A few months ago, I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (the “UP” to locals) sitting in the singular bar of a tiny unincorporated town. Outside the semi-ramshackle digs were rows of brightly colored snowmobiles, a few men shooting the shit with helmet hair and lips bulging with chewing tobacco, and a large wooden sign, “The Gay Bar” written plainly across it. My residence for the time being was named for the town of the same name and not as a reference to the inhabitants of the establishment, as evidenced by the myriad of tasteless remarks dancing around the bar.
This was day two of the snowmobile trip I was on, and as the only woman and queer identifying individual on the trip, my patience for the thinly veiled misogyny and occasional homophobia that was so freely expressed was wearing thin. The few people who knew how I identify expressed how I would “love this bar” because “it’s gay, haha, hehe”, and as harmless as their assumptions and comments were, they felt more obnoxious than anything because this is the only context they can encounter my queerness in; through jokes, in jest, on the surface. I crave a space where I can address my identity more freely with them, where they can acknowledge this part of myself as integral but also as something that is innately human, nothing to be afraid of, and something to be discussed with casualness and sincerity.
That willingness to discuss these things is one of the qualities that initially drew me to Queer Eye, the Netflix reboot of 2003’s Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. Queer Eye is a “make better” show where five gay men set out to help five (usually) straight men improve their lives in a myriad of external ways, but also focuses more on the internal, hitting on more personal issues that may need addressing. Critics and viewers alike have been heralding the show for its ability to tackle important issues in a meaningful way, promote the importance of vulnerability, and the way it addresses the beauty of queer friendship and affection.
As someone with a tight group of friends, many of whom identify as queer, this last bit was especially wonderful to see. One of my best friends and I are openly affectionate, do just about everything together, and are both openly queer (she identifies as a lesbian, I identify as queer). This platonic love and freedom of intimacy is more often than not perceived as expression of romantic affection, which I feel reflects the societal expectations around sexuality in general, especially when it comes to LGBTQIA+ folks; if they are both attracted to women, and they both seem to have a blast together, then they must be dating! This perception from others can be fun to joke about, and is all around harmless, but it is still comforting and affirming to see a show that celebrate platonic queer love between friends in such a free manner.
What makes this show especially important, though, is its timeliness and ability to push boundaries that the previous rendition could not. Tan France, the show’s residence fashion expert, poignantly explains that “the original show was fighting for tolerance; our fight is for acceptance”. This central theme can be seen clearly in all of the men the Fab Five encounter, from a Trump supporting policeman who discusses police brutality with Karamo, the show’s African American culture expert, to a devoutely Christian father of six who, in a tear inducing speech at the end of his episode, proclaims “we want you guys to have come to our house and have felt loved and accepted”. Their journeys are all so much more than just cosmetic. These are men who are grappling with self-acceptance, with taking care of themselves or their families, and even with understanding the men who are helping them understand themselves. The Fab Five strive to get to the root of these individuals’ journeys while also sharing their own stories, promoting a mutual regard that is increasingly difficult to achieve in today’s political culture. Witnessing these emotional connections being made authentically and thoughtfully is not only heartwarming, it makes those connections seem a little more possible to forge in reality.
One of the standout episodes spotlights a semi-closeted African American man who struggles with regretting not coming out to his father after his untimely death, as well as his desire to come out to his step-mother, which feels even more urgent because of his serious boyfriend (now fiance!). He comes out to her through reading a letter out loud that he wrote to his deceased father, giving him the closure he needed and the ability to be fully out with all the people in his life. This moment is poignant and intensely emotional, especially when watching the Fab Five’s reactions to a landmark moment that they have all been through themselves. Even more, as a queer viewer watching and recalling my own coming out experience, I saw how powerful this scene could be for individuals considering doing the same thing, as well as for families who may be struggling with acceptance. AJ’s episode showed the power of coming out without being saccharine or implying that coming out means all of your problems are solved. It showed the nuances of being an out LGBTQIA+ individual, and did so with care.
Yes, I am aware Queer Eye is still, at its core, a reality show. No, I am not naive enough to believe that watching it is magically going to help people become more accepting of others and willing to create connections across barriers like race, sexuality, and political affiliation. But I do believe that watching this has been a comfort in a time where it seems like everything is falling apart, and I believe that witnessing the utter humanity that we all possess is not only beautiful, but encouraging when I think about building bridges with the people in my life that may sometimes seem impossible to reach. Ultimately, I hope that this show can reach people who desperately need a little bit of that affirmation or courage in their lives, and at the very least, provide a little sunshine in a time that often feels too dark.