The Queerty Interview

Ryan O’Connell on disability and playing a “power bottom king” in ‘Queer as Folk’

Ryan O’Connell as Julian in QUEER AS FOLK (Photo courtesy: Peacock)

When Ryan O’Connell sat down to co-write episode 4 of Peacock’s Queer as Folk, he had one mission in mind. Make it “really disabled, gay, and horny.”

The episode, appropriately titled “#F*ckDisabledPeople” finds the Queer as Folk cast of characters teaming up to throw a big ol’ queer sex orgy (a.k.a. a Crip Rave) for people with disabilities. This includes Julian (played by O’Connell), a pop culture nerd with cerebral palsy who is more than ready for some independence.

And if the episode’s multiple gay, disabled sex scenes are any indication, we say, mission accomplished.

The episode isn’t all sexy time and seafood towers. It also captures the real and often difficult feelings associated with being queer and disabled, something O’Connell tells Queerty was an important element of the show.

“Stephen Dunn and Jacklyn Moore were very on board with including disabled perspectives. I didn’t feel any pushback around any of that,” says O’Connell, who has cerebral palsy and served as a writer/actor/executive producer on Queer as Folk. “I think they wanted that from me, they wanted my expertise, they wanted my lived experience. I think in general, what we wanted in the writer’s room was authenticity and stories from people who actually lived it, so it felt like a very welcoming, safe space.”

Below, O’Connell outlines what inspired him to write so many disabled sex scenes in one episode, why he’s glad Marvin and Julian aren’t best friends, why this reboot works where others may fail, and what makes his character a “power bottom king.” Read on for more…

QUEERTY: Ryan, I am so stoked to be talking to you today! The last two years have been busy for you. Between last year’s Special, and now your new book, Just By Looking at Him, and Queer as Folk coming out the same week, I gotta ask, do you ever find time to rest?

O’CONNELL: Ha, well I do now, thanks to COVID [Ryan shared on social media he tested positive for COVID the day of our interview]. No, I was manically productive during quarantine and I think that’s sort of the way I dealt with those feelings of existential dread and anxiety that everyone was experiencing. I think it was really important for me to get lost into new worlds because I was having such a hellish time living in the current real one. So what you are seeing is a result of that, and I think having two things come out in the same week, I don’t think that’s really going to happen again [laughs].

I do find a lot of solace in writing. I think you can relate to this, but being born into a body I could not control, I think psychologically made me want to control every other aspect of my life, and writing is a form of control because you are controlling what’s around you. 

Like you, I also have cerebral palsy. I’ve been following your career for a while now and I love that you always have something going on and are showing people that people with disabilities can do everything.

Thank you. I mean it’s also like, there’s still such lackluster disability representation. There’s so many stories that need to be told that I get really inspired by the stigma, in a weird way, and the lack of dialogue surrounding disability and queerness. I think that’s what motivates me to keep producing work because there’s not so many of us that are getting the opportunity to do that. 

 

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Exactly. I watched Queer as Folk this weekend, and it was so cool to see not only you, but the character of Marvin (another disabled character on the show, played by Eric Graise)–

Yes, there are two of us, can you believe?!

Yes, oh my god! It was so cool to see. I remember watching the original Queer as Folk, years after it came out, and it was very much a white, male, able-bodied show. So I was so happy to see the full spectrum of people that are shown on this new iteration. What was it like for you to be involved the reboot?

It was major. With reboots, the landscape is so oversaturated and I feel like it’s rare for a reboot to justify its existence, beyond being like a cash grab. But I think Queer as Folk actually can, because what it means to be queer in 2022 versus 1999 is completely different. 

And yeah, I remember being 12 years old, going to Blockbuster incognito, renting Queer as Folk, and watching it for the “story lines” but being absolutely titillated by all the all the gay sex. But as exciting as it was, I remember (watching it and thinking) “OK, being gay and disabled. Man, that’s going to be hard! [Laughs] How am I going to do that?”

And that’s not a drag on the original. It was 1999, what they were doing was groundbreaking. I’m not holding them to task for not including gay, disabled characters. But it kind of speaks to this larger, cliché thing that true representation matters. 

Being part of the reboot is this amazing gift to my 12 year-old self. If 12-year-old me would have known that the culture would have changed enough to see two disabled characters in the reboot, I would have probably saved thousands and thousands of dollars in therapy. OK maybe just a thousand. 

Eric Graise as Marvin in QUEER AS FOLK (Photo courtesy: Peacock)

[Laughs] Just a single thousand. That’s great. I remember when I watched the original, I wasn’t even thinking of seeing myself on screen because I didn’t even know that was a thing that would ever be possible or a thing that I would ever see, so the fact that it’s happening now is just so freaking cool.

Yeah, it is awesome. It’s funny because when I met with Stephen Dunn, the creator and showrunner, it was just (to write for the show), and then he was the one that told me, “I want you to be in the show,” and my own internalized ableist, poison-brained ass was like, “Wait, but there’s already Marvin, you want two disabled people?”

Because it’s like, first of all, it’s very rare for the disability community to be included in anything, but the fact that Stephen wanted two of us was huge. The fact that Julian is not (the only one) representing the disability community, that’s a really powerful thing. 

Yeah, that’s something I caught onto when I watched it. I feel like, a lot of times in shows, you always just have the one disabled character that has to speak on behalf of all disabled people or all disabled issues so I really loved that the show brought in multiple perspectives. It wasn’t just you speaking on behalf of everybody. 

I also love that Marvin and Julian aren’t best friends. What’s also true about marginalized populations is that it’s very easy to internalize that hatred from society, and turn it against the people with the same marginalization as you. The fact that Julian has more privilege than Marvin, I think that’s a very natural emotional response to feel resentful toward that, and I think it’s really important to highlight that. It’s a really unfortunate but real aspect of marginalized communities. It’s not always kumbaya.

Episode 4, titled #F*ckDisabledPeople, is obviously a big gay, disabled episode that you co-wrote. I loved the whole episode, and the concept of a sex party for people with disabilities, and the multiple sex scenes that we got. What inspired you to write this episode, in particular?

I wrote it with Alyssa Taylor who is incredible, so hats off to her. But I knew I wanted to do something really disabled, gay and horny. [Laughs] I can’t remember when exactly the seeds of the Crip Rave were planted but it definitely ended up being our horniest episode yet, which I’m really, really proud of. I never thought the horniest and most sex-filled episode of Queer as Folk would revolve around a Crip Rave. That’s just incredible to me. 

Yes!

I think that, as disabled people, sometimes I feel like a Ken Doll, [where] my private parts have been removed. And it’s not typical to see disabled people as sexual beings, which we are. We have agency, we have wants, we have desires, so it really felt incredible to show that on such a larger scale and not only show one disabled person have sex, but multiple. 

Hopefully this will help change the perception of disabled people can’t f*ck, or they don’t have the same desires as able-bodied people because it’s just not true. We are really horny, you heard it from me first! We are so horny. 

 

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Ha, yes! I’ll quote that. The episode showed two different kinds of sex scenes between both of the disabled characters. We have Julian hooking up with Leo (played by Nyle DiMarco) and then we have Marvin, who has this really tender, romantic sex scene with Ali (Sachin Bhatt), who is able-bodied. 

I really wanted above all, to draw parallels between Marvin and Julian, because, although they are two disabled characters, they don’t really connect. I thought this would be a great episode to explain why. 

Marvin is different but he also relates to Julian when he says, “How can his heart be accessible when the world around him isn’t?” Really what we’re drawing here is a comparison between Marvin and Julian. 

Both of them are letting their guard down to have sex with these people. And I think as disabled people, I can only speak for myself, but I do think there are certain walls you have up and skepticism around romance and desire, so that felt very real to me. Showing the common thread between Marvin and Julian’s experience through having sex with Ali and Leo was really, really important to me. 

I love that. 

You know me, gay disabled sex has always been my muse. I always want to portray it in a really accurate way. What I like about these sex scenes in Queer as Folk is that they’re just hot. The ones in Special almost felt like a documentary, they were so raw and real, and I think sometimes they could be sexy, but mostly not. The sex scene with Nyle [in QAF] is just hot and the sex scene Marvin has with Ali is emotional, but it’s also hot. I just love that the Queer as Folk sex scenes [can be] a lot things, but they don’t ever sacrifice the hotness.  

Me too, and the fact that you guys just went there. There wasn’t any kind of Call Me By Your Name cutaway scene. 

Nooo! No tree, no panning away to the tree.

Which, thank you for that!

Of course, of course. I was just as hurt by that as you were. 

Nyle DiMarco as Leo in QUEER AS FOLK (Photo courtesy: Peacock)

There was this great moment in the episode where, which you alluded to earlier, where Marvin is talking about Julian and how his disability makes him feel like “He doesn’t deserve a boyfriend or deserve anything” which for me, as someone who is disabled, those are very true and painful things that I’ve felt myself. How did you balance capturing the real experiences of people with disabilities, while also maintaining the hotness of it all?

It was easy because it felt very true to my life. I always say, “I like me. I don’t always count on society liking me back.” So, I can look in the mirror and be like, “OK, I look lowkey so hot today and I love my body and I’m like, okay, no notes.” But I don’t have faith in society to feel that way about me. So that to me is the most confusing part about being disabled: Even when your confidence is really high and you feel good about yourself, there is still this natural skepticism if anyone else can see you that way. 

Yeah! We can feel some way about ourselves, but the way society sees us can be totally different, so there’s always that struggle. 

Yeah it’s rude. Like I would f*ck me, but I don’t know if you would f*ck me, and that’s annoying. 

[Laughs] Yeah, like c’mon people! So in this episode, we see Julian discover Leo is a sex worker who Brodie (Devin Way) paid for, and he’s really upset by that. What’s going through Julian’s head at that moment?

It’s another betrayal and I think he feels a sense of sadness because Leo has been lip-reading the whole date, and lip readers can only only pick up a third of what you say… So when he finds out Leo is a sex worker, it’s this double kind of sadness where it’s like, “Wow, I’ve been betrayed by my brother, but I’ve also [made things uncomfortable] for this Deaf person whose been asked to provide me with this so-called ‘boyfriend experience.’”

To me, it’s just a prime example of Brodie having these good intentions but fundamentally not understanding Julian, which I think is the big crux of the issue. Brodie thinks he’s doing him a solid, when, if he got to know his brother truly for one second, he would know that what he did is so not okay. It is a violation. You know what I mean? Brodie’s messy, but so is Julian. They’re all messy. They’re my messy children. 

Ryan O’Connell as Julian in QUEER AS FOLK (Photo courtesy: Peacock)

[Laughs] Well, you portray the mess very well! What are your hopes that people get out of this episode, particularly those who maybe have never thought about dating or having sex with a disabled person?

That we are hot and horny and want to f*ck. And that we would love our genitalia back that society has taken away from us. 

Yes, we’re reclaiming our genitalia!

Yes, please!

We’re seeing disability representation recently in not only this show, but CODA as well, but obviously there is so much more that needs to be done. What are your thoughts on the state of disability representation and where do you hope to see it go?

Well, let’s just put it this way. When there is nothing, “something” feels huge, so we have nowhere to go but up, truly. Yeah, CODA was huge, and there are definitely advancements. There’s no denying that. But when I compare it to conversations around race, sex, gender, and all that stuff that has thankfully been deepened over the years and have gotten representation, to me, disabilities always a little behind those conversations. 

Now I have thoughts and feelings as to why: I think disability makes people think about their mortality, because if you live long enough, you will end up disabled and I think that makes people uncomfortable. I also think it’s at odds with our ethos of capitalism, which is like, “do, do, be productive, bigger faster stronger,” and people think disabled people can’t be as productive, or if they can’t be for whatever reason, it’s seen as a failure. I think there’s a couple things working against disability getting the attention it deserves. So yes, there are strides being made but to me, there’s so much more to go… especially when you think of one in four people identifying as disabled, and compare it to what we have. 

And finally, I know I mentioned at the top of this call how you could use a rest, but I think your character Julian could too. Can we talk about how he gets railed twice in one episode?

Oh my god, lawwwl. I know. After eating a seafood tower and beignets, I don’t know how that man bottomed twice after consuming that much food but honestly, that is incredible. Like, hats off to him. I do not know what happened.

Yeah, kudos to Julian for sure!

Yeah, my power bottom king.

Queer as Folk is now streaming on Peacock.

 

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