Before I learned that my best friend is gay, I laughed at the comical portrayals of gay men on shows like Saturday Night Live, which used some variation on the flamboyant gay man as a regular gag. Before I learned that my best friend is gay, I saw such caricatures as light play, and never did it cross my mind that they were not necessarily realistic or accurate. Before I learned that my best friend is gay, whenever I heard a girl brag about her "gay BFF" and how good he was for shopping and gossip, I didn't think twice about it. I probably thought she was progressive and accepting merely for having a gay best friend.
Then my best friend came out to me, and suddenly the butt of those TV jokes was a real human being, and one who, far from reveling in feminine pastimes, happened to be perfectly masculine. In fact, he had even less interest in girly things than most straight men.
When, after learning that my best friend is gay, I heard yet another girl squeal about her "gay BFF," I grew angry. The seemingly harmless stereotype of the "gay BFF" failed to take into account my best friend's immense intelligence and accomplishments, reducing him to a caricature, not a person. It may look like acceptance and celebration, but in reality it is nothing more than an ignorant insult.
It's true that acceptance of LGBTQ people is more widespread these days, but society still thinks it's OK to reduce all gay men to caricatures of over-exaggerated effeminacy instead of looking at them as a three-dimensional, dynamic people, feminine or not. A large portion of gay men are effeminate, sure, and this should be celebrated, but without forgetting the masculine gay men, or the fact that, whether feminine or masculine, gay men can be intelligent, athletic, creative -- anything, really.
It's like Ellen DeGeneres writes in her book Seriously... I'm Kidding:
The problem with labels is that they lead to stereotypes and stereotypes lead to generalizations and generalizations lead to assumptions and assumptions lead back to stereotypes. It's a vicious cycle, and after you go around and around a bunch of times you end up believing that all vegans only eat cabbage and all gay people love musicals.
It is important to note that television has played a particularly significant role in widening social acceptance of LGBTQ people. Will & Grace, Modern Family, The New Normal -- all these shows have portrayed the daily lives of gay and transgender men and women, helping spread acceptance of LGBTQ people as humans, not anomalies. But how broad is that acceptance, really?
These shows have spread acceptance -- but only of persisting one-dimensional stereotypes. We automatically squeeze LGBTQ people into clichés, to the point of expecting certain behavior from them. Summarizing the thesis of John Hartley's book Uses of Television, Jennifer Reed writes:
[T]he teaching that happens on television is the most influential teaching that allows us to cohere as a society. ... It is the primary way we understand the differences between us. And more importantly, it is the place we learn how to behave toward each other as fellow citizens.
If we understood the differences between us based on television alone, we would only accept either flamboyant or uptight, career-obsessed gay men and either hot or masculine, oversexed gay women. We wouldn't accept gay men and women as they truly are: multifaceted in terms of careers, relationships, and appearance.
Think of Modern Family, which has been celebrated for broadening minds and expanding ideas about what it means to be a family in today's society. The show features an array of characters who, despite vast differences in age, race, and sexual orientation, are equally loving and committed family members. In its portrayal of a functional and loving gay couple raising a young daughter, the show strives to spread acceptance of same-sex parents. Cameron and Mitchell are accepted by society -- but would they be as readily accepted if Cameron were not overly emotional and flamboyant (much like Will & Grace's Jack), and if Mitchell were not uptight and career-focused (much like Will & Grace's Will)?
Familiarity breeds acceptance, and although these shows spread overall acceptance of the LGBTQ community, they simultaneously narrow our scope of acceptance to those one-dimensional stereotypes we feel comfortable with. When learning that someone is gay, we instantly assume so much about their character; we expect them to fit one of the stereotypes we know. Lesbians must be either hot or butch, and gay men must be either flamboyant or high-strung. Would we feel just as comfortable and accepting if we were shown an overweight, masculine, gruff gay man? An elderly, churchgoing gay woman? Prejudgments and expectations affect how one interprets anything a gay person does as we try to fit them into a particular stereotype in order to "make sense" of them.
We're only progressive as long as progress makes us comfortable. We're only accepting as long as we're accepting predetermined, pre-approved roles. In order to be truly groundbreaking, we must do the unthinkable: We must start thinking of gay men and women as people rather than as caricatures.