Objectification of the gay best friend

Objectification of the gay best friend

By Richard Shu, Contributing Columnist

NYU is a community that takes pride in its progressivism. In particular, our LGBTQ groups have become a fixture of campus life. This openness to diversity comes with a price, however. Starry-eyed young straight women hope that NYU will provide them with a gay best friend with whom they can discuss fashion and feelings and treat as a token instead of a human being.

One possible origin for the idea of the gay best friend is Will & Grace, a sitcom that debuted on NBC in 1998. At the time, it was the only major network show that featured gay men in the regular cast. The titular Will would offer counsel for his roommate Grace’s problems and Will’s friend Jack defined himself by his flamboyancy.

With the show’s success, national television — hardly known for its fair treatment of minorities — ran with its gay best friend stereotype. Shows such as Sex and the City, Real Housewives and Glee, which are primarily marketed to women, commonly featured gay friends who, in some capacity, fit into Will’s sensitivity, Jack’s campiness or both. They presented gay men as the must-have accessory for any discerning modern woman who hopes to be truly understood.

The image stuck. Many women, who fancied themselves open-minded and intelligent like Grace,  began to search for their Will. They wanted someone who would patiently listen to their problems and offer counsel that, evidently, only a gay man could provide. Or perhaps they looked for their Jack, whose enthusiasm for shopping, sass and men would make him a perfect companion to bring everywhere.

But in doing so, they forget that Will’s and Jack’s characters are rooted in deeply problematic stereotypes of gay men as necessarily being feminine and theatrical. Turning toward tropes, they abandon the notion that gay men — like any other minority — have personalities of all kinds, many of which go against the caricatures drawn by media.

The stereotype is well-meant. It is a sentiment half-born out of progressivism and the desire to expand one’s horizons, not the hatred often associated with homophobia. Unfortunately, it still shunts gay men into harmful stereotypes. It furthers the notion that they will never quite be normal, or a friend like any other.

So, some practical advice: if you are looking for a gay best friend, listen to his experiences. Try to understand who he is at his core and ignore the stereotype of his sexuality. Listen for how he wants to be treated and then treat him that way. With any luck, you will not only find a gay best friend, but you will come to understand that he is your best friend first and a gay man second.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Sept. 10 print edition. Email Richard Shu at [email protected]