“The Birth of Girth and Mirth” interview

BoB2 frontcoverTo celebrate the release of The Biggest Lover, I’ve dug out from the archives a seminal piece of Girth and Mirth history, an interview with G&M co-founder, Reed Wilgoren. Sad to say, Reed passed away April 14, 2014.

This interview was conducted in person at Reed’s Boston-area home, November 3, 1999. A brief excerpt from the piece was first published in American Bear magazine in April 2000; and another section was on the website, resourcesforbears.com, in August 2001.

This is an excerpt (Chapter 6) as published in my book, Bears on Bears: Interviews & Discussions, revised edition.

Copyright 2002, 2009, by Ron J. Suresha — all rights reserved.

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The Birth of Girth and Mirth

An interview with Reed Wilgoren

More than a decade before Bears and grizzlies and cubs were even a twinkle in some gay men’s eyes, there was Girth & Mirth, the now-international organization for big men and their admirers. Yet even before that, one such big man, Reed Wilgoren, came out into gay life the year after he graduated high school in Boston, 1969: the same year as the Stonewall Revolution.

Reed became involved with the informal network of Chubbies and chasers on the East Coast. When he moved to the San Francisco Bay area in the mid-’70s, he was at the forefront of the network that was to become the first Girth & Mirth group there. When Reed later returned to Boston, he also founded Girth & Mirth of New England.

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First of all, where did you grow up and go to school?

Reed: I grew up in the Allston-Brighton area [of Boston], and graduated Brighton High. Then I lived in the Brighton area well into the ‘60s. I came out into gay life in 1969, the year after I graduated high school, probably eighteen or nineteen years old, and lived on my own mostly ever since. Then I worked and went to school in the Boston area until I moved to California.

What was gay Boston like then? What was your main venue for meeting folks?

Reed: People, even back in school, always said there were places where gay people hung out. They would say uncomplimentary things, like “Oh, that’s where the fags hang out.” In those days, there was a bar called The Punchbowl, which was closed by the time I came out, and two others called The Other Side and Jacques’ [both since closed], which were in the Bay Village area of Boston. Those bars [had that reputation], so when I decided to come out and look I went to The Other Side, which was formerly The Punchbowl crowd of people. That was a very eventful evening, to say the least.

It must have been, judging from your smile! Was coming out relatively easy for you?

Reed: Yes, and no. I knew that this was what I had tendencies to do, although I’d had relationships with women all through school — when I was a junior in high school, I was almost engaged, much to my parents’ delight! Then I went the other way, and I decided to come out in 1969. When I went into the bar that night, I encountered a very varied group of people — lesbian women, older and younger gay men, drag queens, transvestites, the whole nine yards.

What was the hard part?

Reed: The difficult part was that people were telling me, “You’re a good-looking fellow, but you’re overweight, you’re a big man. That’s going to be held against you, coming out in the gay world.”

How big were you then?

Reed: When I came out, I was perhaps 200–225 pounds. I had a football-player-size build. I did in fact play football in high school.

Was it doubly hard, being gay and being heavy? It was still very much stigmatized then.

Reed: Exactly. It was difficult, not so much because there was shame at my size, but because of the reaction I got from other gay people in the bars and community. They considered it a stumbling block. There was always that unspoken feeling, “Oh well, jeez, you’re really nice, and you’re really nice looking, but you’re so big.” Only slim gay men were considered attractive in those days.

My first night out, the first man that I met in the bar was very gay, very out, but also had a cultured side. He was a schoolteacher, and he was determined to show me around. He said, “If you want to put yourself in my hands for the evening, I’ll show you the ropes.” So we went all around Bay Village. We went from The Other Side to Jacques’ to see a drag show, and from there we went to … oh, the other bar that just closed down [in 1998] …

Napoleon’s?

Reed: Napoleon’s. It was very relaxing and clean, with a group of people definitely varied in age and size. Instantly I felt more comfortable there. Then from there we went on sort of a driving tour around Boston. This fellow, Jim, showed me the cruising areas, the other bars, where to go, where not to go …

Jim spent the rest of the evening with me until he drove me home. I considered myself fortunate to meet somebody as kind, decent, and trustworthy as he to hang out with my first night in gay life in Boston. My experience wasn’t bad because of him. However, he said negative things about my size, such as that it would be difficult as a big man to meet people.

Did you take that message to heart, or were you able to just let it go?

Reed: Probably, to some extent. I didn’t think much of it. At The Other Side, there was a piano player and singer, Ellie Boswell, who sang blues and all kinds of music. She was a big black woman, and she told me, “Some night, somebody will come in here and you will be the one that they are looking for, and everything you think about your size and what you look like will mean nothing. I hope I’m here when it happens.” I replied, “Ellie, you’re an eternal optimist. I’m taking your word that this will happen.” And about three weeks later, it did happen — right at her piano!

Please tell me about that — you were at the bar, near Ellie at the piano?

Reed: Yes, this man walked in the door, turned his head and spotted me, and it was like somebody discovering cheesecake for the first time. And he looked at me with every bit as much desire.

Discovering cheesecake — I love that analogy!

Reed: He wasn’t too hard to look at, himself. He was very well dressed, very handsome. When I was younger, I hoped in my heart of hearts that I would find somebody older than myself, and Bob was certainly that. He walked over to me, offered to buy me a drink, chatted with me for half an hour or so, and then proceeded to unbutton my shirt, maybe halfway down. Ellie, the piano player, was watching all of this, and making little subtle eyes at me in the background, and then launched into one of her blues songs which she had composed herself and had a lot of gay innuendoes. The song was entitled, “Hot Nuts,” and they were very hot for both Bob and me at that point.

She played that song just for you.

Reed: Yes. Being a big gay man and being young and inexperienced, I never in my life had anybody come after me like that. I discovered what a “Chubby chaser” was, and how that would affect my life.

Well, it was a very eventful night, because this man, Bob, invited me to go with him to Napoleon’s, to hook up with some other friends of his. I had no idea that I was about to enter the most notorious circle of Chubby chasers. In the old days, Chubby chasers existed all over the country. This was pre-Girth & Mirth, pre-Bear. This was a telephone and mail network of Chubbies and chasers, and this fellow Bob, and the people he introduced to me in the other bar, were the key players on the East Coast. And I was the innocent young big guy about to be devoured, literally, in their midst.

They used that phrase, “Chubby chaser,” themselves?

Reed: Yes, that was the term of that era, and there were bars in all major cities — New York, San Francisco, LA, and other places — that were known to be “Chubby and Chubby chaser bars” per se.

Was it then a particularly gay term, or something that women and straights would have used?

Reed: It has spilled over into those groups now, but back then it was pretty much considered a gay term, for big men and the guys who like them.

So, this informal network of big gay men preceded not only the Bears but also the entire “fat-acceptance” movement in America. Please continue now.

Reed: When I walked into Napoleon’s with Bob that night, he introduced me to his friends, and we proceeded to go to the upstairs bar, which was what we then called a “conversational bar” — very low-key music, a place to meet people in a very informal setting. As we began going up the steps, Bob walking in front of me, another man whom I didn’t know at all, who’d been sort of lurking in the shadows, was following me and feeling me up! This man was destined to become my first lover. [Both laugh.]

Very interesting! And his name?

Reed: His name is Harvey; he’s now living in the SF Bay area. I came into his life at a very precarious time: his gay life was very much closeted, and I was so young. It was all very exciting for me, but he had to be very wary of what we were doing. And I was scared myself. I’d never been alone with a man before that evening, and it seemed to be all happening to me at once. At one point, Harvey was on one side of me and Bob was on the other, and they were both running their hands all over my body, from my head all the way below my waist down to my knees and back up again. I felt just like the expression, “I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.”

Stonewall hadn’t even happened, or had just happened months before.

Reed: No, none of that. And then they introduced me to the rest of the crowd, and they consisted of Bob’s lover, Taylor Reed — an actor and singer on Broadway from the [entertainer] Jimmy Coco era who has since passed away (as has Bob) — and a few other people. So they invited me to go back to their hotel room. That was a whole other part of the evening.

They took me to a hotel called The Avery, right in the middle of the Combat Zone, where you could meet anyone from a businessman to a transvestite to a prostitute and everything in between. They had very clean, decent rooms where you could have an inexpensive fling. So they took me to their room, and I had no idea what was in mind, but they knew. They proceeded to orchestrate this orgy in the room.

With just the three of you? Or with more?

Reed: There were five of us: Bob, who had initially met me at The Other Side; Harvey, who was to become my first lover; and Bob’s lover, and another friend. They were all in the room, wanting me in their respective ways, or rather, wanting to have their way with me, as it were. I made it very clear that that wasn’t going to happen but I was still curious enough to engage in part of the evening, doing what I felt comfortable doing. When I was no longer comfortable, then I asked to leave, and Harvey drove me home, but I didn’t let him take me right to my house. I had him drop me off a block away at a strange house, because I didn’t want him to know where I lived with my parents.

I don’t think it was an uncommon gambit in those days, dropping off a block away. I remember doing the same thing in college.

Reed: But I was never the same, after that evening.

You were affirmed very early in the coming-out process.

Reed: Yes. Well, Harvey and I became quite involved, spending all of our free time together — vacations, weekends away to Provincetown, Vermont, New York City. We had a very illicit romance for maybe four years. And I was growing as a gay man and a big man through my experiences with him along the road. Eventually I realized that he wasn’t ready to have a lover, and that it was time to move on to something else in my life. He said, “If things don’t work out between us, I hope that we’ll remain friends. And I’ll also give you other introductions to other Chubby chasers and other people I know on the West Coast, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

In the meantime, though, you had your entré into this world pretty much all the way up the Eastern Seaboard.

Reed: Yes. And they were a pretty affluent group of people.

[Reed’s first lover, Harvey, later introduced him to “one of the most notorious Chubby chasers in the country,” Tony diGenova, who invited Reed to stay with him in his posh Oakland house. So, in the early ‘70s, Reed quit his job in Boston and moved to Oakland, where eventually he met his next lover, Bob.]

So, what was your life like then?

Reed: I was unemployed, young — nineteen to twenty years old — big, and good-looking to whomever was looking for a big young man at that time. And as far as Chubby chasers were concerned, during that period in San Francisco, the world was my oyster. Ha! I never realized that I would meet so many significant people for friendship, fun, and sex, all of which would then also evolve into a picture-perfect relationship with my lover Bob (who since then passed away from a heart condition), and everything else that went along with it, from 1971 to ‘85 and the coming of AIDS… .

When did you move in with Bob?

Reed: In 1973.

And you were together for six years.

Reed: Yes. A couple of years after I met Bob, Girth & Mirth came about. Charlie Brown, the founder of the group, put an ad in a gay newspaper eliciting interest in a big men’s organization.

I spoke with Charlie on the phone, actually. By his telling of the incident, it was in February 1976 that he took out an ad in the Berkeley Barb. He described it to me: he had gone in there with a friend, to help his friend place an ad and, on kind of a joke, or dare, Charlie decided to place an ad himself. He titled his ad, “Chubbies and Chasers, Unite!” And he called it a “clarion call.”

Reed: And clarion it was. It was like, telephone, tell-a-friend, tell-any-Chubby-chaser-and-Chubby-that-you-know! This was a Saturday or Sunday morning, and people were still home in their robes and slippers, drinking coffee and reading the morning paper when they got the call. It was like electricity went through everyone, thinking, Finally! It’s happened!

So, everyone was calling everybody else, asking, “Have you heard? Have you heard about this?”

Reed: It was just amazing! What excitement it stirred up in all of us in the Bay area at that moment! And the person who had called me had already called Charlie Brown and his lover and spoken to them, and everyone was just brimming over with enthusiasm and anticipation as to what we were going to do with this. And within a very short time, we organized our very first meeting in San Francisco. The core group of people that showed up was already friends and had been in this network of Chubbies and chasers, pre-Charlie Brown, but of course, had Charlie not put this ad out, we never would have been. So he was definitely in the forefront of Girth & Mirth.

There was already a network there, but it was —

Reed: — loosely organized.

Yes, an informal network. And the ad served to give it some cohesion. Charlie said to me, “I get credited far more than I should.”

Reed: He’s still a very modest man, and very boyish in his own right, although he’s now in his late forties. He’s still very shy and doesn’t give himself enough credit for what he did to change the course of events for big men, and eventually, Bears.

So, please continue with your story from there.

Reed: Well, Bob and I went to the first meeting and were amazed at how many of our own friends showed up that night. As we looked around the room, we realized that, other than Charlie and his lover, we knew almost everybody there. We had a very interesting evening indeed, exchanging ideas, discussing where we wanted to go. We collected enough money that night just to give the bar owner something for his trouble. We also did come up with the name Girth & Mirth that night.

So, aside from the connotation of the words mirth and gay, you had Santa Claus for an archetype?

Reed: Exactly. Big and jolly and bearded as well. A segue to Bears, actually.

How did the organization become formalized? Did you appoint officers, and a council, and have regular meetings, and the like?

Reed: Yes, we set up officers, and planned meetings in people’s homes, and picnics and outings. About a year or two after we organized, we decided to participate in the first real Gay Day parade in San Francisco.

Was that the same year — 1976?

Reed: Yeah, right around then, May or June of ‘76. I’d bought a ‘64 Ford Galaxy convertible and was restoring it when they asked Bob and I if we’d enter my car as the Girth & Mirth float. I would be the Chubby and Bob would be the Chubby chaser, sitting up on the back of the convertible, and Tony diGenova would be the driver and his then-lover was the passenger.

I did not know what to expect, but when we pulled out into the mainstream of the parade onto Market Street, it seemed like, for that moment in my life, the whole world was gay, and we were an incredibly significant part of it all. We had no idea how it was going to change all of our lives as big men, and eventually as Bears. It was truly amazing how well we were accepted and encouraged to be there at that moment! We were in tears, and we were smiling, we were laughing, crying, all through the whole parade. It was a very moving experience — and still feels so, even to talk about it at this moment… .

I can tell.

Reed: The following year we actually made a real statement, and had an information booth set up to disseminate written information, because we already had a newsletter organized by 1977.

Great. So did the group then expand exponentially?

Reed: Well, we had an ongoing ad running in the Berkeley Barb, and the gay weekly newspaper Bay Area Reporter listed us as a viable group along with the meeting places and times, which always varied. We started off at just one bar, but then, over the years, met in many different places, other bars, churches, meeting halls, and various places in the City. Finding a meeting place there that was affordable, and accepting of our group was not easy in those days. There were no formally organized gay and lesbian centers, or anything like that. We had to fend for ourselves. But eventually we were more financially viable and could afford a better meeting place, and our activities became more organized.

Did you and the other San Francisco men contact your friends back east in New York when your group was formed?

Reed: Oh, definitely! It spread like wildfire all across the country, through this already-established network, as I said, of people, mostly friends, who were Chubbies and Chubby-chasers. .

Here I’d like to add another voice to the oral history from the Girth & Mirth–New York website <www.gandmny.com>:

In the mid 1970’s there was an unauthorized list of big men and their admirers that was being circulated throughout the U.S. Used solely for “contact” it was a list some of us found ourselves embarrassed, and pissed-off, to have been included on. This list, however, was the primary source with which the eventual founders contacted people who lived in the New York Tri-State area to inquire if there might be an interest in participating in the formation of a club. They also networked with their own private contacts, using the little black books of friends and acquaintances. Three of these founders, Ernie Harff, Ed Plunkett and Ben Schack, are still active members of G&M–New York.

Reed: Ernie Harff just passed away a week or two ago [November 1999]. The other two people are still involved and living. … The next group to come about was the New York group.

Right, which, according to their website, started up in June 1978.

Reed: There was a solid core group of Chubbies and chasers already in place in New York, just waiting for something like this to happen. This group had many more affluent members, much like Tony diGenova in San Francisco, who were icons of the big-men’s and Chubby-chasers’ world. And because they had money to put into this effort, the New York group became, and still is, one the largest Girth & Mirth contingents around the country.

After New York got going, we decided to have the first Convergence.

The ABC [Affiliated Bigmen’s Clubs] website says that “in 1986 the first ABC sanctioned ‘Convergence’ was held in Seattle and in 1988 G&M–New York was its host.” So, from what I can tell there were several less-formal Convergences before this. Is that correct?

Reed: Yes. There have been many Convergences held across the country, most of which I try to go to — at least every other one.

The current President of ABC, Aron Ahoronian, told me about EBMC [Europe Big Men’s Clubs], which is a very strong association centered out of Belgium.

Reed: Yes. They have their event right around Valentine’s Day, I believe.

What were the early Convergence gatherings like? Was it basically just “social hour” for two-and-a-half days?

Reed: Well, socializing, and a lot of sexual contacts made too. It was a place where big men and their admirers could really let their hair down and be what they wanted to be. The environment allowed big men to feel the elation of all these guys really seeking, loving, and appreciating them for who they were, as well as their size.

They could let out their belts a couple notches, so to speak?

Reed: Yes, exactly. The Chubby chasers, the admirers of big men, could also be in an environment where they didn’t feel like freaks or out of the ordinary. They could also admit to and freely demonstrate their admiration of other big guys in this open environment and know that they had the support and the numbers. Being able to act that free together was a tremendous feeling.

You said that, at that time, there was a fairly rigid stereotype of what gay men were supposed to look like, and how they acted.

Reed: Exactly. The advent of big men was something that definitely needed to happen.

This was before there were “Castro clones” or “leather Daddies,” right?

Reed: Yes. When we became visible, in cities like San Francisco and New York, it wasn’t always with open arms. There were many nasty comments made in those days by the “body beautiful” types, and those looking for them, when they saw us en masse. It was like, “What is this?!”

Can you give an example?

Reed: I remember a group of us walking down Castro and 18th — pretty much in the heart of the Castro — and there was a very popular bar there called The Elephant Walk, and it opened onto the sidewalk. We came to the corner and were looking around, and somebody made a comment, called me a “fat slob” or a “fat pig.” And the group heard and acknowledged it, but didn’t say anything back. Well, I stepped back and found the person in the window within hand’s reach, and I said to this person, “Would you like to repeat what you said, to me and to us, again?”

How brave! What happened?

Reed: I said to him, “I don’t think that was a very complimentary thing to say. Would you like to repeat it again?” He said, “No, I wouldn’t,” and just quietly shrank down into his chair. I think my girth definitely put a little fear into him, as a physical threat, although a physical confrontation was not what I had in mind. Still, that comment definitely needed to be addressed right then.

That’s a wonderful story. It was great that you stood up for yourself, yourselves —

Reed: As time went on, the more we were seen and thus became a viable group within the City, the more we were accepted and welcomed by other gay men in other clubs. “Oh wow, here’s the Girth & Mirth crowd, let’s welcome them.”

That was definitely a crossover point, a goal to reach: to not look like the Castro clones, to be able to walk down the street as a big man with your lover, and to hug and kiss and have him run his hands all over your body.

To have as much pride as the next gay man is very important. Anyway, after the New York group got underway and there were other clubs that formed around the country, how involved were you with the organization of the Bay area and other groups?

Reed: Originally I was a Board member and a planning person for the San Francisco group. When I started my own group here in Boston in 1985–86, I became their ABC rep.

You moved back in 1985?

Reed: Yes. I thought that starting Girth & Mirth of New England would be a vehicle to reintroduce myself into gay life in Boston, since being gone for fourteen years, I pretty much had to start all over again. It was a great vehicle for making friends and establishing a lifestyle.

How did you go about setting up the group here in Boston?

Reed: I contacted somebody at [Boston gay newsweekly] Bay Windows, and they did a cover story, complete with a picture of me, that went all the way back, from the beginning of Girth & Mirth in San Francisco through my moving here, and starting a group here in Boston. They were extremely helpful.

Girth & Mirth of New England was a thriving, viable club from ‘86 through ’91. Our first Convergence in Boston was very successful. Unfortunately, after that event the group headed into a downhill spiral: we lost meeting places and our population of members, and it just whittled down to the point where we couldn’t stay in operation any more. But just as we were becoming almost nonexistent, the New England Bears came into existence.

Bill Sanderson’s group, which started around 1992.

Reed: Yes. The Bear movement had become very visable and viable, here and in other cities. A lot of Girth & Mirth of New England members spilled over into the New England Bears. We were happy that, even though we were breaking up, there’d be some continuity for us. Even though it wasn’t Girth & Mirth, there was a place for us to go. Yet there was quite a big difference between the Bears and Girth & Mirth.

How so?

Reed: When the group started, if you sat a big man up next to a Bear, you’d see a difference — in size and age and mindset. Now, of course, it’s changed a lot over the years. As the Bear groups progressed, they included other bigger men, older men, men of different nationalities and backgrounds. Still, in the early days they were very typecast.

I belong to several different groups now. When I celebrated my fiftieth in July, I went to some of the Bear meetings in San Francisco. I also went to my first Bear Hug parties, which were really neat because people come together in a meeting place that can range from social to sexual and everything in-between.

Of course, not everyone in these groups is looking for a particular type, but some of them are very type-casting. Some big men won’t think of another big man as attractive; they’re only looking for, say, a young jock type, chasers, or Bears. Then there are other big men that, like myself, cross over a wide spectrum. I’m physically attracted to folks anywhere from twenty-five years old, 150 pounds, all the way up to men in their sixties, maybe 350 to 400 pounds. It depends on who the person is and what they’re all about.

Do you feel that the Bear groups largely absorbed Girth & Mirth men?

Reed: Somewhat. I found it kind of difficult to cross over into that group, to be honest with you. Coming from my own personal life experience and being very well accepted, socially and sexually, as a big man and then going into Bear groups was definitely quite a different experience for me. I felt, and still do feel sometimes, that age and size are definitely a discriminatory factor with Bears. It’s lessening, though: those attitudes in general have improved greatly.

I would hope so.

Reed: People still are coming out into this whole scene; Bears and big men and their admirers need to have this acceptance. Moreover, there needs to be a place for us in gay society as well as society in general, for now and for the future. Just as people are coming out every day — men and women realizing their sexuality — new Bears and new Chubbies and new chasers are also evolving in the world. There have to be people waiting to embrace them and show them the way, much as people showed me the way, who helped me to become what I am and who I am today.

Copyright 2002, 2009, by Ron J. Suresha — all rights reserved.

Author: Ron Suresha

Ron Jackson Suresha is an editor, anthologist, and writer. He is considered an authority on emergent queer masculinities, in particular the subcultures of gay and bi male Bears and of male bisexuality. For Ron's service to the bear community, he was named "Bear of the Year" 2008. Born in Detroit, Michigan, Suresha attended the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, 1976-8), where he studied creative writing, and Vista College (Berkeley, Cal., 1989-92), where he studied American Sign Language. For more than two decades, he has worked as a freelance proofreader for trade book publishers such as Shambhala Publications. He was married in October 2004 to Rocco Russo. He is also a licensed Justice of the Peace in Connecticut, an ordained minister, ULC, and a member of the New London Green Party. Nonfiction works include Bears on Bears: Interviews & Discussions; Bi Men: Coming Out (coeditor, with Pete Chvany); Bisexual Perspectives on the Life and Work of Alfred C. Kinsey (editor). His latest book is The Uncommon Sense of the Immortal Mullah Nasruddin: Stories, jests, and donkey tales of the beloved Persian folk hero, published by Lethe Press.