Brian Conroy, a 29-year-old analyst for the chief financial officer of an insurance brokerage downtown, was sitting at his desk the other day when a coworker in his 40s ambled up. The older man picked up a framed photo of Mr. Conroy and his long-term boyfriend, clearly in a romantic pose. “Which family member of yours is that?” he asked.
“I guess I could’ve put it in a pink frame,” Mr. Conroy said, recalling the episode, “and it could’ve been a shot of us naked in bed or something. But it could not have been more obvious. And this guy knows me decently well.” Nevertheless: “Oh,” Mr. Conroy recalled the older coworker saying, with absolute sincerity. “You had me fooled.”
It could have been worse. A corporate philanthropy agent who works in midtown, also in his late 20s, recalled a man telling him he didn’t believe he was gay. That conversation, ironically enough, was post-coital.
In a recent instant-message conversation published on New York magazine’s Web site, editor Chris Rovzar, on the subject of being mistaken as straight, declared: “It’s funny, I feel like it doesn’t bother me to be confused for straight. I guess when people ask me where my wife is, it’s weird. But not because it’s rude, or anything, because it’s just so alien. I mean, lady, look at what all the shit I’ve got in my hair!”
A few years ago, when metrosexuality grabbed masculinity by the balls, it was unsurprising for a Queer Eye‘d straight man to be mistaken as gay. Lines had blurred. Typically, that cultural conversation presumed a one-way tilt: Everyone was getting a bit more stylish, a bit more moisturized, a bit more gay. But blurring works both ways. Now its counterpoint has taken hold: openly gay men who are routinely mistaken as straight. Meet the bromosexuals!
The term was coined in the buddy flick Pineapple Express. Danny McBride’s character says it to James Franco’s, and it goes unspoken whether either character is gay or straight.( Since his arrival in New York, in the pursuit of simultaneous master’s degrees at New York University and Columbia University, Mr. Franco himself has certainly enjoyed testing people’s presumptions about his sexuality, but that’s a whole other article.)
On the other end of Mr. Rovzar’s published chat was his reporter, Mike Vilensky, also gay, who had presumed the actor Ben Whishaw, who is starring in a gay role in the Off Broadway play The Pride, was straight (a declaration the magazine later expunged from its Web site). It was odd of Mr. Vilensky to presume heterosexuality, gay godfather Michael Musto noted, given an interview that had just been published by Out magazine in which, by editor Aaron Hicklin’s measure, Mr. Whishaw “essentially outs himself.” All of this must have been a kind of weird déjà vu for Mr. Hicklin, who was mistakenly celebrated as straight by Andrew Sullivan, the gay political blogger for The Atlantic, upon Mr. Hicklin’s taking of the reins at Out.
“That queeny stuff is old.’–Tom Karl, bartender and ex-boyfriend of Rufus Wainwright
It seemed for about a week that gaydar brownouts were ravaging the city’s homosexuals, who could only guess at the confusion wrought on the roughly 94 percent of New York City citizens who are straight.
‘Dudes’ and fist bumps
Upon attending a recent fete at the Chelsea Hotel, Bryan Brumbaugh, 23, was stopped by the doorman. “Uh, this is a gay party,” he was told. “It makes you self-conscious,” said Mr. Brumbaugh, who is gay. “Is it my long hair? My facial hair? My clothes?” With his long brown hair and fondness for caps and grunge, Mr. Brumbaugh is often compared to the character Ron Slater, from Dazed and Confused. “In gay settings,” he said, “I’m the guy having a beer or a whiskey by myself.”
These are not down-low dorks or closeted wallflowers. Mr. Brumbaugh worked as a doorman at Hiro on Sundays, and works as a self-described “brunch sheriff” and barkeep at the Maritime Hotel. He’s devastatingly handsome in the way that service-industry workers for affluent clientele need to be.
At a recent night out at Beige, a weekly gay party at B Bar, Mr. Brumbaugh was removed from the center of the action, drinking a Stella Artois with a friend and talking about his taste in music-Catch-22, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Silverchair-and about how he wants to get a Celtic tattoo. Then an older man, named Drew, sauntered up in a fitted black tank top. Drew draped his wrist across Mr. Brumbaugh’s shoulder, tickled his chest with a hand studded with golden, red-stoned rings, and said “You’ll get over it, sweetheart.” Mr. Brumbaugh looked at him: “What are you talking about?” Drew blinked incredulously: “Well, you’re straight, aren’t you?”
Sometimes things get weirder. Mr. Brumbaugh once took home a one-night stand who interrupted their hookup to start cleaning the apartment “to make it look like a gay man lives here” (there was a three-month-old pile of dishes in the sink). A chunk of Mr. Brumbaugh’s wardrobe consists of never-worn clothes he buys from H&M after such instances, clothes he thinks are the expected costume of proper gay men.
“Gay men tend to think and act like 15-year-old girls more than as men,” Mr. Brumbaugh said. “The Sex and the City guys. It’s all clothes, catty, petty, he-said-he-said relationship stuff. It’s just not interesting. It’s not me.”
The entire system of gaydar, of course, relies on judgments of each other’s sexuality based on whatever cues and telltale signs someone wants to parse out of behavior. But what happens when those telltale signs become less telling?
Consider Neil Patrick Harris, an openly gay actor-and magician-hosting the Tonys but peppering it with “dudes” and fist bumps and “the corna,” the fratty, rock ‘n’ roll sign of the horns. Or Logan Neitzel, the 26-year-old fashion designer from Seattle, deadpanning that he is “a guy’s guy” while introducing himself on the first episode of his season on Project Runway-on Lifetime. The Channel 101 NY Web series Bromos describes the relationship, comically, as “two dudes, hanging out, giving each other brojobs.” Then there’s the very phrase “gay guys,” which conveys the folksy comfort the hetero population now feels palling around with the fellas formerly known as fruitcakes. Hey, some of them put thought into fantasy baseball teams that goes beyond daydreaming of a shirtless A-Rod!
“It’s just more laid back,” said Nathan McCormick, who works at an advertising agency in the Financial District. “I don’t want to say, ‘Hi, I’m Nate and I’m gay.’ That sounds like ‘I’m Nate and I’m an alcoholic.’ Besides, I don’t want to be defined by being gay.”
Nicholas Beck, 29, a gay business manager at Condé Nast who shows up to work in jeans and a polo, declared: “The over-the-top stuff is silly.” Although he added that around gay friends, he makes an effort to play down that he is a Mets fan and play up his love of Broadway and The Golden Girls-because, he explained, once he talked about being a Mets fan with his gay friends, one said, “You don’t have to care about sports anymore now that you’re gay.”
In his own job as a bartender at Lavish Lounge, a gay bar in Queens, Tom Karl, 25, routinely gets mistaken as straight even though he could not be more entrenched in gay life. Known on the gay circuit as “Tommy Hottpants,” he lives in Hell’s Kitchen and throws a debauched weekly party at Beauty Bar on East 14th Street. His ex-boyfriend, the singer Rufus Wainwright, wrote the song “Between My Legs” for Mr. Karl during the latter’s bout as a stripping go-go boy.
“People talk about respecting who you are because who wouldn’t,” he said. “But how much do people really believe that? People have a hard time swallowing that life is less polarized than they think.” He added: “That queeny stuff is old. People have been queens forever. So now I think you’re seeing the drag go from feminine to masculine.”
Of course, even that can be its own kind of costume. There are not really that many slutty lifeguards or toned members of the Abercrombie & Fitch swim team roaming Chelsea, just as there aren’t really that many sex-crazed schoolgirls or MILFs prowling the meatpacking district.
The clinical name for the bromosexual shift is enantiodromia, a Jungian kind of law of physics: Too much of anything makes its opposite grow in popularity. Hippies become yuppies, private-school alpha brats become slacker trustafarians, housewives become cougars.
The bromosexual divide bears out academically, too. “In a gay community, you’re expected to look, dress, smell, talk, walk, drink and act a certain way,” said Perry Halkitis, a gay professor of applied psychology at N.Y.U. who is also chairman of the America Psychological Association’s committee on gay concerns. “If you’re not A-list gay, you’re shut out.”
Every six months, Mr. Halkitis is following 675 local young men who have had sex with men to monitor their development into adulthood. “Older men went to great lengths to stand apart,” he said. “The Elton John stuff, the Freddie Mercury stuff. But any ethnic or minority group trends towards assimilation. The more diverse the community is, the less labels work.”
Having just moved to New York three weeks ago from Philadelphia, Rob Ranieri, 25, an accounts manager for a food distributor, is still doing double takes when he passes transvestites on Eighth Avenue near his Chelsea home. The other night, he found himself in the unlikely position of striking up a conversation with an elderly man at Townhouse, the gay piano bar on East 58th Street. Mr. Ranieri told the older man that he had just come from the rooftop bar at the Hotel Bentley. The older gentleman mistook Mr. Ranieri for straight.
“Maybe it’s because I don’t make it my life,” Mr. Ranieri said recently in a telephone interview. “I don’t surround myself with all gay men. I don’t only go to gay bars. I don’t work out at David Barton. Despite how big the gay community is, it’s actually a really small world. It’s important to have a balance. Being outside of the gay community keeps me in balance.”
A friend recently called him “the butchest friend he has,” Mr. Ranieri relayed with notable pride. Then he ended the interview; he had kept Project Runway on pause for too long.