It’s a snowy Saturday night in Boston, and the bros are moving in pack formation. As we trudge through the fresh powder toward South End, the 10 or so guys I’m walking with jostle and joke their way forward through the frigid air, bouncing with that particular surge of giddy energy you sometimes get when you’re hanging out with people you have never met in real life.
As members of Gaybros—a Reddit-based community for gay guys with traditionally manly interests like sports, hunting, and beer—the large majority of their bonding takes place through comment threads under topics like “Ron Swanson vs. James Bond” and “My Gay Card Has Been Revoked.” But in cities like Boston, New York, L.A., Toronto, and even London, they try to regularly “meet-up” at a local restaurant or bar, exchanging Reddit’s upvotes and downvotes for proper handshakes and side-hugs. These “IRL” encounters can, understandably, feel awkward at first, as this one did when we had all gathered for dinner earlier in the evening at a crowded Italian cafeteria. Much of the conversation revolved around how the so-called bartender had asked if seltzer was a spirit. But bros being bros, the group made the best of their over-salted pasta and soda-fountain tap water, and we were quickly on our way to a more dependable source of alcohol.
“Where are we going again?” I ask, dodging drifts and shivering from under-preparedness. “To Fritz!” someone I’m too cold to look toward explains, referencing the city’s premiere gay sports bar. Once past the middle-aged bouncer’s baritone “evening, gentlemen,” I could see why. If the Gaybro’s mission statement is “a place for guys to get together and talk about, well, guy stuff. Sports, video games, military issues, grilling, gear, working out, gadgets, tech, TV, movies, and more,” Fritz is their ideal arena. The decor is classic pub, all dark woods and vintage trophies, but with a decidedly gay twist: Look even briefly at the house-made baseball and football player posters decorating the walls, and more than sportsmanlike appreciation for the athletic male form quickly becomes apparent.
From my perch by the corner coat pile, I survey the scene: Gay men of an impressive range of age, race, attractiveness, body type, and ball-cap embroidery shake hands and strike up conversations. There’s a sweet couple in front of me: One’s sporty, the tight-fitting navy cotton of his Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt coordinating well with his olive-tinted biceps; the other is channeling New England WASP, skinny and buttoned-up, with pragmatically framed glasses. Farther down the table, a larger guy laughs loudly at something a twinky type said, and later, a very cute boy, possibly Arab, draws eyes as he pulls up a chair. He has brought along a solidly built and more maturely handsome AIDS researcher with whom I spend a considerable amount of time discussing the decline of gay social spaces like the one we’re in.
Given that the few gay spaces that do remain are almost always segregated by race, age, and sexual type (twink, bear, leather, etc.), the diversity on display among the bros was remarkable. Also worthy of note was the lack of excessive cruisiness within the group; though gay men almost never stop flirting entirely, this was clearly not, as multiple bros would tell me, a “dating service.” However, that’s not to say the evening was entirely PG. After the first round had been drained, I overhear my friend Jake—who I only found out was a Gaybro sympathizer after starting in on this story and whose husband, Tim Karu, is one of the group’s moderators—respond saucily to a comment about football players’ jock straps: “Now that’s a game I could get into!”
Around 10:30, the bros finish off their drinks and migrate yet again, this time dominating a whole stretch of sidewalk, to a place with the forthright name Club Café. The entitled New Yorker in me balked at the cover-charge, and, in any case, the aggregate level of tipsiness hinted that it might be time to let the crew have its fun unsurveilled. Plus, I thought I’d earned a break from the pressure of all those firm handshakes: The couple I was crashing with had invited me to a gay house party promising more familiar accoutrements like crudités and Robyn music, so I Google-mapped my way across Boston from bro to ‘mo. When I slipped into the handsome and rhythmically thudding townhome, young professionals in J. Crew boots like mine matched my gaze. Not a “masc” guy in sight.
But as I glanced around at the Crate & Barrel brand of gayness on display in this open-concept, Hindu deity-studded living room, I felt, not relief, but a twinge of doubt. The guys I had just left would clearly not fit in here—but was that their loss or ours?
“You need to start using brah in conversation.”
So read an instant message from a colleague when he learned that I was going to be chilling with the Gaybros. I grimaced; the mere sight of the word in the chat box elicited a kind of gag reflex in my throat, not to mention my soul. Actually saying it—or dude, or man, or, God forbid, buddy—and not imploding under the pressure of masculine performance ineptitude seemed, well, impossible. My interlocutor was mostly joking, of course, but the kernel of truth hit home: I was probably going to have to butch-up my vocabulary a bit if I wanted to hang with, much less hope to understand, a group of fellow gay men who would willingly call themselves “bros.”
When you look up the term Gaybro on Urban Dictionary, two extremely telling definitions appear. The first—“a gay man who acts masculine and is interested in guy stuff like sports, video games, military issues, grilling, knives, gear, working out, gadgets, tech, etc …”—seems to have been lifted from the Gaybros mission statement. The second is less neutral: “Young masculine homosexual males who exhibit no effeminate characteristics or interests and make a point of going on about how ‘normal’ they are. Previously they would have referred to themselves as straight-acting but that’s so 2005. Gaybros have no gay friends because they can’t relate to other gay people. This is something else they insist on telling everyone.”
Before meeting the Gaybros, the second definition was the only one I knew, and I am not at all alone. Many gays I’ve spoken with share a visceral and somewhat histrionic revulsion toward the very idea of Gaybrodom that, ironically, is not dissimilar to the reaction many straights have to gays before they know one. When Buzzfeed interviewed the group’s founder, Alex Deluca, on the occasion of their one-year anniversary this past January, the comments section immediately filled with screeds about “masculine privilege” and “femmephobia” within the gay community. (I may have scrawled something to this effect on Facebook myself the day the story broke.)
Deluca, 23, spoke in the Q-and-A about his dismay at encountering a “very narrow definition of what it means to be gay” in mainstream culture, one that apparently doesn’t make room for guys with interests like “video games, paintball, and sports.” “I created Gaybros to provide a space for these guys,” he said. “[A place for them] to gather and talk about shared interests and to break down stereotypes and promote the idea that you could be a gay man and still be exactly who you’ve always been.”
Eli Fox, a commenter from New Orleans, captured the general complaint of those who took issue with Deluca’s treating the gay “stereotype” like an unwanted cardboard box: “This is such bullshit and just perpetuates the idea that femininity is fake or that people put it on […] He makes it sound like masculine gay guys are somehow OPPRESSED. No, they’re the most desired, because masculine traits are prized in the gay male community just like practically every other social group […] Masc guys aren’t the ones who need to spend time promoting some agenda of masculinity and “regular guy” culture crap. Society has already done that for them.”
Likely anticipating this kind of push-back, Buzzfeed had asked Deluca to respond to charges of “shaming effeminate gays.” “The most simple way I can explain it,” Deluca replied, “is that we care about interests and character, not mannerisms. Everyone is welcome to come to Gaybros to shoot the shit, grab a beer at a Gaybros meet up, and participate in the different activities and events we schedule.”
Sounds totally fair, right? Very chummy and egalitarian. But can you remember the last time you witnessed a dude’s dude get called out for having “mannerisms,” even though they certainly possess their own set? That’s a word that has almost exclusively been applied, usually derogatorily, to effeminate gay guys. And what about the phrases “shoot the shit” and “grab a beer?” These are common and generally innocuous manly sayings, to be sure. But what if they send a shiver of trepidation, even outright fear, down your spine? What if the bars and ball-fields where such expressions are commonly used have always seemed hostile or straight-up dangerous to you, perhaps because your “mannerisms” tend to overpower your “interests and character” in the eyes of the shit-shooters and beer-grabbers? And forgetting such perceived threats, what if you just find that kind of language laughably canned and retrograde? Suddenly, words that are meant to be non-judgmental and inviting become dog whistle warnings (if not screaming evacuation sirens) to entire swaths of potential supporters.
When I spoke with Deluca over Skype, he seemed pained at the idea that outsiders might be reacting to Gaybros in this way. Referring to comments like Fox’s (which he had responded to within minutes), he said “I feel a need to explain the community so when people hear about it or read about it for the first time, if that have that misconception at the beginning, I want to clear it up.” But can Deluca hope to be there to parry with every negative or uninformed comment? Of course no community is for everybody, and no one is forcing anybody to join or even pay attention to Gaybros. But if ill-chosen language is unnecessarily driving would-be members or fans away, that’s a shame, because Gaybros has a lot to offer—and not just for jock-strap connoisseurs.
After a little over a year in existence, Gaybros now finds itself at a promising but uncertain crossroads. Deluca and a few of the other moderators are currently planning and raising money for a standalone site, and they’ve already expanded their mission beyond mere interest-sharing into advocacy work. Under a wing of the group called “Gaybros Gives Back,” Deluca says the bros are attempting to raise $10,000 for The Trevor Project in March. And with more than 21,000 subscribers (or “bromos,” as they’re called) and 2.6 million page views in February alone, they seem to have the reach to meet that admirable goal.
But before the Gaybros can grow into a full-blown movement, they have some criticisms to contend with: that they are young (or newly out) and are therefore somewhat naïve or uninformed about the gay culture they don’t identify with; that they assert their supposed masculinity as a power play against more effeminate gays; that their strained relationship with the gay mainstream is the result of their own stubbornness as much as mean-girl exclusion.
They do skew young (75 percent are between 18-35, according to Deluca), and many are still hovering on one side or the other of the closet threshold. Many also seem to have more straight male friends than gay ones, no doubt for a variety of reasons. Still, though the focused discussions of “gay culture” that I’ve read on the site often lack historical context and nuance (many imply that it’s only ever been glitter, Gaga, and GHB), they’re also almost always thoughtful. Most importantly, I have never seen an instance of virtual femme-bashing that was not immediately and unanimously policed by the other members, often in lengthy, articulate correctives.
However, the “bro” part of the name—regardless of how “playful” Deluca claims to have been in choosing it—will cause many to see them as merely the next incarnation of the “butch,” “straight-acting” or “regular guys” who have defined themselves against some abstract notion of a more effeminate “gay mainstream” since at least the 1970s. (Deluca himself admits that a few of these “assholes” are indeed present within the community). But spend an hour in their online discussions or an evening chatting with them over beers and you’ll quickly learn that the Gaybros’ relationship to masculinity and gay identity is not as simple as that.
In fact, that gently tawdry jock joke that Jake made at Fritz may have been the only time I heard sports—or any of the traditionally masculine things the Gaybros claim as their interests—mentioned that evening. In my humble opinion, a more accurate term for the lovely group of guys I met in Boston (no offense intended!) would be Gaynerds. But then, I wasn’t really surprised to find that the so-called Gaybro army doesn’t actually match some Tom of Finland fantasy; though some members of the community no doubt aspire to that kind of steroid-assisted gravitas, the entirely cliched homosexual gentleman imagined by the group’s mission statement couldn’t possibly be real.
What is real, though, is the sense of alienation these guys feel when whatever traditionally masculine interests they do have interface with their sexuality, or more accurately, with the cultural expectations they see as coming with it. This incongruence has led them to want to “break the stereotype,” but in fact the Gaybros aren’t breaking anything—they’re simply adding to the beauty of what was already there.
One of the keywords that you’ll run into over and over again in the Gaybros subreddit, r/gaybros, is “brotherhood.” This is not a word that immediately comes to mind when thinking of gay guys (Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus screaming “Sissstaaaahhhs!” is what I hear), but perhaps it’s one that should. When I asked 28-year-old Tim Karu, one of Deluca’s fellow moderators, what brotherhood means to him, he immediately relaxed and said “the sense of being able to talk about anything.” That might sound banal, but coming on the heels of a lengthy discussion about the Gaybro community’s penchant for helping guys with what Karu called their “journeys” out of the closet and into gay life, it made a lot of sense. Karu said that the moderators get a lot of messages from guys who find solace in realizing that being gay “doesn’t have to be a game-changer … it doesn’t mean that I’m somebody different.” He and the other moderators see it as an unexpected but welcome part of their mission to help these guys feel at home in their own skin in a forum that doesn’t necessarily traffic in the same beauty-ideals, aesthetic tastes, and social etiquette that a newly out gay might encounter on, say, moving to New York or San Francisco.
Of a piece with the brotherly vibe of Gaybros is the need to develop, as a site rule puts it, a “thick skin and sense of humor” toward contentious interactions, which crop up fairly often on threads about touchy issues like open relationships. Like “shooting the shit,” demanding a thick skin can at first sound like something a homophobic coach might yell at you for being upset by bullies, but it also has a socially useful function. Gaybros exists by nature and design outside the super-politically correct, college-bubble rhetoric that largely defines the terms of these discussions today (just check out the absurdly arcane ground-rules for r/LGBT to see what I mean). In this, it provides a so-called “safe space” for novice gay men who do not yet know the “right” words to explore their new identities and engage with their newfound community without fear of tar and feathers for not intuiting the difference between two-spirit and intersex. As someone who’s been through more stuffy safe space facilitations than I care to admit, I’ll say that “thick skin” starts to sound a lot like fresh air.
But is Karu right that being gay need not be a “game-changer” at all? Just because you don’t have to become an opera queen to be gay does not mean that there’s no requirements for entry other than having sex with men. If you believe (and I do), that “gay” is something more than “homosexual”—something with a history, canon, and culture—then calling yourself gay is a “game-changer” for sure.
The other day, I was bemoaning the camp ignorance of certain contestants on this season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race with my hair stylist, Justin, and he wisely pointed out that many of the queens may not have had mothers, of the drag or biological sort, to teach them their own history. The same thing has happened to gay men in general. As Michael Warner writes in The Trouble with Normal, “queers do not have the institutions for common memory and generational transmission around which straight culture is built. Every new wave of queer youth picks up something from its predecessors but also invents itself from scratch. Many are convinced that they have nothing to learn from old dykes and clones and trolls, and no institutions … ensure that this will happen.” Take that with the generational void caused by AIDS, and you have a perfect recipe for a generation who rejects “gay culture” while knowing little, if anything, about it.
But then again, with maturity comes evolution. Deluca said that due to criticisms like mine, he and the other moderators have officially decided to drop the term “stereotype” from the Gaybros materials. This is a great step, and indeed, any adjustment of language (short of renaming themselves) that can help disentangle Gaybros from the gay culture wars is to be encouraged. The group has too much potential as a lively new model for engaging with issues like coming-out, political correctness, community-building and the rest to get waylaid by the old traps of masculine privilege and Andrew Sullivan-style queer-shaming. And of course, as gay culture is redefined for the 21st century, there’s nothing that says the Gaybros can’t bring their guns, video-game controllers, and sports sticks to the club as well.
Speaking of clubs, I went to a second meet-up at a busy New York gay bar a few weeks ago with the intention of snatching a few more quotes. When I pushed in to the at-capacity room, however, I realized my plan was hopeless. The Gaybros, according to their posted itinerary, were somewhere there among the queens, Brooklyn hipsters, and shirtless go-go boys, drinking and flirting and laughing and hoping. But they were indistinguishable from the rest of their brothers.