As we approach the third month of 2019, I find myself stuck in the utterly modern predicament of being the token gay.
Despite knowing next to nothing about fashion, I work at a popular retail chain. The shop is in a liberal metropolitan area, which means people are more than okay with me being a visibly queer man. My limp wrists, gaudy earrings, and glittery nail polish aren’t deterrents to the largely heterosexual customer base. If anything, my appearance attracts them.
Working retail means having people ask me about clothes all the time: “What’s this brand?
“Is this a modern-looking dress?”
“Does this look boring?”
Thankfully, I can hide my lack of sartorial knowledge behind the sassy gay persona that other gays have adopted for years. When I don’t know what to say, I just supply a stereotypical gay quip. A standard, “You look fierce!” in a high voice or with lots of vocal-fry tends to silence any doubts a customer might have about a purchase—especially if that customer is a woman, and even more so if she’s a woman above the age of 30.
I’ve been prepped my whole life to be a sassy gay stylist. I grew up regularly watching TLC’s What Not to Wear with my mother and sister, soaking up Clinton Kelly’s words and sassy, yet refined demeanor. My mom didn’t like the rowdy cast of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as much, but we would still catch random episodes when channel surfing.
As a junior in high school, I watched the viral Sassy Gay Friend videos and witnessed how much verbal abuse women would take if it comes from a friend with an effeminate voice. There was the sassy gay fashionista on E!’s Fashion Police; the sassy gay fashionista in my favorite action movie Rush Hour 2; the sassy gay fashionista Damian (Daniel Franzese) of Mean Girls.
The role of Sassy Gay and subservient store clerk go hand in hand. The sassy gay is a friend! He only wants the best for you. He’ll tell you the sassy gay truth your real friends (whatever their gender or orientation) are too scared to say. He looks great and will help you look great as well! Instead of being a fully present, rounded human, he’s only there to help you, the faithful customer! This is the approachable version of queerness that any retail employer wants: a perky worker who charms any customer into coming back.
The Sassy Gay is a neutered, G-rated, store-friendly version of himself with no wants of his own, sexual or otherwise. Like the fairy godmother who shows up for the makeover and disappears as soon as Cinderella heads off to the ball, his sole purpose is to prop up the main character. His own motivation remains unexplained, unimportant to the plot.
It’s the main way gay men have been visible in the public eye: snappy dressers with surface-level influence. The other parts of gayness (fucking other men, social and political inequality, etc.) are too inappropriate to talk about.
Society tells us to be gay, but not too gay. Don’t be messy. Historically, the alternative to being the sassy gay friend was being absent, invisible—reduced to nothing. The world tells us that playing into the stereotype is the only way we can be seen, heard, and understood.
As the Sassy Gay at work, fagging it up keeps it easy and surface level. I never have to say anything meaningful or heartfelt. All I have to do is ask them about their day and then pick a single aspect of it to insert into Sassy Gay Madlibs: “Come thru, ___!” or “We love ___!” works just fine. “C’mon, miss ___!” gets a laugh and a smile every time.
Repeat the lines of every gay during a makeover montage, and you’re good to go. It’s the voice and vernacular of friendly authority, those gays on TV. “I know you’ll tell me the truth,” they whisper to me with a glimmer in their eye, not knowing I’ve lied to them about all of their clothes and can’t wait for them to get out of my store.
This effect is heightened the more effeminate my appearance is. When customers like what you’re wearing, they respect your authority more. Big, glittery earrings or a fun dress means I’m showered with compliments. They’re then more amenable when I tell them they can’t try on shoes in the fitting room.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that their “I love your dress” really means “I love that you’re wearing a dress and that I, a cool liberal, get to ask you for advice.” Today, a customer exclaimed, “I love your glittery nails!” and literally pet my hand.
Granted, I’m not unaware of my privilege. I’m white male-presenting gay in a liberal area. I’m sure if I were more gender non-conforming or a person of color, I wouldn’t be able to capitalize on my gayness so easily. I dread coming to work every day, but I recently was awarded “best attitude” at my company’s holiday party. I also got employee of the month within my first three months of work.
Playing the role of the Sassy Gay means I’ve got all of my coworkers fooled, yet I can’t help but feel like I’m being the faggot court jester for minimum wage. I spend 30 or more hours a week being the pet gay of anyone who walks into the store. I feign happiness and make everyone around me laugh with my clever asides while my hands get covered in hanger grease. Later, I find myself snapping at friends, worn down by the strain of playing this tired, overly accommodating role all day.
I’m the one-dimensional pal they’ve seen on TV, only real and in the flesh. When they think of Sassy Gays, I’m right up there with Carson Kressley of Queer Eye and Clinton—except I’m real, and therefore even more damning evidence that all gay men are happy and subservient.
Sometimes, in the middle of the shift, I wonder if I’ll ever score a job outside of a retail setting.
Sometimes, I honestly wonder if all I’m good for is playing a caricature of myself.