Bear Culture 101 (no prerequisite)

Published in: September-October 2010 issue.


BEAR IDENTITY is inked into my flesh now. I turned fifty in August 2009 and, rather than marking my minor midlife crisis with an affair (too complicated) or a fancy car (too expensive), I opted for a tattoo sleeve, which took months to complete. Among the many symbols of sufficient import to me to wear permanently on my skin is a bear paw, a big one covering the inside of my upper left arm. This visual identification with the gay bear subculture seems timely, for 2010 appears to be my Annus Ursi, Year of the Bear. Recently, I read at a book reception for the anthology Bears in the Wild: Hot and Hairy Fiction, as part of the Saints & Sinners GLBTQ Literary Festival in New Orleans. In mid-July, I’m scheduled to read at two events during Bear Week in Provincetown, and in late July I’ll be attending, for the first time, Mountain Bear Madness, a gathering in Roanoke, Virginia, about an hour from Pulaski, the small mountain town where my partner John and I have settled.

Many straight folks are unaware of the bear subculture. Hardly a surprise, since a powerful majority rarely concerns itself with the doings of a marginalized minority. When, three or four years ago, I first mentioned bears to my straight colleagues in the English Department at Virginia Tech, none of them knew what I was talking about, though by now at least one of them calls me “The Bear.” Similarly, my heterosexual students, as expert as they might be on current media, seem equally ignorant about this topic.

Most GLBT folks, however, by now seem to know the basics. A “bear” is a hairy, bearded, brawny-to-bulky gay man, usually displaying aspects of traditional masculinity. A cub is a younger version of the same; a wolf is a lean, hairy man; an otter a young version of that. “Woof!” is a lustful expression, meaning essentially: “Tasty! I’d like to climb all over that!” “Grrrrr!” means much the same. As you can see, after twenty-some years of development, the bear community, like any subculture, has its own jargon, sometimes called “bearspeak” or “vocubulary.” It also has its own values, its own style, and its own commodities. There are bear-oriented bars, festivals, music, movies, magazines, and books. There are regional clubs for bears not only in metropolitan centers, where the communities first developed, but also in rural areas.

A 2007 marketing survey conducted by A Bear’s Life magazine, a lifestyle-oriented quarterly glossy, estimated that there are more than 1.4 million men in the U.S. who identify as bears. That’s a lot of beards, body hair, and brawn, and a considerable market niche among queer-identified groups.

Scholars Ron Suresha and Les Wright (more on them later) have served a valuable role as bear historians. Their work makes clear that the bear community began to coalesce in San Francisco in the late 1980’s, influenced by gay biker clubs and created by men who did not fit or did not appreciate the prevailing gay aesthetic that valorized slender, smooth-bodied youths. These proto-bears did not relate to the well-groomed urban gay lifestyle; they found in conventional masculinity many qualities worth preserving. The community took further shape when Bear magazine began publication in 1987 and San Francisco’s Lone Star Saloon opened in 1989. Gay social groups called bear clubs organized in cities like Los Angeles, Houston, and New York, some serving whole states or regions like Connecticut’s bear club, the Northeast Ursamen, that began 18 years ago.

Sponsored by these clubs, weekend gatherings called “bear runs” began, first in gay-friendly spots like the Russian River, Provincetown, and San Francisco, and later in places where you might never expect such gatherings to occur, such as Roanoke, Virginia, where the local club, Virginia Mountain Bears, has twice hosted an annual weekend event called Mountain Bear Madness. It seems that finally the wave of “Full Ursus” has made its way to my neck of the woods.

This ursine history makes perfect sense to me, for my personal development has reflected the growth of the bear movement. I grew up in a small West Virginia town where traditional hetero-masculinity was insisted upon and urban life was considered shallow, consumerist, and effete. While my father encouraged my early intellectual and literary enthusiasms, he also inculcated in me an admiration for stoicism and a dedication to country values: hard work, strength, self-reliance, frugality, and a passionate love of the outdoors. From him, I learned that a “real man” could bake bread, read Homer and Whitman, chop wood, identify trees by their leaves and birds by their song, bale hay, and grow extensive vegetable gardens. However, my sense of belonging was seriously compromised in adolescence by my awakening sexuality and my powerful attraction to the working-class men of Appalachia.

This sense of displacement was further complicated at West Virginia University, where I majored in English and “Nature Interpretation,” a program in the Forestry Department. My classmates in dendrology, mammalogy, and forest zoology classes deepened my lust for men with that lumberjack look. My horny, albeit tacit, admiration for them also encouraged me to adopt the same gender expression, and so I grew a beard and started wearing flannel shirts, denim jackets, jeans, and work boots. WVU’s football mascot, the Mountaineer, was—ironically, appropriately—an apotheosis of my erotic ideal: a young man with a full beard, a musket, and buckskins, resembling one of James Fenimore Cooper’s shaggy frontier heroes.

At the same time that I was absorbing these manly woodland influences, I was also exploring gay bars and coming to terms with my queer identity. For a long time, what little I could find of leather venues seemed like a nice mix of both the masculine and the queer, though the urban areas where leathermen most often resided were a lengthy drive away and didn’t really appeal to me, nature lover that I was. The mainstream gay bars I most often frequented left me cold. The denizens seemed too effeminate, urbane, or sleek for me, and I was apparently too rough-edged, shy, countrified, and scruffy for them. In those venues, I felt irreparably stuck between worlds, a sort of hillbilly wallflower.

Then, in the early 1990’s, a friend gave me a copy of Bear magazine with hairy-chested, thick-bearded porn star Jack Radcliffe on the cover. Soon after that, I flirted with a bear couple at Roanoke’s Pride in the Park festival and began spending erotic weekends with them. When they led me to the local bear community, I felt like I had come home. Here was my clan. Here were the body types I found attractive, complete with brawn, bulk, beards, and body hair—and the working-class, rural look I’d grown up around and had adopted myself. While the larger gay community had never made me feel welcome, bears made me feel as if I could combine two things that had always seemed irreconcilable: my homosexuality and my country roots. To this day, I marvel at how closely they dovetail in appearance, the oh-so-conservative-and-straight rural, blue-collar world and the defiantly queer bear world. So many of the men I lust after here in small-town Appalachia could pose for bear magazines.

The bear community, like the leather world, has also made me less apologetic for cherishing many aspects of traditional manhood, which I’d been raised to admire and which I emulated to some extent in my own homomasculine gender evolution. “Homomasculinity” is a term Suresha attributes to Jack Fritscher, the former Drummer magazine editor and author of the classic gay and pop culture novel, Some Dance to Remember (1999), featuring a bearish main character.

Wikipedia defines “homomasculinity” as “a subculture of gay men who self-identify with the imagery, culture, and gender role of what is normally seen as ‘traditional, straight male masculinity.’” The bear community embraces and celebrates homomasculinity without insisting on one stylized look as a pre- requisite for entry into its communities, as in queer leather culture. The homomasculine bear look, often seemingly identical to that of working-class and rural men and currently epitomized as the “muscle-bear,” has been reinforced by the eroticization of those looks in bear magazines. Emphasis on masculinity even appears in these publications’ taglines: “Masculinity… Without the Trappings” (from Bear Magazine; updated, in the magazine’s most recent incarnation, as “Masculinity and All the Trappings”) and “Celebrating the Masculine Lifestyle” (from A Bear’s Life).

Discussion of homomasculinity is not without controversy. Jack Malebranche, in his 2006 book, Androphilia: A Manifesto, excoriated the effeminacy pervading gay male culture and encouraged same-sex-loving men to return to a more conventional manliness. As much as I savored a good many of Malebranche’s ideas, I have since found myself very much in the minority. Critics such as Suresha characterized the dogged insistence on hypermasculine behavior for gay men as troubling and rejected this “butch-ier than thou” attitude as inherently misogynistic, oppressive, and self-loathing.

Many queer scholars find traditional versions of manhood questionable at best and reactionary at worst. Editor Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore has published the anthology Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity (2006), dealing with the subject of normative gender roles in the GLBT community. I myself have received censure from certain critics who’ve suggested that my dedication to masculinity—apparent in my personal style as well as my poetry and prose—is less than progressive, a cop-out, and a form of passing or cowardice.

This opposition to masculinity seems unnecessarily prescriptive to me, as prescriptive as insisting that gay men all hie it to “butch camp” to learn how to be macho—as if Eros paid any attention to political correctness; as if, chagrined by radical queer disapproval, a man could change what he finds arousing and what he finds admirable. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” said Emerson, which, it seems to me, in this context means being honestly who you are—masculine or feminine or some combination of the two—and ignoring the voices of those who would make you otherwise. As feminist scholar Cynthia Burack has pointed out, “‘masculinity’ is a very broad phenomenon. It’s easy for dimensions such as appearance and personal style to be elided with dimensions of hegemonic masculinity such as social dominance and social aggression.”

Bears, as far as I’m concerned, simply make the GLBT community that much more inclusive. There ought to be room in the multifarious queer universe for bears, drag queens, bull dykes, leather men, lipstick lesbians, radical faeries, and the transgendered. Political solidarity among these disparate groups seems more than advisable, since, as Dr. Burack has made clear in her 2008 book Sin, Sex, and Democracy: Antigay Rhetoric and the Christian Right, religious fundamentalists hate us all equally.

Peter Hennen points out in his remarkable 2008 book, Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering the Masculine, that bears are “gender conforming” at the same time they’re “gender nonconforming.” Hennen, who teaches sociology at Ohio State University at Newark, believes that bears create what queer theorist Judith Butler refers to as “gender trouble,” which means that bears incorporate masculine and feminine aspects in their gender presentation in ways that force others to reconsider their own constructs of gender beyond the binaries of masculine/feminine, top/bottom, and butch/nelly.

Such distinctions are often beautifully blurred in the bear community anyway. Sometimes the butchest men are the sweetest submissives in bed and elsewhere. One of the most delicious bears I’ve ever known looked like a hairy, rough biker (one drunken afternoon, he even became a model for Bear Magazine), but he also kept a beautiful home, cooked fine meals, and was a wonderful embodiment of hospitality, nurturing, and gentleness. Many bears I’ve met are equally multifaceted. I myself have often said I want to be the kind of guy who can punch out a gay-basher and also bake good biscuits.

TO GET A CLEARER SENSE of how this queer subculture evolved, I have primarily followed the work of two writers, Les K. Wright and Ron Suresha, who were friends associated with the early bear community in San Francisco in the late 1980’s.

Les Wright, former professor at Mount Ida College near Boston, edited two voluminous academic anthologies for Haworth Press, The Bear Book: Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture (1997) and The Bear Book II: Further Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture (2001). These two books, along with Ray Kampf’s whimsical The Bear Handbook (2000), helped define this new breed of queer masculinity, joining a flurry of new periodical titles, such as Daddy, American Grizzly, and Bunkhouse, which developed this new homomasculine idea into a recognizable image.

Ron Suresha’s groundbreaking 2002 book, Bears on Bears: Interviews and Discussions, which featured gay literary figures such as David Bergman, Michael Bronski, Richard Labonté, and Mark Thompson, chronicled the many facets of the movement. Mark Hemry and Jack Fritscher’s anthology (2001), Tales from the Bear Cult, and Suresha’s collections, Bearotica and Bear Lust, gave an erotic voice to this emergent queer masculinity.

By 2006, these books—along with Jonathan Cohen’s 2003 satirical novel, Bear Like Me, and two cookbooks, P. J. Gray and Stanley Hunter’s Bear Cookin’ (2003) and Gray’s More Bear Cookin’ (2005)—had formed a nascent bear literature. When Haworth Press folded in 2007, however, many of these books went out of print.

Motivated to re-establish a “bear literature” and to get his own books back in print, Suresha approached Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman with the idea of starting an imprint of books to be written by and for bears. Thus Bear Bones Books was established as “the hairy arm” of Lethe Press, with Suresha serving as acquisitions editor. Since 2008, when they republished my essay collection Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear, the imprint has gone on to issue five titles, with four more planned by the end of 2010.

Members of subcultures not only create their own literature; they also are fond of codes that allow for mutual recognition. Bears who wish to advertise their identity with visual cues (ones less permanent than my bear-paw tattoo) can easily do so, capitalism being what it is. Bear merchandise takes many forms and is easily available on the Internet and at bear runs. To mention just a few options, there are hats, clothing, and various manifestations of the bear flag, which displays a bear paw print and colors that represent both fur colors and diverse nationalities. I myself own several baseball caps with the paw print and a number of T-shirts that either display the flag or sport slogans like “Butch Bear,” “Husbear,” and “Woof!” My next T-shirt acquisition, discovered while researching this article, will be one that says, “My Other Shirt is Chest Hair.”

Bear music is something I knew nothing about until a trip to Nashville with my husband John several years ago. Like lots of Appalachians, I’m a big country music fan (another passion that has alienated me from mainstream gay culture) as well as a lover of Southern food and country cooking. So, to me, Nashville meant redneck-dive barbeque joints and the Country Music Museum and Hall of Fame. Little did I know that queerer delights awaited us. Somewhere along this down-home itinerary, we stumbled upon Bearapalooza, a crew of bear musicians who have been traveling the U.S.A. giving performances since 2002. We ended up attending two different shows in a local gay bar and enjoying ourselves immensely. Hairy, bearded men playing great guitar in an atmosphere of relaxed camaraderie seemed like ursine heaven. The quality of the music was top-notch, ranging from folk and blues to rock and roll, and I fell hopelessly in lust with Jeffrey Altergott, Kendall, and Max Christopher. Some online research led me to Woobie Bear Music, which is perhaps best known for its multi-artist Bear Tracks compilations.

Finally, there are bear films, erotic and otherwise. Gone, I’m glad to say, are the times when a randy cub might search in vain among porno films for a full beard or a thick chest pelt. Along with Jack Radcliffe, there are the hirsute men of Raging Stallion, Pantheon Productions, Titan Media, and Steve Cruz’s “Hairy Boyz” videos (men whose films make workouts in my basement gym a lot more entertaining).

A legitimate body of bear cinema, increasingly less erotic and more serious in content and production values, has also developed over time. Following a series of very short film subjects, Kevin Bowe wrote and directed a 22-minute romantic comedy, A Bear’s Story, in 2003. In the following year, a family of bears (Daddy, Mommy, and Baby Bear) broke into gaystream cinema as minor characters in John Waters’ fetishistic farce, A Dirty Shame. Bear Cub, a feature-length tragicomedia by Spanish bear filmmaker Miguel Albaladejo, portrays a gay bear’s relationship with his precocious nephew and received popular acclaim. Two documentaries that aired on the Logo channel, Bear Run: Celebrating the Bear Community and The Butch Factor, have examined aspects of the bear community. A new documentary, Bear Nation, from Small Town Gay Bar filmmaker Malcolm Ingram, and the feature-length romantic comedy Bear City both premiered at the Newfest GLBT film festival in June. A West Coast sequel for Bear City is already in the works.

At age fifty, I often think how fortuitous it is that the concept of “Daddy Bear” has developed only now in the long stretch of human history, to coincide exactly with my midlife years. It’s so much more empowering to say, “I’m a Daddy Bear” than it is to say, “I’m a hairy, chunky, graying, middle-aged man.” Many men can thank the bear community for such affirmation, such a welcome increase in status. Such self-identification makes us feel desirable and valued, long after the youth-obsessed mainstream gay community would have put us out to pasture. As a man of my age and of my region, I have little interest in that world, the one represented in so many queer-themed movies set in New York City, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, the one depicted in The Advocate and Out, in article after slick article.

What the bear movement has done for me, it has done for untold numbers of heavy men, hairy men, working-class men, rural men, and butch men. It has made a space for those of us who would not otherwise have fit into contemporary gay life; it has created a precious sense of belonging. Bears have expanded what is possible, who is included, what is thought to be beautiful, and what a man can be. For such furry brothers, I am entirely grateful.

The author would like to thank Ron Suresha for contributing to the sections on bear literature and cinema.


Jeff Mann is the author of Loving Mountains, Loving Men, and Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear.



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