Bear

bears by carey jordan

In gay culture, a Bear is a large, hairy man who projects an image of rugged masculinity. As a rising subculture in the gay and bisexual male communities, Bears are one of many LGBT communities with events, codes, and a culture-specific identity.

The term was popularized by Richard Bulger, who, along with his then partner Chris Nelson (1960–2006) founded ‘Bear Magazine’ in 1987. There is some contention surrounding whether Bulger originated the term and the subculture’s conventions. Author George Mazzei, for example, wrote an article for ‘The Advocate’ in 1979 called ‘Who’s Who in the Zoo?,’ that characterized homosexuals as seven types of animals, including bears.

Some Bears place importance on presenting a hypermasculine image and may shun interaction with, and even disdain, men who exhibit effeminacy. The Bear concept can function as an identity, an affiliation, and there is ongoing debate in Bear communities about what constitutes a Bear, however a consensus exists that inclusion is an important part of the Bear community. In particular, many bear community organizations define inclusiveness as a central value of the movement, such that anyone who supports values such as ‘having a good attitude to life, friends and helping the local community,’ is welcome in the Bear community regardless of appearance, although the view that physical characteristics are central to the Bear identity is still seen in many other definitions.

Bears are almost always gay or bisexual men. Increasingly, transgender or transsexual men (trans men) and those who shun labels for gender and sexuality are also included within Bear communities. However, heterosexual men who have Bearish physical traits and are affirming of their gay friends and family (or their gay fans, in the case of a celebrity) may also be informally accorded ‘honorary’ Bear status. A smaller number of lesbians, particularly ‘butch dykes,’ also participate in Bear culture, referring to themselves with the distinct label of ‘ursula.’

At the onset of the Bear movement, some Bears separated from the gay community at large, forming ‘Bear clubs’ to create social and sexual opportunities for their own. Many clubs are loosely organized social groups; others are modeled on leather biker-patch clubs, with a strict set of bylaws, membership requirements, and charities. Bear clubs often sponsor large yearly events—’Bear runs’ or ‘Bear gatherings’ like the annual events such as ‘HiBearNation’ in St. Louis, Missouri, ‘SF Bear Weekend,’ and ‘Bear Pride, Texas Bear Round Up’ (TBRU) in Dallas. Many LGBT events attract a significant Bear following, such as ‘Southern Decadence’in New Orleans. A feature at many Bear events is a ‘Bear contest,’ a sort of masculine beauty pageant awarding titles and sashes (often made of leather) to winners.

One example of a Bear contest was ‘International Mr. Bear,’ formerly held each February at the ‘International Bear Rendezvous’ in San Francisco. It attracted contestants, often with local titles, from all over the world. The first contest was held in 1992 and the last in 2011. The event included ‘Bear,’ ‘Daddy,’ ‘Cub,’ and ‘Grizzly’ titles with the contestant who receives the highest score winning the Bear title, regardless of what type he is. Gay ‘leather-Bears’ have competed in leather contests, and ‘muscle-Bears’ are another subculture noted by their muscular body mass.

Gay historian Jack Fritscher notes that Bears celebrate, ‘secondary sexual characteristics of the male: facial hair, body hair, proportional size, baldness.’ Over the years, Bear culture has subdivided itself. Many claim discrimination has increased within the Bear community, as some men who self-identify as ‘Bears’ or ‘musclebears’ do not welcome higher-body fat men (known as ‘chubs’) at their events. A common criticism of the Bear community is that some self-described Bears tend to exclude men who do not fit their standards of a ‘real Bear.’ Fat (or lack of it) is a political issue, some of whom see their overweight condition as a form of self-acceptance. Some also note a lack of racial diversity in the Bear community, perceiving hirsuteness to be a standard of physical attractiveness that genetically favors white men aesthetically, socially and sexually among Bears.

The AIDS devastation in San Francisco accelerated the generation gap between older and younger Bear-identified men, peaking in the early 1990s. Some older survivors claim that the current Bear culture has become ‘shallow and catty,’ which is also their common criticism of mainstream gay culture. The allegation is that the younger Bear community no longer reflects the culture’s original function as a social alternative for primarily rural and blue-collar, traditionally masculine gay men. Moreover, the proliferation of Bear pageants and their title winners (‘sash Bears’) runs contrary to the early Bear community’s identification with and admiration for unself-conscious masculinity.

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