First, there was My Best Friend's Wedding; then came Sex and the City and, of course, Will & Grace. Jump ahead a few years, and it's even cropped up in Lena Dunham's Girls. The trope is officially and stubbornly solidified in pop culture.
It's the Gay Best Friend — the paradigmatic relationship between gay man and a straight woman — that has swept thoroughly through our culture, becoming a classic character on screens and in real life. It's a rise that is possible in part because of an increasingly accepting society, one that's open to visibility for gay men, validates their orientation and recognizes their contributions.
But it's exactly that positive progress that makes one thing clear today: The Gay Best Friend has got to go. In an era when marriage equality is sweeping the nation and acceptance is on the rise, it's a dated stereotype that, ultimately, does more harm than good. That's why it's time to replace the nonsensical "Gay Best Friend" with a more accurate term: friend.
The root of the problem: "Stereotypes are a classification system that makes the world feel more manageable," says Liz Margolies, founder and executive director of the National LGBT Cancer Network. And people cling to them when something is unknown or threatening — there's a reason it's called homophobia, after all.
There may be another reason the Gay Best Friend stereotype was so enthusiastically embraced across culture: women's desire for a non-threatening male presence in their lives. "Straight women often have a desire for safe and intimate relationships, and gay men offer exactly that without the fear of intimacy necessarily kicking in," psychologist Megan De Beyer told Mic.
In fact, a 2013 study of 88 straight women and 58 gay men found that the two sides trusted each other's dating advice more than straight women trusted straight men or gay men trusted straight men or lesbians, the Atlantic reported. This is because, the researchers suggest, the two groups share an attraction to men but aren't competing for mates, according to the Atlantic.
The appeal may also be connected to a void women feel. De Beyer added that it's common to hear "complaints from straight women about straight men who cannot engage on all levels and are difficult to communicate with, whereas they feel with gay men it's all just simple, fun and easy."
"Straight women often have a desire for safe and intimate relationships, and gay men offer exactly that."
All style and sass: What's problematic is the assumption that gay men are always "simple, fun and easy," not to mention "fabulous." The Gay Best Friend trope relies on reductive stereotypes of gay men's interests, habits, behaviors and demeanors, many of which are positioned as useful complements to women's needs.
Pop culture and the media are rife with illogical depictions of gay men as great shoppers, style gurus, endless fonts of sassy bons mots and sympathetic, insightful advisers. Those qualities may accurately describe some gay men (and also some toy poodles); but clearly the whole is not rightfully represented. Where are the fashion-backward gays, the dishonest sneaky queer men, the ones that have no humor whatsoever? Gay men, like any other humans, have a diverse array of personality traits that can't be neatly summed up in one "type."
Moreover, the "Gay Best Friend" inherently marginalizes gay men into a sidekick role, always in the service of someone more important. With a very specific function to fulfill, the Gay Best Friend is rarely allowed to deviate from his allocated role. In films like As Good As It Gets and TV series like Gossip Girl, the G.B.F. added a dose of snappy humor; in Mean Girls and Sex And The City, he doled out advice on fashion and sex — witty insights, of course, being the only sex-related action a G.B.F. gets on-screen, his own sex life being of no importance.
Just an accessory: That's because the Gay Best Friend is treated not so much as a person as an accessory, an object to be possessed. This is epitomized by the language around the term: "My Gay Best Friend" or "My Gay." As BuzzFeed recently noted, "Sure, it sounds cute at first — 'My gays.' It doesn't even sound malicious. You're just showing the world how accepting you are because you have a gay BFF. But you see, a human being can't be 'yours.'"
Being reduced to stereotypes for others' use, of course, is a problem faced by many minorities. Consider the "token minority best friend defense," as the New Republic phrased it in 2011. Wearing a friendship like a badge, valued more for what it represents to others than to the individual friend themselves, devalues the relationship to a merely functional level. A wholly imbalanced situation, it barely resembles a friendship between two equals.
And in an age when gay men (not to mention gay women) are finally being seen as people deserving of equal rights and equal treatment — and when having a friend who's gay means they're just, well, your friend — the G.B.F. trope doesn't apply.
Wearing a friendship like a badge devalues the relationship to a merely functional level.
Throwing out the term: Unpacking and disassembling society's view of Gay Best Friends can come, in part, from embracing real friendships rather than "token" ones, something that's already happening.
"More LGBT people are simply integrated into the lives of all people as friends and family," says Cathy Renna, a media activist and LGBT community PR guru. "We will continue to battle homophobia and sexism and racism for a long time to come, but I would like to think we have made progress beyond the patronizing 'I have a gay friend so I must be OK with it' statement."
In the meantime, progress is happening on the mainstream culture front, Girls' Elijah notwithstanding. When it comes to more nuanced representations, HBO's San Francisco-based Looking features characters across the gay milieu and adds new, authentic representations weekly. Hank on Sirens, played by Kevin Daniels, is a rounded and interesting character, sexual orientation aside. How to Get Away With Murder, Glee and other shows include gay men not hemmed in by G.B.F. stereotypes.
ABC's Happy Endings confronted the G.B.F. storyline head-on in 2011, with protagonist Penny's pursuit of a stereotypical one to replace her actual gay best friend, Max, who is cynical, sports-loving and not at all sassy. The movie GBF, released in 2013, is entirely dedicated to highlighting young women’s bizarre pursuit of a picture-perfect specimen of gay arm candy.
Pop culture is getting there. But additionally, there's an argument to be made that aspects of the gay community itself can help change perceptions further. Gay organizations and queer magazines have a duty to showcase fewer six-packed stallions and glittered dancing queens, featuring more "real" men across all possible media. It's time for the fantasy to combine forces with reality: actual men of all ages, races and sexual variations that come with or without hair, fat, makeup and fashion opinions.
"The LGBT community could very easily — and increasingly is — be better represented in our culture in two ways: more diversity and more depth," Renna says. Progress is evident with magazines like Amsterdam-based Butt, Australia's Hello Mr. and New York's Spank Art Mag, which actively promote more nuanced images of gay men.
Individuals like film director and porn model/actor Damien Moreau are using their work to represent male sexuality in non-cliched ways, including in pornography. Moreau insists on the gay community taking on an anti-stereotype movement, telling Mic, "We as a community need to educate ourselves more on what the acronym LGBTIQ actually means. It's more than a string of letters."
What it comes down to is the abandonment of stereotype images and cliched language on all sides in order to move away from any reductive stereotypes, encourage less discrimination and place friendship and gay men satisfactorily aside from prejudice and cliche. The good news is that we’re already well on our way — the "Gay Best Friend" feels as outdated as last year's accessory.
By Daniel Scheffler
By Daniel Scheffler