Love him or hate him, the Gay Best Friend plays a big role in pop culture.
Almost as long as rom-coms and high school TV shows have existed, the Gay Best Friend(tm) has been a source of comedy and controversy. Often an important first step in introducing queer storylines to mainstream audiences, the GBF trope had a tendency to reinforce stereotypes about gay men: that their only interests are makeovers, shopping and drama, that their struggles and relationships fade into the background unless they're supporting a straight person's story, and that they only exist to be wise oracles about love and romance.
As LGBTQ+ representation in Hollywood improves both onscreen and behind the camera, movies and TV shows are getting increasingly self-aware, creating gay characters who provide the comic relief we love while tearing down outdated ideas. From Rupert Everett in My Best Friend's Wedding to Dan Levy in Happiest Season, here's a look at some of the most notable GBFs of the past few decades, and recent characters who are changing the game.
The Woman in Red
Perhaps the earliest example of the classic Gay Best Friend character is in 1984 movie The Woman in Red, a Gene Wilder comedy about a married man who becomes obsessed with a model (Kelly LeBrock) after he sees her skirt get blown up by a wind grate, Marilyn Monroe-style. Buddy (Charles Grodin), one of his circle of friends, comes to the rescue when Wilder's character is nearly found out by his wife and mother-in-law at a birthday party.
A minor character with limited screen time, Buddy does win points for being portrayed as just another one of the guys, who happens to be gay -- a big deal for movies in the 80s.
There are many things to love about Reality Bites (1994) -- spot-on Gen X fashion, a memorable soundtrack, and Janeane Garofalo at her snarky best. Steve Zahn's GBF character Sammy is also a nice touch, as fleeting as his screen time may be. More funny, cute, and insecure than fashionable and stereotypical, Sammy is a Houston slacker who pals around with Garofalo and her roommate, aspiring filmmaker Lelaina (Winona Ryder).
Sammy's sexuality is revealed in clips of Lelaina's documentary on her circle of friends, where Sammy describes his celibacy (non-sexual GBF, go figure) and his pained coming out to his family. By the end of the movie, we learn Sammy has a fella, but we don't ever see him. His plotline may be thin as a wisp, but Zahn squeezes a lot of mileage out of a small role.
My So-Called Life
Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) of ABC's short-lived cult classic My So-Called Life (1994-1995) is one of the first examples of a gay character in a high school ensemble series -- but what makes him especially noteworthy is that he challenged the Gay Best Friend trope before it was even a trope. As this list shows, GBFs are overwhelmingly white, and until recently they were often played by straight actors. Cruz, an Afro-Puerto Rican man, was the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay character in a leading role in an American television show.
While Rickie was best friends with straight girls at his school, the way his storyline dealt with homophobia and self-acceptance was years ahead of its time. It's no wonder that fans still approach Cruz to tell him how much his character meant to them.
Why do all the cutest guys end up being gay, am I right, ladies? Beverly Hills princess Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) runs into this extremely 90s joke in Clueless, Amy Heckerling's clever adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. While playing matchmaker at her high school, Cher crushes on a suave new student named Christian (Justin Walker) and tries to lose her virginity to him, missing all the giant, stereotypical signs that he plays for the other team. Finally her friends have to explain that Christian is a "cake boy" -- a "disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding Friend of Dorothy."
On the upside, Cher gets her very own GBF out of the situation, and Christian succeeds in making Cher's ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd) jealous enough to realize he's in love with her.
As Good As It Gets
The multiple-Oscar-winning film As Good As It Gets (1997) from James L. Brooks stars Jack Nicholson as Melvin, an obsessive-compulsive (and narcissistic) romance novelist, whose life is made richer thanks to the unwarranted love and kindness of the people around him. Helen Hunt stars as Carol, a single mom and his love interest who "makes him want to be a better man," while former Talk Soup host Greg Kinnear surprised audiences with his impressive acting chops as Simon, the gay neighbor who becomes friends with the curmudgeonly Melvin.
When Simon, an artist, is badly beaten up by a friend of one of his models, his agent (Cuba Gooding Jr.) insists that Melvin take care of Simon's small dog. As Hollywood would have it, Melvin and the pup form a bond, and eventually Simon and Melvin do too. The friendship becomes another avenue by which to measure the protagonist's growth as a human being.
My Best Friend's Wedding
There's a reason everyone points to 1997 film My Best Friend's Wedding as their go-to example of a Gay Best Friend. When New York food critic Jules (Julia Roberts) hears about the engagement of her lifelong friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney), who once promised to marry her if they were both still single by age 28, she launches into a convoluted plot to sabotage the wedding. She enlists the help of her gay friend George (Rupert Everett), who drops everything to fly to Chicago, pretends to be Jules' fiance to make Michael jealous, and trolls the hell out of her while dispensing nuggets of wisdom about her love life.
George is such a fantasy of a character that he may as well be a unicorn, but Everett is just so charming about the whole thing. Even though Jules fails to win back the man she loves, it still feels like she succeeds in the end, just because George sings "I Say a Little Prayer" to her in a restaurant and dances with her at the reception.
Will and Grace
Will Truman may be the quintessential GBF -- since that's his main character attribute in the early episodes of the iconic sitcom, which launched in 1998, lasted until 2006 and was rebooted in 2017. But Will (Eric McCormack) was a main character (not very GBF) and would eventually (there'd be a long wait) have some queer love in his life (not GBF at all).
The real gay best friend of the series was Jack (Sean Hayes), a diva-loving queen who cycles through men, jobs, and random fixations. Sure, Jack is plenty stereotypical, but he was also hilarious -- and once Hayes came out (after the original series run), the characterization felt less problematic. During the reboot, Jack would also flesh out his GBF role, getting a steady boyfriend and a bit of Broadway glory.
Sex and the City
HBO series Sex and the City (1998-2004) gave us another standard GBF in Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson), Carrie Bradshaw's best friend -- aside from Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha, of course. Her confidant since the 1980s New York party scene, he can always be counted on for witty commentary about dating, shopping, and therapy. ("How can you not have a shrink? This is Manhattan. Even the shrinks have shrinks. I have three.") After getting into a bitter rivalry with Charlotte's friend Anthony for much of the show, Stanford kisses him at a New Year's Eve party in the Sex and the City movie, and marries him in the sequel.
Garson, a straight actor, recently discussed why he was reluctant to reveal his sexuality in interviews. "For years I didn't talk about it because I found it to be offensive to gay people," he said. "People playing gay characters jumping up and down screaming that they're not gay, like that would somehow be a bad thing if they were."
The Object of My Affection
"What if I slept with my Gay Best Friend" was apparently a thing we were doing in the late 1990s. In The Object of My Affection, New York social worker Nina (Jennifer Aniston) is roommates with George (Paul Rudd), a gay elementary school teacher. They spend their free time ballroom dancing and cuddling in bed watching movies -- but when Nina discovers that she's pregnant by her overbearing boyfriend, she asks George to help raise her child and the relationship gets complicated.
Inevitably, Nina develops feelings for George, and at one point they're on the brink of having sex when a phone call from his ex-boyfriend interrupts them. The big emotional scene of the movie is a very pregnant Nina sobbing because George can't love her the way she loves him. The flash-forward at the end, with all the characters being one big happy family, was progressive for its time; but the idea that a gay man could be attracted to a woman if she plays her cards right is a bit uncomfortable.
The Next Best Thing
The "gay men sleeping with straight women" idea gets even weirder in Madonna's 2000 film The Next Best Thing. When her character Abbie gets pregnant after a drunken fling with her GBF Robert (Rupert Everett, much less successful this time), she decides to have the baby and Robert agrees to be the live-in father, while they both continue to date other people. But then Abbie meets a guy who wants to get married and move to New York, and the romantic comedy spirals into a bizarre courtroom drama as they fight over custody of their child.
Roger Ebert gave the movie one star and called it "a garage sale of gay issues," it bombed at the box office, and Everett later revealed that it led to the collapse of his friendship with Madonna. It's as good a sign as any that we needed to put that plotline to rest.
Tina Fey's 2004 high school comedy is proof that the gay best friend doesn't have to be an offensive or trivial character, because what would Mean Girls even be without "too gay to function" Damian (Daniel Franzese) and "big lesbian crush" Janis (Lizzy Caplan)? (Yes, Janis' classmates spread gay rumors about her and she's dating a boy by the end of the movie, but we're not buying for a second that she's heterosexual.)
While most of their story is about teaming up with new student Cady (Lindsay Lohan) to take down a clique of popular girls, Damian and Janis have a fully-developed friendship with each other as well as Cady, and are just as central to the movie's commentary about high school culture as anyone else.
The Devil Wears Prada
Few straight actors play gay as well as Stanley Tucci in 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, about aspiring journalist Andy (Anne Hathaway) who gets a job at Vogue-inspired Runway Magazine. While kinder than editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and her waspish assistant Emily (Emily Blunt), Tucci's character Nigel doesn't hesitate to call Andy out for her snobbish attitude about the fashion industry. "Be serious; you are not trying. You are whining," he says -- though the rebuke loses its sting when he gives her a full makeover and tens of thousands of dollars' worth of designer clothing.
Sadly, Nigel is rewarded for his hard work at Runway with the most unsatisfying ending of anyone in the movie: getting thrown under the bus by Miranda and missing out on his dream job. We'll just have to imagine he finds his own fulfilling storyline in the sequel we'll probably never get.
ABC's Ugly Betty (2006-2010) was frequently accused of ripping off The Devil Wears Prada when it first aired, with its plot about a fish-out-of-water assistant (America Ferrera) working at a New York fashion magazine -- but its diverse, memorable characters quickly took on a life of their own. In particular, Mode's cutthroat creative director Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams) and her scheming gay assistant Marc St. James (Michael Urie) kept the audience in stitches.
In an interview with The Advocate celebrating the pilot episode's 10-year anniversary, Urie said, "Finding the right tone was always something that I cared a lot about, and the writers were excellent at toeing the line between camp and truth. I always wanted to be able to get away with true silliness but also play naturalistic pathos."
It might be a bit of a stretch to call True Blood a romantic comedy, but Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) is worth a mention. The flamboyant employee of the restaurant Merlotte's served up no-nonsense evaluations of romantic realities for Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) as she juggled an array of supernatural beaux. In later seasons of the HBO series, which ran from 2008 to 2014, Lafayette expanded outside of trope territory to find his own love interest, and he was never afraid to stand up to oppression from either human or vampire bigots.
Upon Ellis's passing in 2017, Alan Ball, the creator of True Blood, called Ellis "a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me. Working with him was a privilege."
Oh, Glee. As much as we love and appreciate Ryan Murphy's high school musical series (2009-2015) as a formative experience for millennials everywhere, its portrayal of LGBTQ+ people ran into a few problems.
To be fair, Chris Colfer's character Kurt was a TV breakthrough, offering a much-needed positive role model to gay kids. His relationship with Blaine (Darren Criss) was one of the first times we got to see two young gay characters kissing onscreen in a mainstream, family-oriented comedy, and we'll never forget the way his father Burt (Mike O'Malley) defied stereotypes by being completely supportive when Kurt came out to him. But his gossipy friendship with Rachel (Lea Michele) and her habit of calling Kurt her "best gay" had some critics wondering if he was being treated like an accessory, a debate that can set off Tumblr fandom shouting matches to this day.
Sassy Gay Friend
How's this for a 2010 flashback? Chicago improv comedy troupe The Second City left their mark with Sassy Gay Friend, a viral YouTube skit starring Brian Gallivan as a GBF who talks sense into Shakespearean heroines and other women from ancient history. "I think you're 14 and you're an idiot," he tells Juliet from Romeo & Juliet. "You took a roofie from a priest. Look at your life -- look at your choices."
If you were ever wondering why your friends wouldn't stop quoting that last sentence or "she's a stupid bitch" all the time, look no further.
Brandon (Dan Byrd) in 2010 comedy Easy A flips the script on the Gay Best Friend stereotype. Instead of him supporting the female lead, it's actually Olive (Emma Stone) who looks out for him, by pretending to (loudly) have sex with him at a party so he can keep homophobic bullies off his back until he can graduate high school. He does fulfill the trope in another way, however -- once he gets the plot in motion and Olive makes herself over as the school slut to help other students, we don't see very much of him.
We do find out, in a random burst of exposition, that Brandon comes out to his parents and runs away from home; but aside from a parting shot of him cuddling with his new boyfriend, all of that happens off screen.
In this often-polarizing HBO comedy (2012-2017) from Lena Dunham about privileged white girls living in New York, Elijah (Andrew Rannells) gets a classic GBF introduction. A college ex-boyfriend of Dunham's character Hannah, Elijah reveals that he's gay early in Season 1 when she tries to find out if he gave her HPV -- and then drops the memorable bombshell, "It was nice to see you. Your father is gay." He becomes her best friend and roommate by Season 2, providing the catty voice of reason to offset her self-absorbed drama.
But while it would have been easy to make Elijah a caricature, he ends up being one of the most well-rounded and likable characters on the show, largely because he seems to be the only person who recognizes how ridiculous Hannah and her friends are acting a lot of the time.
By 2013, the trope had been scrutinized enough to be the subject of its own stylish high school satire, G.B.F., reminiscent of Mean Girls and Not Another Teen Movie.
With fashion magazines declaring a Gay Best Friend to be this season's hottest accessory, three would-be prom queens fight over recently outed student Tanner (Michael J. Willett), making him over to look like the status symbol they want. Meanwhile, homophobic students and religious groups try to shut gay students out of prom altogether. The movie features gay culture icons like pop star JoJo, Will and Grace's Megan Mullally, and Natasha Lyonne of But I'm a Cheerleader and Orange Is the New Black fame.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
The GBF trope simply was not ready for Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) in Netflix's hit comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-2019).
While the perpetually-unemployed diva plays the role of helping Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) adjust to the modern world after she's rescued from an underground cult, Titus steals the show from the very first episode, providing the funniest jokes and some unforgettable musical numbers. (We'll never look at Beyonce's Lemonade the same way again.) Over four seasons, Titus gets fleshed-out storylines about his career, his friendships with characters other than Kimmy, and his construction worker boyfriend Mikey (Michael Carlsen), putting any suggestion that he's just a sidekick to shame.
Created by Julie Klausner, Difficult People (2015-2017) was very self-aware of the GBF trope in its depiction of aspiring comedians and friends Klausner and Billy Eichner as they pursued careers in entertainment and indulged in their love of hating other people. (Even their names were the same as their characters' in the Hulu series.) Subverting it, Klausner was married while Eichner's dating life was a rich resource for his comedy, be it for his disdain at a "participator" in a stand-up audience, an "old-timey" obsessed with period culture, or pretending to be closeted in New Jersey. The show was an important showcase for Eichner as well as other up-and-coming LGBTQ-BFs like Cole Escola and Shakina Nayfack.
The Bold Type
The Tough Fashion Editor and her Bitchy Gay Sidekick were revived yet again in Freeform's The Bold Type, with Scarlet Magazine EIC Jacqueline (Melora Hardin) and her assistant Andrew (Adam Capriolo). The encouraging takeaway from this progressive-minded show, however, is that if your queer representation also includes a bisexual, biracial lead character (Aisha Dee), her lesbian Muslim love interest (Nikohl Boosheri), and a Black gay man who is head of the fashion department (Stephen Conrad Moore), the GBF character stops being a potentially harmful stereotype and becomes more of a playful wink at white gay men.
Crazy Rich Asians
In the 2018 blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel (Constance Wu) travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend's uber-wealthy Chinese family and try to win over his intimidating, traditionally-minded mother. She finds an ally in Oliver (Nico Santos), "the rainbow sheep of the family," who uses his insider-outsider status to make himself useful and protect his relatives from gold-diggers.
In an interview with The Advocate, Santos rejected the idea that his character is just there for comic relief. "Oliver has had to learn how to navigate conservative Singapore and ultra-rich circles where he knows that he can't be fully out. The fact that he has become this cunning player who kind of manipulates and knows exactly how to place himself in the right position, in the right time, at the right place speaks highly to the type of character that he is. He's not just some sort of throwaway."
Isn't It Romantic
The trope gets thoroughly dragged in Isn't It Romantic, the 2019 parody about a woman named Natalie (Rebel Wilson) who hates rom-coms, only to wake up trapped in one after she hits her head in the subway. One of the endless cliches she has to navigate is Donny (Brandon Scott Jones), her surly neighbor across the hall, who's turned into a stereotypically flamboyant, romper-wearing queen. ("Okay, bootch, change out of whatever this is, because I'm going to drop you off at the office on the way to my no plans whatsoever!")
Like a true GBF, Donny seems to have no purpose beyond obsessing over Natalie's love life and giving her a makeover montage scene -- but the good news is, when she finds her way back to the real world, it turns out her neighbor really is gay and dating Bowen Yang. Happy endings for everybody.
Emily in Paris
There is nothing nuanced about the GBF character in Netflix's workplace comedy Emily in Paris, but the entire series is so full of cliches about Paris, French people, Americans, fashion, love triangles, sexism, and social media influencers, it's hard to get too worked up about it. Julien (Samuel Arnold), an employee at the boutique marketing agency where Emily (Lily Collins) works, exists purely to wear fantastic outfits, take three-hour wine lunches, and mock Emily to her face about her ignorance of French culture -- all things we can get behind.
The show hasn't revealed much else about Julien's personal life so far. In fact, aside from his mannerisms and his love of fashion, we didn't even get conclusive evidence that he likes men until Season 2.
What's the role of a gay best friend in a gay romantic comedy? 2020 holiday flick Happiest Season puts a playful spin on the idea with John (Dan Levy), friend and confidant to Abby (Kristen Stewart) as she spends Christmas with her girlfriend's family. In the tradition of My Best Friend's Wedding, he provides moral support as Abby gets ready to propose to Harper (Mackenzie Davis), and later pretends to be Abby's "heterosexual ex-boyfriend" when she learns that Harper hasn't come out to her family yet.
One look at the trailer shows John filling the GBF role of delivering heartfelt advice and perfectly timed one-liners --"Just because Harper isn't ready, it doesn't mean she doesn't love you. And you look great in this coat" -- but the dynamic is a lot better when it's all about gay/lesbian solidarity and making fun of clueless straight people.