There are some words I just can’t say without feeling fraudulent or pretentious, or just plain silly. The slang of another generation, say, or the vocabulary of semiotics. The argot of trades. French words when the English will do. Words that sit fine on the written page but sound studied or precious when uttered. Words which, like low-rise skinny jeans and hooded sweatshirts, only the young can carry off and others that cannot be uttered outside a closed circle of like-minded cognoscenti without the risk of self-parody (think ‘grammar’ as a verb).
Dude is one of those words. I feel ridiculous whenever I say it, which is almost never. Bro is another. I can’t use these words without feeling as though I were in costume playing a role in a period drama or borrowing a term from a foreign language whose meaning I know only in its rough contours. I doubt if I even pronounce them properly. Something happens to the ‘u’ in dude when real dudes use the word. I don’t know exactly what it is, but whatever it is, it doesn’t rhyme with ‘mood’, which is how I say it. I’m sure I also miss nuances in the way these words are used, just as a foreigner might when negotiating the fine boundaries between the formal and familiar forms of address that exist in so many other languages (“Don’t bro me if you don’t know me”).
For me, dude and bro are words you need to grow up using in order to use them comfortably. They are so deeply enmeshed in a particular (in this instance, straight male) culture that you cannot bring them into your vocabulary by a simple act of will. At least I can’t. These words are more than a form of address; they signal belonging. Dude says you are one of us. And I clearly wasn’t.
This same culture also had words for exclusion, ugly, hurtful words like faggot. I recognize, of course, that dude and faggot are not two sides of the same coin. Not all the jocks and alpha males at school used them both; many used neither. But the words came together often enough in speech for the caustic traces left by the one to bleed into and corrode the sound of the other.
Maybe gay guys in high school and college today use this form of address all the time. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover Gaybros, a group on reddit where guys presumably get together to talk about “guy stuff… sports, video games, military issues, grilling, gear, working out, gadgets, tech, tv, movies and more.” There’s certainly a lot of dude-ing on Gaybos. And a lot of dudes. Gaybros claims it now receives over 200,000 monthly unique visitors.
The group was founded just over a year ago by Alex DeLuca who, like many of the guys on the forum, is in his early 20s.In an interview he released on YouTube, DeLuca explains why he started the group:
In the course of the last decade or so, being gay or bisexual has become increasingly more acceptable, but the challenge is it has done so with a very narrow definition of what being gay is. So for guys like me who like sports and Xbox and paintball, they don’t really fit this definition and I think a lot of young men out there are afraid to accept who they are because they feel that if they do, they’ll have to change when the reality is they don’t.
Though the group’s tagline is about gathering around shared “male interests”, most of the posts have nothing to do with football, cars or video games. If it they did, the group would be essentially no different from other interest-based groups such as gaymers or gay engineers. Instead, a good number of the threads seem to be about coming out and the first uneasy steps to meeting other men. It’s less fishing tackle and the Red Sox than dating advice and progress pics.
In DeLuca’s words, what draws the Gaybros group together is the “desire to promote self acceptance and build an inclusive and supportive community where people are free to be themselves.” And reading through the posts I get the impression that this is indeed a kind of safe space where someone who is coming out or have just come out can find advice and support or maybe even a hook-up.
Though as a forum Gaybros is hardly unique in this aspect, the more experienced posters are generous with their support and the advice they have to share is often on the mark. Topics range from the pedestrian (“I’m only 18 and I’m already balding”. Answer: “Balding is not a turn-off, insecurity about one’s appearance is”) and the disarmingly naive (“I have a cub build and I’m a bottom. What are the chances of me getting laid there?”) to the practical (how to bottom, with sound advice that I need not repeat here). But many posts touch on core concerns of self-acceptance and coming out.
The language in these latter instances is often couched in terms of issues of masculinity. A characteristic post in which one contributor talks about his first visits to the University’s LGBT group notes “I feel like a loner being the only masculine one there.” The recurring discourse on masculinity has led some in the gay media to accuse the group of perpetuating stereotypes of traditional masculinity, of simply promoting a more liberally couched model of the earlier decades’ straight-acting homosexual male. In their rejection of effeminate men (despite the group’s claims to inclusiveness), the members’ appropriation of dude and bro, it is argued, ironically serves the same end of demarcating boundaries of belonging.
But I suspect it isn’t really about masculinity, even in the caricatured version that runs through the site, a masculinity not defined in terms of strength and virtue but instead reduced to a set of mannerisms, quality of voice and “interests” . In another, perhaps more revealing post on the same subject we read, “I used to avoid my school’s lgbt club because it’s always been so politically focused, and everyone was so sure of who they were while I was lost in the woods.”
This phrase, “so sure of who they were”, is key to understanding the appeal of Gaybros, at least to a segment of younger gay men who are coming to age (and coming out) and who are not yet particularly self-confident or comfortable with their sexuality. Reading their posts, one gets the impression that these men find little with which to identify in the scenarios of gay life and identity that they have witnessed or seen portrayed in the media. They don’t see how they fit with this “very narrow definition of what it means to be gay”, in DeLuca’s words.
At first I didn’t understand what he meant by this “narrow definition”. I’m usually struck by precisely the opposite: the glorious variety of gay identities. As I read more of the threads, I discovered a recurrent theme of discomfort with “flamboyant” gay men, or men who are “radicalized” or “trendy”. In fact, these are all code words for men who are at ease with their sexual orientation in the ways that many of the bros aren’t. Men who are sure of who they are.
This discomfort is perhaps also a matter of class and geography. DeLuca’s “narrow definition” is a veiled reference to the lifestyles of buffed and sophisticated gay men in Boystown and Provincetown or whatever the local metropolitan equivalent is. In late March, a week after Slate published a piece on the gaybros, HuffPost Live’s Ahmed Shihab-Eldin hosted an online discussion about the group with Deluca and one of the subreddit moderators, Tim Karu, as well as the show’s producer Mitchell Williams and HuffPost Gay Voices Editor Noah Michelson. At one point Williams and Shihab-Eldin grill the Gaybros about the organization’s putative exclusionist masculine ethos. But the irony is that DeLuca and Karu are—at least visually—much less stereotypically “masculine” than the attractive gym-toned HuffPost’s host and producer. Shihab-Eldin is the hyper-masculine, “narrowly defined” gay man that some of the younger Gaybros seem to be uncomfortable with. Many of the bros, judging from the pictures they’ve uploaded, are really the guy next door: not the all-American jock next-door of the movies but the proverbial average (gay) guy. Which, I suppose, is also true of a lot of other gay men, at least in terms of appearance. With the exception of perhaps a higher percentage of headgear, the photos of the Gaybros are not all that different from ones you’d find on gay dating sites.
What does set the bros apart, at least the younger ones who log on for support in their journey to greater self-acceptance, is their naïveté and lack of self-assurance. It is also their lack of knowledge about the history of gay activism. In the end, Gaybros is a kind of halfway house (and hopefully a place of learning) for men needing a safe space–and mentor–to come to terms with their sexuality. I imagine a good number of them come looking for a way to discount as far as possible the role sexuality plays in their identity. They seem to want to say, it’s just sex. But of course it’s never only sex. It’s also politics and culture and, yes, identity. Luckily for these young guys, there are older, wiser bros who not only provide a broader perspective on what it means to be a man but also remind the cubs of their share in our collective responsibility in the fight for equal rights.
Responding to charges that the bros are creating a community that raises divisions within the broader gay population, excluding more effeminate men, DeLuca said that at Gaybros “we care about interests and character, not mannerisms… Gaybros is all about not having to change who you are just because you’re gay.”
But of course you do change. Not your interests, obviously (as if it really mattered if you’re into grilling and gadgets). But you change in other, more important ways. Or perhaps you just realize and embrace the ways in which you have already been changed and use this experience and perspective to foster another kind of change, the one that happens when you fully embrace your sexuality, a change that is both political and personal.
Oh, and by the way, judging from some of the posts on the NSFW gaybros subreddit, the bros are just as horny as the rest of us. And though far from campy, some certainly seem to be warming up for it.
Image: Bruce Weber, Boys from Red Cloud, Nebraska, 1981