3 April 2013
Gaybros, a new online gay community group for gays who like “guy stuff”, has raised eyebrows and angered non-bro gays who say the group are peddling tired macho stereotypes. Is it ok to be gay and be a bro?
A fascinating article by J. Bryan Lowder in the cooler-than-thou online mag Slate revealed an interesting new sub-culture in the gay community: the Gaybros, a online “men’s interest” group on social network site Reddit, who’ve been raising arched eyebrows over their espousal of a traditional “manly” identity, and reigniting an old but still potent argument about gays and masculinity.
Though it’s mostly an online phenomenon, Lowder reports that the Gaybros occasionally organise “meet-ups” in some of the larger metropolitan cities in North America: “Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and even London” (though I’m not sure whether that’s England or Ontario). In their mission statement, the Gaybros talk about “aiming to build a brotherhood around shared interests, promote self acceptance, and bring people together. ” So far, so noble and good. More controversially, the Gaybros embrace a decidedly retro “macho” gay identity, claiming to “talk about, well, guy stuff. Sports, cars, video games, military issues, working out, gadgets, gear and more.” It’s this butching up of the queer pitch that’s lead to some controversy, and the occasional handbag slinging at dawn.
In the Slate article, Lowder pitches his commentary ambiguously between a generous appreciation of the Gaybros’ inclusiveness (“Gay men of an impressive range of age, race, attractiveness, body type, and ball-cap embroidery shake hands and strike up conversations”) to a full scale critical slap-down. The criticism seems to come loudest from those gays who don’t identify with the Gaybros’ “manly” identity, and who take exception to what they see as the Gaybros’ privileging of traditional masculinist stereotypes and a corresponding “femmephobia” in which non-Gaybro (read: “feminine” or camp) behaviour is rejected, just as it tends to be in the heterosexual world.
Gaybros’ founder and organiser Alex DeLuca explained that Gaybros was created in reaction to his dismay at encountering a “very narrow definition of what it means to be gay” in mainstream culture, which 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 explains to Slate, where they can “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.” DeLuca rejects claims that Gaybros is only open to a clique of manly men, saying, somewhat revealingly, “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.”
In response, Gaybro’s critics argue that it’s DeLuca’s focus on gay stereotypes that’s the real problem. Lowder quotes Eli Fox, a commentator from New Orleans, who argues, “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.”
Lowder adds to this critique, pointing out that DeLuca’s use of phrases like”bros”, “shoot the shit” and “grab a beer” may alienate gays for whom this this kind of language smacks of old-school macho aggression. “Actually saying [bros] —or dude, or man, or, God forbid, buddy—and not imploding under the pressure of masculine performance ineptitude seemed, well, impossible,” he notes, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. On a more serious note, Lowder considers the Gaybros as a possible continuation of what’s been a very old dynamic in the gay community. “[T]he “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” – which reiterates the same old fag-bashing towards “effeminate gays” that’s endemic in homophobic straight culture.
He notes that the Gaybros’ position seems rather poorly informed by gay culture or history pre-Lady Gaga, possibly due to the Gaybros being relatively young (DeLuca was 23 at the time of writing the Slate article), “still hovering on one side or the other of the closet threshold” and not having access to what Michael Warner calls “the institutions for common memory and generational transmission around which straight culture is built”.
Lowder takes the Gaybros to task for apparently downplaying their “gayness”. One of Gaybros’ moderators explains that they 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,” and that part of Gaybros’ mission is to help members “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”. Lowder applauds their good intentions, but queries whether it’s right to state that being gay need not be a “game-changer”. “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.”
Lowder reports that, as a result of his discussions with DeLuca in the course of researching the Slate article, DeLuca (who comes across as open-minded, reasonable and eager to be inclusive and conciliatory) conceded that some of his language may have been poorly thought out, and agreed to remove comments about gay “stereotypes” from the Gaybro Reddit page. The article ends on a note of optimism: “[A]s gay culture is redefined for the 21st century”, Bowder writes, “there’s nothing that says the Gaybros can’t bring their guns, video-game controllers, and sports sticks to the club as well”. He attends a second meet up in a New York bar, where he finds the Gaybros “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.”
What interests me most about this article is the way it presents gay men feeling alienated from a gay culture that exists but which apparently doesn’t cater for their needs and interests. Just as the Gaybros steel themselves defensively against the flashier aspects of gay existence, with accompanying expectations that being gay means buying a tight t-shirt, waxing off one’s back hair and taking up residence in a nightclub, so do the non-Gaybros feel slighted by any suggestion that “masculine” gay men enjoy privileges as a result of their conformance to societal expectations of what “real men” should be. Each faction seems keen to identify themselves as misunderstood victims and outsiders, each constructing an unknown “Other” against whom they define their own interests and identify a potential foe.
Reading this article, I’m struck by how much my opinions about gay “masculinity” have changed over the years since coming out in the early 1990s, which seems like the Paleolithic period now. I’ve encountered versions of the Gaybros before – men who eschewed the gay scene, professed no interest in stereotyped visions of gay men as sex and fashion-obsessed queens, resented the narrow portrayal of gay men in the straight press, and who wanted to hang onto a version of masculinity closer to their fathers (or Tom Selleck in Magnum PI) than Julian Clary.
Until fairly recently, my irritation with this kind of position wasn’t that different from the critics Lowder quotes in the Slate article. I was supremely irritated by any Gaybro’s assertion that they were simply embodying a more unaffected, “authentic” masculinity. To me, “macho” masculinity was as much a construction and a performance as a drag queen’s floor show – their performance (man drag?) was just the more socially acceptable version of what it meant to be a man. Like Eli Fox, I resented Gaybros for being generally more desirable in gay culture. I spent years envying them for their easy uncomplicated relationship with their masculinity, their bodies that signified manliness (muscles, chest hair, big shoulders, decent sideburns) and their ability to blend into heterosexual life when needed without having to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that I and the other “less masculine” gayboys did. I clenched my teeth in silent fury as, again and again, a Gaybro would emerge from the closet, and scratch his manly head for all of five minutes, only to be snapped up by another Gaybro, and then retreat to their Gaybro cave to have lots of manly Gaybro sex and live happily ever after, while I and the other fembots worked the front line of the war on what Derek Jarman called “Heterosoc”.
Looking back now, I’ve realised that the Us and Them approach to the gay community is too limited a paradigm to live in. I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know men who I once characterised (and idealised) as Gaybros, only to discover that their own journeys out of the closet were often as tortuous as mine. It wasn’t just the “feminine” gay boys who got picked on at school, and the loneliness of a butch boy or a bear walking into a nightclub and being asked whether he’s gay can be as unbearable (forgive the pun) as the kind of faggot-baiting that goes on in rugby changing rooms. Eli Fox is wrong, I think, to assume that “masc guys” enjoy masculine privilege – that’s a privilege that only straight men can enjoy. As I’ve since learned, a “masc guy” who’s gay can also go through his own private hell as he struggles to reconcile his sexuality with society’s expectations of who he should be. I also have to own up to much of my antipathy towards Gaybros actually being motivated by lust and frustration when they wouldn’t sleep with me – though as I stare down the barrel of my late 30s, after ten fruitful years living in a big city, I have to admit to now having had a fair amount of success in this area, so it’s probably time for me to let that particular grievance go.
So with that in mind, I’m feeling kindly disposed to give the Gaybros and their ilk a longer leash, and even encourage some of their efforts. Anything that encourages a sense of pride, solidarity and community among gay men is surely to be encouraged, provided that it’s done in a spirit of inclusiveness. Part of me even feels a little sorry for DeLuca and his Gaybros, who I imagine to be shaking their baseball-capped heads in confusion at the hordes of hissyfitting gays who are stamping their little bootied feet over why they aren’t being let into the sandpit to play with them. The vitriolic responses of people like Eli Fox are understandable, but ironically they demonstrate precisely why groups like Gaybros might feel the need to withdraw from mainstream gay culture and not share their toys. “Gaybros exists by nature and design outside the super-politically correct, college-bubble rhetoric that largely defines the terms of these discussions today”, Bowker writes, “providing 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.” It all seems reasonable enough – right?
What’s most pernicious about this kind of debate – which is something that jars uncomfortably in Bowker’s article – is how thoughtlessly the Gaybros and their critics repeat and reinscribe received notions of “masc”, “femme”, “butch” and “camp” and assign values to those categories in descending order of desirability. These values don’t just come from inside us, of course. We learn from an early age that men are supposed to be strong, unemotional, invulnerable and heterosexual, and we’re punished in all kinds of ways when we fail to follow those rules, creating the fragile territory in which many gay men find themselves when they reach adulthood. As commentators smarter than me have argued (most famously Alan Downs in The Velvet Rage) most gays internalise to some degree or other a sense of inferiority about their own vulnerability/femininity/homosexuality and go to a range of lengths to cover this up by posing as “masculine”.
I can’t speak for the Gaybros, but at this stage of my gay existence, it seems like as good a time as any to dispense with these retro notions of masculinity and non-masculinity that inform so much of this kind of defensive, reactionary dialogue around gay identity. I came out sixteen years ago, and I’m mostly comfortable in my own identity as a gay man. While I still profess a love of old school Nietzschean Supermen (particularly the boys of the Dieux du Stade rugby calendars) and the muscle bears at my gym, I’m old enough and smart enough to distinguish between sexual fantasy based on physical appearances and mannerisms, versus the considerably more complex characteristics that make up personal identity. Butch, femme, fag, dom, sub, vanilla, queen, bear, mary – for some, these terms are helpful signifiers of a sub-species we’re happy to identify with, but they’re just as likely to limit our understandings of ourselves and each other. It’s fine to be a “bro”, but why limit yourself?
My most profound revelation about the Gaybros, which is probably one of the simplest, is that I’m now too old and just too…. gay to have much interest in their group, or for their beer-and-billiards worlds to be of much use to me. If anything, I’m now of an age to be a mentor to them. It’s great being an old fart sometimes – even a gay one.