It's Friday night in Wilton Manors, and Sidelines, a gay sports bar, is packed with slender boys. Carlos Lopez, 28, sits on a barstool near the door nursing a glass of whiskey. Trim and handsome, Lopez chats with Blake, a lean 29-year-old with chubby cheeks.
Blake, who moved to Florida from the Midwest last year, says he doesn't really have one type of man he goes for.
Does he know that Lopez likes big men — really big men, as in guys who weigh 280 to 350 pounds?
"He likes fat guys!?" Blake says. He touches his cheeks. "Am I fat?" he asks several times, sounding almost hysterical.
Blake is not fat. His navy-blue T-shirt hugs a flat stomach. His fitted jeans hint at long, toned legs. He simply has a body type that Lopez does not find appealing. Lopez is a chubby chaser.
Blake rolls his eyes at Lopez, hoping perhaps that Lopez will say it's all a joke.
No. Lopez sweeps a hand over his hair, as if to say the concept is over Blake's head.
People often have trouble understanding that Lopez is attracted to only heavy men, he says. Even Lopez has trouble explaining it. The best he can do is point out that he once tried dating a man who was below his ideal weight range, saying, "The attraction was not all there."
Lopez says maybe he's drawn to the jovial, nurturing nature he associates with bigger men. Then too, he says, large gay men seem to particularly appreciate love and compassion — perhaps because they're so far from the mainstream. And Lopez is a caretaker-type, he says; perhaps it's just a good fit. In any event, he says, his shrink told him not to worry about it. It's just the way he's wired.
Lopez is not unique. There are whole pageants dedicated to this substratum of gay life in which titles such as Mr. Chubby International and Mr. Chaser International are conferred.
Some chasers say owning up to a fat fetish is like coming out of the closet a second time. Chubbies and chasers are often ridiculed within a gay community where svelte figures and boyish good looks are prized. In the 1970s, some gay bars and sex clubs barred fat men. But it was around the same time that the first group for chubs and chasers, Girth & Mirth, was formed, and today, the predilection of chasers seems to have become at least acceptable in some quarters if not celebrated.
Many chubs seem puzzled by their suitors' desires even as they appreciate that they are appreciated. They would still prefer to look more like Michelangelo's David than a Botero sculpture, they say, and would never date someone their own size.
Chubs are often lumped in with "bears," gay men who are typically large and hairy. Bear groups organized partly in response to the outbreak of AIDS in the early 1980s, when the idealized lean body type became associated instead with a wasting illness. It was an inadvertently opportune time, says Les Wright, a San Francisco-based author. Wright, a 54-year-old gay man with a full beard who prefers hairy, blue-collar men, has chronicled bear culture in several books and is founder of the Bear History Project. "The bear stuff comes out of people in the gay community feeling judged and excluded," he says. "We're all the people who got squeezed out."
Chubs and chasers, like bears, have remained a largely underground phenomenon. References occasionally slip into the mainstream of pop culture, however, as when Adam Sandler's character was dubbed a chubby chaser in the recent movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Playwright Terrence McNally actually went further in his 1975 hit The Ritz, which was made into a 1976 film and has just been revived on Broadway. The Ritz is essentially an ode to chubby chasing; in it, the hefty Gaetano Proclo is hiding from a hit man in a New York bathhouse, where he fends off the advances of a scrawny character named Claude Perkins, who is wild for fat men. When Perkins spots Proclo, he clutches his chest like a man struck by Cupid's arrow. Alas, the crush is one-sided, despite Perkins' offers of éclairs, brownies, and chocolate bars.
Chadrick Fowler, who hails from Boynton Beach, is six-foot-one. The gay 24-year-old has smooth skin, blue eyes, and a baby face. He also weighs 275 pounds. Among many gay men, his size can be regarded as nearly a sin and certainly grounds for discrimination. Fowler, who is also effeminate, says he often sees notices on gay dating websites specifying "no fats or fems."
Fowler is fascinated by chubby chasers because he can't fathom why anyone would prefer his body type; he finds fat repulsive. He has always wanted to be thin, like the rest of his family, he says. "I prefer thin guys. I'm what my friends call a self-hater." But, he adds, "A lot of chubs are just regular gay guys in large-guy bodies."
Fowler recalls the first time he was "really making out with a guy... And he was like, 'Oh, I love your ass; it's so big,' and 'Oh my God, you have the biggest tits. Oh my God, your stomach is so fat and huge,' and 'Oh, look at those thighs, oh, they're so jelly. You've got thunder thighs.'
"And I was like, 'What? No, go away.' It took me a while to realize he was meaning it in a good way."
British novelist Laurence Brown pondered his own fat fetish in an essay in which he recounts his teen years. In the late 1960s, when he was coming to terms with his homosexuality, he relished his place in what he saw as a misunderstood elite. Greek classics and the writings of Oscar Wilde "made it abundantly clear that a slender, hairless youth is the proper object of homosexual love," Brown writes. But Brown preferred chunky, mature men, leading him to conclude that he was "the queerest of the queer." It would take another two decades before he came out as a chubby chaser.
Perhaps because some gay men have made a cult of thinness, they are more likely than heterosexual men to suffer from eating disorders, says San Francisco-based filmmaker Travis Mathews, who dealt with gay men's body images in his 2005 documentary Do I Look Fat? "Great self-esteem is the domain of straight white men," he says.
The emergence of new aesthetic ideals can come as relief for gay men who are not buff or thin, just as they may be comforted that chubby chasers exist. But Mathews says that men such as Lopez, who have a high weight minimum, are still commodifying or fetishizing the body in a possibly dangerous way. Among extreme fat fetishists, for example, there is the subculture of feeders and gainers in which feeders derive pleasure from watching gainers put on weight and eating itself is eroticized.
The same is true to a lesser extent in many chub-chaser relationships. Chasers often put on weight when they settle down with a chub, and chubs say their partners sometimes encourage them to put on still more weight or discourage them from losing weight, even though it would be healthier. They are simply devoted to flab.
Take Gustavo Lozano of Hollywood, who is unapologetically devoted to big men. Making them feel good makes him feel good, he says. Often, they are suspicious: Lozano, a trim 175 pounds, is a handsome man. He's hot. Why would he want them?
Because he adores chubs. "I've always loved big men," says Lozano, who grew up in Colombia. "Every time I'd watch the movies, I'd say, 'Oh, I need to come to America!' "
Lozano likes chubs so much that in July, he threw a party for them in Fort Lauderdale. The weekend-long event, which Lozano called Chubs in Paradise, drew 28 men from out of town. They gathered at Cheston House, a clothing-optional, 14-room men's resort not far from the beach, where they had a wiener roast on Saturday and a brunch buffet on Sunday. In between, the chubs and chasers hit the local gay bars and lounged by the Cheston House pool.
Lozano emigrated to Florida 12 years ago. Soon afterward, he met Ron Van Sciver, who weighs 319 pounds. They've been together since. Van Sciver, 59, is like a protective daddy and Lozano, 43, is his cub. When Lozano's English fails him, Van Sciver takes over. When Lozano suggested a retreat for chubs in Fort Lauderdale, a city brimming with GQ-beautiful gay men, Van Sciver supported him whole hog.
What exactly does Lozano like about big men? He looks tickled just thinking about it. "Oh, God, their faces!" he says, tightening his hands into fists. "The big belly!"
Hearing this, Van Sciver glances down at his own considerable belly and laughs.
Lozano is a hairdresser at Estuardo's Hair Studio in Fort Lauderdale, where his coworkers have trouble understanding his taste in men. They tell him he could and should get himself a bona fide hottie, he says, but they don't understand: Skinny men bore him.
There seems to be plenty of excitement on the chubs circuit. John Lee, a 41-year-old chub from Orlando, came to Fort Lauderdale for Chubs in Paradise. His friends give him a hard time for attending such events, Lee says, which they say are just sex parties. "Any event is going to get pretty frisky," he says.
Things got pretty frisky at Chubs in Paradise, partygoers say. Every night, the clothes came off and the big boys were in the pool. Their nude bodies felt lighter floating on styrofoam noodles. Lee, who is six-foot-one and 341 pounds, says he got lots of action. That was not unusual for him; he is generally quite sexually active, he says, estimating he'd had 350 sexual partners in the past year or so. He is also open to coupling with another chub, he says, as long as the man has a cute face and a great personality. He says the heaviest guy he ever played with was roughly 380 pounds.
Everyone in his family is large, Lee says. They love fatty Southern fare like chicken-fried steak with gravy and biscuits — and they all have coronary problems. Lee is at peace with his girth, he says, and is reassured when chasers fixate on it. "They wouldn't look at a muscled man any more than they would look at a woman," he says.
Seven years ago, Lee dropped 70 pounds. He was dating a hunky Colombian lifeguard at the time, he says, and he blew it. "As my weight decreased slowly, it seemed like his interest decreased."
Biggercity.com, a dating website for chubs and chasers, asked its users in July: Would you leave your guy if he got fatter or thinner? Of 3,370 votes, the site says, 59 percent answered No, I love him no matter his size and 5.7 percent said Yes, I would not like his new size. Many of the rest were not sure how they'd react, the site says.
Carlos Lopez knows how he'd react. He says he recently broke off a two-year relationship after his partner had gastric bypass surgery and dropped 100 pounds.
"Allegedly, the doctor told him that he wouldn't live for more than a year, which I didn't believe. He had mild diabetes, and he lives a very stressed life. I was supportive — I offered to help him exercise and watch what he eats — but I told him probably what the consequences would be."
The former partner is six feet tall and now weighs 250 pounds. That's about 30 pounds below Lopez's cutoff. Lopez says that he is still attracted to the man's personality but that the physical draw evaporated. "I had to place some sort of guilt on myself because I'm the one who is attracted to these guys that have to be in this certain range," he says, adding, "It's not something I can change and control."
So Lopez is back to the chase. It's what he calls "extreme dating," since his interests are so specific. And that can be frustrating. "You go to a gay bar and they're all skinny or steroid queens," he says. "You're not going to find anything."
Sidelines, the bar in Wilton Manors, is said to offer a little more variety than the typical gay bar, but on a recent Friday night, as Lopez drains his whiskey, the clientele looks gaunt to him.
Is there really no one in the bar whose looks he likes?
Lopez nods toward a blond man with a linebacker's build. The man has wide-set eyes, an upturned nose, and plenty of padding. But he looks a little young for Lopez, who prefers father-figure types. So he heads down the street to Scandals, a gay bar with a country-and-western theme behind an O.K. Corral façade.
The men at Scandals just might be the best line dancers ever. At first glance, they appear to be a bunch of firemen who left their wives at home for a night on the town, but they have an extra spring in their steps when stomping their boots in unison or turning 45 degrees on cue.
At the back of the bar, on a small platform, there's a big white teddy bear in a cowboy hat. In front of the stuffed animal is a pair of really hefty men sitting on the platform, watching the dancing from a distance. They sit with their arms crossed and legs spread wide, like sumo wrestlers trying to find their balance. They're even bigger than the men Lopez is usually drawn to, but he knows one of them, Billy Parrella, who is five-foot-nine and 400 pounds.
Parrella, who is 42, says that his weight fluctuates but that he has never been as thin as he'd like. "If I were 300 pounds, I'd be happy," he says. He would also like to be in a relationship, he says, but the men who pursue him are all wrong. "It's always some bony, skinny toothpick. Or then you have some guys who like big guys because they think you'll do anything they want you to. And I'm a give-and-take kind of person. Some of them can be abusive."
Parrella says he is considering gastric bypass surgery, like his buddy Anthony Raiola had ten years ago. Raiola, 43, is standing nearby, wearing a sleeveless plaid shirt and grinning mischievously. Before the surgery, Raiola, who is five-foot-ten, weighed 420 pounds. Now, he weighs 199 pounds. His partner, who weighs 165 pounds, feared that Raiola would lose the weight and then dump him, Raiola says, but once he was reassured, he was supportive.
Taking pounds off hugely boosted his self-esteem, Raiola says. "Honestly, if I had to do it again, I would. It brought me from here" — he holds his palm a few inches off the ground, and then raises it to eye level — "to here."
The line dancers are starting to head home. Lopez calls it a night, as do Raiola and Parrella. There's only one fellow left in the group, Russell Dutra, who has been quiet all evening. He looks like he's in a bad mood.
Actually, he was just uncomfortable with Lopez around. As soon as Lopez exits, Dutra gushes like a teenager confessing to a massive crush on the high school quarterback. His friends say he's exactly Lopez's type, he says, but Dutra says Lopez doesn't pay him any attention. "Whenever I see him, I get so nervous, I feel nauseous," he says. "I think he's gorgeous. He walks on water."
Dutra, 44, has salt-and-pepper hair and a trim goatee. He is five-foot-ten and 375 pounds. Some chubs carry their weight in their bellies, but Dutra is more evenly proportioned. He is stylishly dressed in camouflage cargo pants and white sneakers. He wonders if perhaps he isn't big enough to suit Lopez, although he is actually a little too big for Lopez's tastes.
Perhaps not for long, though. Dutra has been attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings for about four months, he says, and in that time has lost 35 pounds. It's a struggle. "I've always been heavy," he says. "I've always turned to food to feel better; for every emotion, there's a food to quell it."
Most of the men he meets seem to want one-night stands with a large guy, he says. But he's optimistic that the right guy is out there.
"I want to find somebody that, if I'm able to lose weight, they won't be like See ya!"
The first time Russell Dutra went to an OA meeting, he says, he didn't make it past the front door of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Wilton Manors. The second time, he took a deep breath and walked inside.
There, he met David Milam, a 43-year-old chub turned chaser who's six feet tall and weighs 210 pounds. Milam has close-cut hair, a coy smile, and a dry sense of humor. He has always liked big men, he says — he'd just rather not be one himself anymore. In January 2006, fed up with his limited mobility, he decided to diet and exercise. He lost 240 pounds.
On a recent Friday evening, Milam is finishing an iced coffee with Dutra at Stork's Café in Wilton Manors. Dutra has a brownie, which he offers to share. Milam declines. The gray plastic chairs on the café's deck are narrow, with armrests. Before he lost weight, Milam notes, he wouldn't have fit in them.
Milam takes a stab at explaining why he likes big men. For starters, there's more to hold onto, he says. And he can get rougher with them. "You can pound the hell out of a big person and they can take it."
That doesn't mean he has to be in control, he adds. He likes to please his partners. He enjoys the challenge of finding a large man's sweet spots in the folds of skin. And he likes to feel crushed: "Especially if you get them on top of you, the weight of it will take your breath away."
Big guys often aren't very flexible. Sometimes as they romp, Milam says, furniture gets broken.
But it's worth it. "They appreciate sex more. I don't know why — maybe because they're not gettin' any. I know I wasn't when I was big."
You have a fat fetish, Dutra tells Milam.
Milam disagrees: "To me, toe licking, fucking in high heels — that's a fetish."
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