One College Student Takes On The Gay BFF Stereotype

“It became so easy to use my homosexuality as a wall to get people to instantly like a two-dimensional version of me that I found it hard to even be real with people.”

1. Mark Pampanin is sick of being your gay BFF.

The 20-year-old junior at Chapman University recently shocked the competition at the 100th biennial Pi Kappa Delta tournament by snagging first place in the after-dinner speaking category. He was competing against students from 89 other colleges and universities. His chosen topic was one that stemmed from his real-life experiences: being treated as the stereotypical gay best friend. He recalls, “When Glee was becoming popular, I was coming out as an awkward gay high schooler in suburban America, and I — allegedly — looked a like the character Kurt. By my senior year, every girl wanted to count me as one in her network; even the exchange students called me ‘The Kurt.’” The blatant rise of gay characters in film and television seems to be fueling this characterization of gay men, as usually they appear as simple two-dimensional tropes instead of full-blooded characters.

Shortly after his award-winning speech, Mark was asked to speak at a TEDx event, where he once again railed against the commodification of gay men. He noted that a lot of other speakers were touching on larger world issues, and although his topic wasn’t causing anyone famine, it was still an important issue to discuss. He insists, “It is a serious issue. Because it’s about commodification. You see it in almost every minority group that gets tokenized by the majority.”

BuzzFeed caught up with Mark to discuss the disturbing trend of the gay BFF:

When did you start writing/reciting speeches?

Mark Pampanin: I’ve been writing all my life. … The first speech I ever wrote and performed was the one about the gay best friend trend, and at my first local tournament, in the “novice” level, I won first place. By spring, I was taking it to nationals, doing yet another completely nerdy thing that I loved. With the support and humorous contributions of my team and coaches, the speech won first place in its category. Sometimes I still can’t believe it.

This speech was very personal. Had you ever worked on a speech that was so close to home before?

MP: I had not, and still have not, performed something so personal. But I now see the unquestionable gain in opening yourself up in front of an audience. I’m a firm believer that humor can be found in anything — especially ourselves — and I was honestly excited to scratch at that surface when my coach asked if I’d be willing to talk about my sexuality. I learned, after dozens of competitions, that the reason people liked my speech so much was not just the humor, but the serious moments as well. Within a 10-minute speech, I go from that character gay men are defined as, into myself…when I literally introduce myself to the audience. I think that makes people realize how silly (and messed up) the act of commodifying is.

And winning first place?

MP: I think I must have blacked out or sleepwalked when I won and was actually handed the award. I don’t remember it. I just remember suddenly coming to my senses, crying in an ATM vestibule, because I had never won something that big in my life before, and I never thought I would win it being exactly who I am.

Why does everyone want a gay best friend?

MP: The answer to this question has changed over the years. Back in the day (before my time), it was a necessary haven for gay men to have women who accepted them, and a welcome relief for some straight women who wanted male companionship but didn’t quickly relate to the straight men in their lives. As time and people progressed … we became exotic, rare — and that alone made us desirable. Combine that with the fact that television and movies were making sure every gay man that audiences saw was fabulous, well-dressed, and always there to listen, and gay men soon became a staple for every cosmopolitan woman.

Articles that Mark cited in his TEDx talk:

MP: I noticed the trend almost instantly after coming out. I’m from Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal and happens on the Cape about every day in the summer, so I was accepted by all the adults in my life. At first, the trend didn’t bother me — I loved it. Can you imagine, after years of staying quiet to avoid being ostracized, everyone wanted to meet me and my boyfriend? I like to think it was my sharp wit and offbeat humor, but you don’t take your witty friend to the mall THAT much. My sarcasm, did, however, add to my stature. I realized that what would get anyone else called “a total asshole” got me called “sassy and hilarious.” So I ran with it. I guess I can’t complain too much, because it gave me complete freedom — I think that’s what makes gay men so “sassy” — free from the bindings of heterosexual norms: We’re the natural observers, the chosen wallflowers, if you will, on a world that’s abound with humor if you’re outside of it.

It became so easy to use my homosexuality as a wall to get people to instantly like a two-dimensional version of me that I found it hard to even be real with people. By habit, I was being the sassy gay friend people expected me to be. I had moved out of the closet, and into an equally confining role.

Why do you think the same stereotype isn’t played out for, let’s say, a lesbian BF?

MP: A lot of it has to do, I think, with sexism (yes, even in the gay world). Gay men have defined much of the gay movement, and I don’t necessarily think that’s the fault of gay men. … Point is, we naturally think of men when we think “gay,” and even worse, many gay men have accepted the misconceptions and think they’re incompatible with lesbians. I recently heard that the last lesbian bar in West Hollywood closed, and I think that was a poignant sign of our society’s plain accepted ignorance of lesbians, and their inability to gain cultural relevance. Many people, gay and straight, don’t “get” lesbians, because lesbians weren’t as neatly defined as gay men, but we don’t seem to realize that you don’t just “get” a whole group of people, you have to understand individuals. Again, we have trouble treating people…like people.

Do you think the gay best friend stereotype will go away or simply get worse?

MP: Do I think the way society treats the gay best friend stereotype is just a passing phase? Yes. Do I think the commodification of the “lucky minority” by society is a phase? No.

Just like movies had “that token black friend,” gay men are now mass media’s must-have. Eventually, it will be passed over for another minority. Who knows? Maybe what’s hot for spring 2014 will be the must-have Latina friend. I think we’re in the height of gay-man commodification. I have seen the trailer for G.B.F. — you would not believe how many people sent me the link (although I do really want to see it) — and I think movies such as that and speeches such as mine prove we’ve been doing it long enough for us to realize how stupid the whole thing is, and how, perhaps, gay men are just as complex and confused as everyone else.

But I don’t think anyone will learn enough to stop the practice altogether. Commodifying and stereotyping are timeless traditions of our society. It’s odd, really: Society has a weird way of removing the humanity from how we look at humans — and telling us to look at them as products and images instead.

13. Listen to Mark’s speech at TEDx:

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