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Here's to the 'bromance'--straight men embracing close friendships

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Drinking beer and watching sports are staples of a bromance. (Photo by: Katherine Bindley)

In a 2007 episode of NBC’s hospital-based comedy Scrubs, the show’s two main characters, J.D. and Turk, break into a musical duet proclaiming their mutual affection. “Guy love. That’s all it is,” the song goes. “Guy love, he’s mine, I’m his. There’s nothing gay about it in our eyes.’’

Turk and J.D. are two straight male doctors who are, without a doubt, in a bromance, a relationship defined as “the complicated love and affection shared by two straight males,” according to urbandictionary.com.

From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Good Will Hunting, popular culture is filled with examples of straight guy love. The sitcom “Friends” often crafted jokes around the ultra-tight nature of Joey and Chandler’s relationship, and in the 2005 film “Wedding Crashers,” Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson seemed to have something more like a tortured love affair than a friendship.

But close male friendship isn’t just a quirky television fantasy or a running gag in the movies. Real-life bromances are everywhere. Kevin Collier, 26, a construction manager living in Hillsdale, N.J., has lots of manly things in common with his best friend, including but not limited to, “tattoos, motorcycles and chicks,” as Collier put it. But that hasn’t stopped his friends from accusing him of having a “man crush” on his best friend Don Carlo-Clauss, 28, of Rochester, N.Y., a semi-professional fighter whose day job is in marketing.

They first met on the wrestling team at the University of Virginia. It was a bromance founded on shared misery. “When you spend six months out of the year being miserable together, you wind up with a lot of close relationships with your teammates,” said Collier.

Thomas Hopkins and Peter Varellas, both 23, had a similar experience playing for Stanford University’s water polo team. As freshman, Hopkins convinced Varellas to pursue the same major as his so they could take classes together. “I was like dude, we can hang out all the time,” recalled Hopkins. They quickly became known by the rest of the team as the “ambiguously gay duo,” after the “Saturday Night Live” cartoon. They remain close, both playing water polo for the U.S.A. National Team and training for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Experts say the prevalence of these friendships can in part be explained by the delay in major life milestones. Fifty years ago, a man could graduate from college, get a job and get married all within a couple of months. But today’s men are drifting, as opposed to jumping, into the traditional notion of adulthood.

“The transition to adulthood is now taking about a decade longer than it used to,” said Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University in New York whose upcoming book is called “Guy Land: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.” One set of men Kimmel interviewed for the book were fraternity brothers at Dartmouth College. Following graduation, seven of them squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment in Boston.

Financial pressures help fuel bromances because they make living with a roommate a sensible option. In addition, men are getting married later--an average age of 27, according to a 2007 report by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, up from the average marrying age in 1960, which was 23. Men with more education are marrying even later, in their 30s.

David Popenoe, director of the marriage project and an emeritus professor of sociology at Rutgers, cited the acceptance of premarital sex and the greater numbers of men and women who live together as reasons for the delay in marriage. Half of today’s first marriages start out with people living together, as opposed to fifty years ago when there were next to no cohabitation, according to the report

Men in bromances agree that when singlehood abounds, male friendships flourish. “Being single as opposed to married allows us to do things like go on these random excursions,” said Joe Tipograph, 27, a graduate student at Emory University who recently spent a week in Key West with his two best friends from high school.

Tipograph, David Abrams and Greg Kopstein have a triangular bromance of sorts that began when they were kids growing up as neighbors in Rockville, Md. They went to separate colleges but reunited one summer to work as camp counselors in New Hampshire.

“Greg and I would always get in trouble, but they knew if they fired either one of us, Dave would quit,” said Tipograph of how the three became a package deal. Recently Tipograph wouldn’t join in a football gambling pool unless he could do so with Kopstein. Their friends promptly dubbed them “Team Brokeback,” referring the 2006 tale of cowboy romance between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Since graduating college, they’ve played a game of musical apartments, each having lived with the other, in one city or another, over the years. The 2000 census found that the number of nonfamily households, which includes people living with roommates and unmarried partners, had gone up by 23 percent since 1990.

Ted Mariner, a 27-year-old in advertising sales, moved into an apartment in Boston four years ago with his best friend since childhood, Jamie Gerrity, also 27. They spent every summer together with their families in Maine and even their fathers are close friends. Gerrity found that he could afford a nicer apartment by living with Mariner.

The speculation of their bromance began long ago but was solidified when the two mused that they were inching towards qualifying for a common-law marriage. “We joked about it because if you live together for seven years you can claim spouse by association and you can file your taxes jointly,” said Gerrity. They started referring to themselves as “hetero-life partners” shortly thereafter.

According to Peter Nardi, a sociologist at Pitzer College who specializes in male friendships, all these phrases are safer than they used to be because men are less afraid of being perceived as gay. It has become more acceptable for them to show some emotion. Al Gore and Bill Clinton hugged when they won the 1992 election and sports figures cry on camera when they’re busted for steroids, Nardi pointed out.

There seems to be little worry about perceptions of homosexuality in a bromance filled with macho pursuits like drinking beer, watching sports and playing video games. But rifts can occur when serious girlfriends enter the picture or someone moves to another city. Tipograph and Kopstein both have girlfriends and make it work.

Bromancers say they keep the spark alive by making an extra effort to see one another and keeping an open and honest communication. Collier and Carlo-Clauss rode Harleys from San Diego to Las Vegas together. Varellas is temporarily playing water polo professionally in Italy, while Hopkins trains just north of Los Angeles, but the two talk on the phone once a week.

Gerrity will be moving out of Mariner’s apartment come fall when he heads to graduate school, and they’ll be trying long distance. “We had a long talk about it,” said Gerrity. “I won’t see him every day,” said Mariner. “But I don’t think we’re going to break up our bromance.”

E-mail: kab2162@columbia.com