And Bears, Oh My!

A few years ago, I met my friend Mario at a Union Square restaurant for brunch. Since it was packed with hungry shoppers and locals, there was a long wait, but the hostess informed us that there was a table free in the back room, which was reserved for one large group. Starving, we decided that if the gathering didn't mind us crashing, we were happy to join them. There was no banner or sign announcing exactly who was meeting, so Mario and I agreed it would be fun to guess what might have brought these people together: Were they recovering gambling addicts, self-help cult members, visiting cosmetic surgeons?

Our speculation immediately narrowed once people began to arrive, greet one another, and sit down. They were all men. The hostess was correct, this was one large group: Most were big, burly types with bellies and bulging bodies. There was an abundance of hair: Hairy chests sprouted out of the tops of their shirts, and they all seemed to have beards or other facial hair. A common uniform was apparent: flannel shirts, jeans, boots, leather vests, as if they had just come off a construction site. Their tough appearances contradicted their observable warmth and playfulness with one another, lots of hugging, affection, giggling, smiling. Sexual tension was in the air.

"We're in the middle of a meeting of bears," I said, and Mario thought a minute, then nodded his head and boasted, "So in other words, if anyone's gonna get hit on, it's gonna be me!" Although he's heterosexual, no one else's sexual preferences or proclivities seem to faze him. He's just that kind of guy. In fact, he's genuinely fascinated by people's kinks, which is one of the things I love about him. How many straight guys do you know who'd brunch with bears?

Bears are a subculture within the gay community of mostly big, mature, hairy, manly men. Think Grizzly Adams, Little House on the Prairie's Mr. Edwards, John Goodman—even Santa Claus can be claimed as a bear icon. Some bears like other bears, some like younger bears-to-be, called cubs, some like nonbears, many have tastes that vary. Many bears are working-class, some adopt a working-class aesthetic, and others eroticize rural and/or working-class archetypes as part of their sexual play. (Try bearotica.com if you'd like to see some bears partying.)

Our brunch with the bears wasn't my first exposure to this unique slice of gay male life; I can remember over a decade ago, I saw my first copy of Bear magazine, with its beefcake pictorials and rough-and-tumble jerk-off stories. What has always struck me about bears is their ingenuity, how a bunch of fat, hairy gay guys found each other and formed a niche.

I first met bear-about-town Ron Jackson Suresha last year at an all-night erotica reading during the Lambda Literary Festival in San Francisco. It was the kind of evening that seemed to go on forever until I thought maybe I never wanted to hear another piece of erotica again. Ron stepped on stage and announced that he'd be reading a piece from his forthcoming anthology, Bearotica: Hot, Hairy, Heavy Fiction (Alyson Publications). The story was hot, raunchy, grabbed my attention and kept it till the end. After reading, he announced that the author was in the audience, but too shy to read the story herself. A woman stood as he said her name, and I was surprised and intrigued; I wondered how a nonbear could write about such dirty bear sex, and what bear fag was willing to publish it. I grabbed Ron at the end of the reading, and he told me about his new book of interviews and discussions called Bears on Bears (bearsonbears.com). This hair-raising, bare-all collection covers everything from bear history, terminology, and customs to Gen X bears, transbears, lesbears, even post-bears and ex-bears.

Bears are the butchest of boys, so, as a butch-dyke lover, I'm attracted to their hypermasculinity in an intellectual and theoretical way. I knew Ron's book would be a fun and interesting read, but bears didn't seem that relevant to my life as a pansexual, polyamorous, kinky girl. I mean, I know some bears, but I am not a lesbear, and I am not particularly attracted to bears, so I wasn't expecting Bears on Bears to touch me on such a deep level. As a femme dyke fond of expressing hyperfemininity (you know, channeling my inner drag queen) and into exploring the complexities and power of gender identity, I found myself relating to the stories, connecting with their subjects, being moved and challenged by conversations between and about bears. My personal connection to bears never occurred to me until I read this book. In fact, I think it should be required reading for anyone interested in gender studies because it's about bears, and then it is about so much more than bears.

One way bears shake things up, especially typical heterosexual assumptions, is by presenting the radical notion that a bearded Brawny-paper-towel guy could be—or is—gay. Because of his masculinity, he is assumed to be straight, and so the "straight-looking" gay man has tremendous subversive potential. See this hunky, furry stud? Well, paws off, ladies, he digs dudes. The bear is yet another example of the performance of gender, of drag, of how masculinity is not necessarily only the terrain of hetero men. Just as some bears have a class consciousness and others do not, some of this performance is self-aware and deliberate, whereas some bears believe they were simply born cuddly homo creatures. Bears also embody beautiful contradictions: macho toughness with a warm nurturing side that makes you want to get wrapped up in their never ending hugs. Ultimately, bear culture is about a lot of things, including claiming masculinity, size, hirsuteness, and maturity; validating and celebrating identity; and connecting with others for friendship, sex, and relationships.

Cultural critics say that bears have created just another "clone" look for gay men, and the community has been commodified into T-shirts, bumper stickers ("Honk if you give bear hugs!"), and the brown-striped, paw-print bear pride flag. That's true, too, but some bears say it's not about the way you look or belonging to the right club. Bearness is a mind-set, not just a style, and, as bear writer Chris Wittke says, "I've always thought that bearness was in the eye of the beholder." Well, in that case, I'm off to find three bears for a little naughty Goldilocks scene . . .


Visit my Web site at www.puckerup.com.

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