Before moving to London, I always thought I was a ‘twink’ because I was young. I’ve heard the term ‘twink’ multiple times in films, television and to be honest, porn. However the guys represented were not the same as me; physically or follically. They were thin, bronzed and hairless whereas I’m on the larger side and quite frankly a beast, although I do have a nice tan.
Now having lived in London for over a year and having frequented many gay bars, I think I’ve finally found where I fit in, with the bears. Like most young gay guys, my first true initiation into the gay scene was through Grindr. However for young bears there is Growlr, essentially the same thing but with a lot more hairy, beefy and muscly men. Now this isn’t to say that you won’t find these men on Grindr, but when you’re on Growlr, you know exactly the type of men you’re going to get.
Understanding where I fit in, I wanted to explore what this ‘bear culture’ is, how did it begin and ultimately why do I fit in. So let’s begin…
Simply, in male bisexual and gay culture, a bear is an often a larger, hairier man who projects an image of rugged masculinity. Bears are one of many LGBT communities with events, codes, and a culture-specific identity.
According to the most valued source on the internet, Wikipedia, the term bear was popularized by Richard Bulger, who, along with his then partner Chris Nelson (1960–2006) founded Bear Magazine in 1987. However there is some contention surrounding whether Bulger originated the term and the subculture’s conventions. George Mazzei 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. The image below appeared in the edition in 1979 alongside the ‘Glossary of Gay Animals‘. Mazzei defined ‘bears’ as:
Although at the time, this was generally seen as blanket term to cover this new movement, according to Ray Kampf’s ‘The bear handbook: a comprehensive guide for those who are husky, hairy, and homosexual, and those who love ’em‘ (The Haworth Press, Inc: 2000), there are a lot more types:
Yet there are discrepancies in the bear culture and apparently not ‘one size fits all’. As you can see from the images above, there are various distinctions between bears. However fundamentally there are hegemonic characteristics, according to Jack Fritscher (American author, novelist, magazine journalist, gay historian, photographer, videographer, university professor, and social activist known internationally for his fiction and non-fiction analyses of gay popular culture), he notes that bears celebrate “secondary sexual characteristics of the male: facial hair, body hair, proportional size, baldness”. However 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 “muscle bears” do not welcome higher-bodyfat men (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 favours white men aesthetically, socially and sexually among bears.
Berenstien Bear is a bear of Jewish descent
Black Bear is a bear of African-American descent.
Brown Bear is a bear of Latin descent.
Care Bear is a bear who “cares” about his appearance and cares about fashion
Chubby Bear is a bear who is heavy-set and hairy.
Cub is a term used to describe a bear relatively younger in age. The term is also affectionally used to describe a bear’s husband/partner who fulfills the passive role in the sexual relationship.
Daddy Bear describes a mature bear, who is often looking for a Cub (or younger man) for a relationship.
Grizzly Bear means that the individual is extremely dominant and typically extremely tall, heavy, or hairy.
Honey Badger describes a bear, who is blond and is usually muscular and not heavy.
Koala Bear is a bear of Australian descent.
Otter describes a man who is hairy but not heavy. An otter’s build is leaner and muscular.
Otter Cub describes a younger man who is heavy but not hairy. His build is also leaner and muscular
Panda Bear denotes a bear of Asian descent.
Papa Bear describes a bear who has children and devotes most of the time he used to spend drinking and clubbing to his children.
Pocket Bear describes a bear of short stature.
Polar Bear is a bear with white or grey hair.
Seal Bear is a mostly hairless, heavier man. He’s a seal because his body is slick like a seal.
Shape Shifting Bear is a bear that moves, at various times of his life, through different subcategories. He can go from a Chub Bear to an Otter to a Wolf.
Silver Fox describes a distinguished gentleman with salt and pepper hair.
Silver Otter describes a man who is hairy (not heavy), but whose hair is overall white
Wolf is a term for a bear who is rugged and outdoorsy but typically also a biker. A wolf can also be sexually aggressive.
Yogi Bear describes a bear who likes camping and hiking but also enjoys lying around the cave playing video games.
There are even terms for those who are bear admirers:
Chaser describes a man who is sexually attracted to heavy-set gay men.
Goldilocks is usually a woman who hangs out with a group of bears. This is the Bear culture’s term for their “fag hag.”
With a lot of categorisation, codification and classification, it may seem that the bear culture is not inclusive, however it most certainly is. Whatever your size, shape, race, muscle density or even gender, there seems to be a place for you in the bear community. Yet what I’ve realised is that these ‘bears’ are very particular when it comes to who they’re interested in. I’ve been rejected due to being ‘too big’ then later rejected for not being ‘big enough’. Also sometimes I’m not ‘hairy enough’ and do not receive interest due to my lack of ‘beard’. Now I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me because I do exactly the same. It’s personal preference, I understand this, but as the saying goes ‘one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure’. If I don’t want to sleep with you, I’m sure there are other men that will. It is this thought that gives me hope. Throughout the process of learning who I am and where I fit in the ‘bear community’, I’ve realised that there is someone for everyone. Men who I thought previously would not look at me twice I have been intimate with and other men who I thought previously I would not consider have been the targets of my affection. As everyone knows, sexuality is a spectrum and that includes sexual preference.
Now, the bear flag:
Craig Byrnes created the Bear pride flag in 1995. Byrnes’ undergraduate degree in psychology involved designing a senior project about the bear culture that has exploded since the early 1980s, of which he had first-hand experience. He thought it might be fitting to design a flag that would best represent the bear community and include it with the results of his research. Four variations were sewing machine-constructed and Byrnes won approval to display the four 3’×5’ prototype flags at the Chesapeake Bay Bears “Bears of Summer” events in July 1995. The winning design is a field of simple horizontal stripes with a paw print in the upper left corner. The colours represent the fur colours and nationalities of bears throughout the world and was designed with inclusivity in mind. It is trademarked.
The future of the bear community:
I imagine that the bear community will only continue to grow. Even nowadays I’m seeing more appreciation of the larger rugged man. I’ve recently joined a gay rugby team to meet more rugged types and throughout the gay scenes of the world, I see an increase in the traditionally masculine becoming more appealing. So much so, that this once gay-dominated culture has filtered into the straight mainstream with the increasing appetite for the ‘lumbersexual’, the ‘beardster’ and even the ‘straight bear’.
As Tim Teeman states in The Daily Beast:
“In a flash it was obvious. Straight people have discovered, and co-opted, the gay “bear” and “cub.” Of course they have, just as gays co-opted the look once from lumberjacks and rural workmen. It was only a matter of time that the wheel turned its full revolution. First, straights came for the smooth, pretty gay look recustomized as “the metrosexual,” and now you have come for our hairier brethren. What else would you like? What else can we give you? You’ve taken it all. All our cutting asides and repartee, design expertise, gym dedication, fitted shirts, food knowledge, high and low culture snarking, gift-buying nous, and our smarts (“She’s such a drama queen”)—straight culture has gobbled gay culture as ravenously as Cookie Monster atomizes baked dough.”
He continues to describe the ‘lumbersexual’, “the lumbersexual is beards and flannel shirts, the opposite of the waxed chest, sculpted muscles, empathetic male cyborg of a few years ago: the straight man who was “gay” apart from where he chose to place his penis. He knew all about cilantro and the best facial cleanses, but in bed and on the kitchen table he was all about the ladies. Gay men bequeathed straights the metrosexual—truly, the word was the invention of a gay author, Mark Simpson—and thought that would be enough. But no: “the lumbersexual” is the metrosexual’s equally pantomimic flipside. His beard is so thick it can sweep floors. His flannel shirts are thick. He looks unkempt. The beard, in fact, can be short or totally out of control. The message of the “lumbersexual” is: I am earthy. I am earth. I care more about chopping trees down than buying you that Yohji Yamamoto blouse as a surprise.”
Finally, there’s even a phenomenon known as the ‘straight bear’, as Joe Erbentraut explains in Village Voice – ‘meet the straight bears. These men—like their gay counterparts—are the antithesis of the metrosexual stag hags, those heavily primped, buff straight guys who count gays among their most trusted wingmen. Straight bears are less concerned with designer labels and limiting their carbs than with comfy clothes and beer. And they love to hang with their gay-bear brothers. As Cohen told a British gay magazine, Attitude, “I enjoy being around gay people. I find I get on better with them than straight people.”
‘Actor Eric Stonestreet of TV’s Modern Family speaks openly about his many gay male friends and fans, and recently spoke at a Human Rights Campaign gala in Ohio. Earlier this year, the blogosphere was riffing on an incident in which Southwest Airlines bumped portly writer-director-actor Kevin Smith off a plane for taking up too much seat space. But lost in the brouhaha was the occasion that had brought Smith to San Francisco in the first place: He was attending the 16th annual International Bear Rendezvous. That’s right: The biggest annual bear gathering in the nation featured Smith as a headliner.‘
“He had his moment in the sun at IBR, standing in front of a room of men who want to fuck him,” recounts Malcolm Ingram, a close friend of Smith’s who accompanied him to the bear-in. “Then, two hours later, he’s being kicked off a plane.” Ingram knows bear culture: His documentary Bear Nation delves deep into the alternative universe where hairy is hot and chubby is chic. “Sometimes it feels good to be overtly sexualized and have that sexual currency,” he says. “There’s a taking back of masculinity. People are owning their natural look, and I believe a lot of that is connected to the bear world.”
In essence, I’ve realised that the bear culture is a welcoming community. That due to the extensive categorisation and classification, there is a space for everyone; that larger hairy gay men do have a place. However personal preferences evidently do seep through and individual members may not be as welcoming as you’d hope, but don’t fret there are others that will want to taste your honey. As everyone knows the spectrum of sexuality is varied and these include individual tastes, a way of simplifying this is welcome in my mind. However as these tastes are being imitated in the straight world, we (as gay men) are beginning to lose our individuality and element of exclusivity. Although I do not yearn for days where we had to hide our sexuality and its expression, I do think the pluralistic nature of having beards and being rugged is losing its edgy status (remember that synonyms for queer include unconventional, unorthodox, abnormal and extraordinary).
However as recent reports have stated the idea of polarised sexuality and its exclusivity is cracking. Nowadays a lot more young people are open to the idea of sexual freedom and I hope it’s a trend that will continue; so much so that in the future it doesn’t matter whether someone is gay, straight, bisexual or otherwise, if there is chemistry be it sexual, emotional or intellectual that the orientation will be redundant. But for me, right now, I like being a big gay bear and having those rugged manly arms wrapped around me.
Do you agree?