The first two shows that bared the name “Queer as Folk” presented a fairly narrow view of what “queer” is. While Russell T. Davies’ 1999 British original and its first American remake on Showtime were groundbreaking at the time for their depiction of LGBTQ people as the leads of their own stories, the shows overwhelmingly centered the experiences of white cisgender gay men. The newly launched Peacock reimagining of the series, which was developed by Stephen Dunn, presents a far more diverse and varied depiction of queer life, exploring characters in an interrelated group of queer friends living in New Orleans.
“What ‘Queer as Folk’ meant in 1999 and 2000, that’s actually what we’re trying to reboot,” Jaclyn Moore, who serves as co-showrunner with Dunn, tells Variety. “What is the modern version of that? What is the modern version of telling queer stories, and telling defiant queer stories?”
Moore was heavily responsible for the development of the show’s primary trans character, Ruthie (Jesse James Keitel), an English teacher and new mother struggling to grow up from her party girl roots. Moore describes the character as somewhat of an autobiographical creation, with many of Ruthie’s struggles taken from her own life. And with Sarah Link, Moore wrote the sixth episode, which dives deeply into Ruthie’s experiences coming out and into her own identity.
Titled “Bleep,” the episode flashes back to Ruthie’s time as a closeted trans girl attending an all boys Catholic school with her best friend Brodie (Devin Way). The flashbacks are peppered with insights about the two characters, whose codependent and dysfunctional relationship is a central focus of the show’s first season. It reveals that the two were in a romantic relationship as teens, which ended when Ruthie came out to him — and that her name was inspired by Ruthie Alcaide from “The Real World: Hawaii.”
But one revelation that the episode very purposefully doesn’t provide is Ruthie’s deadname, which she’s referred to constantly throughout the flashbacks. The episode instead opts to bleep the name out — hence its title — as a means of preserving the character’s privacy, and emphasizing the pain she feels every time she’s referred to by a name that doesn’t fit her. According to Moore, the episode script itself follows suit, with the young version of Ruthie being referred to as “Bleep” in writing and during production.
“When I pitched the episode, that was part of the pitch. I never wanted to hear Ruthie’s dead name. And honestly, I don’t think I would do it any other way,” Moore says. “Being good storytellers is like being a magician. It’s a lot about directing the audience’s eye. What do we want them to see? What do we want them to focus on? And to me, this is a story that I don’t think you could tell without bleeping the name. We are making a conscious effort that says a very specific thing about not just that character, but about trans people — and about how to maybe respect trans people.”
While writing the episode, Moore based Ruthie’s background heavily on her own experiences growing up. In particular, Moore described the Catholic school featured in the flashbacks as an extremely close recreation of the one she attended as a teenager, down to the uniforms the cast members wear. For Moore, the episode allowed her to wrestle with her experiences realizing she was a girl in her teenage years, although she, unlike Ruthie, came out much later in adulthood.
When the episode was initially being conceived, Moore wasn’t sure how they would portray Ruthie’s pre-transition self. Although there wasn’t a question that they wouldn’t have a male actor play the part, they initially considered having a young nonbinary actor portray Bleep. But Keitel herself heavily petitioned to play the character, believing that it was important for a trans woman to be telling the story.
“I fought. I sent in a self-tape, I begged, I cried,” Keitel says. “I wanted to play that role so badly, and the thought of watching another actor play Ruthie? It broke my heart.”
Keitel’s push to play the character made Moore realize that her hesitance had more to do with how much she personally related to the material rather than what best fit the story. It also made her realize how rare it is for a trans woman to be front and center of her own coming out story on screen, and how the episode could help to correct that imbalance.
“I wasn’t sure that I wanted to see Jesse like that. It was really painful to come to set for me and see my beautiful sister look a lot like I looked when I was 16. Styled in the kind of clothing I wore, with the haircut I had,” Moore says. “But she said: ‘We don’t get to tell these stories as trans women. It’s always a cis guy doing drag playing a trans character, if you’re going to do a before-and-after. Like, what are we doing? Why don’t we get to tell our stories?’ And she was a 100 percent right.”
Keitel, for her part, found the process of diving into the material of the flashbacks challenging, mainly due to the age difference. She also found playing the part of Bleep to be profoundly rewarding.
“I don’t necessarily view Bleep as in the closet. I think they’re proudly queer in their limited understanding of what that means. And I think when the egg cracks for Bleep, and they realize why things aren’t meshing the way they they want them to, that feels really unique and powerful in ways that I don’t know if we’ve seen all that much before,” Keitel says. “For me, personally, I feel like I’ve had to come out 1000 times in 1000 different ways. And the more I learned about myself, the more I’ve been able to communicate that with the world. And for Bleep, who’s this openly queer high-schooler learning something more about herself, it’s cool getting to tell that story. It was difficult for me as as an adult, as a trans woman, to play a high-schooler, a pre-transition version of my character. But it was hard in the ways I wanted it to be. I felt so safe and protected every step of the way.”
The flashbacks of the episode end with Brodie and Ruthie reaffirming their friendship after Ruthie comes out. The present-day story ends on a much more somber note, with Brodie and Ruthie in a tense spot in their relationship after a stunt from Brodie nearly costs Ruthie her job. During an argument between the two at New Orleans Pride, Brodie slips and calls Ruthie by her deadname — which, like in the flashbacks, is bleeped out.
Speaking about Brodie and Ruthie’s dynamic, Keitel says she and Way became “best friends” who would joke around together on set, which helped them dive comfortably into the emotionally fraught moments of their relationship. Although Brodie ends up severely hurting Ruthie, Keitel found the scene and their overall dynamic true to life and true to many queer friendships she has seen.
“You want messy, authentic queer storytelling, here you go,” Keitel says.
For her part, Moore says she still has difficulty watching the episode and seeing the recreation of her teenage years. But, she also said she hopes that the episode helps young trans people who may watch it uncover aspects of their identity faster than she did. According to Moore, she’s talked with other trans woman who don’t feel the need to tell before and after stories about coming out, and while she understands that, she hopes that a coming out story told by a trans woman can have an impact.
“If I had seen that episode when I was 16, I don’t know that I would have waited until I was in my 30s to transition. Because the other half of that episode, you are seeing Ruthie now, and you’re seeing Jesse in all her glory, and you’re seeing that this is what the future can look like,” Moore says. “As a trans person, as a trans artist, I feel very responsible to tell stories about my whole life, and to tell stories about every aspect of this journey. Because there are people going through this journey right now. And if I can tell a story that’s going to help some of those kids, and entertain people and be emotionally affecting —and maybe show people a different way to think about something — that’s what this is.”