All I Know About Gay Men, I Learned From the Movies and Television

From the dawn of film and television, these media have trafficked in stereotypes for both comedic and dramatic effect. Such reductive treatment has extended to every possible minority group, but it does seem that gay people have been singled out with alarming frequency. Here we present some of the most tired clichés, broad stereotypes, and outright misinformation we've been subjected to at the local multiplex and in the privacy of our own living rooms.

But things have improved and you'll also find citations of movies and TV shows in which stereotypes have been held up to the light, lampooned and exploded. While it may often seem we take a step backward for every step forward, there has definitely been progress as well.

Inside every super-masculine man is a queen screaming to get out.

The current hit movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) tries to have it both ways, earning cheap laughs from stereotypes while ostensibly ridiculing them. Ving Rhames plays Duncan, a huge African-American so mean-looking that some of his fellow firefighters think he may be an ax murderer. But when Chuck and Larry “come out,” so does Duncan — in a big way. He goes so far as to sing “I'm Every Woman” in the communal shower, much to the chagrin of the other guys, who are so flustered that they keep dropping the soap.

This cliché is not a new one, by any means. In Victor Victoria (1982), gangster King Marchand (James Garner) has a bodyguard called Squash (Alex Karras). A former pro-football player, the burly Squash is the essence of stoic masculinity — until he comes to believe that his boss is gay. Next thing you know, Squash is weeping and kissing King on the cheek. Not long after that, we see him in bed with the flamboyantly homosexual entertainer Toddy (Robert Preston).

On the flip side: A better representation can be found in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) with Val Kilmer's Gay Perry, a tough-as-nails private eye who is traditionally masculine and loves show tunes showing the two need not be mutually exclusive.

As boys, all gay men prefer musical theater to sports.

To cite only the most recent example, one of the title character's sons in Chuck and Larry loves musicals and tap dances like a pro. We're supposed to laugh at the kid because these traits mark him as a homo — or, at least, a homo-in-training. (The fact that he's only about 11 years old makes this “joke” borderline offensive.)

On the flip side: A similar stereotype exists with Ugly Betty's Justin (Mark Indelicato), but in this case, the stereotype is examined (and not played for laughs) rather than being used as a means of alienating the character or categorizing him in a simplistic way. More good news: On the ABC Family series Greek, the gay character Calvin is traditionally masculine, was an all-star hockey player in high school and shows no signs he is about to belt out a rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”

Gay men love to cross dress.

If you didn't learn this from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994, the point was made again one year later in another movie with an even longer title: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995). I don't know about you, but the sight of Terence Stamp and Patrick Swayze in full drag is still burned in my memory — and not necessarily in a good way. (But John Leguizamo looked really cute as a girl, didn't he?) Something to bear in mind: Studies have shown that a large percentage of cross-dressers are, in fact, heterosexual.

On the flip side: Gay slasher movie HellBent (2004) made the joke that men — gay or otherwise — can look pretty clumsy and ridiculous in drag by having the group's jock dress up as one of the screen's worst drag queens, stressing that not all gay men are transformed into sirens when they throw on a wig and lipstick. And movies like Smokin' Aces (2006), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) and the upcoming Stardust (2007) explore cross-dressing as a wholly heterosexual occurrence.

Gay men spend all their time in dance clubs, have sex constantly, and are ill equipped to become involved in healthy romantic relationships.

Thanks to the creators of Queer as Folk for telling it like is! On the other hand, this series — we're talking about the American version, mind you — was so completely unrealistic that it's rather pointless to criticize it for perpetuating stereotypes. Any show that depicts Pittsburgh as having a world-class gay scene should be taken with an enormous grain of salt. Even the more balanced Six Feet Under had gay Fisher son David hitting the gay clubs the minute he broke up with Keith, with definite consequences.

On the flip side: Brothers & Sisters out Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys) has thus far only been found in straight bars and has yet to bust a move. Of course, that didn't stop him from getting lucky at a bar near a military base.

Gay men endlessly engage in witty banter full of references to fabulous divas.

In The Boys in the Band (1970), the “boys” talk of Judy Garland, Maria Montez, Vera Hruba Ralston, et al. On TV's Will & Grace, references to Cher, Britney Spears, and Madonna flew fast and furious. But the point is the same: Gay men adore their divas and just can't stop talking about them.

On the flip side: Six Feet Under's David (Michael C. Hall) and Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) managed to go whole seasons without referencing a diva. Heck, Keith even managed to talk about things like paintball.

Gay men are great cooks, stylish dressers, and great at interior design.

This, among other things, is what we learn from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Trading Spaces, Color Splash, Top Chef, While You Were Out, What Not to Wear, Project Runway, and Design Star.

On the flip side: Hopefully Showtime's The Beard (currently in development) — about a closeted baseball player — will have his skills with plates and pinstripes be strictly of the baseball variety.

Gay men are neat to a fault and always impeccably groomed.

The media have always used neatness and close attention to one's personal appearance as signifiers that a character is gay or, at least, “effeminate.”

In the stage, film and TV versions of The Odd Couple, both Oscar and Felix are represented as heterosexual. But Oscar the slob is the traditionally masculine one of the pair, while Felix is seen as stereotypically effeminate because he spends so much of his time dusting and vacuuming — that is, when he's not cooking. Thus does The Odd Couple evoke humor from gay stereotypes even though the character in question is supposedly straight.

(Trivia item: On a talk show many years ago, Tony Randall, who played Felix in the TV series, mentioned a planned but never filmed episode in which, through a misunderstanding, Felix came to believe that Oscar was gay. His reaction: “Funny; if it had to be one of us, you'd have thought it would be me!”)

On the flip side: The Sarah Silverman Program gives us not one, but two gay characters who dress like slobs, eschew personal grooming, and look like they've never been within spitting distance of a gym.

All male office assistants are gay, and all have a special relationship with their bosses.

See Michael Urie as Marc on Ugly Betty, Rex Lee as Lloyd on Entourage, and, going back a few years, remember Wallace Langham as Josh on Veronica's Closet? His character always denied being gay, but come on. Scott Thompson's Brian on The Larry Sanders Show was another fine example of gay administrative support. And don't forget Bill Brochtrup as police administrative aide John Irvin on NYPD Blue, a performance so well received that Brochtrup reprised the role in a spin-off series titled Public Morals.

Even Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock — who seems to have no sexuality to speak of whatsoever — is assumed to be gay by half the staff and is even used as literal gay-bait in an episode (which he of course willingly does, being the good page that he is).

On the flip side: Marc's competition at Mode comes in the form of a straight male assistant, which in TV land is seen with the frequency of Halley's Comet. And David Spade's receptionist on Just Shoot Me was straight, although his overall bitchiness placed his sexuality up for discussion on more than one occasion. Even better, 30 Rock's “gay bait” episode had Will Arnett playing the gay executive as opposed to yet another gay assistant.

In all gay relationships, one partner is the “man” and the other is the “woman.”

La Cage aux Folles (1978) is one of the funniest films of all time, and is so brilliantly written and acted that it should offend no one. But the original movie, the Hollywood remake, and the Broadway musical version do reinforce the stereotype that there is a “man” and a “woman” in every gay relationship.

In the original film, Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) is the man and Albin (Michel Serrault) is the woman. The former is masculine in manner and appearance, and is enough of a man to have fathered a child with his ex-wife; the latter is an outrageously effeminate, highly emotional drag entertainer, completely in his element when he does himself up as a middle-aged matron and pretends to be the mother of Renato's son.

More recently, one of Chuck & Larry's running jokes is that everyone assumes that in the fake-gay firefighters' relationship, Adam Sandler's character is “the woman,” which is a source of endless distress for him. Bad enough that people think you're gay, but gay and a woman? Yikes!

On the flip side: Brokeback Mountain (2005) was a breakthrough film in many respects and one of those was in its portrayal of two men in love, neither of whom had the urge to be "the wife". In fact, both started off as working class ranch hands, something else gay men are rarely portrayed as being.

All it takes to prove a young man's heterosexuality is one good romp in the hay with a woman.

In Tea and Sympathy (1956), Tom Lee is mercilessly taunted by the other boys at his prep school because they think he's queer. Thank heaven that Deborah Kerr, the headmaster's wife, is around to take pity on Tom and bed him, thereby demonstrating that he's not really gay as a goose.

On the flip side: As recently noted by AfterElton.com, an upcoming episode of Showtime's Weeds addresses the patently ridiculous notion that all it takes to “get the gay out of someone” is a nice hooker.

A gay man who befriends or works with a good-looking straight man will unquestionably fall in love (or lust) with him.

Among many other films, this is the message of Partners (1982). Ryan O'Neal and John Hurt play a straight cop and a gay cop who team up in order to infiltrate the gay community and catch a killer.

As described by Vito Russo in his indispensable book The Celluloid Closet, Hurt plays “a terrified closet case who can't even hold a gun without dropping it or raise his voice above a whisper. He spends all his time mooning over O'Neal and sweating profusely because he's been thrown into an openly gay situation.”

Likewise, Philip Seymour Hoffman's gay production assistant in Boogie Nights (1997), pines openly for Mark Wahlberg's porn star for no other reason aside from his looks.

On the flip side: See Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. At one point gay Perry and his straight colleague have to kiss to throw off suspicion, and Perry is the first to make clear that he got zero enjoyment out of the situation.

Gay men who repress their sexual orientation become murderers.

In Cruising (1980), Al Pacino plays a New York City policeman on the trail of a psycho killer of gay men. At the end of the film, it's implied that Pacino's character has murdered his gay next-door neighbor (played by Don Scardino) because the cop has come to the disgusted realization that he himself is homosexual.

In American Beauty (1999), Scott Bakula and Sam Robards play Jim and Jim, a well-adjusted gay couple. Compare them to Col. Frank Fitts, USMC (Chris Cooper), a messed-up bastard who openly expresses his hatred of Jim and Jim and of gays in general – which, of course, indicates that he's a closeted poofter. Eventually, Frank shoots Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) because he thinks Lester is also gay. In both of these films, the lesson is all too clear: Repression and self-loathing lead to violence. Alas, this is one of those stereotypes that actually has some validity.

Gay men who DON'T repress their sexual orientation become murderers.

In Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) — based on Patrick Hamilton's play, which was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case — Farley Granger and John Dahl are not explicitly pegged as gay, but you'd have to be blind not to understand what they do with each other behind closed doors. They're exactly the kind of smug, pretentious, effete young men you'd expect to kill a former prep school classmate just for the thrill of it. Similarly, in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951), Granger and Robert Walker are obvious homos who plot to murder one's wife and the other's father.

On the flip side: The recent Cold Case episode "Forever Blue" nicely portrayed two gay cops who fell in love. One wanted to live his life openly while the other – married with children – didn't have the courage to do it. Nonetheless, he wasn't the one to murder his lover. That was left to the gay cop's father.

Bisexual men are really murderers at heart.

In 2005 Pierce Brosnan played Julian Noble, a bisexual hit man, in The Matador. Meanwhile Bruno Campos was revealed to be the serial killer nicknamed The Carver on the third season of FX's Nip/Tuck.

One of the most famous bisexual male killers is lesbian writer Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley brought to life in such movies as Purple Noon (1960) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).

On the flip side: Homicide: Life on the Street's Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) proved bisexual men are as gentle and decent as anyone else.

Gay men can only be found in the big city.

The list here is almost too long but includes Sex and the City, Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, Six Feet Under, and on and on. The way Hollywood presents it, the odds of finding a queer man in the suburbs – much less a “red” state – are less than the odds of winning a Powerball lottery.

On the flip side: See Brokeback Mountain. Roseanne also shattered barriers by admitting that there were hard-working gay male couples in small town America, and quirkier fish-out-of-water shows like Men in Trees and Northern Exposure have dared to suggest that gays like their great outdoors just as much as the next guys.

Among the most famous men in history, no one was gay.

Take a look at Night and Day (1946), Hans Christian Andersen (1952), Alexander the Great (1956), and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) for assurance that Cole Porter, Andersen, Alexander, and Michelangelo, as respectively played by Cary Grant, Danny Kaye, Richard Burton, and Charlton Heston, were straight as arrows.

Amazingly, the Andersen movie — scripted by Moss Hart — flirts with “the gay thing.” At one point, when Kaye as Hans tells a story to a group of children, he takes a doll he had used to represent a queen and changes it into a king by drawing a mustache on it and moving its crown to the side of its head. A little boy in the group protests, “That's not a king, it's only a queen with a mustache.” To which Hans replies, “You'd be surprised how many kings are only a queen with a mustache!”

On the flip side: Recent films based on the lives of Porter and Alexander were more honest in depicting their subjects' same-sex activities, but neither It's De Lovely nor Alexander (both released in 2004) was a hit. In fact, director Oliver Stone blamed Alexander's poor box-office numbers on the film's homosexual content, and excised some of that content for the “director's cut” that was issued on DVD.

There are no gay men in space.

Despite having been around for more than forty years and producing ten movies and five series, Star Trek has yet to introduce a single gay character. (And episodes using lame "sexual orientation" metaphors don't count.) Even a more recent, updated version of Battlestar Galactica has failed to find a single gay man in outer space. (And bisexual women having a three-way don't count.) It's no small irony that in a genre known for pushing boundaries, gay characters are still so frequently uncharted territory.

On the flip side: Both Doctor Who and Torchwood have dealt unabashedly with same-sex issues and characters. And when BBC America debuts Torchwood this fall, American audiences will get Captain Jack, the first lead bisexual (or gay) character in a science fiction show. Even better, he's played by the out John Barrowman.