Dystropia: Why The Sassy Gay Friend Isn't Progressive

Somewhere situated between Easter Island and Papua New Guinea, perfectly pinned on a straight line between the Great Pyramid and the Nazca Lines lies the Isle of Dystropia, the place where every cliché and worn-out convention sticks out like rubble in the sand. Pawing through the debris, you'll find the trope that may just make or break your story. Each installment, we'll explore a different literary platitude, examining it for its various strengths and weaknesses. Set sail for Dystropia, where you might just learn something about your writing and yourself.

Okay, so most of society has moved past the “All Gays Are Pedophiles” trope and left behind the idea of homosexuality as something to be cured, although we’re still waiting for some of the world to catch up. Yet, gays in fiction still often get a bizarre treatment – they’re frequently treated as novelties.

This is where the Sassy Gay Friend, or Pet Homosexual, emerges. Seemingly planted into a purely straight universe so the author can appear more diverse, the Pet is paraded around much like a court jester, complete with cheap laughs and behavioral oddities that are easily lampshaded – “Oh, that’s just Sean being his little ol’ gay self!”

When you treat your gay characters as props, gags, pets, or worse— one-dimensional personalities—you’re walking some seriously thin ice

Not there’s anything wrong with that… Is there? Sometimes gay people are flamboyant, comical, flippant, superficial and awkward, so portraying them as such isn’t entirely misrepresentation. But then there are lots of people who act like that (including myself after a few cold ones) regardless of sexual preference. And therein lies the issue. When you treat your gay characters as props, gags, pets, or worse— one-dimensional personalities—you’re walking some seriously thin ice. Let’s look at how to avoid turning your gay characters into objects or plot devices.

When To Steer Clear

Ever been in a relationship that was a little one-sided? The kind where you’re treated like the insignificant other, while your partner again interrupts you tell you about how they like Greek yogurt or that reminds me, I got these shoes on clearance or yeah, I totally know that feeling of not being listened to, hold on, someone’s retweeting me, sorry, gotta take this call?

Misplacement of sassy gay characters definitely comes across this way. The young, urban socialite needs someone to vent her romantic frustrations to and talk about her period with – let’s make it her gay best friend! Besides (unintentionally) implicating that women cannot have significant relationships with the opposite sex without some kind of sexual tension, this so-called “fag hag” scenario often lends little character development to the poor guy.

What this means is he regularly lacks his own romantic tirades, yet never seems bothered by it. Oh, he’ll talk about sex in enough graphic detail to make E. L. James blush, with the same candid tone you would use to describe lettuce. But getting some action? Ha. You’ll be lucky if you even see the Pet have a romantic interest, unless it’s offscreen. Instead, he’s just flush in the background, content in his isolation until he’s pulled forward to tell a joke or give some cheeky advice. “You go, girl!”

Where To Set Your Sights

Let’s look at other ways to handle this situation. You could always give your gay friend more of a front row, even *gasp!* as the main character. As rare as that is, giving your characters a better role than supporting the protagonist is kind of a no-brainer. Look at Patrick in The Perks of Being A Wallflower — he was more than just a conversation piece and his homosexuality was second to his character development.

Ask yourself why you made your character gay in the first place – unlike in the real world, this was a conscious choice for you. If you’re going to be progressive enough to include gay characters in your story, you might as well be bold enough to give those character more to do than hanging out in coffee shops wearing chic sweaters saying things like, “Girl, where did you get those shoes?” Give them relationships, give them their own spotlight, give them some humanity. Realize there’s more to being a gay man than having a lisp.

If you’re feeling even more bold, subvert this trope. In Kickass, total dweeb Dave can’t get Katie, the girl of his dreams, to pay attention to him, so when a rumor that he’s queer floats around, he dons this identity just to be near her. Katie is a selfish twat that only wants a Pet Homosexual. Then, to hilarious effect, she finds out Dave is as straight as Hugh Hefner, sics her gorilla boyfriend on him and then sexts him nudes just to torment him. Of course, I’m talking about the comic book, not the movie, which totally ruined this bizarre, yet hysterical twist. That’s Hollywood fer ya.

And it’s worth mentioning this amateur web series called “Sassy Gay Friend,” that reimagines popular literature as speckled with Pets. We see Othello, Adam and Eve, Romeo and Juliet and even The Giving Tree get reworked by the sage advice of the gay friend.

“Sister, you need a hobby or an orgasm, stat!”

Out In The Real World

Are gay friends merely mirrors to primp self-esteem and give single women the comfort food of companionship? Again, not that there’s anything wrong with that… So long as both parties are happy, who are we to judge if someone wants to act as a personal trainer for mall shopping marathons?

But you have to wonder if potentially unhealthy attitudes like this are the result of censorship and upheaval by the moral majority and are doing more harm than good. Yeah, there are a lot more gay characters in books and TV shows out there these days, but sadly, true progression isn’t something that happens overnight. Isn't it time we moved past these "straight-friendly" gay stereotypes?

Troy Farah

Column by Troy Farah

Born in the desert, Troy Farah is a journalist that likes to burn things. His reporting has spanned VICE, Phoenix New Times, Flag Live and others, with fiction published in Sleeping in a Torn Quilt and Every Day Fiction. His website is troyfarah.com where he mostly dreams about the apocalypse.

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bohemianonrye's picture
bohemianonrye from Pittsburgh, PA is reading Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell September 16, 2013 - 9:11am

This trope is pretty unbearable. Good article here.

It makes me think of a bit that Patton Oswalt did in his Finest Hour special, where he talked about getting offered the part of the "gaaaaay best friend!" He went on to say that he would only do it if instead of saying the typical gay best friend lines (“Microwave popcorn and red wine, stat!“) he could give useless advice and be generally unhelpful, which was much more realistic in his experience with any of his best friends (homosexual or otherwise).

Michael.Eric.Snyder's picture
Michael.Eric.Snyder September 16, 2013 - 10:24am

I enjoyed this article.

Over the past 10-15 years, it's been great to see fewer and fewer instances of homophobia in media (film and tv, especially). It's at the point now that when I hear it, I'm more shocked than ever because it doesn't happen as often.

I just re-watched the Breaking Bad pilot, when I was showing how Netflix works on my step-father's iPad. In the pilot, Jessie Pinkman refers to the get-up Walter White is wearing and, when advised to wear the same thing, says he doesn't want to look like a <insert homophobic slur here>. 

That was 5, 6 years ago. I doubt it would have made it into the script today. Though some might call that censorship, to me it's akin to yelling "fire" in a movie theater becuase it indirectly stokes the fires of continued intolerance. 

Gay kids are still faced with instances of utter brutality. Just a week or so ago the city of Cleveland sent a letter to a gay establishment stating that they were calling the police too much. Of course, the reason for the recent spate of calls was reaction to a hate crime. A violent beating endured by one of their patrons.



Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated September 17, 2013 - 4:19am

Regardless of gender, race, or orientation many characters in fiction with a SGF are poorly portrayed. Often, the solution might be better writing. 

Veritas860's picture
Veritas860 September 16, 2013 - 6:32pm

I agree with "better writing" as a fix, but how? The same way writers always have. Understand your characters. The sassy gay friend is as tired as the generic redneck, et al. 


My thing is, there's a world of interesting dynamics that could work. All it takes is for someone to put pen to paper and do it. Writers as a whole (and myself included at times) need to stop relying on busted-ass tropes. 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated September 17, 2013 - 3:31pm

I would suggest 'avoid using obvious tropes', but that is just me.

My point is treating any one trope is a dealing with a symptom (sassy gay friend) a misses the disease (over use of tropes). It might cause them to break the group in question into slightly more realistic tropes (gay wanting to move to a place with legal gay marriage, gay who drags it into every conversation, gay in the closet), which is an improvement of only the smallest possible step.