The boys of Blink-182 are fighting. Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker say Tom Delonge doesn't want to be in the band; Delonge insists he does; the he-said/he-saids have unfolded on Facebook and in interviews. It’s all quite painful to watch, and not just because of the uncomfortable sight of grown men fighting, nor because this must be tough for the millennials out there for whom the pop-punk trio was the most important rock band of the '90s. The truly gutting thing about the situation is that—say it aint so—we might be witnessing the break-up of one of the greatest gay love stories in American culture.

Okay, kidding. Tom Delonge, Mark Hoppus, and Travis Barker are not, as far as the public knows, gay. All of them have been married to women. But there have definitely been times when they pretended to be something other than strictly heterosexual. For example, this picture seems designed to invite speculation.

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And there's this video, when Hoppus sings, “I’m gay / so what / don’t judge / my butt”—

And this video, where Delonge, with remarkable quickness, riffs on Barker’s various tattoos: “That ghetto blaster is always playing homosexual music like Morrissey, Erasure. That bird you see on his left arm there—that bird symbolizes a man swishing through the clouds, coming down and sleeping with him.”

This is all, of course, typically juvenile homophobic idiocy, an extension of the same shtick that led the band to sing about having sex with dogs and land an American Pie cameo and put a porn star on the cover of an album titled Enema of the State. But playing with and panicking at the idea of being gay was actually more vital to the band's identity than bathroom humor and skirt chasing were, and that's why their current crisis is so striking to watch. The three dudes of Blink-182 really did appear to love each other, so intensely that they couldn't help but make performance art about same-sex affection as they conquered adolescent America.

A queer reading of Blink-182 may almost be too obvious to make, too easy for anyone who grew up watching MTV around Y2K. On posters, on album covers, and on the streets of Los Angeles in the video for their hit song “What’s My Age Again?” the trio for a time seemed to be naked, together, constantly. The band members have said this was, in part, a marketing strategy. It made them into pinups of a sort never quite seen before or since: more overtly sexual and yet down to earth than either the spandex-clad rockers of a decade earlier, or the boy bands on the airwaves at the time, or their present-day analogue Five Seconds of Summer (who, in pointed contrast to Blink, cut cameras at the moment of trouser drop).

Stripping down wasn't just savvy business, though. In a 2000 Entertainment Weekly feature story titled “Nude Sensation,” producer Jerry Finn said that the guys really just hung out that way: “I saw them naked more than I ever care to see anyone naked. In the mastering studio—pretty much anywhere.'' That unselfconscious locker-room intimacy is, in a historical context, pretty normal. But in modern Western society that often sees queerness as a pathology, it gives rise to sexual suspicion. And so it is that in that same EW article, Delonge dropped the g-word when talking about his friendship with Hoppus: “It sounds stupid and gay, but the first time we sat down and played together, it was just magical.” The thing is, to some people it would sound kind of gay, and the guys' camaraderie is part of what inspires "shipping" blogs and slash fanfiction and fake religious-right screeds about the band.

Faced with the options of acknowledging how their friendship might be perceived or repressing it, Blink-182 dove with glee into “acknowledge,” and the result was winking butt-grabs and boxer-clad photoshoots and songs about prison rape. This was, counterintuitively, a macho performance. They even made fun of the repressed camp that characterized boy bands, with the parodic “All the Small Things” video showing way more skin than Brian Littrell and co. would have ever dared, implying that it was Blink's chart rivals who had something to hide. (Delonge on boy bands to Launch magazine: "They choreograph everything, including the sex they have with each other after the shows!")

As far as I can tell, gay-rights groups never seemed to much mind Blink’s antics. Feminists did, though, and rightly, given that the band regularly asked fans to flash their boobs and sang about wanting a "girl that I can train." Really listen to the music, though, and something other than the classic male-rocker-pig tropes of conquest comes to the fore. The guys seem to be jerking off more often than bedding women, which could just be a true-to-life depiction of straight male teenagedom were it not for songs like “What’s My Age Again,” in which Hoppus sings of turning on the TV in the middle of a blow job. As Claire Lobenfeld asked in a recent Wondering Sound reappraisal of Enema of the State, “What’s the possibility that not being interested in sex is the thing?”

The truth is that the band members weren't bored with sex; it's just that their own bromance often fascinated them more. In her One Week One Band series on Blink-182, writer Rikki Reynolds pointed out that the video for "Josie"—a song about the perfect punk-rock girlfriend—fixated on male relationships, with a dose of explicit gay panic coming when Hoppus accidentally catches the eye of the chubby boy at the back of the class.

It's not quite right to call Blink-182 extraordinary in any of this. Reynolds notes that "pretending to be kinda-gay in order to police the boundaries of your own sexual desire through jokes is a classic pop-punk move," and the years after the band's late '90s/early 2000s heyday saw Judd Apatow's clique turn the gimmick into a blockbuster industry. And it wouldn't be right to praise the band for spreading the terrible notion of "gay" as a synonym for "gross and hilarious."

But the fact remains that Blink-182's homosocial hijinks forged in a generation's mind an image of three guys who shared the closeness of lovers. Which then lends a note of poignance to their current spat. In his recent Facebook note replying to Hoppus and Barker's accusations of ingratitude and negligence, Delonge wrote that "even as I watch them act so different to what I know of them to be, I still care deeply for them." Who can doubt him?

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