Opinion: Taranaki Hard and the evolution of gay men on television

What the TV3 show means for queer as folk on TV.
What the TV3 show means for queer as folk on TV. Photo credit: Newshub

It's been the storyline of dozens of gay movies and the foundation of hundreds of soap characters, being gay in a small town and moving to the city to live with the beautiful people.

How gay male characters are portrayed onscreen still has some distance to go, but it has come a long way since the 1990s.

As a teenager discovering my sexuality during that decade, (a decade I can't believe was more than 20 years ago!) I remember thinking that perhaps I wasn't gay because I didn't identify at all with characters such as the Will of Will and Grace, or Julian Cleary. Even the occasional heartthrob gay nurse on Shortland Street didn't seem to reflect who I was.

The arrival of Taranaki Hard on TV3 was a real breath of fresh air. Despite being 20 years too late to have any effect on my growing up, it's a prime-time example of where the coverage and representation of our diverse community needs to be heading.

Ian Hart was one of the brains behind the Taranaki Hard concept. A show about real people in Waitara.  I've intentionally avoided using the term reality television.

He told me about the conscious effort that was made to not only have more than one gay character but for the need to have a contrast between them.  It's something that was certainly achieved through the casting of Russiaan and Leon.

"It would have been quite easy to have just one gay character," Hart said.

"Leon was one of the first characters we met. His story is out there and he has that persona that mainstream New Zealand gets, and is ready to accept."

In the same way that Kiwis love Queer Eye for a Straight Guy, it's gay characters for a straight audience."

"There isn't just a gay token character with one personality type. We have a complex factory worker who is a pole dancer and has an OnlyFans account," he said.

"You couldn't get any more opposite, really."

In Taranaki Hard, we met Leon. He's a checkout operator at a supermarket (one of those jobs, like being cabin crew that seems to attract us gay boys), but he's also behind the popular "Keeping up with the Waitarians" Facebook page. He dreams of making it as an actor or a television celebrity. In one scene we saw Leon talk to his tens of thousands of social media fans about his behind-the-scenes crew. On camera, we see that it's his proud mum holding the phone doing the filming.

Then there's Russiaan. In one episode he's with his dad and his boyfriend installing a pole in the back garden for him to practice his pole dancing. He works in a factory by day, and sells homemade porn videos by night. But, in keeping with the underlying message of the whole series, he doesn't fit into any generic stereotype.

What's more revealing is that not only has the show told the story of gay characters in rural New Zealand, but that their friends and family support them 100 percent.

Hart said that while it was not always the case that queer youth in Aotearoa have the support of the family, certain aspects of the self-discovery journey had changed.

"Being gay, traditionally and historically it's accurate to say that the way its portrayed on TV, the small town gay needs to escape the closed-minded community to find themselves and live their true selves in the big city."

"Too often, and sadly, people are shunned away. Then the city becomes essentially a whole new family for them," he said.

"So, there's still that desire to escape and explore the big city, but it's got less to do with escape and self-preservation and more to do with opportunity and growth, rather than in the past, running away.

"These days, a kid in Waitara is just as connected with the world than a kid in Ponsonby."

Although he keeps in touch with the stars of the show, Hart said there are no plans at this stage for any follow-up series.

"I still keep in touch with all of them on WhatsApp, and they're happy with how it turned out.

"Some don't like how their hair looks, but other than that, they like it."

I was disappointed to hear that there would be no spin-off series. As a boy from Hawke's Bay, I'd love to see a Hastings Hard.

But, the takeaway from this snapshot of queer men on television is that while the is a long way to go, Taranaki and Waitara might just be the direction we need to be heading.