Gay men have become increasingly tribal, choosing to place themselves into a box that binds them with kindred spirits. What are the advantages of this and what are the potential pitfalls? Lee Williscroft-Ferris discusses.
The concept of ‘community’ is complex to say the least. Keeping what should be a group of like-minded individuals singing from the same hymn sheet can be challenging. Self-styled communities are, by their very nature, imperfect. Unless there is absolute ‘homogeneity’, a healthy dose of fractiousness and occasional rumblings of disunity are as inevitable as they are desirable.
The LGBTQ+ community is no different in this regard. It can be incredibly difficult to keep people under the LGBTQ+ umbrella ‘united’ in the face of wildly divergent concerns, priorities and experiences. This is exacerbated further by a reluctance on the part of some to engage in an intersectional analysis of the progress made towards LGBTQ+ liberation.
Obviously, accepting a common purpose does not necessitate a rejection of what makes us different. Nowhere is this more evident than in the use of tribal identifiers such as ‘bear’, ‘otter’, ‘cub’, ‘twink’, and ‘daddy’ among gay men. From Twitter usernames to profiles on gay dating apps, there has been a widespread move towards declaring membership of such a ‘tribe’.
As a counter-narrative to narrow definitions of gay male ‘beauty’, there is no doubt that this evolution has been immeasurably self-affirming for those gay men that don’t fall within the confines of ‘young, smooth and slim’. Many of us will recall a time when flicking through the pages of any gay magazine would leave the mind emblazoned with images of unattainable physical ‘perfection’, the specification of which had evolved over a period of time, seemingly linked to ancient Greek models of youthful male beauty. The idea that you can be hirsute, have a waistline in excess of 32″ and yet be ‘sexy’ represents a significant self-esteem boost for many a non-‘twink’.
I spoke to Jamie about his thoughts on the issue of ‘belonging’ to one such ‘tribe’;
I feel a lot safer around the bear/cub community and I guess that’s why I would label myself a cub, rather than just being a non-skinny, slightly hairy guy without a label. Where I live, there is no bear scene and if you aren’t a 6 foot-tall skinny twink-like guy, you aren’t really ‘part of it’. I don’t necessarily think that’s a fair representation of all twinks, probably more just the fact that my area is full of assholes. Going to Manchester Pride this year helped me a lot. I spent my day with a group of bears and cubs and had a laugh and didn’t feel pressured that I didn’t look my best and didn’t feel judged by them. They all know each other as well, as I found out when I added them to Facebook and the ‘people you may know’/’mutual friends’ counter practically exploded! They seem like a close-knit community which obviously has pros – looking out for one another, protection and so on; and cons – everyone knows everyone’s business. I did a shoot for Attitude‘s Real Bodies section recently which garnered a hugely positive reaction from social media and this was good for two reasons; my own self-confidence and the fact I was getting messages thanking me for doing it because I’d made someone realise they didn’t have to fit an ideal to be accepted in the gay community. Part of me wishes though that I didn’t have to do that shoot. Non-airbrushed, non-ripped guys shouldn’t have to have their representation shoehorned into two pages a month of ‘Look, you guys are okay too!’, but until then I’m glad that I can help.
The idea of forming a bond with other gay men on the basis of physical appearance may seem tenuous to some. Indeed, merely being the proud owner of a stately beard will rarely suffice in allowing deep ties of friendship to develop. That said, human beings are drawn to one another for a whole host of reasons – that is just anthropological fact. Why, then, should gay men not form social connections on the foundations of common physical traits? Countless gay men have lived lonely, isolated lives; surely, any factor that conveys a sense of ‘belonging’ upon members of a minority group should not be dismissed so precipitously.
What of people who struggle to find their home in any of the established ‘tribes’? James told me of his experiences;
When it come to tribes, I suppose I always fell into the ‘twink’ category. For a long time it seemed that the most desired group were the young smooth boys. These days, the whole masc for masc culture has completely taken over. Everyone has a beard and everyone is hairy. Except me. Instagram is chock full of accounts glorifying this particular tribe. I’m not complaining as I like to follow these accounts and a very good friend of mine has an extremely popular account of his own. This tribe is very much flavour of the month. Being 35 now, I can’t really call myself a twink anymore. I’m not hairy, I’m not muscle, too young to be a daddy, too slim and smooth to be a bear, not an otter nor a cub, not sporty enough to be a jock and to be honest (and I know this seems shallow), I feel left out! It’s nice to fit in somewhere and have some sort of identity. I think in some ways labelling ourselves into tribes is a handy tool – I mean everyone has a type – but does it lead to alienation in some ways? We’ve all seen the ‘no fems’, ‘no chubby’ and all that but what about those of us who just don’t seem to fit in anywhere? Maybe I’m just a ‘chaser’ or an ‘admirer’…? Or maybe someone could help identify me! I think tribes are a part of our way of life and I personally don’t have a problem with them, but we shouldn’t feel restricted by them or take them too seriously.
There is an innate irony in this experience; the notion that despite a veritable plethora of ‘boxes’ in which gay men may place themselves, there remain many for whom there is no snug ‘fit’. This is even more transparent in the case of gay men of colour. In a community where BME men are relentlessly fetishised, what stake can they hold in the aforementioned spectrum of identities? Bears, otters, cubs, jocks, daddies etc. are almost exclusively depicted via images of white men. Far from being included and represented within this structure, BME gay men find themselves completely disenfranchised.
This is confirmed by Matt’s experiences;
When I was younger, I was bigger than I am now, but I didn’t feel like a bear, I just felt invisible. It seems when you hear white gay guys referring to, or saying their preference is for bears, otters, cubs and even daddies, implicit in these tribes are that the men are white. This is borne out when you see porn or tumblrs highlighting men of these tribes – they are nearly always white. Men of colour exist in our own category set apart from that, subject to the usual stereotypes. So a bigger black man isn’t a bear, he’s an overweight guy. I was talking to some younger black guys recently and they said they did not feel included in the ‘twink’ category, and another who reckoned that if he was white he would probably be considered a cute ‘cub’ but as he was black he was just overweight and not living up to the ‘muscular top’ stereotype expected of black men.
In truth, so two-dimensional is the perception of non-white men that ‘black’ and ‘Asian’ have become ‘tribes’ of their own. Sadly, unlike the framework that has evolved to emphasise and celebrate the distinct features of largely white gay men, the implicit suggestion in arbitrary racial descriptors is that BME men are defined entirely by the colour of their skin. Whereas white gay men have inculcated a broad gamut of identities from which they may choose, systemic racism is as pervasive here as it is elsewhere.
Bisexual men find themselves similarly negated, as Simon explains;
In my experience, gay men either see me as some sort of fetish or they throw around the same old tired stereotypes about bi men being ‘greedy’ or ‘undecided’. I’ve never been able to identify with any of these ‘tribes’. In fact, when I signed up to one dating app in particular, the only option I had was ‘bi’, as if that is the most interesting or most attractive distinguishing feature about me.
Of course, aesthetics are at the core of the issue in general; we owe it to ourselves to question the validity and potential pitfalls of this. A superficial assessment would conclude that alternative identifiers that deviate from the historic conventions of ‘beauty’ are inarguably beneficial. This appraisal neglects the limitations in how these tribes now manifest themselves. Let’s take the word ‘bear’ as an example. Historically, as the term suggests, this was claimed by stocky/overweight, hairy gay men, the clear implication being that ‘toned and hairless’ has no monopoly on sex appeal. In an age where facial and body hair is very much en vogue, a male obsession with obtaining the ‘body beautiful’ has conspired to stifle the roar of the bear. You will be hard pushed to find an image of a so-called bear with a beer belly rather than bulging biceps. Heaven forbid there is any trace of follicular foliage north of the collar-bone. Is this not just a sign that markers of dissent have been neutralised, simply favouring a more current normative vision of what it means to be ‘beautiful’?
So specific are many established ‘tribes’ that they have been diversified to reflect ones age. The perfect example of this is how ‘cub’ has sprung from ‘bear’. It bears (no pun intended) asking whether or not age plays any significant role in a man’s engagement with alternative identifiers. Jon believes so;
What I’ve seen online has made me think that age plays a part in whether people identify with ‘tribes’. I’ve seen a lot of younger guys and a lot of older guys consciously refer to themselves as being bears, cubs, twinks, etc, but often lots of guys in their late 20s and early 30s don’t seem to bother with that. Maybe it’s because younger guys are wanting something to identify with and older guys feel pressure to identify with a tribe because they’re conscious of their age? In the case of the latter, they shouldn’t have to feel like that, but gay society is notoriously ageist.
So, should we clutch our pearls too much at what – at first glance – is a system of ‘clans’ designed to unify subsets of gay men on an aesthetic basis? Perhaps not. When all is said and done, there is comfort in community and solidarity to be found in those with whom you can identify, regardless of the nature of the bond. Where there is harmony, we should be hesitant to sow discord.
Gay subculture is an evolving beast: just as nuance has forced the ‘bear’ to give birth to the ‘cub’, one would hope that anyone looking for a banner to rally to will eventually find one, or create their own if it proves elusive. One thorny issue remains; the almost total erasure of gay men of colour and bisexual men in representations of ‘tribes’. Undoubtedly, this is a reflection of the wider problem of institutionalised racism and the wholesale failure to acknowledge, let alone celebrate non-white beauty, as well as entrenched societal biphobia. Nonetheless, we do, as gay men, have a responsibility to consciously strive to amplify the voices of those members of our community so often silenced, both within and without.
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