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Willie Garson, we raise our appletinis to you – thank you for changing the way gay men are portrayed on screen

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Tributes have been pouring in from the cast and fans of Sex and the City following the news that Willie Garson, who played Carrie Bradshaw’s sarky but sweet gay best friend in the series, has died aged 57.

It’s a great loss, not just to the show and the world, but to Sarah Jessica Parker personally. The two first met on a blind date before the show aired and remained close, platonic friends off screen. On screen, their chemistry crackled – love interests were dissected and appletinis were sipped and slopped at bar launches.

As a straight man in a gay role, Garson brought a refreshingly respectful perspective. Stanford Blatch was camp, sociable and interested in fashion – three stereotypes, perhaps, but all approached by Garson in a way that felt real. His performance was sensitive, subtle and emotive, and at no point did it feel like he was aping or mocking the gay experience.

But how well did Sex and the City actually handle the gay best friend trope? Certainly not as badly as the episode in which it handled bisexuality, when Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), a seasoned sex columnist, can’t bring herself to kiss Alanis Morissette during a game of “Spin the Bottle”. Then there’s the unwatchably offensive (and apart from anything else, badly written) episode featuring transgender sex workers.

To properly unpick this, we need to transport ourselves back to 1998, when the show first aired. In this context, it was a miracle that it at least featureda gay character, as well as gay sex, and gay kisses. Also rare for the time, Stanford was a proper character with different dimensions. He was assertive, likeable and had his own life and identity outside the glittering Gucci heteronormativity of his straight friends.

In season two, episode 12, he heads to an underwear-only cruise bar and meets a guy. The sequence (for those in the know) is a pretty accurate portrayal of a gay sex venue, and his experience is sweet and sex-positive, panning out without any punishments or awful consequences. For this, Sex and the City gets five out of five scrunchies.

On the flipside, Stanford’s marriage to Anthony Marantino (the only other regular LGBTQ+ character in the show) in the second film was possibly the most unimaginative, naff, predictable and potentially offensive portrayal of a gay wedding ever to exist. And it was made all the more bizarre by the fact that the scene was written and directed by a gay man. Although, to be fair, that’s a mere grain in the roiling Arabian dunes of the film’s many travesties. Any fan will tell you: the less said about Sex and the City 2, the better.

The warning signs were there from the start of the show, though. The behaviour of the other characters towards Stanford throughout is telling. He’s often an accessory to Carrie, getting unceremoniously ditched, cosmo in hand, when she has to dash off for an unrealistic public appearance, or cast off in favour of an ill-fated sexual exploit. Interestingly, gay men can now be guilty of treating straight women in this way. How the tables have turned!

While Sex and the City may have been one of the first high-profile shows to feature a gay best friend, it may also be responsible for some of the frustrating tropes and expectations we still sometimes experience today from some of our straight pals. Expected to attend hair appointments, or go shopping, or come to certain parties – it’s not exactly offensive, just annoying.

Thankfully, now that we’re widely acknowledged as real people, these expectations are becoming less and less par for the course, particularly among younger generations. Tired stereotypes are being shucked off and, in some countries at least, gay men are now allowed to be domestic in adverts, sexual in music videos and even, as of this year, give blood (!). A notable pop culture corner we’re still mostly not allowed in, though, is action films – let us in! We’re great at stunts and some of us can even drive.

Stanford’s character, along with those in groundbreaking shows like Will & Grace and Queer As Folk, helped pave the rainbow crossing to yet more progress. We see this in the many brilliant and complicated gay characters currently on the small screen in shows like Sex Education, It’s A Sin and perhaps most intriguingly, Murray Bartlett’s character in White Lotus. In his indelibly deranged, beautifully layered performance, Bartlett shows us that we’ve now reached a stage where gay men can be portrayed as sleazy, drug-taking and dysfunctional and it doesn’t come across as an offensive stereotype – crucially, because it’s one portrayal amongst dozens.

The much-hyped Sex and the City reboot, And Just Like That, is coming to HBO Max this winter. The hope is that they’ll manage to toe the tricky line between realistic and didactic, and do justice to the show’s many LGBTQ+ fans with characters just as interesting and developed as in other shows we see today.

Willie Garson, we raise our appletinis to you. Thank you for being brave and representing us in a show that, to this day, despite its flaws, still serves as a security blanket and sanctuary for millions of straight women, gay best friends and everyone in between.

Dylan B Jones presents the weekly ‘Sex and the City’ podcast, ‘So I Got To Thinking’, with bestselling author Juno Dawson. It is available on all podcast platforms

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