Writing Gay Characters
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! This week, I’m going back to my standard fare of deep-dives into specific identities by talking about writing gay characters.
However, I’m not talking about “capital-G-gay” — the generalized slang used similarly to “queer” or “LGBTQ+”. Rather, today I’m talking about writing gay men, who thanks to their early ubiquity don’t really have their own distinct term in the same way that most other identities in the LGBTQ+ community do.
If there’s going to be a queer character in a piece of mainstream media, odds are pretty good that it’s going to be a gay man. This, of course, is changing as more and more queer identities become known and queerness in general becomes more widely accepted. But gay men (especially white gay men) are often seen as relatively “safe” or “easy” to portray, since a long history of them showing up in media has made folx feel pretty confident they “get” gay men.
However, writing gay characters isn’t as simple as tapping into that cultural knowledge you’ve picked up over the years and slapping a name on it. Since they’re so common and have a decently long history of being portrayed, they’ve also become steeped in a lot of tropes and oversimplifications, many of which can be harmful or insulting.
So, for the next few weeks, I’m going to be talking about writing gay characters with respect and authenticity
What Does Gay Mean?
Again, we’re not talking about queer or LGBTQ+ here. We’re talking, specifically, about men who are exclusively attracted to other men.
A gay man is someone who identifies as a man (or masculine-aligned) who is attracted to other masculine-identifying people. Whereas the lesbian community has traditionally been widely accepting of non-binary identities, the standard ideation of male gayness tends to be very focused on cis men. This, however, does not capture the full spectrum of the gay male community
Trans men and masculine-aligned non-binary folx who love men are also gay, regardless of their genital configuration. There is also a rich and storied history of gender expansiveness in gay men. This has become encoded as being effeminate over the years, but really, this is a bending of gender roles. And, of course, there are drag queens and crossdressers — many of whom identify as men, but use feminine modes of presentation to better express themselves.
So, while the gay male community might seem to have less explicit support for gender-expansive individuals, gender-expansiveness and variable gender expression have always been an important part of the gay male community. Generally, though, those who identify as gay consider themselves men, or at the very least mascunlinely aligned.
So why does everyone call themselves gay?
The word “gay” has always been used for both homosexual men and women, though “lesbian” emerged early on for the wlw community. When the term “gay” came into common usage, there was little distinction between gender and sexuality, and so the word also referred to folx we might see today as trans or gender expansive, even if they did not identify that way at the time
Even as we’ve created more specific terms to self-identify, “gay” has stuck around as a catch-all for the community as a whole. There have been attempts to codify a specific term for gay men, but none have ever really stuck
So, while it’s very likely for a character (or a real person) to describe themself as “gay” even if they are not, strictly speaking, a homosexual man, there is a pretty stark distinction between that and the diverse community of gay men.
What’s It Like to be Gay?
Gay men often feel isolated or at odds with the world around them. They might feel that they don’t “fit in,” that they’re misunderstood by their family or their peers, or that the world is out to get them. To avoid this, many gay men — particularly young gay men — tend to slip into characterizations portrayed in media, either because they can relate to that character or because it helps to put them in a context that those around them can understand
This is part of the reason that many gay men play into the stereotypes of being loud, hypersexual, and effeminate. That’s not to say that no gay man authentically feels this way, but many feel that they need to fill a certian role in order to be accepted. (Or, if they don’t want to play that part, then they aren’t really “gay enough” to qualify).
This, really, is due to the harsh gender binary enforced by the patriarchy. It’s extremely difficult for a man to be anything except a man without meeting rather ruthless opposition. Therefore, many gay men either hide their true natures or slide into a role that seems to be at least somewhat acceptable: the sassy, flirty, “gay best friend” they see in movies and on TV.
Gayness, however, doesn’t have to fit this trope. Gay men are as complex and multidimensional as anyone else. They are not inherently oversexed or dramatic, and do not need to loudly declare to the world their own sexualities.
Most gay men are just… dudes. They’re men, who love men. Existing in a role that wasn’t prescribed to them by the patriarchy sometimes makes them softer, gentler, or more circumspect, but not always. Like all queer folx, they’re just people — but people who were shaped by the trauma of having been seen as fundamentally different, and in some ways wrong, by our society.
Writing Gay Characters
When writing gay men, it’s important to make sure you’re creating a character, not a caricature. A gay man isn’t just gay — he’s an entire person, and even side characters deserve better than “Funny effeminate dude” or “gay best friend.” Make sure that the gay man you’re writing into piece is a person before they’re gay.
That being said, you also can’t just make a generic person and then slap a gay label on them. nAs I mentioned above, growing up gay can be challenging and confusing. Many gay men who grew up in the 70s and 80s are very private people, because it was dangerous (and literally illegal) to be gay during their young adulthood. And even if younger gay men can see the world as a safer and more accepting place, they still have to deal with bullying, toxic tropes, and the outright hatred still directed at people like them in many parts of the world.
Take things like this into account when writing gay characters. How has their gayness shaped their personality, and how has their personality shaped their understanding of their gayness?
Another important consideration when writing gay characters is race.
The gay community has a massive problem with racism. This is true of the LGBTQ+ community in general (which tends to be extremely white-centered), but it’s particularly pointed among gay men, where many still consider it an acceptable “preference” to refuse to date Black, Hispanic, or Asian men.
Because of this, non-white gay men sometimes feel alienated by the gay community as a whole. There is also the very different way that homosexuality can be received in non-white communities, especially ones where religion plays a strong role in their lives (like in many Hispanic and Black communities). The intersection of these two realities can leave a lot of non-white gay men feeling isolated and alone.
As a white woman, it really isn’t my place to speak on this, but it’s definitely something that you should be aware of, especially if you want to write gay BIPOC in contemporary settings. As always, be sure to do your research (and consume queer media created by non-white folx!).
Writing gay characters is more complicated than you might think — but that doesn’t mean it’s difficult. Rather, you just have to make sure that you’re treating your gay men with kindness and respect — and, most importantly, treating them as a whole person, rather than a gay caricature.
That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week with some advice on tropes you should avoid when writing gay characters, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!