showing of The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert on VH1, hosted at commercial breaks by RuPaul. I was 15, shy and growing up in a small Connecticut town; this was the first time I had ever seen queer men together, rather than popping up as villains or punch lines. "Is this what it's like to have gay friends?" I thought.

Priscilla gave me the confidence to come out, and to start wearing some insanely garish bright yellow and purple outfits. Hey, if it worked for Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette, I figured I'd have to do the same. And it worked! Before I knew it, I was dating a boy with similarly gaudy taste, and getting up to no good on the bench seat of his pickup truck.

Years later, I mentioned that memory to a friend over drinks at The Eagle in Seattle. He responded by telling me how important he found Christopher Isherwood, the gay novelist who chronicled the sexual underworld of Berlin in the 1930s. Another friend stopped by and confessed that Looking had changed the way he dated; someone else mentioned longing for a protective figure like Lucille Ball in Mame; and, soon, we were all remembering where we were on December 3, 2000, when Queer as Folk showed the world what real gay sex looks like.

What's the entertainment that made you who you are today?

That Eagle conversation left me wanting to find more of the formative media that shaped gay men's lives. I've never read any Isherwood, and haven't seen Mame. What else have I been missing?

That curiosity led me to create The Sewers of Paris, a new podcast about the entertainment that changed the lives of gay men. Each week on the show, a different guest reveals personal stories of the books, movies, music and shows that made them who they are, opening up about their secret struggles, hidden passions, and surprising triumphs.

The results have been fascinating.

In one of the first episodes, I learned about the young love affair that exposed a young gay teen to the secret gay slang of the opera world. In another, my guest revealed that Wizard of Oz conventions once served as undercover meeting places for closeted gay men. I talked to a man who learned from gay comedians on the radio how to defend himself with his words and wit. And I found another guest who grew up closeted and scared in Latvia, where the only access to camp culture came once a year in the form of Eurovision.

Throughout the interviews, a few pieces of entertainment kept recurring. I've rounded them up here, but there's a lot more culture that belongs on this list! I'll keep adding more and more as the show goes on -- you can subscribe at SewersOfParis.com to hear what we discover about next.

And please do let me know what I should add to this list. I'm always eager to discover more. You can tweet at me @mattbaume.

Queer as Folk

There may be no other show that did more to shape gay culture in the first few years of this century than Queer as Folk. Based on an equally-groundbreaking British program by Russel T. Davies (who later revived Doctor Who), it was a startlingly honest portrayal of gay men's lives. Remember, in the year 2000, there were very few out gay characters on TV, and virtually none in a relationship. QAF turned everything on its head by focusing almost exclusively on gays, starting with its pilot episode in which two characters negotiate condom usage while naked and having sex. It was jaw-dropping, and for one of my interviewees, it showed him that it was indeed safe to go out into the world and start dating.

Sitcoms: MASH, Soap, and The Golden Girls

Oh sure, you've probably seen the famous clip from The Golden Girls where Sophia explains gay love to Blanche. (Which was written by Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry.) But there were a series of sitcoms throughout the '70s and '80s that reflected changing American attitudes towards homosexuality.

On a groundbreaking episode of MASH, Hawkeye defends the reputation of a gay soldier. Soap featured the first openly gay regular character on primetime TV, played by Billy Crystal. Soap's creator, Susan Harris, went on to create The Golden Girls, a show that featured frequent gay and lesbian characters, and even a gay wedding, nearly fifteen years before it was legal anywhere.

Eurovision

It's unforgivable that Americans are not more deeply invested in this song contest that completely dominates half of the planet every year. Eurovision is campy and kitchsy, gaudy and ridiculous, and incredible fun. It's also occasionally sublime, such as when Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst dominated the competition last year. Her performance was astounding, but Eurovision has a track record of blowing minds, whether it's with Abba's charming rendition of "Waterloo," Celine Dion's who-dressed-you outfit in 1989, or the hysterically melodramatic "It's My Life."

Why is Eurovision such a vital piece of gay culture? Because it's broadcast across an entire continent, including to some extremely homophobic countries. On one episode of Sewers of Paris, we talk at length about how for young gay kids, Eurovision can be a window into the big queer world that awaits them when they escape their small town.

The Spice Girls

I was surprised to discover that more than one of the guys I've interviewed cited The Spice Girls as an important influence. Really? The Spice Girls? I always thought of them as a silly manufactured joke. But when I asked why they were so important, the answer made sense: They were fun. That's it -- they were just fun, silly, a guilty pleasure, not particularly deep or profound or thoughtful... and that's okay. For a lot of the guys I've interviewed, it was life-changing to see that it's okay to shed your inhibitions and stop being so worried about what other people think of you.

Kenneth Williams

Kenneth Williams never really spoke about being gay, but he didn't have to. He was the very definition of a sophisticated British wit, appearing on radio and television and film throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s. His most impressive achievement was bringing Polari to a wide audience -- that's a little-known British gay language (from which we get the wood zhoosh, as in, "these drapes could use a little zhoosh"). Williams and his co-presenter Hugh Paddick delivered hilarious over-the-top gay comedy routines on the BBC at a time when open homosexuality was a crime. One interviewee described to me how the characters of Kenneth Williams gave him the courage to stand up to other kids, until he gradually gained the confidence to speak with his own voice.

Tori Amos, Bjork, Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush

It wouldn't be a list of gay culture without Tori Amos. One of my interviewees talked about how he repaired his relationship with his dad through music -- though they felt they had little in common, they would listen to each others' music together and gradually find common ground. And he's not alone with his passion for indie divas. Tori, Bjork, Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush all happened to come along at the right time for gay men who craved mysterious lyrics and an otherworldly voice.

Maurice

Considered far too scandalous to publish during his life, this E.M. Forster novel wasn't published until after he'd passed away. It's a remarkable portrait of gay love in a time when being caught could destroy your life. Because it's now considered to be great literature, it can often be found in school libraries, where young gay boys stumble across it and find hope that one day they, too, might find a love as great as Maurice's. The book was adapted into a film in 1987, starring Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves, both of whom set aflame too many little gay hearts to count.

The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz, Wicked and Judy

Why do gay men love Judy Garland? There's been more scholarship on that topic than in certain fields of physics, but the important thing to know is that they just do. Or at least, they did: kids today seem to have forgotten that there was once a time when they might call each other "friends of Dorothy." During one of my interviews, I heard about old Wizard of Oz conventions (yes, they're a real thing), packed with gay men of a certain age who had few other opportunities to meet. The various Oz adaptations are all vital in their own way: The Wiz stars Diana Ross; Wicked's "Defying Gravity" was an anthem for a certain subset of theater queen; and Return to Oz terrified a generation.

This is just the briefest of overviews of crucial gay culture -- the list goes on and on and on and on. (For example, next week I'll be talking to a guy about Moulin Rouge, to another about Leann Rimes, and a third about how he idolized an openly gay writer on the original series of Star Trek.)

I'll be putting out a new episode of The Sewers of Paris every week, with upcoming topics that range from erotica like Pink Narcissus to semi-erotica like Interview with the Vampire; my guests and I will talk about about Jodie Foster in Contact, Irish step dancing, Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element, Fraggle Rock, Nina Simone, The Bird Cage, Ben DeLaCreme, comic books and so much more.

Let me know what you think of the show, tell me what entertainment I ought to look into next, and if you like the project, see more at iTunes! And I'd like to hear from you about what culture made a difference in your life -- Tweet at me @mattbaume. Now let's go explore together.