By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In the short-lived CBS sitcom Some of My Best Friends, a straight bridge-and-tunnel guy mistakes "GWM" for Guy With Money in a roommate ad and unwittingly moves in with a gay man. When the straight guy realizes that the Barbra poster on the wall doesn't mean his roommate is Jewish, he goes into shock. But by the second episode, he's learned to play gay, laugh out loud at the femme friend's campy jokes, and even prance around in silky, butt-hugging workout pants.
Although it's hardly realistic about the homo savvy of Italian guys from Brooklyn, this new sitcom demonstrates that the gay makeover of the straight American male has reached prime time. But this process has been evident for years in big cities where gay men are rewriting the rules of what it takes to be the ideal man. Glossy magazines have noticed that straight men are looking more gay, but the influence is more than a matter of working out, waxing, and wearing Prada. It involves a profound change in consciousness, reflected in everything from greeting gay buddies with a kiss to treating women the way other womenand most gay mendo.
It's not like every Joe is turning mo. But in the trendier zones of New York, L.A., Miami, and Montreal, the gay sensibility is rubbing off on receptive straights. It should be noted that this is mostly a white and Latino phenomenon. But in those circles, a new male identity is brunching toward B-Bar to be born. Call it post-straight.
New Jersey native Joe Carrino, 24, moved to New York two years ago and got a job as a trainer at the Lafayette Street Crunch. He'd had little exposure to Manhattan gym society, so he just assumed that all his male clients were straight. "As a selling point, I would mention what girls think of guys' bodies," he recalls. "Then I realized that didn't do it for them."
By losing some weight and adding little details to his wardrobe, not only did he pass for gay, but he also encouraged the idea when it was to his advantage.
It wasn't just that his favorite clients turned out to be gay. Carrino realized that he liked hanging out with these guys, kicking it to Beige at Bowery Bar, Sunday mornings at Twilo, and dinner at Cafeteria. He soon developed a knack for telling which gay parties attracted women and which drew hundreds of sweaty, half-naked men. He especially liked "sticking out" in mixed company.
Though girls were much easier to pick up in gay clubssince he had little competition thereCarrino's approach to women changed nonetheless. "Girls love gay guys," he says. "Why is that? Because gay guys understand them. A girl will always talk to a gay guy. So I listen to women. I understand their emotions." Being a straight man in gay circles taught Carrino something about what it feels like to be on the other end of the male gaze. He liked the attentionup to a pointbut some guys wouldn't take no for an answer. "Like women getting harassed by men: I know how that is now."
Another perk that came with Carrino's social life was networking in gay professional circles. Never more than a gaze away were people he could never meet as a regular guy from Jersey: casting agents, fashion directors, famous photographers, music executives. He learned a valuable lesson about gay life: "It's very easy to move up if you're good-looking." When last heard from, Carrino was working on Wall Street.
By losing some weight and adding little details to his wardrobesneakers bought on lower Broadway, Dolce & Gabbana tank topsnot only did he pass for gay, but he also encouraged the idea when it was to his advantage. "One time I went to the VIP door at a club, and the doorman challenged me to kiss one of my friends to prove I was gay," Carrino recalls. "I was like, oh shit, but I wanted to get inside, so I did."
How far does the appropriation go? Carrino says he doesn't fool around, but many gay men would agree with trainer Bryant Stiney: "You never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever see a straight guy in the gay scene who hasn't done something. Never!" Some post-straight men interviewed for this piece admit to being "curious." A few will even say they've "tried it," only to discover that they had "no idea what to do with a dick," as one straight party boy put it.
Though the adventure often stops at the bedroom door (or bathroom stall), these men see gays as people to be emulated rather than shunned. And they no longer accept their straightness exactly as it was handed to them. It's not their sexuality that post-straight men have come to question, but the identity that goes with it. They are experiencing gay liberationwithout the gay part.
This shift in attitude has also occurred in women who move in mixed circlesand it extends to sexual values. Women in general have learned to admire men's booties, but those who hang with gay men will step it up. "Where do you think I learned about eating ass?" says one straight female trainer at a mixed gym. The fact that straight men like her to do that is just as revealing.
The post-straight man has always existed on the fringes of macho, but as a type he was born in the 1970s disco scene. It was thereon the first real gay turfthat the shift in power and status between straights and gays first took place. The playing field didn't just even out at discos; gay men actually had the home court advantage. This put straight men who wanted to crash the party in the position of having to make themselves presentable to gay men. That meant acting like you're not on top, something few straight men in those days were willing to do.
Those who got past the doorman soon flipped their mental format. "You'd see a whole gamut of dramatic changes," recalls promoter John Blair, "from thinking it was cool to hang with gay people to seeing them learn to be physical with one another in a nonsexual, loving way." Suddenly straight men were given permission to explore a new side of themselves, and women were definitely interested. By the '80s, the socially gay straight man had become a staple of the club and party scene.
Thirty-two-year-old Robbie Ammons is a proud product of that milieu. Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, Ammons didn't know any gay people and had only vague images of "big hairy guys raping little kids and doing perverted things in back rooms." But when his best friend at Queens College came out to him, he took Ammons out to the original Sound Factory, where Ammons finally met men on his wavelength. "I never fit into the world of macho men, and what I loved about the gay scene was its openness, its flair, its flash and vanityits acceptance that you can be a man but still have characteristics that are considered feminine."
The Ammonses: Like many post-straights, Ammons grew up feeling alienated from the men around him, but with gays he found "true friendship."
Instead of being threatened by sexual attention, Ammons ate it up. "I'm somewhat vain, I'll admit that," he says. "And I got a lot of attention at the gay clubs, say more than if I went to a straight bar. I loved it." Like many post-straights, Ammons grew up feeling alienated from the men around him, but with gays he found "the perfect fit." For the first time, he experienced "true friendship. I could talk about anything." But Ammons didn't connect with any old gay guys. The men he courted were "beautiful, sharp, smart, and sensitive. They were elite."
Ammons proceeded to become a regular in gay clubs. He called men bitchas a term of endearmentaltered his style from "T-shirts and jeans to leather pants and tight black T-shirts," went to circuit parties with his gay buddies, and even watched gay porn with them for a laugh. He realized that women on the scene were not only plentiful but eager to meet someone like himself: "a gay guy who's straight."
A powerful draw at this time was dance music and the "DJ as God" phenomenon. This mystique drew straight men like 32-year-old Victor Calderone, who is now a preeminent DJ in gay club life. What brought him from butch Bensonhurst to the ultimate '80s gay club, the Saint, was the music and the men who mixed it. "I was looking up to these DJs and they were gay," Calderone remembers. "That's where the whole thing shifted for me."
Calderone went on to create what he calls "a totally gay lifestyle": an apartment on Christopher Street, summers on Fire Island, "wearing labels," and working out. But Calderone got more from his immersion in gay life than fame and friends. He also found a wife.
The women he met at gay clubs were far different from the ancient stereotype of the "fag hag." They were bombshellsthat's what their gay male friends were looking for in a female companion. (Who do you think created the supermodel?) Like many post-straight men, these women often came from working-class backgrounds. They were drawn to gay life in part because it offered access to upward mobility. At the same time, they were looking for men who didn't fit the stereotype of the working-class guyespecially when it came to r-e-s-p-e-c-t.
"I could never have been with a guy who didn't accept my lifestyle," says Christina Visca, who introduced her boyfriend, Rudy, to her entirely gay social life. "He grew up in Washington Heights, so being around gay people he became more polished and less judgmental. He could hang with his homeboys or go with the gay boys and feel comfortable either way." Rudy and Christina went on to become a socially gay straight couplesharing a life that had the excitement of their single days without the risk of sexual competition. "It's a lot less stressful in gay settings," says Rudy. "You don't have to worry about somebody picking the other up."
As straight guys outside the gay loop copped on to the sexual success of their post-straight friends, others entered the scene, turning the art of playing gay into a science for getting laid. "It's not like we're competing with gay guys, but in a sense we are because they've raised the bar," says 27-year-old art director Dave Schlow. "They look good, they dress well, and they know how to relate. So women are like: Why can't you be more like my gay friend?"
But according to 31-year-old Bronx native and Chelsea resident Nedelyn Acevedo, women such as herself who have lots of close gay relationships can see through the camouflage. "I see guys all pumped up and wearing aviators and so down with the fashion just to get girls," she says, pointing out that they've picked up the wrong gay qualities. She finds their "fake fagging" laughablelike when she entered a straight guy's bathroom and noticed "the towels perfectly placed on the bar, and a copy of Italian Marie Claire. Italian Marie Claire," she giggles. "I'm not turned on by that. I'm looking for someone who will listen to me."
But women are only part of the reason some straight men learn to play gay. As the gay scene moved from circuit parties and clubs to condos and dog runs, it exponentially increased the opportunities for straights to see and be seen with gays. Call it the Chelsea effect.
Along with this mix has come a boom in gay-identified businesses. Currently the Gayellow Pageslists 288 entries in the New York area that identify as "gay owned," 187 "gay friendly," and 198 specifying a primarily gay clientelemeaning everything from laundromats to lawyers' offices with rainbow flags on display. This has opened up a new job market for straight men who know how to play gay. At present, good-looking men are at a premium in this marketand cute straight boys definitely need apply. These guys have a lock on the always popular gay fantasy of the straight sex-object; plus their bosses never have to worry about them getting into a spat with a boyfriend across the bar.
According to promoter John Blair (who notes that eight of 10 applications for jobs at his new gay bar, xl, were straight), economics is now the primary motivation for playing gay. "I hired a waiter from Boise who had never known a gay person, and all of a sudden he knew the vernacular," Blair says. "Did he enjoy it? Yes. Was he straight? Absolutely. But the reason he was there was because the most money for him was at a gay restaurant."
This is de rigueur at gay gymsthe best place for straight trainers to find devoted disciplesand gay bars, which have become famous in Jersey and the outer boroughs as venues where an in-shape guy can make $500 a night and get worshiped while he's at it.
Twenty-eight-year-old Chris Cilione grew up in Westchester County, "completely free of gay influences," as he notes. But he and his high school friends, raised in divorced households and parented primarily by their mothers, were different from other boys to begin with. "We weren't the baseball hat wearing, same pair of jeans all week long, only talk to your girlfriends for sex type of guys," he says. "There was a friendship value to our interactions with girls early on. We were very in tune with being around women." He's also observed that this is a common theme among straight men he knows in the salon industry. "You can see that a powerful early influence of the mother has a lot to do with going to work in gay environments." But unlike black-styled white guysbetter known as wiggahspost-straight men can be guilty by association. So life for these guys doesn't come without its drama. No matter how gay-friendly they are, there is a fine line between being perceived as having gay qualities and being thought of as gay.
For men like Calderone, the biggest fear is being regarded as they saw gay men in earlier days. Calderone recalls being afraid the first time he had his eyebrows waxed seven years ago (though he points out that all the goombahs get their brows done now), and Cilione admits to similar fears. He says he went into the Fifth Avenue salon business for the money and the chance to work around women. He was irritated by the "stereotypical queens," but femmey attributes rubbed off nonethelessa fact he realized recently while sitting on a couch at a very heterosexual house party in a ski resort. "I was holding my beer and cigarette in what I would say is just refinedlegs crossed, but in a gentlemanly way. Then I realized that everybody else was sitting there with their legs spread open and half a hand down their pants, kind of an Al Bundy thing, and I looked like a big fag."
But what qualifies as "faggy" has changed. Spook the new Sound Factory. On any given Sunday morning, hundreds of bare-chested and pumped-up straight men with plucked eyebrows and shaved chests move about in tight black pants that maximize the shape of their butts. Many men dance together, some in tight group embraces, while others wave their hands in the air (a definite violation of the rule that straight men must dance with their hands down). "Eight years ago, you would never see two straight kids with their shirts off dancing together, singing like a bunch of girls," says Sound Factory DJ Jonathan Peters. "And you should see underwear night."
In many ways, post-straight is the mirror image of post-gay. The common idea is to move beyond the expectations that come with sexual identity. Slowly but surely, both gay and straight men are being "resocialized," says disco historian Peter Braunstein, who considers himself post-straight. "It means that you can wake up and say, 'Today, I'm Diana Ross in Mahogany.' "
Going both ways now goes both ways. Just visit the Jersey Shore: "It's the straight guys with the piercings and the bodies of death who are wearing Speedos, while the gay guys are more covered up in baggy surfer shorts," says promoter Mark Nelson. Welcome to the rules of the game: "It's cool to act gay if you're straight, and straight if you're gay."