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The recent debacle over British supermarket Tesco selling inflatable "g*y best friend" dolls has given me some pause for thought; are women still viewing gay men as must-have accessories?
Here’s a confession: I’m a crap gay.
I don’t like Lady Gaga, I don’t dress head to toe in designer clothing and I won’t tell you that your shoes look fierce, betch. Oddly, a lot of women are very upset by this shortcoming.
That said, I’m a pretty gay-gay. I love Madonna, my party outfit is a sequin butterfly cape and I’ll happily drink red wine and talk about boys with you.
So I’m not a complete failure in the cliché department. But why do so many women get so upset when I don’t fulfil their complete ideal of what a Gay Best Friend should be?
Let me explain: as a 26 year old male, I grew up in a transitional time for gay rights and the representation of gays in the media. Two of the biggest shows in this respect were "Sex and the City" and "Will & Grace." Fine shows in some ways – and terrible in others – they both became massive cultural touchstones at the time, and today continue to be viewed as groundbreaking in their depiction of sex and sexuality – whether it’s male or female, hetero or homo.
But once you’ve been introduced to enough women who immediately exclaim "You’re gay? Yey! We can be just like Will and Grace!" it starts to wear thin. What was so great about Will anyway? He was dull as dishwater. Jack was far more fun, but let’s face it – in real life he would have been exhausting to be around all the time.
It’s been well documented that "Sex and the City" has given many people – especially women – unrealistic, fantastical expectations of men, relationships and unbridled consumerism. But what we don’t talk about enough is how the commodity fetishism of that show extended beyond the acquisition of Manolo Blahnik’s to the must-have accessory of the Gay Best Friend.
Suddenly, women had to have a gay best friend; I’m sorry, but we don’t owe you a stereotype.
As I’ve said, there are plenty of gay clichés that I proudly conform to – so why is it that even my good friends occasionally get upset when I don’t play the part as well as I should? "You’re the worst gay friend ever!" is said every so often, and it isn’t exactly an insult to me because it tells me you’re looking for someone to play a part; if you told me I was simply the worst friend ever, then we’d have an issue.
For instance: I hate shopping. This is a very well known fact about me, and always has been. When I go clothes shopping, I like to be as expedient as possible before making a long lunch the main event of the day. When you invite me with eye-twinkling excitement to trail round the shops after you while you shop for yourself, forgive me for politely declining the offer. I’m not even that good at giving fashion advice - having spent years watching 80s soap operas such as Dynasty, the only input I can offer is to try to talk you into buying shoulder-padded blazers. I’m less than useless.
A lot of my female friends get frustrated by this and take it as a personal affront. Is it because I’m viewed as "one of the girls"? Or because I’m not behaving as they feel a Gay Best Friend should? We all have certain friends that we do different things with - the movie buddy, the gig buddy, and so on; by default I, apparently, have to be the shopping buddy.
I love my female friends and I’d be lost without them. Anybody that bangs on about Meryl Streep as much as I do would be pretty screwed if they chose to hang out exclusively with straight guys. But when you’ve been told as many times as I have that "I’d like to keep you in my purse and carry you around and just take you out every so often to amuse me," we know we have a problem.
The inflatable Gay Best Friend doll encapsulates the problem perfectly; the notion of gay men as accessories, possessions to be collected; a collection of vapid stereotypes in search of a home. This isn’t helpful to either party. For years women fought against being perceived as china dolls – pretty, painted, silent. And just as women are so much more than just their gender, gay men are so much more than just their sexuality. I’m not here exclusively to take you shopping and gab about the new Rihanna video, because friendships aren’t about ticking off lists or expectations and stereotypes. Friendships are based on mutual love, respect and understanding.
The relationship between straight women and gay men has always been that of a solid alliance – Anita Bryant notwithstanding – and there is a rich history of partnerships there that are every bit as loving and epic as any romantic relationship. You made us feel accepted and loved for who we were in those difficult years when most of the people around us could only see a label. So let’s not undo all of that good work now.
Luckily, the tide is turning in terms of visibility in the media. More and more high profile figures are choosing to reveal their true sexual orientation, and the range of gay characters in TV shows and movies is expanding, slowly but surely. Soon there will be a more diverse assortment of gay men to take our cues from rather than just Will or Stanford.
In the meantime, let’s try to see past labels of gender and sexuality to the individual people beyond. Let’s not collect people just because of some bizarre televisual fantasy about the kind of lives we want to lead. Because in the last analysis, when we all start to see each other as individuals instead of objects, we can begin to truly empower each other and ourselves. And that can only be a good thing.