There have been times when I’ve stood alone in a room emitting witty remarks, as couples and groups giggle and saunter by, and I’ve realized the absolute horror: I am a gay cliché. I am an embodiment of the guy in the corner who spews wisecracks and gains some popularity because he says things to jazz up an otherwise bland night. I am the witty gay.
This wouldn’t be so horrible except for two things. One, the wit may very well be a coping mechanism, as well as an attention-getting device. It’s a way to simultaneously hide and stand out, since witticisms allow you to stay on the outskirts of the central action while achieving some glittery fallout because you dare to be funny. Two, as I’ve mentioned before (witty gays are so repetitive), I’m the perennial witty gay bachelor, even now that you can have an actual wedding and invite loved ones and serve meatballs. In the new milieu of constant gay processions to the altar, I am an old cliché.
Ugh. The witty gay bachelor. It’s a type so old you can go way up your cable dial and still find it. It pops up on Turner Classic Movies, in 1930s films where character actors like Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn played snappy queens who livened up a party but basically had no noticeable lives of their own. They were your archetypal gay old maids — always on fire with a retort, but never in the spotlight, especially with any significant dancing partner to speak of.
The trope continued through the 1960s and beyond, when character actors like Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly were acidly funny and full of wacky barbs, but exuded very little sex appeal or sexuality at all. They were gay by innuendo rather than by declaration, which is hardly surprising. Gay clichés stem from the societal realities of the moment, as dictated by pressures and mores. Showbiz people weren’t openly gay back then, but they could get away with being flamboyant and full of suggestion, within the limits ascribed by communal “good taste.”
As Lynde and Reilly showed us, it’s not just the gay community that creates the idea of what makes a “hot gay” of the moment. The mainstream constructs certain images of us — the kind they feel comfortable with — and we often go along with them, projecting our own fears and insecurities by presenting a handpicked type to the world.
Or two types! Each generation seems to have a couple of gay clichés or ideals, one stemming from the macho ethic and the other from the flamboyant one. As a community, we can’t seem to decide whether to worship at the throne of machismo or of drag, so we go back and forth between cowboy attire and lip gloss. Even in the ’60s, when we were loving wrist-flapping Paul Lynde as much as the straights were, we admired the mustachioed ideal via the last gasp of muscle magazines (which pretended to be about fitness), followed by an explosion of gay porn filled with swaggering sex heroes.
In the post-Stonewall ’70s, gays ran on a hedonistic rampage, with sex, drugs, and disco everywhere you turned. It was hard to look manly while dancing to songs like “Turn The Beat Around,” but the gays tried it, complete with leather outfits and the requisite scowls. At the height of this madness, the disco group the Village People cannily brought together six gay stereotypes, all machismo-laden, from the construction worker to the American Indian. They became the poster boys for the community, as well as for the straight world, which simply liked their songs and couldn’t see what was going on — to the delight of the group’s producer, who could have his clichés and eat the profits, too.
“Gay clones” were the norm up and down New York’s Christopher Street, but glam rock exploded at the same time. Glitzy stars like David Bowie and Elton John toyed with admissions of sexuality, and our bedroom posters included images of men with dazzling outfits and facial glitter.
The onset of AIDS in the 1980s tweaked the gay ideal once more. The clichéd gay couldn’t just be butch; he also had to work out obsessively and develop an eye-popping set of abs. This was thought of as a way to become invulnerable, to the illness and bashers. Although it didn’t work, it led to conformity that made gay men feel at home in dance clubs, where they indulged in paradoxically unhealthy behaviors. Again, we saw a dichotomy because our poster boys were wispy, new wave singers like Boy George and George Michael, who we had no doubts were our gay brethren, abs or no abs.
The AIDS activism group ACT UP was founded in 1987, and by the 1990s, the gay cliché was a muscle queen who wore combat boots with cutoff jeans and marched in the streets for progress. There still weren’t that many openly gay celebrities, but there were gay characters — such as on the hit sitcom Will & Grace (1998–2006), where Sean Hayes’s character, Jack McFarland, was a nouveau Paul Lynde full of wit and super-ficiality. And he was out!
The 2000s and ’10s brought more emphasis to the niche-ization of the community, as we kept splitting off into subgroups including twinks, bears, and muscle queens. As the differences between gays and the mainstream started fading, we became more homogenized in our approaches to life and love, and within our community we splintered more aggressively into the varying types of gays we represented.
No matter what kind of gay you were, being out seemed way more essential than in the old days. With so many open and powerful gays in the biz, our icons became biggies like Neil Patrick Harris, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, and Anderson Cooper. They’ve blazed some trails, and we are in their thrall — a long way from the snickering, closeted ’60s.
But let me be narcissistic and superficial again and note that those icons are all married — or seriously hitched — and I’m not. If getting married has become a cliché, then resolutely refusing to do so might be even worse. I’ve spent all these years avoiding falling into the niches of being a leather queen, a ditsy twink, a boozy bear, or a bitchy drag queen. I’ve stayed cleanly out of every single subcategory, preferring to just be an all-around LGBT rather than a stereotype. But here I am, the gay in the corner, and it seems like a pretty stale thing to be.
Still, there are way worse clichés — such as, let’s say, a gay serial killer. And at least I’m a positive stereotype, someone who relies on his tart tongue rather than his bulging biceps. So, I’ve decided that I’m proud to be a gay cliché, and I’m going to wear it on my vintage Yves Saint Laurent sleeve rather than act shamefully about it.
Hear me roar, folks. I’m here, I’m witty, get used to it.