Attn. Straight Women: Gay men are not your accessories

If you have consumed any amount of pop culture directed at straight women over the past decade, you know of the “gay boyfriend” phenomenon: the superfabulous, showtunes and shopping-loving queer friend who shows up whenever a female lead character needs entertainment, romantic advice, or a plus-one.

Think Stanford in Sex and the City. The eavesdropping assistant in Obsessed. The gaggle of gays who advise Drew Barrymore in He’s Just Not That Into You. I could go on and on… Much like the black best friend, the gay boyfriend is the perfect match for a neurotic and insecure (but still skinny, white, beautiful) leading lady because he is depicted as sexually nonthreatening and non-spotlight-hogging. I think Sady summed it up well:

Sadly, not everybody can be a White Heterosexual. However, if you are not, I have good news: you, lucky person, get to aid the White Heterosexuals in their quest for love! Gay folks and/or people of color make fabulous accessories to the single White Heterosexual girl’s lifestyle.

Which brings us to Thomas Rogers, who describes his plight in Salon today: He’s a gay man who has repeatedly been targeted by straight women looking for a gay boyfriend, despite the fact that he has little in common with these women:

As I moved away from home, to bigger and bigger cities, I discovered that there were lots of scruffy and poorly dressed drone-rock-loving gay men in the world — especially of my age group — who had nothing in common with the Sanfords and Wills I’d seen on TV. Just because I was into dudes didn’t mean I had to suddenly love dance music or fine furnishings. And yet, despite my continued shortcomings as a stereotypical gay man, I remained a strangely alluring target for a large number of straight women.

Rogers grants that self-identified “fag hags” were once extremely important: “I’m here, I’m with that queer, get used to it.” (He doesn’t make this distinction, but in many parts of the country where gay rights are less entrenched, I think this can still hold true.) And he largely credits Will and Grace with mainstreaming the phenomenon. Granted, I have not seen too many episodes of the show, but to me it’s very different than the Carrie/Stanford example. Will and Grace’s friendship always seemed like a two-way street. After all, the show isn’t called Grace, and Will is much more than a background character who pops up for comic relief. Rogers continues,

It was no coincidence that the first wave of gay male TV characters shared most of their screen time with straight women — it made us palatable to mainstream America. “It was celebrating the feminine side of gay men, not about going into the bar scene,” says Pimlott. “It disarmed their potential threat.” And this, in turn, made us into every straight girl’s best friend. “It made it seem like every straight girl should have these accessories: Manohlo Blahnik shoes, and a fag.”

It’s true that while declaring oneself a “fag hag” was once a subversive act, the mainstream cultural interpretation of the friendship between straight women and gay men has taken a really unfortunate turn. (As a straight woman with many gay male friends, it gives me pause. Have I internalized any of this bullshit?) Perhaps the more subversive act today is to decline to preface the term “friend” with a description of that person’s sexuality.

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75 Comments

  1. Kathleen6674
    Posted August 18, 2009 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    My very best friend in college was a man who has never hit on me – we’ve been friends for 15 years. He has commented on my appearance exactly once, and that was when I asked him his opinion of my hair dye. He said something along the lines of “Don’t worry about your hair color, it’s fine,” and that was that.
    He is the ONLY guy I can say that about. Every other guy I’ve befriended has gotten touchy-feely at some point, often under the thin veil of drunkeness, semi-drunkeness, or feigned drunkeness.

  2. Mariella
    Posted August 18, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    And I’d say that Karen (as a rich bitch) was as much Jack’s accessory as Jack was Karen’s. Their friendship was usually superficial and over-the-top, but it was mutual for them.

  3. Kathleen6674
    Posted August 18, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    I meant to say he’s a STRAIGHT man who has never hit on me. Obviously gay men have never done that.

  4. Flowers
    Posted August 18, 2009 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    Gay men still have male privilege, especially if they aren’t effeminate. There are lots of privileges working. There is no one person with all privilege in this situation.

  5. http://openid.aol.com/percat6
    Posted August 18, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    I think there’s something problematic with the “happen to be” approach, too. When a character appears who “happens to be [insert oppressed minority group here],” more often than not they’re written as if they were a middle-class white heterosexual and given all the privileges of such. That’s meant to make them more likable and relatable to the WASP crowd, but it isn’t realistic because of privilege.

  6. http://openid.aol.com/percat6
    Posted August 18, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    I think there’s something problematic with the “happen to be” approach, too. When a character appears who “happens to be [insert oppressed minority group here],” more often than not they’re written as if they were a middle-class white heterosexual and given all the privileges of such. That’s meant to make them more likable and relatable to the WASP crowd, but it isn’t realistic because of privilege.

  7. SarahMC
    Posted August 18, 2009 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Nope, I think “most” is apt. Boys are raised to view women as the Other: good for serving them and not much else. How can you deny that about patriarchy?

  8. http://openid.aol.com/percat6
    Posted August 18, 2009 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Straight women are privileged for being heterosexual, and gay men are privileged for being men. The “gay best friend”/”f.. hag” dynamic isn’t straightforward… in these movies and TV shows, the gay men are also often depicted as very aware of women’s appearances, making snide remarks about weight, etc– and that’s male privilege.

  9. Eileen
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Yes!!! I can’t think of a faster way to completely dehumanize someone you purport to like. The first time I heard it I was thoroughly creeped out, because it clearly positioned the person as an accessory.

  10. maco
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    YES! Maybe then people would stop going “asexual? So like…you can make babies with yourself? People can’t do that!” Obviously getting confused with asexual reproduction. I’ve also had people go “so you don’t have a vagina?”

  11. Claudia
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    That is a really interesting concept I haven’t been introduced to before. I agree with you, in part. When you strip away some aspects of a person’s identity in the (well-intentioned) act of not discriminating against them, you’re allowing yourself to project onto them the identites you know about (i.e., your own) when you think you’re just being fair. Thank you for this perspective!
    At the same time, however, I think that if we become hyper-focused on identity to the point that we cannot parse out our preconceived notions about a particular “group” vs. the individual, then it’s just as problematic and discriminatory.

  12. Claudia
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 2:19 am | Permalink

    It’s so funny you say this, because I saw on Queers United that Tyra Banks is trying to start a show featuring asexual couples. Link is below:
    http://queersunited.blogspot.com/2009/08/tyra-show-seeks-asexual-couples-for.html
    Then again, considering other projects I’ve seen Tyra involved in, I’m dubious about how nuanced and accurate their sexuality and lifestyles will be portrayed.
    Although if Tyra puts Spongebob on there, I’ll watch the pilot in a second! ;)

  13. maco
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 2:20 am | Permalink

    Reminds me of how prom worked at my high school.
    The Rules:
    - Must buy tickets in advance
    - Must buy tickets in pairs
    - Must supply names of people coming on tickets
    - Couples must be opposite sex
    So what do you do if you’re gay? You and your boyfriend each find a girl who can’t get a date. Sign up as going with those girls. Switch tables when you get there.

  14. Claudia
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    Hi! No worries! I think about those issues a lot, since I’m a queer individual who doesn’t neatly fall into any of the “household name” words within the queer community. (I identify as pan/omnisexual.) I’m also intersexed who sometimes identifies as female and other times as gender-transgressive and sometimes as “intersexed.” So the concept of having a clear label in general is kind of a trigger for me in general, and it’s something I always want to address.
    I assume that just like there’s as many individuals out there that identify in whatever “group” is being discussed at the moment, there’s as many different nuanced opinions. Individuals are going to feel differently – that they’re well-represented, that they’re horribly stereotyped, that it “could be worse” but still sucks, etc. Gay men may be getting more visibility than lesbians and other queers, but I’m still uncertain that they’re still as well-represented. How many gay men can you think of in mainstream TV that AREN’T the effeminate, fashion-and-design type that the media has gay men have been pegged into? Sadly, I can’t think of many.
    The whole idea of representing one “flavor” of a group is insulting and needs to change. For gay men, for lesbians, for people of color, for transpeople, for women – for everyone. Show us individuals that identify within that group that aren’t stereotypes!

  15. Claudia
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    I wanted to offer an alternative to the never-fearing-being-hit-on-by-gay-men sentiment many others have posted about. I think it’s interesting to note that in two different situations, I have actually been made to feel as uncomfortable by the men at gay bars as when I visited straight ones.
    In these instances, gay men have commented on my large breasts or my butt and then just abruptly GRABBED THEM! When I stood there looking appalled, they sort of furrowed their eyes and said something to the effect of, “Well, you know I don’t mean anything by it! I’m GAY!”
    It really irked me that these men thought they were entitled to grab my body parts because they weren’t sexually attracted to them. They seemed to miss the point that they were still MY BODY PARTS, and that I had the right not to be touched whether or not is was sexually pleasurable for them. It WASN’T pleasurable for me.
    It’s weird to sit with the knowledge that you got groped at a bar when you assumed there’s no way it would happen.

  16. Zailyn
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    Wow, that’s really good news – last I heard, Tyra Banks had decided against doing a segment on asexuality. Although I notice she’s still looking for an asexual/asexual couple, and the post I linked to explains why that’s problematic. (It’s what always gets me about people who say “asexuality is fine, but they should only have relationships with other asexuals!” Um, given the extreme lack of visibility we have and the fact that we’re only 1% of the population anyway, do you have any idea how tiny to nonexistent our dating pools would be in that case? It’s possible I’m the only person who identifies as asexual *at all* in my hometown. Great chances for romance there.)
    And yeah, chances are the portrayal will not be the best – but honestly, I’ve quite disliked the portrayal we’ve had on pretty much all the shows we’ve been on. A lot of TV people seem to think that we need a “balanced” representation, meaning some asexual people explaining their lives and then some sex therapist coming in to tell us all how broken, damaged, repressed, autistic, etc. we all are. At the moment, I’m pretty much prepared to take more visibility no matter how awfully it’s presented. So OMG TYRA BANKS SHOW YAY.

  17. aleks
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    Makes you wonder where the stereotypes about feminists hating men come from.

  18. SarahMC
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Oh blah blah blah. Why does recognizing a fact about patriarchy = “man-hating?”
    Would you rather I pretend that the Othering of women is not a problem? Would that make you feel better?

  19. SarahMC
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    And to get back on topic, this is why I think some women gravitate towards gay men (as opposed to straight ones) for friendship – because it’s hard to find a straight man who’s interested in women as people, rather than just sex objects or domestic servants.

  20. jellyleelips
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    That’s one of the main reasons I like gay bars. Not because I’m thinking “Oooh I’m so fabulous look how gay and shiny everything is and they love techno wow!” but because it is rare that I go to a “normal” bar without being hit on or ogled to excess by some creep. And, at lesbian bars, my experience has been that lesbians who hit on me are much more respectful and understanding if I’m not interested than straight men are, so I don’t feel uncomfortable being ogled. It boils down to straight male entitlement to female bodies and sex, and, as other commenters have said, many men take ANY attention from women as an invitation to escalate things.

  21. BEG
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    What I find fascinating about all this is the universal assumption here that gay men are a-okay with women.
    In my experience, some gay men make fabulous friends. They like women (apart from sex, of course), and enjoy interacting with them.
    But there’s also a contingent of gay men who are as mysogynistic as any straight guy.
    There’s nothing magical about a guy being gay that makes him a nice-to-women sort.

  22. Ravencomeslaughing
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I also find the term offensive, on so many levels. And I (who identifies as bi) make friends with people based on what we have in common, not if they’re gay or not. I have a very dear friend who is gay, but we’re friends because we both have the same odd sense of humor and enjoy the same hobbies and interests. Not because he’s gay. My first thought when I think of him is “Friend”, not “Gay Friend”. I can’t say I’ve talked to anyone who wanted “a gay friend” as if they were an accessory, but I would say something if that did come up because it’s offensive.

  23. bifemmefatale
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    OK, but how does a gay man’s male privilege matter in this situation? ‘Cause I’m not seeing it.

  24. aleks
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    “I don’t think most straight men have a use for women who aren’t going to fuck them (or clean up their messes).”
    That almost half of the human race is misogynist to the point of being unable to be anything other than exploitative parasites is a “fact about patriarchy”? And this doesn’t demonstrate that your (specifically your, that which belongs specifically to you) feminism is a cover for hatred because of “blah blah blah.” Next time you’re wondering why people with Feminist ideals avoid the Feminist label, look in a mirror.

  25. everybodyever
    Posted August 20, 2009 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    I know this experience too well. It’s yet another byproduct of patriarchy, sexuality notwithstanding: Woman exists to please man. Woman’s body is not her own. Boundaries? Pshaw.
    This is what men, gay or straight, are socialized to understand. Women are there and available to them, so goes the trope. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the groping man, although I’d hope that any man with half a brain would’ve considered the ramifications of grabbing a breast that isn’t his own. It’s the fault of those grand old institutions.
    Depressing.

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