Your brand of charming homosexuality, Tony, it’s kind of run out of steam.
–Rocco Pelosi, Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony
This discussion of The Ballad of Gay Tony does contain spoilers.
The Ballad of Gay Tony is the straightest Grand Theft Auto ever. Okay, well not exactly (or perhaps, what my title implies isn’t exactly what I mean). Nevertheless, despite its title, heterosexual sex acts are considerably more common than homosexual ones in The Ballad of Gay Tony.
This is due in large part to the significance of sex to this particular iteration of GTA but also due to the nature of the protagonist of this game, Luis Lopez, a partial owner of one of the hottest clubs in Liberty City, Maisonette 9. Lopez is a ladies man, unafraid to shake it on the dance floor in order to get a little on the side, and he is also the number one of the man who owns the controlling share of Maisonette 9, Gay Tony Prince.
When The Ballad of Gay Tony was announced, I was certainly surprised, left wondering if Rockstar had decided to feature a homosexual protagonist in one of their games. That Gay Tony would not be the persona that players would be taking on was rather quickly made clear in Rockstar’s promotion of the game. Still though, Gay Tony is a most crucial character as the title of the game implies, and his presentation is fairly fascinating given Rockstar’s history of creating cartoonish stereotypes of both gays and racial and ethnic groups as part of their parody-laden crime sagas.
As the owner of a nightclub that is signified by a description of an architectural space and designated by a number, Tony largely seems to be a kind of re-imagining, of Steve Rubell, the gay owner of Club 54. Unlike Rubell, a man referred to openly as Gay Tony is obviously not closeted (he also owns a gay nightclub called Hercules), but Tony has been running clubs since 1987 very close to the year of Rubell’s death from AIDS. As a result, Tony seems to be a kind of consideration of what a man like Rubell would be doing in the 2000s, and Tony is certainly prone to Rubell’s darker tendencies as he maintains a pretty substantial coke habit as well as exhibiting symptoms of paranoia and stress as a result of operating his businesses.
Club life is the central focus of The Ballad of Gay Tony, which brings us back to the sex act as a central concern of this version of GTA. Much like Studio 54, Maisonette 9 is a hotbed of hormones. Dancing leading up to the sex act is a tale as old as time and one written into nature itself as humans mirror the animals in performing mating dances to get the juices flowing. The game features the ability to participate directly in such mating ritual as Luis can shake a little tail to get a little tail at the club, and his conquests frequently give out phone numbers that can be dialed up for health boosting booty calls at any point during the game.
In that sense, Gay Tony‘s sensibilities are a bit retrograde by linking sexual habits with criminality. Much like crime fiction of the early twentieth century, homosexuality in crime fiction is often chained to the seamier aspects of life, including the criminal. As anyone who has read a Raymond Chandler novel or two knows, crime novels tend to associate homosexuality with generally deviant lifestyle choices, and thus, homosexual characters in crime fiction are frequently associated with pornography, drugs, and the like (I’m thinking of novels like The Big Sleep for example). Tony’s occupation and personal habits connect him to such things, but Luis’s promiscuity also marks him as being deviant from the mainstream ideal of monogamous sexuality. Thus, the title Gay Tony might imply that sex of a wilder or more taboo nature is going to be explored or expressed in the game, sex that might be viewed as a “normal” part of a more licentious lifestyle, like that of a man dabbling with underworld connections.
However, Luis’s promiscuity is complicated by his own background, which is as a son whose own father abandoned him. Curiously, this complication also connects him more closely to Tony. At several points over the course of the story, Luis suggests that Tony has been like a father to him, having been the one to get Luis employed and on the straight and narrow (or at least out of prison) after running afoul of the police in his younger days. Tony, too, mentions that Luis is like a son to him. Thus, the game is less than retrograde in presenting a rather daring and progressive version of a father-son story, one in which the “father” is a homosexual.
The Oedipal drama that would normally ensue in such stories is inverted, though, perhaps as a result of Tony’s homosexuality. Luis is not especially threatened by his “father’s” power as neither one compete with one another over a mother or any woman for that matter. Freud would suggest that such competition is a necessary part of the psychology of becoming an adult. The symbolic act of killing the father becomes foundational for becoming a mature adult capable of taking on the authority of being a father himself. However, when faced with the dilemma of having to literally kill Tony near the climax of the game (which is a result of some mobsters needing the head of one of the two men because a diamond heist has put the two into bed with and in the cross-hairs of several criminal organizations), Luis chooses to save the man (as Tony did the younger Luis) rather than to destroy him and take his place (as the mobsters offer Luis the opportunity to do). Indeed, throughout The Ballad of Gay Tony, Luis spends much of his time caring for this adopted “father” whose addiction is leading to some really bad decision making on the part of the elder of the two men. This curious re-structuring of the Oedipal conflict with a homosexual and a heterosexual father and son removes conflict from their relationship altogether and offers instead a co-operative version of the relationship in which one man brings up and nurtures the other and then the other likewise returns the favor.
Thus, despite Rockstar’s frequent employment of stereotyping ethnic and sexual identity for the sake of parody, The Ballad of Gay Tony actually becomes a rather different kind of discourse on the development of human beings and their relationships to one another because of (not in spite of) their differences. Social deviance becomes a means of uniting very different people rather than in dividing them from society. Instead, Tony and Luis manage to form the most fundamental of social units out of deviance, a family.