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Lessons in brohood: A Queer nerd's account

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RDNE / Pexels
RDNE / Pexels

The common "bro," in many circles, has been a subject of constant derision. The term can be shorthand for a straight, cisgender man whose primary concerns are partying, fornicating, and otherwise upholding a rigid "frat house" brand of masculine expression.

But few non-bros can honestly say that they've been immersed in bro culture as an outsider. Until my junior year of college, I certainly couldn't; I would've been most readily classified as one of the weird, nerdy kids in high school, and at UC Santa Cruz, I opted for the "substance-free" dorm halls.

But at the beginning of my third year, I narrowly managed to land a large bedroom on the top floor of an off-campus duplex. Six other men were living there: a young professional; two soccer jocks; a party animal, majoring in business; his buddy, majoring in computer science; and one who proved to be a good friend to me.

I'll refer to this friend as "Tiger," since that was the fursona species I assigned him when he asked for my opinion on the matter.

A peace offering
Tiger wanted to talk to me, but I couldn't fathom why. He'd caught me lingering in a common area as I was changing out my laundry and picking through a mass of detergent pods that had congealed in their container.

"Hey dude," Tiger said. "You like books, right?"

I answered with a vague affirmative. It wasn't the first exchange I'd had with him, but I was fresh out of a bad breakup, and any apparent desire for closeness was, to my wounded heart, worthy of suspicion, contempt, or both.

With the care of someone trying to coax a skittish animal toward a morsel of food, Tiger placed an old paperback on the banister and said, "This is for you."

I don't remember the book's title, because I never claimed it — but this did prompt Tiger to call me out on my hesitation and ask why I was so standoffish. At the time, I didn't have an answer for him.

He left that book sitting on the banister for a few days before he found me again and brought up the genre of wuxia fiction.

Discussing modern East Asian martial arts fables finally convinced me that Tiger and I weren't from different "tribes" after all. In fact, he was about as nerdy as I was, but he had a much denser physique, due to his genetics and his rigorous fitness routine (hence the name).

Before I met Tiger, I knew very little about cooking, drinking, pumping iron, or even proper nutrition for an active lifestyle. The most I had regularly cooked for myself before college was the odd jumbo-sized omelet when I got home from school. A full meal plan at the dorms hadn't helped matters.

One of the first lessons I learned from Tiger was how to butterfly, season, and cook a chicken breast on a skillet. He also introduced me to protein shakes, a wide variety of beers and bars, and the many wonders of Grocery Outlet. With his guidance and encouragement, I took up weightlifting, ending a sedentary period that had lasted two years.

I owe a great deal of that year's newfound happiness and confidence to Tiger, and I believe his experience with the more positive aspects of bro culture made him a natural guide — an ambassador, or perhaps a medium, between myself and the bros in the building. That role became crucial to my immersion experience when I was invited to the other bros' first party of the year. The venue was our house.

A sore thumb
I'll refer to this bro subject as "Shades," since he wore sunglasses indoors. Before you judge him, he deserves at least some credit for making an effort to include me in his recreation. He was also kind enough to offer me my first-ever alcoholic drink, an IPA I prayed wasn't exemplary of beers in general (for the sake of my upcoming trip to Ireland).

As I sipped on my drink, standing in the kitchen and staying vigilant for any changes to my state of consciousness, partygoers started to trickle in. In retrospect, I was unfashionably early.

The theme of the party that night was "Kidz Bop." To honor it, I had gone so far as to throw on a bright red windbreaker and a green They Might Be Giants T-shirt. But as guests filled their Solo cups at the plastic bin of "jungle juice" — a Frankenstein's Monster of cheap spirits, fruit juice, and soda — I realized that I was the only one wearing actual prescription glasses.

Statistically, I thought, there had to be others in attendance who needed corrective lenses. But it seemed that, for this occasion, they had unanimously chosen to wear contacts or fly blind.

I grew more and more self-conscious, lingering in each throng, hearing the most vapid jokes, and watching with fascination as everyone laughed. I wasn't drunk enough to be having as much fun as they were, I guessed; the others had evidently been drinking before they arrived.

Tiger emerged from his room just as I was deciding to retreat to mine. He offered to be my "wingman" for the event, pointing out a trio of women sitting on the foldout couch underneath the Notorious B.I.G. poster.

"Do you think they're cute?" Tiger asked.

I said I did.

"Wait for my signal," he said. "I'll scope it out and introduce you. Got it?"

I agreed to the plan, despite my growing anxiety, and tried to act natural while keeping an eye on the exchange. I don't remember it clearly, but two of the women stood up and went elsewhere before Tiger beckoned me over. I sat down next to him.

To the remaining woman, whose attention was firmly on her phone, Tiger introduced me as something like this: "This guy is a writer. He's like a young J.R.R. Tolkien. He's gonna write the next great American novel, trust me. He'll tell you all about it."

Tiger nudged me with his elbow, said, "I'm gonna grab a drink," and left.

I was mortified — not at the idea of talking to a woman, mind you, but at how prodigiously I had just been hyped to the stranger sitting across from me. At that point in my life, I had never finished even a rough draft of a short story, much less a full-length novel.

I didn't end up talking about my novel. Instead, my ostensibly incomparable mind manufactured the sentence "So... you taking a break from all the action out there?"

Whatever that meant.

Bro-gender presentation
Shades and I shared a wall with each other, and a large bathroom. The walls of our house had little soundproofing to speak of, so during my stay, I became intimately familiar with my neighbors' habits and routines — whether I wanted to or not.

A few nights a week, Shades would have a woman over to watch a show and have sex. I'm unsure if his guests were a different person each time or a rotating roster. Their voices made it clear there were multiple, though I only saw one with my own eyes, as she was leaving one morning.

When asked, Shades did agree to keep the noise of his encounters down after midnight on school nights, so this particular habit wasn't a problem for me. I mention it because it fits like a cog into the bro archetype he so carefully projected.

His most common attire was a tank top, expensive sunglasses, basketball shorts, and sneakers whose brand and model I never cared to check. He kept his hair short, and carefully shaped with product. When addressing me, his friends, or one of his guests, he spoke with a vocal fry — a creaky, breathy tone, at the lowest possible register. He endeavored to carry himself with the ease of a man who was too cool for the world.

When addressing his mother, however — as Shades routinely would, over the phone after his showers — his voice was much closer in tone and pitch to mine. The first time I heard one of their calls, I could hardly believe it. Most people do change their tone of voice in different contexts, but Shades had gone beyond a simple code switch. It was as if he wasn't "out" to his mother as a bro yet.

I still think about that revelation, and how it softened my view of Shades and, by extension, my view of bros in general. No amount of sympathy would be enough to excuse toxic behaviors, but the harm of the bro hegemony, as I saw it in that house, seemed to be directed inward.

If gender is a performance as much as an identity, then being aware of that fact could empower a person to "live their own truth." I have no way of knowing for sure if Shades felt truly at home in his own skin when he was bulking on testosterone boosters, or croaking to his friend, "Come on, man. Don't be a trog."

But I do know that he was a textbook case, and as with so many archetypes, one size rarely fits all. If brohood was not Shades's truth after all, and he hasn't since moved on, I mourn for the young, soft-spoken man who felt he had to hide behind the Ray-Bans. I hope he finds his way into the light someday.