Tropes to Avoid When Writing Gay Characters
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!
Last week, I gave a general overview on writing gay characters. This week, I’d like to take a moment to delve into some things to avoid when writing gay characters
There’s been a lot of media produced over the years with gay men as characters — most often as side characters or comic relief, but their representation as main characters is growing. That history, though, has come with a lot of tropes about what it means to be a gay man — and many of them are actively harmful.
The Gay Best Friend
A mainstay of rom-coms and high school dramas, this trope has started to fall out of favor but still creeps its way into media on occasion.
For those not in the know, this trope involves a gay man — usually flamboyant, fashionable, and more than a little bit snarky — who exists entirely to prop up the storyline of the straight woman main character in the narrative. Usually, he offers some sage advice about fashion, the male psyche, or just pumps up her ego by telling her how hot and funny she is. He’s usually played for laughs, and very rarely is given much depth.
This is one of those tropes that’s only really harmful when it’s also the only way gay folx get represented. This led to a very real rush of actual straight women, in real life, desperately seeking out a Gay Best Friend™ of their very own. Not, mind you, a best friend who is gay. They just wanted someone to tell them they looked hot and crack jokes with, while being assured that the individual in question would not be sexually interested in them.
I mean, I don’t really blame them. That sounds awesome. But it’s not a best friend, and it’s made a lot of young queer men feel extremely pigeon-holed.
Now, this does not mean that your straight protagonist can’t have a gay best friend. Just don’t make them a Gay Best Friend. Treat the friendship as a mutual exchange — both parties should be getting something out of it, or else why is the gay guy even sticking around?
And, be sure to give your gay character some amount of depth. He doesn’t have to get his own side-plot (though I’d strongly suggest it), but he should have SOME motivation beyond vamping up your straight main characters.
Gays Like Them Young
I’m gonna be honest: this one infuriates me, particularly because it’s still so common, and no one ever seems to remark on it.
Call Me By Your Name is the example I’m going to use. In the somehow award-winning film, a gay teenager goes on vacation and “falls in love” with a 24 year old grad student. Their affair is the entire plot of the film, and the novel it was based on. (The novel, as a note, was written by a straight man, though the film was produced by a gay man.)
The issue I have here is that, for generations — literally to this day — gay men have been assumed to be pedophillic by default. There is a fear in the common psyche that gay men will target children, that they are inherently abusers and that young boys are not safe around them. These same fears still keep gay men from teaching and childcare jobs, and have led to men being fired when they are outed to their communities, all under the banner of “protecting the children” when, really, it’s just hateful rhetoric designed to whip up fear against queer folk.
To see this perpetuated in media — and even celebrated, as Call Me By Your Name was — only serves to reinforce this trope, and make people ever more wary of gay men around children.
Note, too, that Call Me By Your Name is far from the only example of this. The character Ian Gallagher from the US version of Shameless is 16 at the start of the series, but is shown to be in a sexual relationship with his adult manager — and this is played off as fine. A lot of media introduces “troubled” gay youths this way, showing them experimenting with older men who are more than happy to indulge their curiosity. (This characterization also splashes over to young trans women — just look at Jules Vaughn from HBO’s Euphoria).
This is a terrible trope, and one that perpetuates actual harm against gay men. It is not acceptable when writing gay characters. Make your characters of appropriate ages to be sexually or romantically interacting (in general, but especially in this case). This isn’t up for discussion.
This is one of those tropes that doesn’t necessarily have to be avoided like the plague, but it is something you should be mindful of.
Not every gay man in existence is an effeminate neat-freak with a sharp eye for fashion and interior design. A lot of gay men are actually incredibly masculine, and appreciative of such aspects in other men. Moreover, gay trans men exist, and they may take particular issue with being coded as effeminate, as such characterization can evoke dysphoria.
When writing gay characters, make sure they aren’t all one note. There are many different types of gay men, and making your character basically a woman (or what our society thinks a woman “should be”), but shaped like a man, is not a very nuanced, interesting, or authentic way to portray gay men.
Common wisdom says that men like sex, and women don’t — ergo, if you remove the limiting factor of women, then men will just always have sex all the time with as many people as possible.
This is such a cornerstone of gay characterization that it’s impossible to pull a particular example for examination. Gay characters are almost always portrayed as commitment-phobes, bouncing from one casual sexual encounter to the next.
An arc of a lot of gay media, in fact, is showing a gay man realize the error of his ways and stop with all the fooling around all the time. That, or he gets AIDs, the karmic punishment for the apparent evil that is gayness. Either way, the message is clear: gay sex — and by extension, the gay men who engage in it so flippantly — is morally reprehensible and needs to somehow be stopped or punished.
This is a dual pronged issue.
First off, not all gay men have prolific casual sex lives. Plenty do — but so do straight people. This isn’t a gay thing, it’s a modern human thing. But its ubiquity in media has led a lot of people to think it’s the default for gay men, a defining characteristic of the culture, and that has led to a lot of confusion and harm for folx who don’t feel they fit into that mold.
Secondly, gay sex isn’t bad! Sex in general, in fact, isn’t bad. Sex is good! It’s fun! Stop demonizing sex in media! But especially stop demonizing gay sex. Don’t dole out punishment to your gay characters for the singular crime of too much sexing. There’s an argument that this could be an interesting avenue for character development, but honestly it’s been done so much at this point that you’d have to do something REALLY creative with it.
When writing gay characters, just remember that a lot of the media you’ve internalized over the years has been designed specifically to demonize gay men — so take your assumptions about representing gay men with a grain of salt.
That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week to talk about introducing gay characters, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!