Fifi or Fido? New York's Gay Men Defy Worn-Out Canine Stereotypes
Photo by Amanda Lopez
Tony Serrano adopted toy Manchester terrier twins after taking an American Kennel Club survey that matched his personality and lifestyle to the breed.
"They're smaller dogs and considered dainty, but they're not," Serrano says. "Their stature and size might imply 'feminine,' but their slender build and character are distinctly masculine, exactly the personality I have. They're masculine toys."
And they even have the names to match: Serrano named them after Alexander the Great and Hephaestion.
When searching for their canine companions, many gay men seek a breed that will both reflect them and project a certain image. "Choosing a breed is a statement about who you are," says Andrew dePrisco, author of Woof! A Gay Man's Guide to Dogs. "I never think it's random. You meet a person and then his dog."
Then there's Ron Whitney, a San Francisco real estate agent who spent months checking out shelter dogs before Sammi, a pit bull mix, ran across the room and licked him on the face. "The protocol," he says, "is that you walk in and wait for the dog to come to you. A trainer told me [that day], 'You've just been picked.'"
The old stereotype held that like attracts like: the prissy hairdresser with a pampered, manicured poodle or Chihuahua; the growly muscle bear controlling a giant, ultra-butch Great Dane or mastiff. But more and more gay men are, like Whitney, opening themselves to any dog that needs love.
Even pit bulls.
For years, pits were among the most popular American dogs, owned by presidents and famously featured in the Our Gang film shorts. They were known as "nanny dogs," left alone to protect infants and small children. "No dog is inherently dangerous from its breed," explains AKC spokesperson Lisa Peterson. "Clearly, the responsibility and the problem are with the owner." Even so, these days, after numerous incidents of vicious pit bull attacks, many municipalities across the country have made it illegal to own pit bulls. Here, the New York City Housing Authority has banned the dogs — along with Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers — from its 178,000 apartments across the city.
But they're becoming increasingly popular among gay men. Nikki Moustaki, a professional dog trainer, has noticed more and more pits in her Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. "I definitely see a lot of gay men with pit bulls," she says.
According to psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, pit bulls can be walking phallic symbols. "They have the characteristics the person doesn't have himself, being in possession of something that projects a sense of control, of empowerment," she says.
Tell that to Chris Davis. After moving to Harlem, the Columbia University projects administrator was confronted with owners who "would train pit bulls to fight by cracking their heads, hitting them with sticks over and over again." Then he happened across an abandoned pit bull tied up for weeks without food or water, nearly all of its ribs broken. "He couldn't walk up stairs when I got him," Davis recalled.
Davis and husband Reggie have since adopted another abused pit bull. Beethoven, as they named him (original name: Hitler), had spent his entire life in a cage. "We would never consider getting any dog other than a pit," Davis says, "because they're really such sweet dogs."
For single guys, large breeds like golden retrievers can double as man-bait. In an informal survey, Kloof, an all-purpose app for dog owners, found golden retrievers and labs among the best breeds for attracting men. "The dog is an ice-breaker," says Alejandro Russo, the New York–based founder and CEO of Kloof. "That's why they're so popular in the gay world."
A more thorough AKC survey of New York City breeds last year confirmed golden retrievers' popularity. "They're the best apartment dog," enthuses Blair Lawhead, who, with his partner, crams three goldens into his Chelsea apartment. "They're bred not to bark. They don't need a lot of exercise. They're companion dogs, which is why they're used as service animals."
Standard bulldogs and French bulldogs top AKC's list of local favorites, which can be confirmed on any given day visiting Chelsea or Hell's Kitchen dog runs. Killian James, an escort who lives on the Upper East Side, loves Wilbur, his French bulldog. "He's cute, cuddly, and a lot of energy, just like myself," James says. "If Daddy has company, he has his own bed in the bedroom." When told French bulldogs were once called "whore's dogs" for their popularity among Parisian streetwalkers, James, himself an out-and-proud rentboy, was delighted.
Fashion designer Timoteo Ocampo occasionally likes to tart up his standard bulldog, Jackie, with a strand of pearls or tiara. It's funny, he says, because "she seems so serious." Jackie's image adorns everything from T-shirts to Ocampo's signature underwear line. Guys identify with bulldogs, because they're "very tough, very structured," Ocampo says. "They're very focused, like me. I'm a workaholic."
Toy breeds are especially susceptible to those cutesy outfits that are either adorable or awful, depending on taste. "Gay men have a thing about decorating and having beautiful things," says dePrisco.
But dressing up one's toy breeds is not to imply that they're just playthings. All dogs are complex organisms bred to perform specific tasks. What Lawhead calls the "designer-dog-as-fashion-accessory" can become a neurotic mess if the owner relegates it to a mere objet décoratif.
Dogs can also be subject to the whims of popular culture and, once they fall out of fashion, are all too often disposed of as casually as last year's baggy cargo shorts. Sharon Sakson, who breeds Brussels Griffons, saw demand for the dogs skyrocket after Jack Nicholson bonded with one in As Good As It Gets. "A lot of people went to pet stores and then turned them in to shelters," Sakson laments. Similar situations occurred with Chihuahuas after the Reese Witherspoon film Legally Blonde and with dalmatians after Disney's 101 Dalmations.
For many, the type of dog that is ultimately chosen can seriously impact their lifestyles.
When Hal Garstein decided to make the move from cats to a dog, he was about to plunk down $500 for a Maltese when he happened upon New York Animal Care and Control's website. He immediately fell in love with a mutt he named Gypsy. Garstein, a print production supervisor from Brooklyn Heights, quickly discovered that Gypsy was going to need a lot more attention than his cats. "It became very obvious in a very short period of time that I had to make serious lifestyle adjustments," he says. "I couldn't just come home at 8 a.m."
The advent of breed-specific rescue groups has helped make trophy dogs less popular in the gay world. "There's no longer any status value in having a purebred," says Michael Carnevale, a full-time dog walker in Hell's Kitchen. "The cachet is gone." With more and more celebrities like Andy Cohen, Harvey Fierstein, and Michael Urie opting for mutts, "rescue dogs," Carnevale says, "are the new normal."
And it's not like you can't dress up a mutt. To promote hard-to-adopt dogs that fill urban shelters, ACC holds regular themed events like "Star Wars," with mean-looking dogs dolled up as Princess Leia. For its Pit Bull Prom in May, male pits sported top hats and tails, while females wore tiaras and tutus.
Moustaki, the Hell's Kitchen dog trainer, is encouraged by the newfound interest in pit bulls and other less popular breeds, and wishes even more gay men would rescue such dogs rather than buying them from puppy mills.
"Gay men don't jump on trends, they're trend-setters," she says. "For every cliché about a gay man having a poodle or buying an expensive French bulldog, there's another one who's rescuing a bully breed. The day I see a rainbow flag imprinted with a pit bull image is the day I'll know this breed finally has a chance."
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