The gay scene is a curious microcosm. People with very different backgrounds, who would otherwise have been moving in separate social circles, are thrown together and meet purely on the basis of their orientation. The random selection of Mother Nature results in a great diversity of characters. What kind of guys can you expect to run into when seeking other gay men?
The average gay guy
The ‘average’ gay man is as fictitious as the ‘average’ American, Asian, European or Arab. However, there are some things that can be said about them as a group, statistically speaking. In countries with relatively little oppression or discrimination, gay men tend to have more sexual partners than the average straight guy. This isn’t especially surprising, since men as a gender have less of a problem with casual sex than women and are more easily persuaded to roll around in bed with a relative stranger. Whether this difference between the sexes is because of a biological drive or because of centuries of cultural programming remains to be decided. In any case, when two mutually attracted men run into each other, there is less of a chance that one of them will say ‘no’ to some potentially hot sex. Concurrently, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are also more common than among straight people, because safe(r) sex may keep HIV away, but other STDs don’t need more than a proper kiss to board your body.
Open relationships, in which the couple has come to an explicit agreement stating that it is okay to sleep with other people, are a more regular occurrence among gay men. Because the traditional expectations people are raised with, like monogamy, marriage and having kids, are less taken for granted, gay men tend to feel more at ease shaping their relationships to fit their own needs. Lastly, research apparently indicates that gay men on average have slightly bigger dicks then their straight counterparts. But as the sizes were self-reported, it is equally likely that gay men tend to exaggerate just a little bit more.
Can gay men be recognized by the way they look or by body language? That’s not easy to answer. Generally gay men are associated with female characteristics: well-groomed, limp wrists, a drawling and lispy speech and hips that sashay as they walk. There are gay men who fit that stereotype to a T, but also straight men. None of the things mentioned exist solely in the gay world, especially since the rise of the ‘metrosexual’, image-conscious straight guys, mostly from big cities, who value their softer, feminine side. Apart from that, there are tons of gay men you couldn’t pick out of a line-up of average straight guys. They don’t discredit existing stereotypes to the public at large because their gayness doesn’t show and they go unnoticed. Finally, there are gay men who insist on über-masculine behavior and are terrified of being seen as a ‘fag’. This can make it hard to tell them apart from homophobic, straight machos.
Some people are better at picking up on a person’s sexual orientation than others. It is said that these people have a good gaydar, as mentioned in the previous chapter. Up to a point, they are indeed just guessing, but certain stereotypical characteristics, combined with close observation and an interpretation of body language, can lead to a significantly high success rate. Seeing someone interact with a person of the same or the opposite gender can solidify a hunch, though bisexuals may cause confusion. If a man looks over his shoulder to give a passing woman an admiring look, he will likely be straight, unless his attention was actually on her fabulous outfit. Bisexuality is hard to guess at, since signals are being given in both directions. Because of this, ‘bidar’ isn’t a term in common usage.
The gay scene
The gay scene doesn’t just consist of cafés, clubs and saunas aimed only at gays, there are also gay-friendly places where you’re likely to find quite a few gay men among a majority of straight people. Some men seek out the gay scene because they feel at ease there and have a better chance of running into a potential mate or even just someone to innocently flirt with. Other gay men avoid these places, because they aren’t ‘out’ and don’t want to be spotted there or because they see it as a circuit for a certain type of gay men that they don’t want to be associated with. For these men, the internet can help when looking to meet people, assuming they don’t feel like chatting up someone ‘out in the wild’: on the street, at work, at the gym, at the supermarket, in a ‘straight’ pub, etc. Of course, the gay scene may be out in the open or fairly hidden, depending on which country you live in. Even countries in which gays and lesbians are repressed are likely to have a gay scene. If you are new to it all, it’s mostly a question of finding someone who is ‘in the know’ and can help you find your way around.
The younger generations of gay guys seem to value the gay scene less and feel less of a need to connect there. The internet makes forming a circle of friends without the scene easier, and in a lot of Western countries it is possible now to openly and happily live your life as a gay man, without having to withdraw into a subculture. Even so, because it is an easy place to find partners, friends and safety, there will probably always be a place for the gay scene.
Though the scene is often seen as a homogenous whole, it is actually divided into various smaller, different but overlapping social circles, each with its own distinct personality. Not many gay men will pick one of these subcultures and commit to it entirely. After all, it’s more interesting and adventurous to experience a little variety. Depending on where you live, the subgroups you are likely to run into may vary. Here are some examples:
Not just straight people value status and luxury. Gay couples are more likely than the average straight couple to be DINKS (Double Income, No Kids), meaning they are childless earners with a fair amount of disposable income. A lot of gay yuppies throw themselves into a career and end up having a job that pays well. This makes them a desirable target for advertisers and there are campaigns aimed squarely at them, which try to reel in the so-called ‘pink dollar’. Yuppie bars and parties are characterized by fashionable design, expensive drinks and a higher than average density of upmarket brands. When someone gives you a welcoming hug, it’s a distinct possibility he will secretly be checking out the clothing label at the back of your collar to make sure you are one of ‘them’.
“The gay label doesn’t really bother me, as long as it’s just not something that is restrictive… I don’t think that sexuality necessarily implies a lifestyle package that comes with it.”
– Neil Tennant, singer
Dance parties for gay men are a regular event in many parts of the world, with different kinds of music for different kinds of crowds. A lot of gay men will attend one of those parties once in a while. However, there are also men who see it as their calling to be present at as many of the largest, most ‘important’ parties (also known as ‘circuit parties’) as is humanly possible, even if it requires a trip abroad. This kind of party is typically characterized by a tragic shortage of shirts, meaning that many of those present are forced to walk around bare-chested. A result of this is that a lot of people in the party circuit are regulars at a gym. Drug use is a regular component of these parties: for fun and to up the energy level, making it possible to keep going all night.
The gays at the gym overlap partly with those from the party circuit. Most of them train to look attractive and this consideration tends to outweigh the health benefits. The masculinity that comes with pumping up one’s muscles — at least on the surface — draws admiration and attention from other men. This vanity can take a wrong turn and end up as an ‘Adonis complex’, leaving men chronically unhappy with their own body, wanting to grow larger and larger, even if it requires the use of unhealthy substances such as anabolic steroids. There are also men who aren’t particularly athletic walking around in sportswear in the scene. This kind of gear is more than marginally fetishist (erotically charged), and sneakers in particular have groups of dedicated fans. There are themed parties at which you will only be allowed entry if you’re wearing the appropriate sporty attire.
“The first time I went to a gay bar, I expected a dark, hidden, smokey room where men would be leering at each other. I brought two female bodyguards with me to keep from getting jumped straight away. I ended up in a well-lit, friendly bar, right in the center of Amsterdam. Getting jumped also wasn’t really an issue, for better or worse.”
Of course, there are plenty of ‘regular guys’ who find themselves on the gay side of life. These are likely to gather in bars reflecting local culture, which may come across as a little kitschy if you’re not from that culture yourself. You may find cowboys in Texas, for instance, or typical ‘cloggies’ in Amsterdam. Making a grand spectacle of yourself in one of these places is likely frowned upon. Having a major attitude or acting superior also won’t gain you any friends. Blending in as much as you feel comfortable with and being approachable will be more likely to make you popular.
Counter-culture, squatters and punks can be found if you know where to look. Parties and gatherings for these groups likely won’t be widely advertised as there is an inherent aversion to commerce. The easiest way to gain entry is to get to know someone who moves within these circles. However, some skillful searching online may also throw up dates and times of parties in your area, especially if you already know the name of the party. Be sure to check if there is a theme or dress code. People from a counter-culture tend to have strong opinions and principles, so you may have to adapt your clothing and behavior to make sure you don’t offend anyone or stand out like a sore thumb.
Bears & chubs
There is an entire subculture shaped around the ‘bear’ phenomenon. ‘Bears’ are hairy and generally larger gentlemen. This subculture is partly a response to the traditional, stereotypical idea of male beauty: smooth and lean or muscled. Bears seek each other out, in part because they feel rejected but also because a lot of them are more attracted to rounded, Rubenesque body shapes. This leads them to look for a guy who looks like they do. Young and somewhat less curvy men are called ‘cubs’ (young bears). Apart from the heavy bears, there are slender men who like their lovers supersized: ‘chasers’. Hairy but lean men are called ‘otters’. And ‘musclebears’ are hairy men who are big because of their muscle-mass. The boundary between bears and musclebears can be vague, but the two groups don’t always blend well because of their different ideologies: the respective rejection or affirmation of the current ideal of beauty. ‘Chubs’, last but not least, are hefty but smooth men and of course there are ‘chubby chasers’ who aren’t big themselves but fancy a bit of chub.
Apart from the fact that wearing leather is a sexual thrill in and of itself for some men, it is also a symbol of the masculinity some men aspire to and which attracts them in others. It doesn’t stop at leather jackets or pants; there may be entire harnesses, complete with metal rings, zippers and buckles. And there may be ‘chaps’: leather pants that leave your butt exposed. The more extreme leather gear is purely a uniform designed for sex. Even so, leather bars — which at first glance may look rough — can have a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere, mostly focused on having a chat and a flirt.
Apart from masculinity, power — dominance and submission, or at least a mutually respectful imitation of it — is also an important factor in part of the leather scene. The leather scene overlaps with the S&M scene. A serious leather queen may have a complete ‘dungeon’ (playroom) set up for ‘torture’ in his basement or attic. This might contain stuff like whips, sex toys, handcuffs, rope or a sling (a sort of leather hammock to have sex in). There are hotels and clubs catering to the needs of this kinky group, providing all the equipment necessary for a good play session.
The leather clothing can be replaced by rubber or lycra, depending on what gets someone worked up the most. There is a wide variety of fetishes and kinks. There are special parties and sex parties with a strict dress code, only allowing entry to people wearing the appropriate attire for a specific fetish. See chapter 30 for more information about fetishes and kinks.
There are people who are born in a male body but who feel like a woman on the inside. The reverse may also happen. This can lead to a feeling of being trapped in the wrong body and steps may be taken to bring the body in line as much as possible with the gender someone identifies with. This generally involves hormone treatment and sometimes surgery. Male-to-female transsexuals (sometimes abbreviated to ‘MTF’) may be dubbed ‘transwomen’ and female-to-male transsexuals (‘FTM’) may be dubbed ‘transmen’. Generally however, someone who is ‘trans’ will just want to be seen as the gender they want to be and present like a ‘regular’ woman or man. Gender identification and sexual orientation aren’t linked, so you can encounter transmen who are into men. Transwomen are less likely to be regulars in the male-oriented parts of the gay scene, because they will generally be on the look for straight men or lesbians.
Transvestism/Drag and sexual orientation/gender identity are separate things: a man who likes to wear women’s clothing isn’t necessarily gay or transgender. A ‘transvestite’ will get emotional – and possibly erotic – satisfaction from dressing up as a woman, but primarily does it for himself. A transvestite will therefore be dressed more subdued than someone in drag (a so-called ‘drag queen’) who primarily aims to entertain. Drag queens create an alter-ego, put on a dazzling outfit and let their inner Diva rise to the surface, to entertain themselves and others. They tend to display a somewhat exaggerated vision of femininity. In certain bars and clubs, these performers regularly put on an extravaganza.
Though lesbians have clubs and bars catering to them specifically, there are also events and places where gays and lesbians mingle. Romantic and sexual interests may generally be directed away from each other, but the two groups are united in the fight for equal rights. They may also come together to form an alternative family, raising one or more kids together. In countries where homosexuality is a taboo, gay and lesbians may seek each other out to form the semblance of a marriage. This leaves both partners free to take a lover while avoiding pressure and judgement from family and friends.
As was said earlier, the younger generation is less likely to seek out the gay scene, even if someone came running out of the closet with great enthusiasm. However, most guys will go there on an expedition or two in due time. In general, they prefer the company of people their own age and avoid places where the average age is significantly higher, like in the leather scene.
Old & gay
Because of the emphasis on youth and superficial beauty, older men can end up feeling a bit left out. To a certain degree this group withdraws from nightlife naturally, because of changing interests. They might rather organize a dinner at home with their friends and partner if they have one, than hang around a bar for the night. But there are pubs where men of a certain age can gather without being looked at oddly. And some men who remain young at heart and keep fit, manage to party on until a ripe old age.
In a perfect world, ethnicity and cultural background would not be a segregating factor, but in reality there may be places in your area that predominantly draw men with an ‘exotic’ background. (Exotic being a very relative term, of course; one man’s exotic is the other man’s everyday.) The ‘majority’ culture in a bar will tend to set the tone, meaning a bar may have a ‘Latin flavor’, for instance. Depending on the background, it can be hard to get a group of people together, because of the shame and taboos still at play within a lot of cultures.
Gays were the pioneers of online dating. Though the taboo has now also dissipated among straight people, as Tindr has demonstrated, man-to-man sites have been popular for a long time. Though straight men who went online to look for a woman were initially seen as losers, gay men saw online hunting primarily as a fast and efficient way to find and date each other. The medium changed the rules of cruising since all kinds of measurements, preferences and images could be exchanged even before any kind of direct contact was made. In the real world, this can lead to interesting moments, especially when seeing someone who is actually a complete stranger: “Look, there’s that Spanish XL bottom who is into golden showers and who has recently started dating that blond bartender with whom he sometimes hunts for a threesome.” Frequent users of dating sites and apps will end up recognizing most of the other regulars in the area they live in, even though this doesn’t always lead to actual contact.
On the down-low
Men who are leading a double-life and can’t or don’t want to be openly gay (who are, in other words, ‘on the down-low’), will seek each other out in places where they are unlikely to get caught and exposed. The internet and apps can be a fertile hunting ground for them to set up secret meetings, but also locations ideal for anonymous, no-strings-attached sex, such as parks at night, saunas, public restrooms and darkrooms. A lot of these men will fly solo, but they may also try to build a network of contacts, consisting mostly of other discreet men on the down-low.
Of course, there are many ‘invisible’ gays who don’t feel the need to seek out other gay men. They may already have a partner, live in a village or in the countryside or be happy with a circle of friends consisting mainly of straight people. The gay scene doesn’t meet a need for them. These men don’t really form a group, because they are not in contact with each other. But they are a significant number of people who tend to be disregarded by the media because they are too ‘normal’ to be of interest to them.
Tour de gay
When you’ve just come out of the closet and want to get to know some people through other means than the internet, it’s a good idea to do a little sightseeing tour past the various cafés, clubs and parties in your area, to find out which places suit you best. If you feel a little shy or insecure, you may not want to do that by yourself, and it can be more fun to take a friend with you. Taking a straight guy-friend into a gay bar with you will never be a problem, unless it makes your friend feel uncomfortable. Taking a girlfriend with you will also rarely be an issue, though she may be the only woman around and may cause some surprised looks. Leather bars and cruisy clubs may not let a woman in. If you don’t have any friends who want to join you — of either orientation — you can always post a profile online looking for a drinking buddy. Make it clear you are primarily looking for a friend or someone to go out with, not for a date.
Make an effort to blend in with the locals while visiting exotic gay locales during your discovery tour. Don’t go into a dead serious leather bar in full drag. And if you feel that the crowd or the music at a certain bar is ridiculous, keep it to yourself or discuss it after you’ve left the scene of the crime; don’t spoil the fun for others. There will probably be several places you like, for a variety of reasons, and no one will force you to commit to just one. Most gay guys tend to jump around, even if they have a favorite spot. Where you end up going can depend on your mood on any given day and on the kind of men you want to have around you. Identity is too complex to be contained by just one small area of the gay scene.
“Accept no one’s definition of your life: define yourself.”
– Harvey Fierstein, writer/actor
Dutch version here. Last edit: 11-08-2018