At a potluck hosted by The Black Bear Brotherhood (BBB), you can smell the food before you get there. There’s lasagna and fried chicken. You know an open bar is part of the party, too, even if you can’t smell it. Music is bumping from the speakers, and about 30 plus-size Black men are hanging out, chatting, eating, dancing.
And unless you are a queer Black man of size in Detroit, you’ll have to do what we just did and imagine what the potluck smells, sounds and feels like. Allies are welcome into the brotherhood, but not at the potlucks.
The Black Bear Brotherhood designates its potlucks as a safe space for plus-size queer men of color. BBB is a social collective for Black gay, bisexual, same-gender loving and gender nonconforming men of size and their allies.
When founder L. Michael Gipson moved to Detroit, he started hosting casual potlucks in his home in an attempt to find his people, generally plus-sized men of color. Some people would come and stay the whole time. Others would pop in, grab some food, hit up Detroit bars and come back later to finish a conversation.
The brotherhood and camaraderie was infectious. As more people and food continued to show up, Gipson realized he had tapped into an unmet need for this community.
“There’s always people of color or people who are left out of things,” BBB Detroit co-director Damon Percy said. “Especially Black men larger than the (typical) athlete or model. They just get discarded.”
The potluck eventually grew too large for Gipson’s home. In 2017, Gipson turned the potluck and its members into what BBB is today. Detroit’s chapter is the first of four BBB chapters in the country, following Gipson’s lead.
“We always make it fun,” Percy said. “But we want to make sure we teach the lessons there as well.”
Gipson, an advocate for better HIV/AIDS education and community programming, now lives in Mexico, and the Detroit chapter is run by co-directors Percy and Terry Allen.
‘That camaraderie, that communal experience’
Black LGBTQ+ people often find themselves at the intersection of anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, resulting in higher rates of discrimination, economic difficulties and, specifically for queer Black men, more negative police interactions.
“We’re usually seen as a fetish,” Percy said. “Always the funny friend or the joke instead of being a very proud prominent figure in society. People who existed in that realm needed a space to see themselves reflected as … professional men.”
Percy said this, compounded with the oversexualization of Black queer men, makes an organization like BBB necessary.
BBB Media and Marketing Manager Chris Sutton, who also works as a broadcast manager at LGBT Detroit, said the queer bear community is typically white-centered, so creating a space for Black men of size was important to him.
“A lot of LGBT+-centered spaces are typically white-centered, specifically white gay men who fit a certain body type,” Sutton said. “Black Bear Brotherhood really opens the door, while also welcoming Black cis men, Black trans men, nonbinary folk.”
Some members mainly participate in BBB’s monthly potlucks, annual Friendsgiving and holiday bashes. Other members engage in more political and educational activities. Alongside LGBT Detroit, BBB partners with the Counter Narrative Project, an Atlanta-based project focused on countering the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
BBB also runs a “self-care salon,” similar to the social spaces of barbershops that are important to the straight Black male community.
“The barbershop could be a very tense space because it’s centered around a lot of hypermasculinity,” Sutton said. “The self-care salon was like a response to that. We weren’t really cutting hair. But it was supposed to be where a Black gay man can still have that camaraderie, that communal experience.”
A place for ‘other Black men of size to see themselves’
Both Percy and Sutton have years of experience doing community work, and both agree The Black Bear Brotherhood is something different and special.
“Within our community, so many of our stories are not being told,” Sutton said. “If they are being told, they’re not being told by us.”
Sutton makes sure to document every potluck and event. He said he enjoys being able to showcase the joy and platonic love between Black queer men at BBB.
“I feel like with my work, the stuff I do for (BBB), hopefully it resonates with other Black men of size to see themselves,” Sutton said.
“I want people to see them and love them the way I do,” Percy said. “I want people to recognize their beauty and their brilliance. … I love that Michael decided to expand. It could’ve easily just stayed a potluck.”
People interested in joining The Black Bear Brotherhood can fill out a membership form. Membership is free, though donations are welcome. BBB’s executive board reviews all applicants, and those approved as core members get to join monthly potlucks..
People can learn more about BBB’s mission and events on its website.
This story has been corrected to say that Gipson currently lives in Mexico, not Chicago.