watch

Closeted Bullies Are All Over our Screens. How Real Is this Trope?

The “closeted homophobe” trope suggests that homophobia always stems from closeted queer people, from Sex Education’s Adam to Glee’s Dave. However, this can send a troubling message when the character is made into a cardboard villain whose disdainful attitude toward queer people is framed solely as an expression of their repressed sexuality.

Transcript

Does all homophobia come from closeted queer people? Of course, the answer is no, but the “closeted homophobe” trope suggests otherwise. This is the remarkably common story device when a character who seemingly hates queer people is revealed to be queer themselves. But it can send a troubling message when this closeted character is made into a cardboard villain whose disdainful attitude toward queer people is framed solely as an expression of his repressed sexuality. Even today, when we have a wider understanding and acceptance of the complexity and fluidity of sexuality, this trope dominates pop culture in examples like The Power of the Dog, Euphoria, and Sex Education.

Otis: “He bullied you for years, Eric. He’s a horrible person.”

Eric: “No, but people can change.”

Otis: “If he’s changed, then why is he making you sneak around at night?”

- Sex Education, 2x05

Here’s how you can spot the closeted homophobe onscreen:

He embodies toxic masculinity.

This character can be female, but if so, she tends to externalize less and embrace her sexuality faster. More often, this character is male, and he’s cartoonishly macho, presenting as a stereotypical “alpha male.” He excels in traditionally masculine pursuits like sports and might have a hostile or binary view towards women.

He identifies as straight publicly – and he’s loud about it.

He will brag to “the guys” about his many conquests. His relationships with women are traditional to a fault and may even be overbearing or abusive.

He bullies people – often gay people, or specifically the man he is attracted to.

He might have learned to bully and to repress his emotions from a strict father who could have himself been closeted or just obsessed with being a “strong man”.

He is a villain or a side character.

So we don’t always get much nuanced, sympathetic insight into his inner motivations and why he feels he has to act that way.

It’s true that internalized homophobia can be a huge problem in the queer community, which is why sensitive depictions of those issues can be so powerful. And at a certain point in history, there was something revelatory to narratives that asked if some homophobes were acting out of personal fear and self-loathing. But the ubiquity of the closeted homophobe character to this day risks basically suggesting that all bigotry against queer people is self-inflicted. It absolves straight, cis people from their responsibility, and makes queer people appear dangerous and self-hating, reinforcing stereotypes and stigmas. It also implies that anyone who’s closeted must have a deep, personal moral failing or cowardice when, in reality, it’s a complicated choice that some people still feel they have to make for their safety or livelihood. Here’s our take on the closeted homophobe, and why this character still remains so dominant.

The Closeted Homophobe - A Trope that Won’t Go Away

The Closeted Homophobe character is, in part, a legacy of the Hays Code – a set of guidelines enforced in Hollywood from the 1930s through the 60s, mandating that characters displaying “immorality” could not be sympathetic and must be punished or killed. Queer-coded characters had their sexuality relegated to subtext, and when they eventually were able to be explicitly queer, for decades they were still written as evil or tragic.

Alan Turing: “Um, to, uh, to cure me of my homosexual predilections.” - The Imitation Game

In this context, it could be argued that the first manifestation of the closeted homophobe was revolutionary for its time. The Boys in the Band was a play written in 1968 about a group of gay friends who are gathered to celebrate one of their birthdays. Things go relatively well until one uninvited straight man arrives, upending their celebration with tension and discomfort. The self-proclaimed straight man, Alan, may or may not be closeted, but the protagonist, Michael, accuses him of being in love with a mutual friend for many years during college.

Michael: “He knows very, very well what a closet queen is. Don’t you, Alan?”

Alan: “Michael, if you’re insinuating that I’m homosexual, I can only say that you’re mistaken.”

Michael: “Am I?”

- The Boys in the Band

Assuming Michael isn’t lying about Alan, he would meet every criterion for the closeted homophobe: he is a side character who has a wife, he physically assaults an effeminate gay man, and displays toxic masculinity. While this character has some believable traits, still, he’s more of an antagonistic question mark than a three-dimensional, fully-rendered character. And where Alan made sense in the context of The Boys in the Band, later characters that fall within this trope are in different circumstances that make them less realistic and more problematic.

In 1999’s American Beauty, repressed gay man Colonel Frank Fitts turns out to be the villain of the film. Obsessively strict Fitts not only forces his son Ricky to hide his true life, but he also kills the main character, Lester, for rejecting his advances. He’s a wholly unsympathetic embodiment of the sexual repression that the film is against, and it’s kind of confusing that this repression is given to one of few queer characters in a story mostly about straight sexuality.

Many examples today are still following this blueprint of an Alan or a Colonel Fitts.

13 Reasons Why’s Montgomery de la Cruz doesn’t just bully or abuse a man, he graphically brutalizes one and is revealed the next season to be a closeted homophobe. After hooking up with another man at a party, he viciously attacks him right after. He is later killed off the show, becoming an example of the “bury your gays” trope, which does happen to the closeted homophobe from time to time. Characters like Montgomery or Glee’s Dave Korofsky often act in ways that seem like they were written to shock or disturb the audience more than to work through the complexity of internalized homophobia.

Like a number of these characters, Euphoria’s Nate comes from generational bullying and learned toxic masculinity. His father, Cal, is a closeted homophobe who puts excessive pressure on his son to be a certain kind of man. It’s not completely clear if Nate himself is queer or just reacting to his father, but his obsessive relationship with his girlfriend Maddy, his fixation on and anger toward a trans woman he might be attracted to, Jules, and his having found Cal’s disturbing homemade pornography collection at the age of 11 all blend for a confusing presentation of his sexual identity. Nate has outbursts of rage against girls and men he feels have undermined his masculinity – which may stem from his feelings about his sexuality or toxic masculinity, or both. When he first meets Jules at a party, he is threatening to her and it is specifically for her trans identity.

Nate: “I know what you are.” - Euphoria, 1x01

He then goes to crazy lengths to get close to Jules on an app and then blackmail her via a plot to frame her for child pornography; the sinister plotting is taken to such a baffling extreme that it seems to suggest he’s fighting against some impulses in himself. In Season One, Nate’s then-girlfriend, Maddy, confronts him about having sexually explicit photos on his phone – photos that he implies are part of Jules’ entrapment, but which still remained on his phone long enough for Maddy to find them. Whatever Nate’s deal is, his villainous plotting and violence certainly aren’t indicative of the experience most queer people do have as they come to terms with themselves.

From Euphoria’s Nate to Glee’s Dave Korofsky, the modern villainous versions of this trope have similar problems with how they represent queerness. Firstly, they live in a different world from the characters in The Boys in the Band. Of course, not all spaces or people are accepting, but there is significantly less stigma in the 2010s and 2020s than in the 60s. These boys would have grown up seeing positive queer representation and knowing of some people or communities they could express themselves with – but you wouldn’t know it when you’re watching them. They torment queer people, and that is introduced as central to their character’s story. These characters are often prominent figures in their schools and communities. And because their queer-phobic behaviors are so explicitly linked to their attraction, this trope effectively links queer attraction to violence and abusiveness.

On the other end of the spectrum, when film and TV attempt to explore the Closeted Homophobe’s inner life instead of villainizing him, this can help illuminate the causes of internalized homophobia. Brokeback Mountain takes place in the same time period as The Boys in the Band – and Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar has a number of parallels to Alan. Both have wives and daughters. Both had a relationship that lasted the majority of their youth that had a profound impact on their development. And both are terrified of being recognized as gay men.

Alma: “You didn’t go up there to fish. You and him…”

Ennis: “You don’t know nothing about it.”

- Brokeback Mountain

We never learn the root of this fear for Alan, but for Ennis, it stems from a harrowing experience he had as a young boy. In his hometown, two older men lived together openly and they were brutally murdered for it, which Ennis’ father shows him. Ennis’ inner conflict results in violent external outbursts – but his rage makes sense as the result of being traumatized. Unlike with many other closeted homophobes, we get an intimate view of his love for his partner, Jack, in scenes where they are alone, isolated from the judgemental eyes of others. This is when Ennis is most himself and his happiest – uncharacteristically playful and (for him) talkative

Jack: “That’s more words than you’ve spoke in the past two weeks.”

Ennis: “Hell, that’s the most I’ve spoke in a year.”

- Brokeback Mountain

We see Ennis wrestling with his internalized homophobia, which sometimes manifests in poor treatment of Jack. Ennis threatens Jack, he hits him, and he denies his love for Jack. But these two characters are human beings who are flawed and doing their best in a hostile time and surrounding circumstances.

In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which takes place in the early 90s, Brad, a closeted guy’s-guy who is in love with a more openly gay man, shares a similar struggle to Ennis. His boyfriend, Patrick, doesn’t share his inhibition, which causes much of the friction in their relationship. When Brad’s father catches the two, he nearly beats his own son to death in front of his son’s lover.

Patrick: “So, he starts beating him. But not like the slap kind. Like, the real kind. And the boyfriend says, ‘Stop. You’re killing him.’” - The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Brad’s “dumb jock” friends also bully Patrick. The people who surround Brad would likely not only reject him if he were to come out of the closet – they would turn on him completely. The social power Brad achieves through his position as a “straight” white man who succeeds in athletics contributes to him being closeted, but we see that he could also be in a legitimately life-threatening situation if he were to be open about his queerness. When Brad is homophobic toward Patrick, it’s clear that he doesn’t enjoy treating someone he loves like this, but that, subconsciously, he feels it is necessary to protect himself and possibly even Patrick.

These external factors and the surrounding culture make it clear it isn’t as simple as Ennis and Brad being gay and therefore hating themselves and other gay people. The people who have shaped them have condemned queer people and taught them to condemn themselves.

Six Feet Under, in the early 2000s, similarly explored internalized homophobia with nuance and sympathy through David Fisher’s overcoming his fears to embrace his long-term relationship with Keith. While David’s not living in an era where he faces numerous obvious external threats preventing him from living openly, his conservatism and tendency to live to please others in his family have created various internal obstacles to his acknowledging his sexuality.

In our era, Sex Education’s Adam Groff is, to many audience members, a more sympathetic version of the closeted homophobe, too. He starts out as the villainous bully version of this trope, but over the seasons we go along on his journey of working through his issues. In the end, watching Adam face his own issues is heartwarming, and we’re primed to forgive him especially because he’s a young person who’s been shaped by his own father’s inability to express feelings. Sex Education focuses a lot on how communicating our feelings is the key to intimacy in relationships as well as simply feeling joy in any realm of life. So it’s satisfying to watch Adam and Michael, both of whose bullying was learned behavior, start to understand a better way. Still, it can be less satisfying to watch Eric – Adam’s boyfriend and former bullying victim – necessarily have to go on this whole journey with Adam. We see Adam and Eric’s historic relationship summed up the first time we see them interact.

Eric: “Hi, Adam.”

Adam: “Shut the fuck up, Trumboner. And give me what you got.”

- Sex Education 1x01

During an after-school detention the two end up coming to blows but the tension quickly breaks from physical to sexual. Despite the threats, intimidation, and years of harassment, Eric later chooses Adam over a partner who has always been sensitive, kind, and sexy. And for what reason? Despite the genuine feelings they do share, in some ways, it’s welcome when Eric realizes that – since Adam still has a long way to go to overcome his internalized homophobia – Adam might not be the right partner for Eric, at least not right now.

Eric: “I’m ready to fly, and you’re just learning to walk.” - Sex Education, 3x08

Internalized homophobia does exist. It’s inevitable that – in a society that’s prejudiced against lesbian, gay, and bisexual folks – some may turn these biases against themselves. So it’s an important subject to investigate through drama, but only when portrayed with realism and humanity.

Leighton: “I don’t want being gay to be my identity. I like my identity. I don’t want to be the gay Kappa girl or the lesbian cousin. I don’t…I don’t want to be other.”

- The Sex Lives of College Girls 1x02


Is There Truth to the Trope?

Still, what can be said about the numerous well-known, real-life closeted homophobes? Is there evidence of homophobic thoughts being linked to same-sex attraction? Well, the answer is…complicated.

In 2012, The New York Times published an op-ed titled, “Homophobic? Maybe You’re Gay.” The two men who wrote the piece claimed they now had empirical evidence to support that “homophobia can result, at least in part, from the suppression of same-sex desire.” The evidence? A study of 784 university students from Germany and the U.S. took a computer-based test that gauged their implicit sexual orientation. What did this study unequivocally prove? Well, that the “implicit” sexuality of their participants had a stronger correlation to homophobic beliefs … maybe? The op-ed itself concluded that obviously, “Not all those who campaign against gay men and lesbians secretly feel same-sex attractions.” Despite this, it was published by The New York Times and widely circulated. And this isn’t the only study with ambiguous results that were touted as proof for years. Even assuming these studies were correct, they both assert there is “more hostility” toward queer people – not violent harassment or even hate.

In contrast to that scant research, there is abundant evidence all around us that there’s plenty of homophobia from people who aren’t closeted and aren’t queer. It’s just easier to write a shocking headline than it is to deconstruct complex queerphobic systems. Most importantly, the whole underlying association of the closeted homophobe trope just isn’t true – queer people aren’t disproportionately violent, evil, bullying or predatory. The closeted homophobe is a trope that oversaturates queer representation on screen and in part informs cis, straight people’s opinions and beliefs about the LGBT community.

Often, people in real life project the closeted homophobe trope onto situations. Time and time again, people who are homophobic or behave in villainous ways are accused of being gay by their critics.

“Anyone who is that adamant that gay people are the downfall of society is probably alone in a room somewhere, watching Adam Rippon’s bronze medal skate trying to pray the gay away” - Dana Goldberg, The Advocate

It’s a reliable way to irritate a homophobic person, but it also contributes to homophobia by asserting that that person should be ashamed if they are queer. There have been numerous occasions where a politician who was vehemently anti-LGBT was publicly outed much to the glee of the media and social media commentators alike. But queerness, or being outed, is not a punchline. That same tactic of shame is used in the storyline of many closeted homophobes.

Sebastian: “I mean, can you imagine the humiliation your father will feel…when he finds out his pride and joy’s a fudge-packer?” - Cruel Intentions

Mocking a straight man’s alleged sexuality isn’t the activism some people claim it is, and it does not undo the harm that person has done. The people that will bear the consequences of these “jokes” are not Trump or Pence or Putin, but those who these comments are supposedly in support of. If the anti-LGBT behaviors of these men were because they were closeted, the logic would be that the biggest problem queer people have is other queer people. And that turns the closeted homophobe, ultimately, into a form of victim-blaming. It’s why this trope, which often probably thinks it’s doing good, can actually be so insidious.

Representation Done Right

Another grievance against the closeted homophobe is that it tells one story: a sad, white one. Not every closeted person or openly gay person struggles with self-love.

Kelsey: “I’m a lesbian. Gold star.”

Coco: “Are you coming out to me, Kelsey?”

Kelsey: “Oh, God, no. I’ve been out since Queen Janet’s wardrobe malfunction.”

- Dear White People, 2x04

Many queer people take deep pride in their queer identities and celebrate that they have forged an authentic life and a pathway for the people coming behind them. The majority of LGBT people are in fact not cis, gay white men, but the majority of queer representation on screen is. And most of these characters have been played by straight men. When the LGBT community tells their own stories, from a variety of perspectives, the difference is immeasurable.

The fight for equality is as important now as ever, with anti-LGBT legislation being pushed across the country. Even though the trope of the closeted homophobe is tired, it isn’t hard to understand why he remains easy to write. There is still such a long way to go in terms of justice and equality – so if we want to truly understand the closeted homophobe, we have to ask what kind of world made him so self-hating in the first place.

Michael: “If we could just not hate ourselves so much.” - The Boys in the Band

Sources:

Miller, Frank M. “‘‘The Boys in the Band’ Has Delighted and Horrified Audiences for 50 Years.” Xtra Magazine, 30 Sept. 2020, https://xtramagazine.com/culture/boys-in-the-band-50-181396.


Turner, Allison. “#FlashbackFriday—Today in 1973, the APA Removed Homosexuality From List of Mental Illnesses.” Human Rights Campaign, 15 Dec. 2017, https://www.hrc.org/news/flashbackfriday-today-in-1973-the-apa-removed-homosexuality-from-list-of-me.


Voss, Brandon. “Is Patti LuPone ‘Homophobic’ for Telling Lindsey Graham to ‘Come out’?” NewNowNext, 20 July 2019, www.newnownext.com/patti-lupone-homophobic-lindsey-graham-come-out/07/2019/.

Johnson, Chris. “Marianne Williamson: ‘I Honor Gay Love Because It’s Love’.” Washington Blade, 23 July 2019, www.washingtonblade.com/2019/07/23/marianne-williamson-i-honor-gay-love-because-its-love/.

Allen, Samantha. “The Weird Science of Homophobes Who Turn out to Be Gay.” The Daily Beast, 21 Nov. 2017, www.thedailybeast.com/the-weird-science-of-homophobes-who-turn-out-to-be-gay.

Darby, Luke. “Anti-Gay Ohio Republican Resigns after, Surprise, Having Sex with a Man in the State Capitol.” GQ, 18 Nov. 2017, www.gq.com/story/ohio-anti-gay-republican-resigns.

Avery, Dan. “20 Republican Politicians Brought down by Big Gay Sex Scandals.” LOGO News, 30 Dec. 2016, www.newnownext.com/19-republican-politicians-gay-sex/12/2016/.

Ryan, Richard M., and William S. Ryan. “Homophobic? Maybe You’re Gay.” The New York Times, 27 Apr. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/opinion/sunday/homophobic-maybe-youre-gay.html.

Adams, Henry E., et al. “Is Homophobia Associated With Homosexual Arousal? .” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 105.3 (1996): 440., www.psychologytoday.com/files/u47/Henry_et_al.pdf.

Kacala, Alexander. “New York Times’ Trump-Putin Cartoon Criticized as ‘Homophobic’.” NBC News, 16 July 2018, www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/new-york-times-trump-putin-cartoon-criticized-homophobic-n891811.

“SC - H4047.” BillTrack50, www.billtrack50.com/BillDetail/1340971.

“Florida Governor Says Trans Swimmer Lia Thomas Was Not ‘Rightful Winner’ of NCAA Title.” The Guardian, 23 Mar. 2022, www.theguardian.com/sport/2022/mar/23/ron-desantis-lia-thomas-trans-swimmer-ncaa-title-florida.

“Legislative Tracker: Anti-LGBTQ Bills Filed in the 2022 Legislative Session.” Freedom for All Americans, https://freedomforallamericans.org/legislative-tracker/anti-lgbtq-bills/.

Abueva, Jobert E. “2022 Is ‘Poised to Become the Year of the Most Anti-LGBTQ Legislation’ in the United States: Opinion.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Mar. 2022, www.inquirer.com/opinion/anti-lgbtq-legislation-2022-equality-act-hrc-philadelphia-20220302.ht