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The toxicity of gay ‘tribes,’ especially on campus

Are you a bear or a twink? Who cares?

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gay 'tribes'

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article included references to the "LGBTQIA+" community and people. This was an overgeneralization of the article's intended subject matter. Where appropriate, "LGBTQIA+" has been replaced with "gay" and "mlm (men loving men)."

In 2019, the University of Washington was voted the most LGBTQ+ friendly campus in the country by Campus Pride and, according to Having never set foot on campus for a class or extracurricular activity due to the pandemic, I have no personal experience to tell me if this is true or not. 

Yes, I’ve worn a skirt or two down in the U-District and have not received backlash for upending present gender norms, but I have not encountered a dating or hookup experience while at the UW where this acceptance of difference was prevalent.

One specifically problematic aspect of these interactions comes in the form of “tribe” culture.

To educate straight and/or uninformed audiences: “Tribes” have been a way for gay men to divide men loving men (mlm) into groups based on body types. 

Some examples of this include “twinks,” which are often men with skinnier body types. There are also “bears,” a more muscular and hairy group of typically older men. 

These labels are mostly used in hookup culture, but they are also used as preferences that determine who folks in the community date as well. Beyond being just words, they become parameters of how self-perception is formed. 

I myself have fallen into the trap of being self-conscious when I gain weight. In the past, I’ve felt the pressure of wanting to fit into the ideal of a Timothée Chalamet body, even though I was more athletic. It happens to the best of us.

“In terms of tribes, I haven't noticed anything specific in my interactions, but I do think everybody's picky, especially in the gay community,” third-year undergraduate Daniel Piacitelli said. “With dating apps, everything is so visually oriented, and so it just invites so much criticism over body types. A lot of people [are] very specific about what they want, leaving everyone else at the wayside.”

The use of the word “tribe” itself is also inherently anti-Indigenous.

Over the last couple of years, it has been criticized for its appropriation of terminology describing Indigenous groups and African ethnic identities. The word being used to describe non-Native subcultures dates back to the counterculture movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. Should we really be able to claim a word thrust onto Indigenous populations for use by non-Indigenous populations –– especially as a means of division within a community? 

“I've never thought about it that way, [but] I can see it being problematic,'' third-year undergraduate Liam Stone said. “I can see that, if I was an Indigenous person, that [using ‘tribes’] is problematic. But some of the intention behind the whole gay ‘tribe’ thing I feel is good, because it can show a celebration of all the diversity within the community. But there is a point where it becomes division and discrimination.” 

This discrimination runs deep not only in the gay community, but also in BIPoC queer communities –– an intersectional issue that we have seen, and begun to address, in recent years amid pursuing anti-racism efforts in the community. 

Especially when considering all that BIPoC (especially Black folks) have achieved, in and for gay culture, it’s downright despicable that they are the first to face the discriminatory effects of “tribes,” as well as every other toxic trait of the community.  

“There is a lot of fetishization, too,” second-year James Hu said. “There are certain body types that are exclusive, and by all means you're allowed to have preferences, but when they are extremely exclusive it just doesn't sit right.”

The preference of an exclusive body type — often of a straight-passing white male — has perpetuated discrimination in the community, and many of us have blood on our hands from contributing to this discrimination by using “tribes” to describe ourselves and our future partners. Though some see it as a form of unity and diversity, it can still bring hypocrisy.

“Intersectionality exists — you can be gay and the oppressor at the same time,” Hu said. “I know there's a lot of issues. I feel like it's definitely not talked about enough.” 

Gay people aren’t perfect, but we need to opt out of division based on how we look, and instead embrace the collective community. For “tribes” especially: With LGBTQIA+ history already existing in Indigenous cultures before Europeans colonized their lands, the use of this word as a descriptor for non-Natives has got to go. 

Reach writer Liam Blakey at Twitter: @LiamBlakey2

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(2) comments

More Inclusive than Thou

It's kind of like the classical Abbott and Costello "Who's on first..." routine. Folks this WOKE generation has fallen asleep on the job. This as about as hiding in ranks as any American and/or Western generation has yet been.

Individuality has got flat cancelled, by the cancel culture of course.


Though I appreciate the perspective presented in this article, I'm unsure about the use of LGBTQIA+ when the author seems to be speaking mostly about the men-loving-men experience. As a queer woman, I can't really relate to any of the experiences in the article, and my involvement in the wlw community on and off campus has had entirely different atmosphere than that of the article. I'm really happy these issues are being discussed but I'm uncomfortable with the use of LGBTQIA+ in this context. I worry cishet people might see this as reflective of the entire queer community when really it's just one part of it.

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