For a long time, the nexus of gay male culture was, for better or worse, the bar. Modern gay history arguably began 40 years ago at a bar (Stonewall), and before liberation a tavern was the only public place where men could meet discreetly and in relative safety.
The bar scene is still important to gay life — you only have to spend a Saturday night in GaYbor to be reminded of that (and check out the sidebar to see what's new there and elsewhere). But with so many gay men and lesbians living openly, a bar is no longer the only option for socializing (especially since the Internet has taken over in the hook-up department). We've got professional organizations, athletic teams, political campaigns, cruise ships, restaurants — hell, even whole TV networks — where connections can be made.
Still, it can be difficult to find people who share your interests — the couple who likes to go kayaking, say, or the guy who's crazy for old architecture — especially in an expansive urban area like Tampa Bay. That's where Robert Geller comes in. An ebullient entrepreneur who first made his mark in the Tampa Bay area with Bourbon Street Boxers, a boxer-shorts boutique, he's now running Outings & Adventures, a smartly designed service for gay men that could be described as everything but the bars.
The programming is both predictable and surprising: Predictable, because you'd expect there to be a gay male audience for things like a private tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed campus at Florida Southern. Surprising, because even though such outings are appealing, it's rare to see them offered to gay men in any organized fashion.
A USF MBA, Geller has long harbored the notion of an alternative to the bars, throughout a business career that has included the men's clothing shop what2wear at the Suncoast Resort and a stint with the Melting Pot Restaurants chain developing a chocolate-fondue kiosk concept called Dips! After the chain discontinued the chocolate project and let him go, he decided last year to test out his gay-socializing idea. He invited 10 friends to join him for a late-night screening of Sex and the City and drinks at Bennigan's, then asked them what other group activities they might be interested in. O&A was born.
Geller, 44, is an avid amateur athlete — he once biked the Iron Man course during a Hawaii vacation — and originally thought Outings & Adventures would be "more adventurous." But, a marketer at heart, he listened to his audience and realized that "not everyone likes to bike 45-60+ miles each weekend day" — and broadened the offerings from athletic to other endeavors.
The range is eclectic, and geared toward an older, sophisticated demographic: Horseback riding. Crepe-making at Olivier's in Ybor. Kayaking, hiking and a monthly book club. Dinner-and-a-movie with the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Boot camp with a fitness trainer in SoHo. A day at the spa with massages and facials.
And opera. He'd never been. So he got a group together, including a singer and a critic, and went to an opera at USF. Great time had by all, he says, especially the post-show trip to Dairy Queen.
"But it might be someone else leading that group if I do it again."
His programming is like that, he says. "A lot of it comes from things that I would want to do. But some are things I do once, I never want to do again."
Early on, he encountered some resistance to O&A from "little cliques" who perhaps resented that he was trying to democratize the gay social scene.
"There was no bitter queen deciding who's welcome and who isn't," he says. "It didn't matter how old, how young, how thin you were."
But that welcoming attitude eventually brought him customers.
"He really creates a warm and friendly environment for events," says Tom Faricy, 45, an O&A regular and the human resources director for Tampa Bay's two Renaissance hotels, the Vinoy and the Hyatt. "That atmosphere encourages people to go to the events over and over again and get to know people that they don't know already."
"He's Julie the Cruise Director, " says USF marketing professor Gary Gebhardt, 45, another regular. "Only much better-looking."
Membership in O&A is free; Geller takes a cut from the ticket price for expenses. (And the prices are reasonable; a four-course wine dinner at Grillsmith, for instance, was $60.) He hasn't seen any profit yet, but he has advertisers on his website, including Raymond James Financial, and he's selling O&A merchandise. And with 1,500 members and counting, he no longer has to worry so much about whether he'll attract enough participants.
"At first I'd be stressing, worrying that I'd fill up those events." Now they're regularly selling out. Forty-two people showed up for a recent hayride and bonfire. For the Wright tour, which was led by a docent, he was told to bring no more than 25 people; interest was so strong that he had to expand to 31. "I couldn't take the PayPal down fast enough." In July, he'll take a group to see Stageworks' production of The Little Dog Laughed, a comedy about a closeted Hollywoood actor. He's confident enough that the show will be a draw that he's bought up all 99 seats at TBPAC's Shimberg Playhouse.
And this is just the beginning.
"What Oprah is to women I want O&A to be for gay men," say Geller. "Live your best life possible."
Or at least a little better life, with the help of some new gay friends.