On the first day of March Madness 2014, I found peace in the Ann Arbor Buffalo Wild Wings. Everywhere I looked, there were TVs showing different basketball games and rapt, rowdy men, wearing plaid and downing chicken and beer. In a restaurant where the servers wore football jerseys and the only food on the menu I could eat was french fries, I should’ve felt alienated. I was a gay vegetarian who hadn’t set foot on a basketball court since I was forced to in high school gym class. I should’ve felt mortified at the bad taste, oppressed by the performances of straight masculinity, hungry without anything real to eat — but instead I felt soothed. There was something comforting about watching athletic events I couldn’t explain in the most mainstream sports bar imaginable.
My first trip to Buffalo Wild Wings was the peak of my return to boyhood, a process that started a few months earlier — and 20 years too late — with pigskin. When I was 26, I learned to throw a football. In a park at dusk, I played catch with two straight men. They’d taken me under their wing when I asked them to teach me how to play the game I’d managed to avoid completely back in 1994.
I didn’t actually care about throwing tight spirals or using my eyes to track the ball into my hands. I was more interested in boyishness as a style. I’d always worn crewneck sweatshirts and simple sneakers and had recently introduced a backward baseball hat into my wardrobe, even as my main passions remained The Real Housewives of New York City and Britney Spears deep cuts and gossiping with all my girls.
I had come out as gay seven years earlier, yet I was addicted to the look of male heteronormativity. I didn’t know if it was self-hate or repression, perhaps a fear of my own effeminacy, but in my first few semesters in grad school at the University of Michigan, I had a fantasy of growing into the perfect normcore boy. On the cozy Midwest campus, I found myself in a dreamscape of athleisure and mac and cheese and football-viewing parties. During a time when I wanted to explore my sexuality, but still hadn’t gotten past my shame and cultivated the self-possession I needed to go wild on Grindr and convene with my own kind, I lost myself in the hypnotic habits of straight people.
It wasn’t until my fourth year in Michigan that I set foot in bro mecca. I’d walked by the Buffalo Wild Wings on State Street almost every day since moving to Ann Arbor, mildly disgusted by the stench of wings and crass displays of sports fandom, but also intrigued. This shrine to American masculinity had some mystery behind it. The windows were tinted like those of a Social Security office or an offtrack betting storefront. What did this college-town branch of one of the country’s biggest sports bar franchises have to hide?
Inside, the heat blasted. The TVs blared. The bros cheered. The design aesthetic was the bedroom of 9-year-old boy hooked on steroid-laced Adderall: dizzying referee stripes, pennants, and jerseys everywhere. The only rule of color they followed was team colors — for seemingly every major football, baseball, basketball, and hockey team in the country.
Deep into my boyhood bender, I felt glorious. I loved the classroom-like attention grown men paid to games that seemed to go on forever. I loved their bourbon honey mustard-stained fingers touching in awkward high-fives. I loved overhearing snippets of their cute convos about bracket busters and how the referees always favor Duke. I wished every day could be March Madness.
After a few minutes in the restaurant, I spotted a familiar face seated under a screen showing the Syracuse-Western Michigan game. It belonged to a boy I’d seen on Grindr, maybe once even messaged with. We’d spent three months making and breaking plans. I could tell he was on a first date. The boy kept crossing and uncrossing his arms. His date took frequent, nervous sips of his beer.
I’d heard that the Ann Arbor Buffalo Wild Wings was a secret gay meet-up place, but I hadn’t believed it. The sports bar as a destination for discreet, pre-hookup meetings seemed too rich to be true, like something between a joke and an urban legend. Once I saw my Grindr ghost, however, the pieces snapped into place and I understood: Through the tinted windows, no one from outside could see in. On the edge of all the rah-rah action, two men sharing a drink could achieve something close to anonymity.
The boys on the date looked both dazed and in the zone, somehow bewildered and at ease. They clearly hadn’t realized that they’d arranged their first date on one of the busiest days of the sports calendar, yet they also appeared at home amid the swirling cries of “Call the foul!” and “Pass the damn ball!” They — and only they (and I) — knew what they were doing.
I liked what I saw: twinks and bears coming together in the same nacho-scented space with meatheads screaming at basketball games.
When the delirium of that March Madness visit cleared, I worried that to adore Buffalo Wild Wings was to root for the wrong team. Was this place that represented generic masculinity by definition averse to homosexuality? The chain had been called out four years earlier for its homophobic slogan joking that, “No, it’s really cool to wear a man’s name on your back.” In 2017, patrons at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Rockford, Illinois, denied their lesbian waitress a tip, declaring her rainbow flag tattoo the mark of someone “who doesn’t love Jesus.”
My concern was that the homophobia ran even deeper than anything in the atmosphere of Buffalo Wild Wings or endemic to sports culture — that the real hostility came from within myself. Was lusting after the idea of masculinity a form of self-loathing?
I’d long shuddered at the thought of becoming a gaybro. Gaybros started as a subreddit in 2012 and the community still attracts gay men who have interests that are stereotypically straight: beer, sports, camping, video games, fishing. They proudly assert their distaste for the femme pursuits usually associated with gay male culture. They want the world to know that they don’t like Beyoncé or Joan Crawford or drag shows or the boys who do like those things. For years during the mid-2010s, the subreddit inspired regional groups and meetups at pubs and places like Buffalo Wild Wings. The gaybros even called Buffalo Wild Wings “a gay man’s paradise.”
Many queer men, myself included, disapprove of gaybro culture. It’s fine, if a little tacky, to favor bro-y things as a gay man, but isn’t the search for pride in hyper-masculinity linked to the strand of homophobia that shames all feminine behavior? That’s the question I asked myself as I woke up to my first Buffalo Wild Wings hangover, foggy-headed from Miller Lite and my mystifying bro lust.
Still, I wanted more. For a month, I frequented Buffalo Wild Wings with my queer female friends. We played pool. We drank beer. My bisexual friend with the magenta lipstick and bug tattoo turned out to be a pool shark. During those Thursday afternoons, after March Madness, the crowd was small, quiet — intimate. We made conversation with a soft-spoken, middle-aged IT consultant around the billiards table, who asked my friend about her dissertation on insect figuration in 20th-century American fiction. Pitbull and Kesha’s “Timber” played on the speakers. I developed a taste for the chain’s roasted garlic mushrooms and tried a fried pickle. I learned the difference between french fries and potato wedges.
My mind thrummed off the simultaneous normalcy and secrecy, the dozen TVs oversaturated with images of macho rituals in stadiums across the country juxtaposed with the idea that furtive conversations were being held in booths on the periphery, the frat bros yelling and the twinks passing. When I wasn’t in Buffalo Wild Wings, I was hosting or attending Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Showgirls viewing parties, blasting Rihanna, doing all the gay-male things I cherished.
I was energized by my opposing tastes — a little bro on the outside, a flamboyant queen at heart. I liked how those impulses worked along with and against each other in a place that might’ve been a locale for gay rendezvous. Strangely empowered by my performance of masculinity, I began to reintroduce the sibilance and effeminacy in my voice I’d spent years trying to hide. I understood what the gaybros didn’t: that masculinity and femininity were just styles I could try on at different times.
I never could confirm if the Ann Arbor Buffalo Wild Wings was a real Grindr meet-up place, probably because I never went there with gay men, only women. My reluctance to split a plate of beer-battered onion rings or cheddar cheese curds with a date probably reflected how alienated I still felt from my own identity, but I liked the not knowing, the perpetual speculation over the gay action that might have been transpiring before my eyes. I’d found a gay bar that existed only in my head, just for myself — a one-man party.
If Buffalo Wild Wings really was an under-the-radar hookup locale, the chain captured the residual shame and dangerous fantasy of virility shared by many millennial queer men, a shame that I was working to undo in myself even as its hold on me seemed to be tightening.
When I stopped going to Buffalo Wild Wings, it wasn’t because I suddenly gained all the pride and self-love I deserved from the beginning, or because I was ready to stop avoiding other gay men. It wasn’t because I finally grew disgusted with the displays of brodom — or the chain’s exaltation of it.
I stopped going because I had too much fun. On one of our Thursday afternoon billiards happy hours, my friend and I partied so hard that she slipped on the floor. It was alarming when no one ran up to help her, when we were left alone by ourselves. The place suddenly took on a menacing atmosphere, and we felt just how much we were outsiders, the aged twink barely performing broishness and the bisexual girl with the glittery makeup and solar system-patterned leggings. We agreed we couldn’t go back.
I never returned, but I never let Buffalo Wild Wings go. I still get excited — and even feel a little tender — every time I think about that tinted storefront. It’s the same perverted comfort I get walking the malls of my suburban hometown on Long Island, through a parade of heteronormativity that I know has no real place for me. I am grateful for the liberation of leaving the closet, yet I also cling to the sinister thrill of secrecy, the possibility of finding anonymity in plain sight.
There is one gay bar in Ann Arbor. It’s bright and fun and they have a perfectly curated Top 40 playlist that makes me giddy just thinking about it. Everyone knows when to clap in Scissor Sisters’ “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’.” But I’ll always have a soft spot for a naughtier den of manly love, where you could be both totally plugged in and completely checked out. In the most generic place on State Street, you could, presumably, commit the biggest transgressions.
Logan Scherer’s writing has appeared in Tin House, Catapult, the Baffler, the Atlantic, the Awl, and elsewhere. He is writing a book about romantic male friendship and the impossible love gay boys have for straight men.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter