By Matt Cohen, MTV Insights
Having grown up in a culture with greater gay visibility and acceptance than ever before, Gay Millennials are quickly speeding past “Coming Out” and moving on to tackle the unique challenges that arise in a “post-out” culture. Chief among these new challenges is the struggle to avoid being tokenized as the Gay Best Friend, or “GBF.”
We’ve heard a lot about GBFs over the past several years, with high school and college-age girls telling us about their beloved gay besties, often beginning stories with phrases like “So my Gay Best Friend and I were at brunch…”
For many girls, having a GBF is a major status symbol. A Teen Vogue article from July 2010 went so far as to place GBFs in the same list as other “must-have” fashion items of the season, alongside a “Proenza Schouler tie-dyed top” and “neon-bright chunky bracelets.”
In speaking with Gay Millennials, we rarely hear them refer to themselves as GBFs. However, Gay Millennials do say that they often feel pressure to embody the role of GBF for their female friends. Domenic, 19, tells us “When I came out in high school, all the girls wanted to go shopping with me and for me to do their hair and make-up. At first, I played along because that’s what I thought gay men did.”
Recognizing that others expect them to fulfill this role, some Gay Millennials have fun with their newfound GBF status and work it to their advantage. Tom, a 23-year-old waiter, revealed to us that he would often play up his “gay-ness” for certain female customers, adopting the role of temporary GBF in order to earn higher tips.
However, being confined to the role of GBF does have its downsides. As Matt, 23, explains “It often feels like people want me to ‘perform’ for them because I am supposed to be the ‘fun gay friend.’ And that makes it hard for me to be taken seriously.”
A new film which premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival — appropriately titled “G.B.F.” — explores the mixed emotions many young Gay Millennials feel upon discovering that while their friends openly embrace the fact that they are gay, these friends also expect them to play Will to their Grace (or Jack to their Karen.)
“You don’t even sound like the ones on Bravo.” Above: the trailer for “G.B.F.” a new teen comedy that explores the phenomenon of the Gay Best Friend.
“G.B.F.” follows Tanner, a quiet high school student who is out-ed as the result of a “gay witch-hunt” led by the president of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance who is desperate to have her own GBF. Once the secret is out, Tanner skyrockets to popularity as the three queen bees of the school adopt him into their clique and attempt to reshape Tanner into their ideal Bravo-inspired sidekick. With a tongue-in-cheek script, ”G.B.F.” shows what happens when people cross the fine line from supporting and advocating for their gay friends to objectifying and tokenizing them.
Towards the end of the film, Tanner is crowned prom king, and in his acceptance speech to his classmates, he explains that he doesn’t want to be anyone’s GBF; he just wants to be appreciated for who he is. Ultimately, this is the message we hear from Gay Millennials over and over.
This aversion to being forced into the role of GBF is reflective of a much broader Millennial attitude that challenges the idea of being defined by a monolithic identity. For a generation that defies all-encompassing labels and refuses to check a single box for anything — be it their musical taste, ethnicity, religion, politics, or their career — being known only as “gay” or someone’s “GBF” feels much too limiting. Though Gay Millennials may initially fall into the role of GBF because it provides them with a prescribed template for “how to be gay”, they ultimately opt for forging their own path in defining their new identity.
As Kevin, 23, explains, “When you’re first coming out, you wanna be the Gay Best Friend. But once you’re happy with yourself, you can be whoever you want.”
This is the second in a series of posts on Gay Millennials, in which we’ll share our findings on the unique characteristics and experiences of this generation’s gay youth.
By Matt Cohen, MTV Insights
For previous gay generations, “Coming Out” was one of the most significant things you would do in your life as a gay person. For Gay Millennials, “Coming Out” is increasingly “no big deal” – to use the words of one Millennial we interviewed. In honor of National Coming Out Day, today we’re taking a look at how this generation of gay youth is redefining this rite of passage…
When we began studying Gay Millennials earlier this year, we started by asking ourselves what the major challenges and tension points are for this particular subgroup of Millennials. “Coming Out” seemed like a natural place to begin our discussion. After all, rites of passage on the road to adulthood are often tough, and “Coming Out” has long been treated as one of the scariest and most risky acts of self-definition. For previous generations – where gay men and women often didn’t come out until their 20s, 30s, or later (if it at all) for fear of rejection or persecution – simply revealing one’s sexual identity was, perhaps, the ultimate challenge for a gay person. However, that seems to be changing.
For Gay Millennials, who have grown up in a culture with high gay visibility, “Coming Out”, seems to be increasingly less of a tension point for many gay youth today. When we talked to Gay Millennials over the course of our research, many of them shared “Coming Out” stories that were surprisingly positive, drama-free, and — in some ways — a bit anti-climactic.
With more supportive friends and schools than ever before, for many, “Coming Out” as a teenager is no longer the dreaded nightmare it once was. Domenic, 19, explains “When I came out in high school when I was 14, it was no big deal. I was the only gay kid in my high school, and my high school was really liberal, so within a week I was like a celebrity.”
Tom, 23, expresses a similar sentiment: “When I was a freshman in high school, I told my best friend and she decided to tell the entire school. Technically, I was outed. At that point, I was accused of being gay for so long that finally when I came out, everyone was just like ‘OK.’ High school was super, super easy for me.”
We also heard stories that suggest “Coming Out” at home is becoming increasingly easier as well, with many parents taking the news surprisingly well. Jennifer, 23, was surprised by how enthusiastically her parents responded: “The weekend after my girlfriend and I put a title on our relationship, I told my parents at dinner. They were so supportive that they called the rest of my family and had me tell them that night. It was funny and tiring, but I guess all my hard work is over!”
Other parents offered reactions that were more muted but equally supportive. Allie, 23, recalls “One day my mom asked me why my friends had boyfriends and I didn’t. “Do you even like boys?” she asked. I said “no,” and then she told me that I can get diseases too. Ha! Ever since then she’s been completely supportive of me.”
With Gay Millennials coming out so early in life (the average “Coming Out” age is now 16), often prompting reactions from friends and family that range from gushingly supportive to benignly blasé, the process is becoming less scary. Furthermore, young people are coming out in record numbers. A New York Times article from last week ( http://nyti.ms/QZJNWv )cites a recent study on LGBT teens by the Human Rights Campaign in which 64% of high school students and 54% of middle school students report that they are out at school. While there are, of course, still many areas and communities in the U.S. where “Coming Out” is extremely difficult, stories like the ones mentioned above are increasingly common.
We’re starting to see this new reality reflected on TV as well. Whereas TV shows in the ‘90s introduced gay characters and storylines via tearful and dramatic “Coming Out” scenes (see Jack McPhee’s emotional reveal to his father in the second season of Dawson’s Creek or Buffy’s metaphorical “Coming Out” as the slayer to her mother in the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), today’s young gay characters are more often embraced than rejected by their on-screen friends and family. On the first season of Glee, car mechanic Burt Hummel offered a warm and heartfelt reaction to his son Kurt’s unsurprising admission that he is gay. Similarly, on the first season of Pretty Little Liars, Aria, Hannah, and Spencer unflinchingly welcomed their friend Emily’s admission that she was in love with their former best friend, Alison. Even more recently, some shows are forgoing “Coming Out” storylines altogether by introducing viewers to characters who are openly gay right from the start (see Glee, Happy Endings, Smash, and The New Normal to name a few) – reflecting the rising Millennial notion that being gay shouldn’t be a source of conflict.
As “Coming Out” becomes less of a tension point for this generation, new tension points are emerging center stage for Gay Millennials. The conversation around gay youth is now shifting from “Coming Out” to what comes after: navigating the complex world of Millennial relationships and sex, forging unique paths while planning for somewhat conventional futures, forming gay identities that are not exclusively gay – to name a few.
In this series of posts on Gay Millennials, we’ll share some of our findings on these new challenges for this generation of gay youth…