Rugby player Ben Cohen might not be a household name this side of the Atlantic, but in his native England, he vies with David Beckham for superstar status. Like Beckham, he’s nearly as well known for his looks as for his expertise on the field—and, like Beckham, he’s a gay pin-up boy.
Only in his case, he’s portly, hairy, and has a beard. This 31-year-old pro jock may be happily married with two young children, but he revels in all that gay male adoration. He has parlayed his fandom into an international brand that encompasses everything from beefcake calendars to stuffed bears. The latter seems especially fitting, because Cohen has become the particular lust object for the bear crowd—those burly, hairy, ungroomed gay men who disdain the plucked, gym-built Chelsea boy.
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.”
The bear movement began as a reaction to the rail-thin runway-model or huge-but-cut bodybuilding aesthetic that dominates much of the gay scene. Now Trapper John is in danger of himself becoming fashionable, thanks to names like the designer couple Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra. Steven Wolfe, the editor of Bear Magazine, believes the movement is at a crossroads and is becoming more inclusive: “Bears are no longer just chubby men with beards. It’s not a matter of size, it’s a matter of attitude,” he says. “A lot of men who lived a more mainstream gay lifestyle are maturing and entering the threshold of middle age. They’re finding a lot of comfort and ease in being more natural about their masculinity, and they’re finding their niche within the community.”
That openness extends to embracing their straight counterparts. The previous generation of bears would have resisted extending membership to straight bears. But as gay men become more accepted in mainstream society, the gay-straight divide is easing. “The bear world appears to be tolerant of new followers and participants as long as they don’t infringe upon the ‘old-school’ bears,” notes Bob Mould, a DJ whose Blowoff dances have become the bear version of Circuit parties. “There’s plenty of room for everyone to get along.”
For their part, many straight guys find the easygoing nature of bear bars and parties to be a more relaxed environment than other gaytherings. “If you went to a bear blast in the afternoon, you might not even realize it’s a gay bar,” says Joe Fiore, promoter of Furball, Drenched, and other body-hair-intensive New York parties. “There’s sports on the TV and guys drinking beer and wearing plaid shirts and jeans. It would be something that might be very comfortable for a straight guy to be a part of.”
Like stag hags, straight bears are fascinated by gay men’s sexual freedom. Many bears routinely play around, even if they’re in a long-term relationship. “Straight bears are very curious and interested in the freedom that a gay bear has,” Wolfe says. “There’s an intrigue and a bit of envy there.”
Still, I wondered if straight bears were getting laid. Sue Sena, co-founder of SWISH, a gay-straight alliance for adults, sees men who are confident enough to openly accept gays as hugely attractive to women. “A lot of straight women have gay friends, and I think being gay-friendly speaks to who he is in the world and what he cares about,” she says. “Respect for justice, equality, and humanity are all important and beautiful qualities to have in a partner.”
One group member from a “straight bear” social network on Tribe.net. admits that he (and his friends) have not found their gay bromances a plus in scoring. “I have almost never found even a single woman—let alone women, plural—who find us appealing,” he writes in an e-mail. “The term, sometimes. But not us.”
Still, bears maintain that men of a certain size provide an important “something more” for their partners to wrap their arms around. That includes you, ladies.
Mike Maddalena, chair of MetroBears NYC, the city’s premier bear club, has hung with straight bears and experienced some positive female reactions. “I think women like the maschismo aspects of who a bear is,” he says. Metrosexuality is overrated and difficult to keep up. Women prefer a man who is laid-back, down-to-earth, and focused on her—not a pretty boy.”
Well, OK! With the Fab Five of Queer Eye no longer grooming straight men, teaching them how to make a quiche or the proper way to fold a sweater, straight bears may well represent the natural successor to the stag hag. As the nation grows ever larger, this may be the moment in which the bear movement paws its way out of the gay cave, while it’s the metrosexuals who go into hibernation.