I’ve recently learned of a new term used to describe men who are so far out of the closet that they’ve basically become a poster child for the clichéd, Hollywood-crafted stereotype of what a gay man is: “Billboard gay.” The way it was presented to me was in an effort to downplay the process of coming out in a declarative “I’m gay, but I’m not billboard gay.” In other words, “I might be gay, but I’m still super straight, not one of those gays who project their glitz and glitter on billboards for the world to see.” In an effort to explain further, the old Will & Grace analogy was used: “I’m a Will, not a Jack.” The implication, of course, is that being a “Will,” the “straighter-acting,” suit-wearing lawyer type,
is somehow more acceptable and preferable than being a “Jack,” who is more in-your-face G-A-Y (read: flamboyant.)
The problem with that sort of general declaration is two-fold: 1.) that it perpetuates the myth that most gay men are flamboyant, glitter-wearing, drag-dressing, Cher-worshipping Kurt Hummel’s, and 2.) that the association with this idea is somehow a problem at all.
This is connected to the perception of gay men in the media and how that perception has somehow equated to identity, or at least the oft-heard proclamation of a “masculine” identifier during the extensive and emotionally taxing coming out process. (Don’t get me wrong, I am, by no stretch, lessening anyone’s coming out process by saying that the need to stake a claim to a masculine identity during that process is wrong because everyone has their own journey and I know just as well as any other gay man how scary it feels to come out due to the fear of judgment or condemnation. However, I feel it’s important to discuss where this need stems from and the harm it can potentially cause.) Before G.R.I.D., gay men were known in the media as sex-crazed delinquents, because sex was the one thing an oppressive society couldn’t take away. Once AIDS became a manageable disease, gay man were relegated to gender-bending flamboyant sidekicks for sassy women; every strong woman on TV or in the movies had a gay best friend behind them to interject a strong, biased opinion and do so with such flourish that it desexualized gay men and made that accessible to the masses, allowing for the media to perpetuate this caricature to point of exhaustion. It’s become an offensive trope because it’s one-dimensional. Let’s take a look at some examples that have informed and continue to form that perception:
George from My Best Friend’s Wedding:
Stanford Blatch from Sex and the City:
Anthony Marantino from Sex and the City:
Damien from Mean Girls:
Ryan Evans from High School Musical:
Tanner Daniels and Brent Van Camp in G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend):
Marc St. James from Ugly Betty:
Jack McFarland from Will & Grace:
And even characters like Shane in MTV’s Faking It, who straddle the line between believable (and fleshed out as a character) and hyperbolic stereotype still form that perception that gay men are nothing more than female accessories, and therefore decidedly less masculine.
Is the concern that gay men, especially newbies fresh out of the closet, have about being considered a “Jack” rooted in this role that we’ve been (un)ceremoniously placed in? There’s been an awful lot of focus on this trope on TV and on film in the last twenty years, but is it necessarily a bad thing? The way I see it, the men above have all the best zingers and seem to have a leg up on their female counterparts in the ways of men. In a world where so many people were afraid of gay men because of religious convictions or fear of AIDS, the above list of gay characters did a lot to introduce a different side of “gay” to American viewers, making it easier to create sympathizers because not only were they funny, but they seemed approachable, relatable, and became the envy of every woman who didn’t have a GBF. When I was growing up, I was taught that being gay was unnatural, something brought on by a relationship with the devil. But every week after FRIENDS, my mom and I would tune into Will & Grace, and somehow she was able to separate “gay” from the story of four twenty- and thirtysomethings trying to find love and happiness in their various careers, and just laugh for 30 minutes. I’d like to think that both Will Truman and Jack McFarland helped pad my coming out in some small ways.
Unfortunately, not many newly de-closeted gays can see the positives in not exuding masculine energy 100% of the time. So this my question: If so many gay men are rejecting this persona because it’s not “straight” enough, then isn’t that merely a form of projecting self-hate? “I’m gay, but I’m not super gay!” In other words, “I like men, I like to have sex with men, but I’m not one of those girly boys.”
Can we talk about how the use of “normal” in the above photo for a second? It clearly implies that the guy must be masculine because it’s proceeded by the tag “No fem.” In other words: I might be gay, but I’m masculine, not feminine (I REPEAT: NOT FEM!), as if being gay automatically negates masculinity.
There’s no need to grandstand masculinity. In fact, that’s the most detrimental mentality that any one gay man can possess. No man is less of a “man” because they’re gay, and the necessity to have to cloak such a huge part of your identity in blanket statements like the ones above are so incredibly harmful, not just to the self, but to the greater community, including our Hollywood forefathers, who have fought tooth and nail to gain acceptance.
The rejection of “Jack McFarland” is deeply rooted in self-hate, the belief that gay is wrong and unnatural and nothing more a cartoonish unreality. Don’t get me wrong, stereotyping of any kind is detrimental (and I could go on and on about how ineffectual and destructive stereotypes of ALL kinds are for everyone involved, but that’s another piece entirely.) The fact that the GBF stereotype exists at all is inherently problematic, as Lauren Duca points out on The Huffington Post in her piece “The ‘Gay Best Friend’ Effect: A Friendly Takedown of Benevolent Stereotyping.” She talks about how wrong it is (for women) to categorize all gay men as “Jacks”:
Spreading silly stereotypes like “gay men have attitude” allows for more offensive ones like “gay men are sexually promiscuous,” and at the end of the day, there are a lot of gay men who would rather not be carelessly regarded as sassy sluts.
The easiest way to avoid the “gay best friend” effect is to realize that really, anytime you are using the word “they” to describe (or even think about) a group of people unspecified by factors other than race, gender, or sexuality, you are probably marginalizing “them.”
As gay men, this couldn’t be more true, but for different reasons. Marginalizing a group of people is boxing them up, putting a label on said box, and shoving it back into the closet you just came out of. There is so much more to being gay than being a GBF, but to simply classify a subset of gay men into the “Billboard Gay” category while staking claim to some idea of pre-coming out masculinity isn’t progressive either. Why can’t we be everything and anything? Why can’t we be both Will and Jack? Kurt and Blaine? Does it all stem back to “traditional gender roles,” where one man almost has to be more masculine than the other in a relationship in order to fit into some sort of box created by “society”? Is it simply a case of “I don’t want to known as a bottom boy” because it’s not masculine to be dominated?
Is being a man merely about domination? If so, that’s an antiquated notion, especially because part of the perks of being gay is getting to create our own set of “rules and regulations.”
At the end of the day, being a “man” is nothing more than the biological definition, and being gay simply means being attracted to members of the same sex. And just like learning who you are as a “man,” how you define yourself post-coming out is what will determine how you — and others — perceive your self worth, and your place in a community that continues to grow in number and support every day. It’s natural to not want to be defined as solely and wholly “gay,” just (most) straight people don’t want to be known just for their commitment to heterosexuality, because it’s limiting and quite frankly isn’t representative of individuality, but it’s important to realize that being gay is an intrinsic part of ones identity. Being gay is so much more than a label. It’s more than being a “Jack,” a “Will,” a “Kurt,” a “Blaine,” a “George,” a “Damien,” a “gay best friend.” It’s not about running from some deep, dark secret anymore because you’ve made it, you’ve crossed the finish line. Now, it’s about the freedom to love, the embrace of self-acceptance, and discovering a community rich in diversity. After all, every gay man is different from the next; no two are exactly alike. There are Will’s and Jack’s, men who resemble the cast of HBO’s Looking, and men who party like
it’s 1999 the men of Queer as Folk, investment bankers and drag queens, and men who don’t fit into any stereotype or trope at all. And that’s the beauty of being gay.