Once, at a party, when I was 15 or 16 years old, a girl I’d been speaking to for two minutes asked me if I had a girlfriend.
“No,” I replied. “I’m gay.”
“Oh my god!” She said, suddenly delighted. “Will you be my gay best friend?”
This was not the first time I had been extended such an invitation. Before I could reply, she asked if I’d go shopping with her. I grimaced and rolled my eyes, a response she deemed rude. She hadn’t meant to offend me. But she also probably had no idea how insulting it was to try to deputize me as her new sidekick moments after meeting me, simply because I was gay.
There seems to be this idea, underlined by shows like Will & Grace and other early aughts media, that straight women are innate allies to gay men. That requesting someone be your gay sidekick should be seen as complimentary — or even a kind of acceptance — rather than ignorant or insensitive. It’s not that there isn’t some truth to the cliché; I believe that the friendship between a gay man and a straight woman can be a unique and special thing, arising from a commonality of experience. In fact, my longest-lasting, closest friendships have been with women — but none of these relationships hinge on my identity, and I believe if I were to refer to any of them as my “fag hag,” it would result in me receiving a sharp punch to the kidneys.
The effeminate gay sidekick is an enduring iteration of The Sissy, an archetype defined by Vito Russo in his seminal book, The Celluloid Closet, as a comic relief character whose purpose is to “make everyone feel more manly or womanly by occupying the space in between.” Stanford in Sex And The City and Jack in Will & Grace are the two highest profile examples that my peers would have been exposed to in the early 00s, but the stereotype existed before then and persists to this day.
Take two of the most popular films of this year, for example. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Crazy Rich Asians are rightfully being applauded for reframing the quintessential rom-com from a more diverse perspective and centering the kinds of Asian-American characters who are rarely presented as romantic leads in studio pictures. But they also both fall into a classic rom-com trap: the underwritten gay best friend.
When Lucas is first introduced as a recipient of one of Lara Jean’s love letters in To All The Boys, the viewer is led to believe that he may end up being one of the suitors who must vie for her heart. This expectation is swiftly subverted when he comes out as gay — and that is the last we see of him until the fateful ski trip, where he dispenses romantic advice to Lara Jean at a sheet mask slumber party. At no point do we see Lara Jean initiate an actual friendship with Lucas, but our brains have been conditioned by decades of media to know that when a gay man is introduced in this kind of story, it is to fulfill the role of helpful emotional sounding board.
Slightly more nuanced is cousin Oliver, the “rainbow sheep” of Crazy Rich Asians. Yes, he gives Rachel Chu a makeover while dropping bon mots, but actor Nico Santos plays the character as a savvy social operative with more interiority than your average plot-convenient sidekick.
“What I love about Oliver is that he knows he’s an outsider in his own family just by being queer, but he still has this sense of fun and lightness about him,” Santos tells them, saying he envisioned Oliver as “the Olivia Pope of the family,” and therefore the perfect ally to fellow outsider Rachel. His interpretation of the character will resonate with anyone who grew up queer in a hostile environment and had to hone their ability to read social situations out of sheer self-preservation. For that reason, I hope Oliver gets more development and screen-time in future adaptations of Kevin Kwan’s books — but also, I won’t hold my breath.
Because despite how groundbreaking these films are in terms of representation, they still subscribe to the heteronormativity of every other rom-com that preceded them. If a queer character exists in this fictional ecosystem, it is to respond to the emotional or sartorial needs of a straight protagonist. (The only character expected to do more emotional labor than the gay sidekick in these sorts of stories is the sassy black friend.)
Hollywood might still churn out clichés, but thanks to an increasingly fragmented and democratized media landscape, LGBTQ storytellers like Letitia De Bertoli and Brian Jordan Alvarez can create their own content and take it directly to their audiences via YouTube. And slowly but surely, queer-created stories are making their way to network television. Take this summer’s Pose, which was a triumph in its demonstration of the rich, complex stories that can be told about trans and gay people of color when they are given more to do than throw shade from the sidelines. Pose was the first show of its kind to be aired on a mainstream network, centering the experiences of these characters instead of presenting them as secondary to those of the straight, white, cisgender “default.”
Another huge hit of 2018, the Queer Eye revival, has helped to normalize LGBTQ visibility for a wide audience, but it’s worth noting that the show is also essentially about the outsourcing of emotional labor. The Fab Five are a cabal of gay besties who are framed as emotionally articulate and innately empathetic compared to their hapless straight counterparts. And there’s some truth to this generalization, but it’s not that these are innate qualities inaccessible to straight men. In my opinion, they are frequently acquired through marginalization. Just like cousin Oliver in Crazy Rich Asians, who grew up as an outsider in his own family, a great many queer people have to learn how to navigate a world that isn’t built for them, to take whatever representation is on offer, and to meet straight folk where they’re most comfortable.
Perhaps this is where the sidekick trope originates; even some queer people have internalized the idea that our story isn’t the one people are interested in. What that girl at the party didn’t seem to realize was that in “accepting” my sexuality, she reduced me to a supporting player, a party trick. And that kind of diminutization stung, because it confirmed my worst fear at the time: that no matter what I did, I would be set apart — either by boys who made fun of me because I was gay, or girls who saw my sexuality as a novelty. In my youth, I spent a lot of time in friendships that felt conditional on me either downplaying or exaggerating some aspect of myself. As an adult, it’s hard to stand by and watch pop culture continue that tradition.
A request to be someone’s gay best friend wouldn’t carry the same sting for me today — I’m no longer concerned with how straight people react to that part of myself — but I can’t speak for how a self-conscious queer teenager might feel about it. And that’s why representation matters. The more stories and characters we see which subvert our expectations and rise above lazy clichés, the fewer preconceived notions will worm their way into the viewer’s subconscious and influence how they interact with the LGBTQ people in their lives. And thank god — because I am nobody’s sidekick.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.