While the LGBT population world-wide struggles for acceptance and equality, at the same time we insist on separating ourselves into categories which we came up with–all on our own. The society we fight to find our place in had absolutely nothing to do with it. No wonder it’s tough to be gay. Sometimes we contribute to it by stereotyping ourselves, insisting on choosing a specific compartment that classifies us according to some physical trait or insignificant preference. It wasn’t always like that, this dinosaur is here to tell you.
Back in the last century, in the early 1970s in Ohio when I first came out, you went to a gay bar and there were two kinds of homosexuals–dykes and fags. We were so happy to be able to be out, no one thought to be anything more than simply GAY. In those clubs we could hang out together and just be ourselves, which we dared not do anywhere outside the safety of the places we frequented. It wasn’t that these gay bars were particularly fabulous or fun–they were all we had–a place to be comfortable in your own skin a few hours each week.
Moving to New York City, my gay world expanded. Actually, it damn near exploded. Unlike northeastern Ohio, where you could count the number of gay establishments on one hand, here there were dozens of places in Manhattan alone. And NYC is where I began to notice the development of gay stratification.
At this point there were: jocks, leather men, daddies and elephants. The jocks were hardly the buff gym rats of today. In fact, in those days a six-pack meant only one thing–six bottles or cans of beer. These jocks were closer to preppies, in button-down shirts, loafers with or without socks, clean-shaven and well-groomed hair. Leather men were easy to spot in their chaps, vests or black leather jackets and huge, heavy belts and boots. They made facial hair fashionable again. Leather men were the first to embrace piercings–initially just ears–then they commenced to travel south–way south. In the beginning these guys intimidated me, until I smartened up and realized for many, it was simply costume, and had zero to do with how they performed under the sheets. Daddies were men forty-plus years who dressed more sophisticatedly than any of the others. Technically they could have been a twenty-something’s father. While I found most daddies tantalizing in my heyday, I hesitated to pursue their advances because the age difference made me a bit queasy. And the elephants, oh those poor elephants, were the older, grandfatherly men who most gay guys ran from, (except for the gold diggers who took full advantage of the poor old horny dudes).
There was an unnamed category that a majority of gay men fell into in this same era. I would have to call it the ‘denim crowd’. It was the strata I identified with in my single days. In fall and winter we wore flannel shirts or work shirts and jeans with a jean jacket. In summer we’d don the same jeans, wife-beater tank tops or go shirtless with a jean jacket. Some guys wore heavy boots if they leaned towards leather. Others chose sneakers or loafers if they were more jock-inspired.
I dated my first denim guy for only a month or so. He worked in the interior design industry like myself. By day his job required he wear a suit and tie. Regardless, he wore this tiny gold hoop earing which I found an odd juxtaposition, but so very hot. His name was Robb (with two B’s) and his last name (French Canadian), also began with a B. I affectionately referred to him as ‘Robb Bone-air’, frankly because that’s what he gave me whenever I caught a glimpse of that shocking earring and the dirty grin always pasted on his handsome face. Even when dressed in denim, there was something about his earring that hayseed me found so provocative in those olden days. Robb was also responsible for making me go commando…but I’m getting a bit off-track here.
Just before the end of the 70s I went off the dating market, settling down with a man who didn’t belong to any of the above-mentioned categories. He was Alejandro, and we were together for a dozen years. During my time out of the gay loop, a few new categories were formed. The biggest was the Bear Community. They surfaced somewhere in the early 1980s. Of course Bears have been around since forever, but this is when they became a huge thing, perhaps because there became so many kinds of them.
Bears, first and foremost, are guys with body hair. Bears are not into manscaping. This does not mean you have to wear a chest wig to be a Bear. There are some burly Bear dudes who are not terribly hairy. These men might compensate by cultivating hair where it does naturally grow, like on their heads. And if it doesn’t grow there, then maybe they’ll sport full, bristling beards. The Bear population has grown so large they’ve developed subclasses: younger bears are referred to as Cubs, older bears are often called Polar Bears, there are Musclebears, Panda Bears (Asians) and then, to totally confuse things, there are Bears who are hairy but thinner and extremely muscular, termed Otters (which in the animal kingdom aren’t even in the same family!).
I’ve always found Bears adorable. Although we shouldn’t make sweeping generalizations about any one group of people, I’m sticking my neck out here to say almost every Bear I’ve ever met has been a really cool guy. They’re fun-loving and playful. They don’t intimidate and for the most part are very open and accepting of non-bear types. They couldn’t be less pretentious, and typically dress totally for comfort–fashion be damned. I’ve always secretly wished to be a bear, but I’m (1) not entirely hirsute, (2) too old and never was nearly in-shape enough to dare to call myself an Otter, and (3) unfortunately, a little too overly concerned with what I wear. Perhaps they will someday bestow an Honorary Ursine membership upon me.
If the 80s introduced the Bear, the 90s was the dawn of the Twink. These guys existed even in my youth; only the name is new and their growth in numbers appears to have increased. They could be considered the other extreme of the Bear. Twinks are slender, young, boyish, typically clean-shaven, manied and pedied and always dressed to go clubbing. They have their fingers on the pulse of what is most current in fashion and anything that is of no earthly use in the real world. It would be difficult, I imagine, to be thirty-something AND still be a Twink. I never got what they were about in my day, so I am even more in the dark concerning the Twinks of today. They’re the kind of people my Grandmother would pray for daily, were she still alive and able to recognize their existence in her world.
Dating sites and apps like Grindr will no doubt create some new categories of gay men perhaps even I will get wind of, as David pushes me in my wheelchair up Commercial Street in Provincetown, should I live long enough. Who can say what will be considered cool and appealing to the next gay generation? The only wisdom I can impart at this point in my life is simply this:
Whether you are a Twink, a Cub, or an Otter, please don’t get so wrapped up in the look or the trends of the day, that you miss the now–the moment you should be living. Forget about your outfit for Tea Dance–nobody cares if your shorts are just a little too baggy, or your sneakers are last season’s. Dance your ass off, even by yourself if no one else asks you to dance. Order dessert if you want. Only you see the extra half pound the next morning. Looking back on my gay life, it is as if only three summers ago I came out at twenty-one. A year later, I was forty and single again. And just last week, AARP sent me my first invitation for membership while still in my late fifties. Life happens so goddamn fast you become a dinosaur, before you’ve even had the chance to begin to sample life.
I have always longed to visit Provincetown for Bear Week, as it is one of the most popular weeks of the summer, when the town is overtaken by a Bear invasion. My job schedule has never afforded me the pleasure, but this year I will be able to at least make a day trip on Friday. I can’t wait to report on my day there in a follow-up post.