Life

A Jock With Glasses Is Not a Geek

As mainstream gay culture transforms “geeky” into little more than a sexy look, how does an actual geek find his people?

A gay man with glasses.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by THPStock/iStock/Getty Images Plus; ajr_images/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

You’ve probably heard of the idea of a queer “scene,” perhaps most often from people who don’t care for it. But what, exactly, is this scene? Who’s a part of it? Who isn’t? Who decides? Is there more than one? What happens when a scene evolves—or when it doesn’t? These are the questions we’ve gathered a group of writers to consider for an Outward special issue on “The Scene” in LGBTQ life today. You can read all of the stories in the issue here, and you can listen to a full episode of the Outward podcast covering more of the queer scene by subscribing on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your audio.

I’ve been a geek as long as I can remember, certainly as far back as fourth grade, when I’d regularly wear the Star Trek: The Next Generation T-shirt I’d picked up at a convention. This aspect of my identity has meant having a deep (if not obsessive) appreciation for aspects of culture that are nuanced, complicated, high-minded, and importantly, not caring how anyone else feels about it. For example, I refused to read Harry Potter—for years—just to spite my friends who said it was “so much better” than “boring” The Lord of the Rings, even though they had only made it halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring. Popularity could not sway me from what I personally enjoyed.

So when I first came out as gay, it was easy to embrace my new identity because of the experiences I’d already had as a geek. In a sense, both involve rebuffing the expectations of society and taking pride in what made me me, regardless of what anyone else thought. But socially, there were big differences. Connecting with friends who share your geeky affinities is relatively easy, but finding community among other gay men has proved to be more of a Water Temple–level task.

Comparing the gay community to a stereotypical high school’s clique culture is unoriginal, but apt. Social capital is valuable and similarly earned by being attractive, cool, and “popular.” As I figured out how being gay intersected with the rest of my life, I immediately felt that participating in “the scene”—here meaning social clubs or bars—came with certain expectations about how I should look, what I should prioritize in my life, and what I should take an interest in. It was like there was a direct contradiction between what it meant to be a proud non-conforming geek and what it would take to be a proudly conforming gay man. As the dating apps came about, however, I noticed that they universally provided an option to self-identify as a “geek,” and I wondered if it was becoming increasingly possible to have the best of both worlds. But that’s not what happened.

When the Borg assimilate an individual, they retain any attributes that would add value to the Collective and replace all other parts with cybernetic adaptations. As the traditional lodestars of geekdom (like fantasy, sci-fi, and video games) have achieved more mainstream appeal with the advent of superhero blockbusters and binge-able prestige television, I’ve watched the gay community process the “geek” identity in much the same way, incorporating certain aspects into the calculus for how to achieve gay social capital while dismissing the rest. I’m now left feeling like the word “geek” just means “a jock with glasses”—and I’ve only got the glasses.

There was a somewhat recent milestone that demarcated the progress of this assimilation for me. In the first week of September 2016, many of the gay blogs were tittering about a new Men.com porn film called “Fuckémon Go.” With stars Johnny Rapid as Ash and Will Braun as Brock, the film capitalized on the popularity of the Pokémon Go app with campy fanfare. What struck me, however, is that unlike the rest of the site’s musclebound superhero-themed films, this particular parody took something I personally considered purely geeky and sexualized it with stereotypically twinkish, fit bodies. My takeaway: Geeks are welcome in a mainstream gay fantasy space like Men.com so long as they’re hot enough to turn a profit.

As someone who also identifies with the “bear” tribe (and not the similarly appropriated muscle- and daddy- varieties), it’s been hard not to see body image superficiality as the main gravitational force at the center of almost all gay scenes. Particularly as apps increasingly dominate our social interactions, what I have to offer in terms of personality, hobbies, or sense of humor takes a back seat to whether or not I measure up aesthetically. This has left me feeling betrayed by those who check the “geek” box on their profiles—and who maybe even list some geeky interests that catch my eye—then refuse to engage whatsoever. Are you really a geek if you’d let a person’s looks get in the way of connecting with someone who shares your niche interests?

But even among people I already know, engagement doesn’t always meet my expectations. I remember one brunch a few years ago with a group of gay men who I believed shared at least some of my geeky affinities. Not knowing all of them well, I tried to engage on topics I thought would serve up some stimulating dialogue. The brunch, however, ended up being dominated by discussion about the gym, including but not limited to: workout preferences, stories about other men they’d seen at the gym, and encounters flirting with men at the gym. It was a topic I had little interest in and little to contribute to.

I left the brunch feeling ostracized, like the admission price to communing even with fellow gay geeks was buying into an obsession with improving my body and feeding into others’ same concerns. But whatever other people think of my body, I’m not insecure about it, I don’t enjoy exercise, and I know—from trying—that forcing myself into that world was not a positive experience. I’m a geek: I want to like the things I like and not worry about conforming to everyone else’s expectations. I’m not here to demand anyone take up my geeky passions, but I don’t feel like the same respect is reciprocated when it comes to my disinterest in fitness.

That’s not to say I haven’t found occasional opportunities for my gay and geek identities to intersect. Groups like Geeks OUT create great little social meetups, and D.C.’s newest gay sports bar is equipped with some video game consoles. These inconsistently available experiences, however, still pale in comparison to what feels like the weekly takeover of the bars by the kickball teams. In high school, the jocks might have picked on us gays, but as gay adults, we’ve re-created the exact same social structure for ourselves.

Another entry point to the stereotypical scene I’ve found has been watching RuPaul’s Drag Race out at bars with friends. They might not admit it, but many people have a geek-like obsession when it comes to following their favorite queens, and discussing who should win the current season is a great icebreaker. The kink and leather community has also felt far more geek-friendly, which is not surprising given the similar investment many people make in that aspect of their lives (not to mention the taboo it still faces in society). But I don’t love drag or leather nearly as much as others do, so I’m still on the hunt for my gaggle.

To be sure, as a cisgender, white gay man, I know that my request for “the scene” to be more welcoming of geeks is small potatoes compared to some of the other work the queer community must undertake in terms of inclusion, particularly around race, gender, and gender identity. But with so many gay men already identifying as “geeks,” it seems like there’s an easy opportunity for the community to mature beyond the high school cafeteria and show that it’s capable of becoming a bit more heterogeneous without losing its distinct queer identity.

A great place to start would be on the apps, which are increasingly serving as a substitute for the bars and community centers where the queer community traditionally communed. Don’t be afraid to let your geek flag fly in your profile! And if you see someone with some similar interests, why not throw a fellow geek a bone? For example, you could ask me about my favorite captain, Doctor, or Final Fantasy, come to a live West Wing Weekly taping with me, or help me theory-craft my next Path of Exile character build.

It’s fine if we’re not a sexual match. There’s still something joyous about finding someone who’s as obsessed with a certain fantasy universe as you are. And if we start building more social bridges that way, maybe someday we’ll be the ones taking over “the scene” in our brightly colored Stonewall Board Games or Stonewall Smash Bros. T-shirts. I happen to think there’s room for all of us. Can I get a “so say we all” up in here?

Read more from Outward’s special issue on “The Scene,” and listen to the podcast.