Bears are my part of the gay community, and they describe the kind of gay man I am, and they also reflect a very old sense I’ve always had of what gay maleness is for me. But that takes a little backtracking and explanation. You see, as bears have become more known, and the bear community has become more mainstream, it’s a bit like a tide that has moved off and filled different pools on the beach, and I’m just doing what I’ve always done really, still a bear, but also a bit of a fish out of water. Not a big deal, but a pause for thought.
More people seem to know about bears than did 10 – 15 years ago, both inside and outside the mainstream gay community, and we’ve gradually seeped into odd bits of popular culture; even Homer got taken for one in an episode of The Simpsons!
Bears are gay and bisexual men, both part of the gay community and part of a previously unacknowledged reality of gay men in the population at large. I had my epiphany with bears about 1992, as a thirty something refugee from the 1970s, shy and half closeted, hopelessly romantic (still guilty as charged!). I found a copy of a book called “The Bear Cult”, a photo book with an essay on bears in the States, and two things happened: 1 – everything fell into place, I wasn’t alone! 2 – the whole body-spirit hope of gay liberation came alive for me again, for the first time since I was a naïve teenager intoxicated by the sheer natural power and sacredness of sexuality amidst all the social upheaval after the 1960s. The sense of recognition and home coming was very powerful for someone who’d always looked up to Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman as gay role models.
As you might tell from my intro above, my take on bears is pretty old fashioned. On the other hand it’s pretty open minded, but I’m not so happy with everything that’s happened to bear “scenes” in the UK with commercialisation and mainstreaming since. I can’t speak for what the bear scene may have become in the UK. But for those who don’t know about bears, or only know the “clubbed and disco’d” hook up version, here’s my experience of what being a bear is about.
Gay people are just about everywhere, every place, every town, village and country – every family, somewhere. We’re part of the fabric of nature before we are part of the fabric of culture. Gay “culture” really has nothing fundamentally to do with being gay when it comes down to it. Being a gay man is being a man who loves other men sexually, erotically, emotionally and spiritually. And most of us are out there, unacknowledged, and often unidentified until we identify ourselves. Anybody, any man and “everyman”, from the most eccentric to the average Joe. This was one of the understandings of gay liberation that distinguished it from the pre-liberation homosexual cultures that grew up where they could in such forced and oppressive circumstances. We still have a hang over from these pre-liberation subcultures in many “gay scenes”, but these very scenes leave out in the cold a lot of gay men, many many gay men who are very much gay, but only ambivalently a part of “gay culture”. These men form a great unacknowledged base to male gay nature. These guys, these simply gay guys are the ones who tended to identify as bears to my understanding. But one of my favourite quotes on what bears are came from a book called “The Bear Handbook”, where it humorously sums up bears as “real men, masquerading as real men”. Now tell me, apart from that we know we’re doing it and enjoying it immensely, where’s the difference with any other man?
An old definition of bears ran along the lines of “bears are gay men who are as at ease with their manhood as they are with their gayness, and who have good heart”, and that still holds pretty good for me. And the “good heart” bit is very important to me.
Physically bears have been identified with a body type which is predominantly heavier, hairy, bearded, mature and unreconditioned. The reasons are pretty simple when you think about it – a healthy man left to his own devices grows up and fills out. Most men get hairy to a greater or lesser extent if they don’t try to cover up the fact, and unless you scrape it off your face, a man grows a beard just like nature intended. But that doesn’t make this a “necessary” body type, or the basis for a new body fascism, and neither is it another flavour of gay fetish. Because it’s what comes naturally, bears come in all shapes and sizes, from the thin to the extra large, the relatively smooth to the really furry. It seems natural to most bears though that natural masculinity would be loved by a gay man, and so male secondary sexual characteristics are usually treasured and valued, beards, bellies and all.
Emotionally bears have been associated with strongly affectionate, nurturing and cuddly qualities, tactile, sociable and inclusive, accepting rather than exclusive. In outlook bears have tended to aspire to being open and tolerant rather than judgemental, being laid back and low on attitude. Sure some bears are queeny and some bears are aggressive, but most bears are just pretty regular. Bears also have a strong streak of don’t give a damn individualism, which is pretty much a necessity for any man’s life to be free.
At the same time, qualities which mainstream society often takes to be stereotypically feminine, such as nurturing and openness to emotional vulnerability, sensuality and empathy, a lot of bears take to be naturally masculine for them, and part of themselves. Bears don’t follow the rules – we just eat the whole menu.
But with a moving social tide, with marketing and fetishising, with the “shallowing out” that the gay mainstream often seems so good at, is this all in the past? Nope, I don’t reckon so. A bear will just go his own way anyway. And if we hit the road again, or if we settle and raise chickens and goats, a man who’s gay is going to be just that, and he’ll always have to do it his own way. And that’s a bear in my book.
Nature is good, that’s why we know we’re good. But sometimes Mother Nature is a Daddy, and sometimes he’s abundantly queer.
Welcome to my bear world.
It’s only natural.
a real bear masquerading as a real bear