Picture this: a TV drama opens with the usual cast meeting the one-off characters of the week. Character A, whom we have probably never heard of before, is gay. Character B is aggressively homophobic in reaction to this news, tossing slurs and hateful rhetoric while the usual cast expresses their shock and disdain. The drama builds, until in the third act we are shocked—shocked, I say—by the discovery that Character B is gay and closeted himself. Having been forced to admit this, the problem is solved and we will never encounter either of these characters again. Roll credits.
Sound familiar? It certainly should. The archetype of the closeted homophobe has been dogging the queer community since the 90s, with roots going even further back. Internalized homophobia and toxic masculinity (because these “secretly closeted” narratives overwhelmingly focus on men) are real issues that queer communities face to this day, so it’s easy to see why this particular narrative sticks around.
Something like The Boys in the Band, for example, is full of self-loathing gay men. When it premiered as a stage play in 1968, it was revolutionary simply to depict gay characters not required to off themselves before the curtain fell. But By the time the play became a film in 1970, the Stonewall Riots had happened, and queer communities were fighting not just to live but to thrive—suddenly, BITB seemed hopelessly outdated after only two years.
That’s how quickly narratives about marginalized communities can change, and why the best, most nuanced pieces of fiction about those struggles will almost uniformly come from within those communities.
So, what about the closeted homophobe?
Well, in 1980 it appeared in the film Cruising, where it was revealed that the film’s serial killer was actually a gay man with daddy issues. That film was picketed by members of the gay community who feared that its implications about queer identity leading to violence would lead to a backlash of hate crimes.
In the 1990s the trope appeared in the early Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Phases” (Joss Whedon, nuff said), a show that would later go on to kill its one queer character’s girlfriend for cheap shock drama and then turn the other into a metaphor for drug addiction (plus all of Xander’s casual homophobia in general—and guess who’s coincidentally the “reasonable” straight person in said episode).
1995’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar—a movie which cast three cis men to play its three transfemme leads, associates transness exclusively with surgery despite its three queens being full time, and is written to make said characters as sexless and nonthreatening to a general audience as possible—reveals the homophobic and transphobic cop that relentlessly stalks the leads to be closeted. Because why grapple with the high rates of police violence against trans individuals, particularly trans women of color—a problem so prevalent that even Cruising briefly nodded to it?
2008’s Persona 4 plays with this in the character of Kanji Tatsumi, a bizarre ripple on the trope that overtly plays out the hyper-aggression and cleansing confessional elements of the trope…only to weasel out of actually overtly admitting that the character is queer at the last moment (though, let’s be fucking real, he is). Despite ostensibly claiming homophobia to be wrongheaded, the game is itself so deeply unsettled by the concept of queerness that it cannot fathom allowing one of its main cast to come out definitively rather than being determinedly sexually ambiguous.
Meanwhile Yosuke, who would have fallen even more overtly into this trope before his romance subplot was cut from the game, is left to spout homophobic rhetoric without any kind of narrative comeuppance. Which, in its own way, underlines another unconscious assumption about the “closeted homophobe—that the character turning out to be gay is the comeuppance, some kind of ironic punishment for their bigotry. The game’s writing choices display, perhaps most powerfully of all, who this type of trope is for.
This is a small handful of examples from a vast sea, but I bring them up to point out a commonality amongst them and the predominant instances in which the “closeted homophobe” appears: first, that a version of this trope has been around for almost forty years, taking it from its initial roots as a Shocking Twist to a plot beat so typical that merely having a character act vocally homophobic will lead the audience to assume he’s closeted; and second, that the works in which this archetype appear are overwhelmingly made for a straight audience, often by a straight creative team.
This leads to several problems. The first is a lack of nuance—while some version of this trope might’ve been accurate to real people in its early days, subsequent versions have drawn not from real life but from prior fiction, each version getting a little more flat and a little more simplistic.
In the same way that the monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein went from the “modern Prometheus” to Boris Karloff’s childlike behemoth to a green near-zombie with bolts in his neck on Saturday morning cartoons, so too has the closeted homophobe come to have less and less to do with the realities of toxic masculinity in queer communities.
The second issue is complacency. Because homophobia is rarely dealt with in fiction outside of this character archetype, it tends to be automatically assumed that any character who expresses homophobic attitudes is closeted. The straight viewer gets to walk away and pat themselves on the back because they’re not guilty of the most outre acts of violence—nay, it must be a case of “gay on gay” violence.
By the same token, the focus on loud and vulgar homophobia often means that more casual instances of homophobia tend to go unconfronted in media designed for straight viewership. Sure, the lead on that sitcom might ask if a shirt makes him look like a pansy; but he’s never curb-stomped a gay couple, so he’s a-okay! More often, straight recurring characters will even shake their heads in disbelief at the closet case’s behavior. It is as if these angry, repressed beings sprang, fully formed, from a world in which every even mildly sympathetic straight character has never breathed an untoward word to their illicitly uranian compatriots!
While shows like Friends get endless mileage out of wondering whether overtly homophobic Chandler might be gay, Ross’ casual homophobia toward his ex-wife is treated not as what it is but simply personal bitterness. RENT, a show that lacks this specific trope but is disinterested in more than surface progressivism in many ways, makes a running joke about how hilarious it is that Mark’s ex left him for a woman, of all things. Buffy’s list of lowkey homophobia is too long to list. The closeted homophobe becomes a convenient strawman of a narrative device, allowing microaggressions to thrive by dint of extremely lowered standards.
This can also present itself as the “back then” fallacy. The closeted homophobe spouts rhetoric that’s no longer socially permissible, and because his character archetype doesn’t change, it can be easy to assume that the homophobia he represents is somehow over. This is also known as the “gay marriage is legal, what are The Gays still complaining about?” defense.
And yes, this can and does creep into real life. In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, when it revealed that the killer was posing as gay on several hook-up apps, commenters jumped triumphantly to exclaiming that they KNEW the killer had to be a Secret Gay.
This is, as the linked article points out, very convenient. It takes a moment of horrific violence against a marginalized community and paints the source of violence as coming from inside the community, allowing straight onlookers to absolve themselves of any role in upholding societal homophobia. It obscures the need for self-reflection and the duty of allies to confront both overt and casual violence in their own communities and rejects responsibility for hateful ideologies born from the same heteronormative institutions that have oppressed queer and trans individuals since time immemorial. In the case of the Pulse shootings, it maliciously erases the fact that the killer was on Grindr and other apps specifically to seek out victims.
Instead, it places responsibility back on the afflicted community to police ourselves. It obscures genuine, productive discussion about how societal expectations might cause a closeted person to behave in destructive ways, refusing to engage in a conversation about how expectations of masculinity and heteronormative behavior suffocate and warp those who don’t fit its narrow definitions. And yes, it refuses to take place significant blame or responsibility on those who, wittingly or un-, uphold those damaging expectations.
This is the slow, eroding cycle that the closeted homophobe character represents. He is a handy piece of iconography, a boiling down of hateful ideologies removed from the audience that predominantly perpetrates them and presenting the problem as handily solved by a single moment of self-realization. It is the nightlight straight audiences use against the boogeyman of social responsibility under their beds, and the sooner it dies the better.