Gay Tribes: Twinks and Otters and Bears, O My!
As a gay man, you might find yourself fitting conveniently into one of the many ‘gay tribes’ of our community, from the hirsute and burly bears to the lean and youthful twinks. The geek-embracing gaymers or the sexually liberated kinksters, there are plenty of gay tribes for everyone.
Stereotypes may well be, but just as there was in times of yonder, there´s power to being part of a tribe. A sense of belonging and acceptance can be found in being welcomed into a group that has shared experiences, sexual preferences, and interests in common. Also, it’s just a lot of fun really! We often refer to our community’s tribes with our tongues firmly in our cheeks – or between someone else´s – and tribes are a chance to play with our identities, not limit them.
Here are eight of the most well-known and celebrated tribes within the fabulously diverse rainbow spectrum of gay culture:
Championing the masculine, bears are big and hairy just like their namesake animal. There´s some wiggle room about what exactly constitutes a bear, but the general consensus is they sport beards and body hair, have more proportionate bodies, and are often bald. They are usually older, but younger bears do exist and are lovingly referred to as – you guessed it – cubs.
Most accredit the bear tribe as originating from a – not entirely serious – article for The Advocate in 1979 called “Who’s Who in the Zoo,” which separated gay men into seven different animal types dependent on appearance and behavior. Of those seven, the one which most struck a chord with the gay community was bears. The tribe exploded in popularity, and now there are bars, clubs, annual gatherings, and bear Pride catering especially to the hirsute man and their admirers. They even have their own flag – pawprint and all!
Twinks are the other side of the proverbial coin to bears. Slim, younger, and lacking in hair – facial or otherwise. They embrace their effeminate side and, stereotypically, are found slaying on the dancefloor with pop diva-level moves. The age bracket for the average twink is late teens to mid-twenties, leading the label to be considered ageist by some. Olympic swimmer Tom Daley is seen as being pretty much the poster boy of twinkdom – with his boyish good looks and toned body type.
No one knows exactly where the term came from, but a popular theory is that it´s derived from the word “twank”, which loosely translates as “the quarry of a male prostitute, a man willing and ready to become a dominant man´s partner”. Take from that what you like, but either way, twinks are the gay equivalent of someone the evil queen would want to suck the life out of to regain her beauty and youth.
Otters are lean like twinks but have just that little bit of scruff to go with it. Sometimes dubbed the “younger brother” of bears or the love child of bears and twinks, they are both feminine and masculine. Hairy in face and body but slim in stature. Sporting a boy-next-door look, only with a rougher edge.
Otters don’t really have their own scene, bars, or events, so they often exist in the same space as bears. Despite this, they are largely found everywhere, slinking nicely into any scene with the grace of, well… an otter.
Gym buddies are constantly working on their temple – aka their bodies. And it shows. They exhibit the kind of rock-hard abs that bulge through their skin-tight shirts, with arms bigger than the average man’s head. You´ll find them in the gym most days of the week, sculpting themselves into Adonises, eating a healthy diet of chicken and rice. When the weekend hits, they show off the results by dancing topless – or onstage in their underwear – at your local WE party or globetrotting from one Circuit party to the next.
This tribe often gets a bad rep with the pejorative “Muscle Mary” being leveled against them – the assumption being that because they spend so much time on their bodies, they have nothing else to offer our community. Profoundly untrue, the gay rom-com Bros explores the negative stereotypes and dating woes this kind of guy can face as a result of these prejudices. Sub-categories of this type of gay man are “twunks” – ex-twinks who hit the gym as they get older. Or jocks, who focus on their love of sports more than that of the gym.
Embracing body positivity in a similar vein to the bears, chubs go that extra step and reclaim the word chubby as their own. Chubs are – as the name suggests – bigger than bears and not necessarily hairy. They have their own community and events around the world, such as Mr. Chubby International and Convergence in the US. Their admirers get their own title, too: chasers. As the saying goes, ´big is beautiful,´ and chubs exemplify this.
Tribe membership isn´t always just about looks. Gaymers are a geeky bunch who love all things gaming. This could be computer games, board games like Dungeons and Dragons, card games like Magic the Gathering, or all the above. Geek culture easily melds with the gay community, being fellow outcasts from the norms of society. Go to any gaming store or log onto any online game, and you´ll find gaymers. Thanks to this demographic, the gaming world has become more inclusive, with gay romance options appearing in RPG games and LGBTQ+ characters becoming more prominent throughout sci-fi and fantasy media as a whole.
Queer is a controversial term that became part of the gay lexicon after being reclaimed from the slur it once was. It can refer to a person of any gender or sex and is often used as an umbrella term for a range of different types of people; it has even earned its own letter in the LGBTQ+ acronym. Queer men reject traditional gender roles and embrace fluidity in their identity and sexuality. They are alternative in the way they dress, probably have tattoos and piercings, love to gender bend, and are critical of the mainstream gay community as having lost touch with its political roots. None of this means they don’t like to have fun, though, and they often have a penchant for harder techno music too.
Gay culture is undeniably sexualized – for better or for worse. Through a love of good sex, kinksters find comradery with their peers. They have a taste for fetishes, whether that be BDSM, leather, latex, puppy play, or anything else from a potentially endless list of fetishes. The kink community thrives within the gay scene, and its members have their apps like Recon, kinky clubs, events, and pride festivals – all with an emphasis on sexual liberation. Kinksters are also sex positivity activists and staunch defenders of the right for kink to exist at Pride, despite a counter-movement to make the event more “family-friendly.” Kink has been part of gay history since Stonewall, so kinksters aren´t going away, and neither would we want them to.
Regardless of the gay tribes you belong to, it is important to remember that labels are just social constructs – ultimately, it’s up to you to define yourself and your identity. In other words: wear a label, don´t let it wear you. Embrace who you are as an individual, gay tribe or not.