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.)
“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.”
Matt Cohen is a Senior Analyst for Creative Development Research & Insights Innovation at MTV. For more insights and ideas from MTV, check out the MTV Insights blog.