How Gay Ex-Boyfriends Are Taking Over Pop Culture

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A woman in her bed is wrapped snuggly in the arms of a man. She wakes up, holds his hand, and smiles up at him. He says, “Good morning, sweetie.” They don’t kiss. They do not initiate sex. There is no romantic love between them. And yet, still, this a commonly recurring scene in film and television, especially recently. Hannah’s Elijah, Grace’s Will, Fran’s Peter. The single woman’s bed companion is the gay ex-boyfriend. He is becoming a ubiquitous fixture in the entertainment landscape and, it would seem, in our romantic lives.

Since the first openly gay character in 1972’s The Corner Bar was introduced, the number of LGBT characters on TV has been rising, reaching a record of 4.4 percent of all TV characters in the 2012-2013 season. Only in the last fifteen years have we seen the emergence of a new mode of relationships between gay and straight characters: that of struggling single and the gay ex.

The strictly platonic Stanford Blatch types (Sex and the City) are being replaced by old flame Elijah Krantz characters (Girls). The gay ex-boyfriend is a curious character in that he not only reaffirms the main character’s existence, as a lot of gay friends in sitcomland are written to, but speaks to her romantic trials and tribulations with a peculiar mastery. It would seem that in the transition, a kind of intimate connection only allowed by someone who knows you like a lover but could never become your lover again is uncovered. It’s a strange middle ground where your ex shouts after you, “Are you wearing a diaper?” and nobody is offended.

There have been a spate of these characters, notably uptight Will of Will &Grace, wherein he and his ladyfriend’s Platonic shacking up took on the form of a marriage in such a way that the gay ex-boyfriend was practically the crux of the show. More and more gay ex-boyfriends  flooded the media in the late ’90s and early ’00s. You may be familiar with Christian in Clueless, Jack McPhee on Dawson’s Creek, Paul Rudd’s character on The Object of My Affection, and Marco from Degrassi.  

Their coming out is usually a plot arc that serves as both the voice of conflict and betrayal but also a uniting force between the central characters. Pretty soon the “disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy” is a best friend. TV writers get to have the ex in the picture without any threat of lingering will-they-or-won’t-they. But the commonality of such characters and their rise into pop culture suggests a very real, universal source.

Fran Drescher’s Happily Divorced, which first aired in 2011, converted the gay ex-boyfriend to the gay ex-husband. The television series was based on the real life marriage of Fran Drescher and Peter Marc Jacobson, who were married for twenty-one years, only to have Peter come out as gay. The pair had produced The Nanny in 1993, teaming up again to portray a story that was based on fact but inherently dramatic. The show depicts, again, a gay ex and the dumped woman, forced to live with one another due to a bad economy and navigate the emotions of watching the other go on first dates. The show failed with its empty one-liner jokes, Nanny recycling, and reinforcement of gay stereotypes, but it did assert the “love is love” doctrine that the trope of the gay ex-boyfriend often does.

The prominence of these types of characters also allows for the examination of whether we really can be genuine best friends with our exes once they have come out of the closet. A study in Evolutionary Psychology this year, which focused on mating advice exchanged between gay men and straight women, concluded that these relationships are often amicable, even mutually beneficial, because “straight women and gay men perceive mating advice provided by each other to be more trustworthy than similar advice offered by other individuals…the emotional closeness shared by straight women and gay men may be rooted in the absence of deceptive mating motivations that frequently taint their relationships with other individuals.”

What’s changed? We live in an atmosphere where women’s gay ex-lovers are becoming more approachable than our straight ex-lovers. The meaningful friendships portrayed on TV and in the movies suggest that  the new sexual orientation introduced by the gay ex makes the normal tension, anger, or frustration that may exist between exes disappear. From one swift Google search, you can surmise the demand for this type of complex situation, as there are guides and tips on how to deal with gay ex-boyfriends, turning away from the blame and the feeling of being used to a more accepting outlook. As Taryn Tacher points out in one such guide, “These relationships may be very crucial in helping gay men identify their feelings.” They are.

Girls creator Lena Dunham admits to having multiple gay ex-boyfriends herself. She told Out Magazine in 2012, “It’s something I’m actually proud of. The best option is that people who are confused about their sexuality feel really comfortable with me. The worst option is that I turn them.”  It’s a joke, but Dunham’s comment reflects back on a kind of symbiosis between the single girl and her gay ex-lover. The gay ex-boyfriend friendship is founded on a mutual need for identification, within romance and within friendship – a rarified, competition-free understanding unknown between two exes, even girlfriends. In the coming years, you can expect to see more on your screens.

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