Same-gender-loving big men of color

—Jason Whitesel

During Pride Month, Chris Gadson graciously invited me to be one of the guests on the Brothaspeak Podcast in which he discusses Black LGBTQ issues with humor and honesty. The main attraction of his recent podcast was Tony Davis, a Bahamian-American who is the founder and organizer of Heetizm Myami – a weekend run to Miami, Florida for same-gender-loving big men of color and their supportive others. Emilio, a regular attendee who spoke about this Urban Bear Getaway for big men of color, accompanied Davis. I chimed in on the conversation when asked.

Big men of color, as well as their loving male admirers, deserve weekends that are all their own, created especially for them.

Heetizm Myami

The inaugural Heetizm occurred in 2011 over Fourth of July weekend. Since then, it has become an annual gathering which focuses on men of size and color, whereas other gay prides and circuit parties across the nation tend to reinforce the mainstream gay media’s narrow focus on young, hairless, thin or muscular, white males.

Based on the premise that those whose appearance differs from the stereotype ought not to be rendered invisible, Heetizm provides a welcoming venue for plenty of fun-filled activities for big gay men of color, Miami style.

Heetizm Myami’s twitter profile describes the weekend as “a place to have fun and develop self-esteem,” with an itinerary that includes meet-and-greets, cookouts, bar crawls, Sunday-Funday activities, and theme/ dance/ pool/ beach parties where guests create memories that will carry over to the following year’s event. To give a little taste of the weekend, in 2014, Heetizm offered its guests an interactive opportunity to indulge in body sushi, serving up a “Live and Dine Experience” where attendees were enticed to “feed off of” the group’s “very own Sexy Sushi Bear where every sushi delight” was “strategically placed all over him” for guests “to pick and enjoy.”

This year, weekenders will partake in a costume party on Jungle Island, invited to release their “inner beast at this summer’s biggest big-boy circuit party in Miami,” according to their online event pages.

On Heetizm’s website, one will see almost 275 photos that enliven the site’s media page. Some are professional full-length body shots of big men of color – alone or in small groups, many with tats, oiled up and modeling in their black boxer briefs or skimpy leopard-print loincloths, interlaced with group photos in sharp-looking Heetizm logo tees or simple white tee shirts. The majority of images are from weekend runs from other years, which include candid photos of guests at group dinner outings, or in their bathing suits embracing one another, wrestling in the sand, playfully posing on the beach, showing off tie-dyed caftans, sitting on one another’s laps, or dancing close during a super-hero themed dance party. Every photo is of a big man of color; black and brown men smiling, having fun, and lovingly engaging with one another, showing off their strikingly ample bodies without shame or self-recrimination, inviting all who identify as same-gender-loving big men of color to feel welcome and to imagine themselves taking part in this event meant particularly for them.

Big Boy Pride

Another event, Big Boy Pride, is a four-day extravaganza “held each year in the spring to celebrate urban debonair Big Brothas of color and the men who admire them.” Jay Torrence and Tony Brown founded this event in March 2011 after recognizing the need for a big boy “Spring Fling” to foster empowerment and togetherness for same-gender-loving big men and those who want to come out to support them. Big Boy Pride is about camaraderie, self-love, relationship building, and consciousness raising in the big men of color community as well as the public at-large. Like Heetizm, Big Boy Pride offers many fun activities, but also relevant educational seminars to bolster big men of color’s wellbeing and personal happiness. The organizers’ goal is to create environments where big men of color can network with one another on a personal- and professional level. This April’s four-day reunion held at Orlando’s legendary (many might say “infamous”) Parliament House gay resort, cultivated togetherness and pride in the collective big boy community, which includes all those who support big men of color. Big Boy Pride offers an environment that promotes brotherhood, wherein guests uplift one another, all in the spirit of good-natured fun. The attendees are encouraged to come with an open mind – ready to receive the best that a fellowship like this has to offer.

The Big Brothas Network also hosts mixers throughout the year at various clubs in Chicago, Atlanta, and this year, in NYC during pride, offering music, games, and spoken word performances.

In his book, Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen (2008), Peter Hennen touches upon how Bear culture for husky, hirsute gay men merely pays lip service to being racially and ethnically inclusive, but remains predominantly white. To be fair, there are white participants in the Bear community who are aware of this discrimination and want to be cultivate deeper inclusion of people of color in Bear events. Nevertheless, in Bear erotica, for example, the images tend to skew white, which leads people to interpret that being a Bear is a “white people thing.” Hennen speculates that the whiteness of the Bear subculture might also have to do with its totem being a beast. For white gay men, a Bear logo allows them to signal both masculine strength and men’s capacity for tenderness (think a Bear hug). However, for men of color, particularly Black men subjected to racialized caricatures bore from U.S. history whereby colonists depicted them as animalistic predators for whom they sought dominion over or as hulking black brutes with imposing physiques, they encounter a different story where body shape and size intersect with racial stereotypes. This might mean that joining a group with a Bear as its symbol reads quite differently to those subjected to a history of colonists depicting them as less than human, as beasts and animals. Therefore, one could see why same-gender-loving big men of color would forge their own groups, wanting to resist Bear imagery, or to revamp existing imagery to be more racially inclusive, more sensitive to the histories of people of color. Yet, this year’s Heetizm marketing certainly doesn’t shy away from animal imagery, which begs the question whether Hennen’s theory is correct: it may be that men of color choose to dis-identify with Bear groups as it would complicate their efforts to reclaim black masculinity from the image of the beast.

In his essay, “Gender fuzz, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bisexuality” (2014), Bear writer Ron Suresha writes about the experience of coming out multiple times in order to convey newly affirmed identities. For example, maybe one is outed as gay in one’s teens, and yet he feels unable to fit into the gay scene because of his body shape and size, or hairiness, so he comes out a second time as a Bear. Then maybe this same individual goes to gay resorts or on gay-cations and finds them whitewashed, thus becoming attuned to how one stands out in white-dominant environments as one of the few people of color. Therefore, the lack of diversity in the wider Bear community is really an issue about racial inclusion not happening in most gay spaces. Maybe one feels compelled to trek to an area of the U.S. with more racially diverse queer spaces like Miami or Orlando. Folks choose to organize annual events that provide a space for black and brown solidarity, because multiple marginalized people need a place where they can feel the strength and solidarity of the black- and same-gender-loving community, of being among queer people of color.

On December 31, 2015, Male Media Mind (M3) produced a video podcast entitled “M3 Discusses Diversity in the Bear Community” about race-based problems with representation in the big men’s’ and Bear communities, which tend to overwhelmingly overlook Bears of color in their event advertising, instead favoring predominantly white men. The description of the podcast suggested that such a rift is what pushed big men of color to create their own events like Heetizm and Big Boy Pride.

In the video, which includes seven men of color, and the white owner and founding editor of Bear World Magazine, several themes became apparent. One contributor to the podcast remarked that as a Black Bear who attends White-dominated Bear events, white attendees made him feel like a mythical creature that does not exist. Bear media, particularly imagery advertising Bear runs, is skewed toward a predominantly white membership, rendering men of color symbolically annihilated. Black bears and big men of color, already underrepresented at these events, come to feel ignored and are made to recognize their marginalization when other guests avoid talking to them. One would hesitate spending money on such events if one does not feel entirely welcome, whereas at Heetizm or Big Boy Pride, the photography and marketing materials make it clear that it is an event where black and brown bodies of size are welcome and encouraged to attend. Interestingly, although the promotional materials do not read, “whites excluded,” whites rarely attend, perhaps because it would force them to become conscious of their whiteness. If such imagery like that put out by Heetizm or Big Boy Pride did not exist, if same-gender-loving big men of color could not recognize themselves in existing imagery, then they might internalize the message, “You are not welcome.” Oodles of Bear events happen every year, but only a few big men of color events exist, which speaks volumes. Certainly, weekend runs are for socializing and sexualizing, which makes it even more difficult to engage big men’s organizations in social change; leadership often throws its hands up in the air and says people come for a good time, rather than wanting to make a social statement – all this, at the expense of big men of color who would like to enjoy a sense of inclusion.

Heavy Hitters Pride

In 2015, prior to the M3 podcast, a third event was formed for big men of color, Heavy Hitters Pride, an annual empowerment summit held in Houston, Texas that celebrates the “urban man of size, his admirers and allies.” It is a three-day event held at the end of July, this year being its third season. The theme this time is “My Presence Matters,” which will offer a discussion on the “Day and Life of The Man of Size (The Good, Bad & Ugly).” The event page describes Heavy Hitters as “a place where EVERY pound has a story” and where attendees come to “celebrate the urban man of size, his admirers and allies.” The event’s Facebook page reads “Become part of the movement and celebrate your beauty amongst those that empower you – NOT TOLERATE YOU.”

In closing, sociologist Michèle Lamont (2000) found that one way working-class Black men challenge their ongoing experience with racism is by developing a “caring self,” which emphasizes “morality, solidarity, and generosity” – an ethic of caring for one another as a tool for fighting oppression. Indeed, big men of color, in the face of white-dominant big men’s community, are doing just that.

Jason Whitesel is Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies at Pace University and the author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014).

Featured images: The Little Book of Big Black Bears – a zine paying tribute to Black gay bears. Copyright © 2015 by Ajuan Mance, Professor of English at Mills College. Event image for “My Presence Matters Empowerment Summit” hosted by Heavy Hitters Pride.