Phrases like that are commonly heard when discussing gay characters in fiction, but what do they really mean?
On the surface they simply mean that the characters gayness is not important to the story, but if you dig a little deeper it has a more subtle and darker undertone. Many people, both gay and straight, attach negative connotations to gay themed comics, books and films, and by saying that the main character “just happens to be gay”, they are trying to distance the work from the feared “gay” label that might otherwise brand the story. But is it so bad for a book or film to be called gay, if it in fact is gay?
A straight co-worker of mine argued that the film “I Love You Phillip Morris” wasn’t really a gay movie, because it was entertaining for a straight audience. To me, “I Love You Phillip Morris” is most definitely a gay movie, it has a gay lead character who is out and proud, a coming-out story, a gay romance and gay sex, the only thing that sets it apart from most gay comedies is that it has famous lead actors and a big budget. Maybe “gay themed” has become synonymous with a low budget, low production values and limited talent.
It is understandable that major publishers and film studios avoid the gay label. They like to stick to tried and tested formulas that they know will sell. A gay lead character could easily scare away 90% of the straight audience, which would make them loose money on the project. Smaller specialized publishers, who have lower costs, can afford to cater to a niche audience.
A gay tale that is well told, should be able to find an audience based on it’s own merits. However this does not seem to be the case. The film studios may actually be right on this one. Once a story is labeled gay, most straight people, especially guys, will avoid it. They don’t want to see two guys kissing and they don’t want “the gay agenda” shoved down their throats. I guess it’s partially because people like stories they can easily relate to, and partially it’s good ol’ homophobia.
Maybe we haven’t come as far with gay rights as we think. We still find the need to mention that a character “happens to be gay”, somehow deflating his gayness and making him more acceptable to a straight audience, while you never hear anyone say that someone “just happens to be straight”. In fact a sentence like, “007 is a special agent for the MI5, who just happens to be straight”, sounds palpably absurd.