Bears are everywhere, and you just don't know it
August 28, 2019 9:32 PM   Subscribe

Bears were perhaps created by The Advocate. "Bear" is certainly an identity that runs deep and can be written passionately about [longish read]. It can take some work to find acceptance [yet longer read]especially if you identify with the bears but you aren't a bear. And like, people write seriously about the bears [super long read]
posted by hippybear (23 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Da Bearss.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:13 PM on August 28, 2019 [8 favorites]

posted by axiom at 11:20 PM on August 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

"WhatdidItellya? Do Bears bear? Do Bees be?" - David Addison, 1985, s01ep03
posted by bartleby at 11:30 PM on August 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

But really, I remember like 10 years ago when Survivor contestant Mark 'Papa Bear' Caruso explained to millions of CBS viewers what 'bear' meant and that he was one. And America's response was "What a sweet guy!" and almost nothing else. That was pretty cool.
posted by bartleby at 11:48 PM on August 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

I bat for the other team, but I always have a distinct sense of comfort and fitting in at every Bob Mould concert I go to.
posted by humboldt32 at 12:57 AM on August 29, 2019 [7 favorites]

“My Other Shirt is Chest Hair” 😄
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:39 AM on August 29, 2019 [8 favorites]

There are two contradictions in the Bear 101 article that I find interesting and instructive. Mann says, "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," when positioning bears against a criticism of masculinity. And yet it's clear that bearhood isn't some natural, pre-existing category or identity; the fact that he can describe how the community has a beginning, and has evolved, and has some of that evolution driven by media, shows that desire, choice and culture go into the creation of these categories and identities.

It's clear what Mann doesn't find admirable: "the effeminacy pervading gay male culture." He is put off by the "effeminate, urbane, or sleek" denizens of gay bars. Which is disappointing! Of course, his appetites are his own business, but he fails to see how only certain types of femme behavior are allowed in that mainstream culture, before crossing a line and being othered. He talks about his own alienation, being a wallflower, without recognizing that gay culture has a lot of ways of alienating its members. And then, that second contradiction, where he tries to say it's all okay because bears can be feminine too, except when he illustrates what he means, you can see just how limited his conception of the feminine really is: "sweetest submissives," "kept a beautiful home," "nurturing, and gentleness." (Does his version of homomasculinity have any picture of the feminine that is not a 1950s television housewife?)

This is coming across as so much more argumentative than I mean it to, it's just confusing to me. I mean, I've seen bears in makeup, I've seen them in wigs, I've heard them talk using the same words and lilts that everyone else uses, so it's just kinda weird to me that he seems so insistent on slicing that out to construct this more masculine identity for his essay? Or maybe I'm just overreacting!
posted by mittens at 5:11 AM on August 29, 2019 [28 favorites]

@mittens, agreed. There seems to be an unfortunately pervasive anti-feminine and perhaps even misogynist mentality among lots of masculine queers.
posted by wicked_sassy at 5:44 AM on August 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Interesting and informative links on what makes a bear a bear. I enjoyed learning about this. Also, now I really want to go to a bear craft fair. Burly guys who craft! *fans self*
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:05 AM on August 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Relevant TPS comic.
posted by xedrik at 7:02 AM on August 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

That Mann essay is a masterpiece of almost but not quite getting the point.

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.

His identity was literally bought and sold as a commodity, then gifted to him. Which doesn't make it any less legitimate or his own, because basically all of the identities are bought and sold anymore, but it does make his sneering later in the essay at the concepts of "[paying] any attention to political correctness" and "[a man changing] what he finds arousing and what he finds admirable" a little rich.

It's really a bummer when gay men insecure in the reception of their presentation of self fall back on internalized homophobia and misogyny to buttress themselves.
posted by PMdixon at 7:10 AM on August 29, 2019 [11 favorites]

Oh hey, I know Jeff Mann! He's on the Creative Writing faculty at Virginia Tech. His self-described genre specialty is (or was, a dozen years ago) "Southern gothic gay vampire novels".
posted by biogeo at 7:58 AM on August 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

everyone knows all the biggest queens are bears
posted by roger ackroyd at 8:24 AM on August 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

mittens: This is coming across as so much more argumentative than I mean it to, it's just confusing to me. I mean, I've seen bears in makeup, I've seen them in wigs, I've heard them talk using the same words and lilts that everyone else uses, so it's just kinda weird to me that he seems so insistent on slicing that out to construct this more masculine identity for his essay? Or maybe I'm just overreacting!

IMO, that's not an overreaction at all! This leapt out at me:

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.

People are uncomfortable with this because what they hear from Malebranche and his acolytes sounds exactly like the ideas about masculinity and sexuality espoused by Ernst Röhm.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:45 AM on August 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

People are uncomfortable with this because what they hear from Malebranche and his acolytes sounds exactly like the ideas about masculinity and sexuality espoused by Ernst Röhm.

And because it's exhausting and disheartening for women to see men, no matter what disfavored subclass they belong to, wriggling and contorting themselves to get a little closer to that sweet sweet patriarchal power through the universal tactic of stomping on femininity. You all may think we don't notice, but we sure do.

On a less grim note, I wish I could find the article where Tom Colicchio describes being informed of what a bear is.
posted by praemunire at 9:17 AM on August 29, 2019 [8 favorites]

Back in the early aughts, I was walking with some friends just after the end of the Toronto Pride parade. On a street about a block outside the gay village, there was some guy yelling at two women on the sidewalk. As we got closer, it was evident he was on some sort of homophobic tirade and they were giving it right back to him. We were about to wade into the argument to tell this guy where to go when we heard "Thump-a thump-a thump-a" getting closer.

It was the Bear Pride float we'd seen in the parade earlier. It consisted of a large flatbed truck, on which a mock construction site, complete with timber framing, sat. Amid the two-by-fours were a collection of bears in scanty construction garb, tool belts, and yellow hard hats, all dancing to the music.

The float stopped at the traffic light right beside us, with the music pumping and the bears dancing, glistening with sweat (it was a hot day out). All of us standing there (except for homophobic guy) gave them a big "Wooooooo!!!" They took this as their cue to dance harder and dirtier.

Then the light changed and the truck pulled away (maybe a bit too fast off the mark -- all of the bears on board had to stop dancing and grab their hard hats with one hand and a piece of framing with the other to keep from falling over).

As we turned back to the business of Homophobic Guy on the sidewalk, we could see that he was now a half block away, and had broken into a half-run.

Sometimes the bears are just there when you need them.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:35 AM on August 29, 2019 [17 favorites]

For me it was the Bears Mailing List that really defined bears. As the last link discusses it dates to 1988, a year after the unaffiliated Bear Magazine. And it was in the heydey of Usenet subculture along with soc.motss where intelligent conversation was much more common online. A good community and while I've never quite been a bear myself, I really appreciated the space they created. Particularly that gay men could be desirable without being skinny hairless boys or muscle queens.

That 1979 Advocate cartoon set is wonderful. I'm impressed at the author's restraint in not including the obvious "chicken" and "chicken hawk" categories. Also so hard to read things like this pre-AIDS.
posted by Nelson at 9:49 AM on August 29, 2019


Oh LORD stop making me feel old.
posted by mittens at 9:55 AM on August 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

Back in '91 or thereabouts, the burly, bearded professor of the "Literature of AIDS" class I was taking at the University of Maryland (in a very interesting time to be discussing the then-evolving literature of AIDS) mentioned in a casual discussion session that he belonged to the "bear community," to which my synapses all fired in a jittery electrical explosion that would have translated into "what the fucking fuck is that?"

Nearly thirty years down, I've long since merged into that lane, not least because I'm a middle-aged man who hates to shave and will never, ever let cargo shorts die, but I have to laugh whenever I see it all framed into a weird sort of Tom of Fatland idealized identity based around the kind of creepy patriarchal ideals that stank up LGBT identity for as long as there's been such a thing, because the bears in my circle run more along the comfortable-with-blurred-gender lines of Big Dipper and less like whatever the fuck the patronizing patriarchal creep Andrew Sullivan was prattling on about when he was "discovering" his supposed bearness (I still throw up in my mouth a little bit remembering that self-promoting nit's ode).

I was taking a bubble bath while visiting an A-list musclebear friend in LA when I realized how hilarious it was that a guy who espoused the musclebeariest idealized masculine musclebearness embodied in the community's oft-aired definition diverged so much from that sort of ugly, meanspirited Malebranche (or whatever the F name that guy's using lately) flavor of machismo after looking for shampoo and yelling to my friend to ask where I could find it.

"I decant it into those vintage jadeite apothecary bottles by the tub, hon!" he hollered back, and I had to laugh, since I was in a giant Victorian salvaged slipper-shaped clawfoot tub taking a bubble bath in a pristine Greene & Greene house surrounded by landscaping glorious enough to incinerate the slightest hint of a bad mood.

"What?" he said, through the door.

"Never mind," I said, and lathered up with some sort of very expensive shampoo from a old green bottle with a real cork. I haven't visited him in a while, but he's been in the background in nearly every series of Where The Bears Are, which occupies a similar space to Big Dipper as far as being on the borderline between campy fun and oh dear.

I was happy when the bear thing became a mainstream thing, mainly because without a beard, I was just the dreaded fat guy, whereas with it, I was instantly some sort of magical mystery daddy alpha man, at least if I avoided trying to make small talk about the things I did for fun, which were only roughly 50% manly enough to count as bear-empowering.

Having a cabin in the woods? BEAR. Knitting? Not bear. Working on my own vintage motorcycle? BEAR. Doing the same thing on my Vespa? Not bear...maybe hipster bear, but in those circles, I was a "silverback," which was...argh. Being covered with sawdust in my wood shop? DO ME NOW BEAR. Having a mouthful of pins while repairing my nun's habit on my sewing machine? Ew—I prefer a masculine man. Never mind that my dad was pretty much straight up protobear, with his waxed handlebar mustache in the seventies and an accidental Santa Claus impersonator status in the eighties, and he did all those things.

The bear nomenclature was great if I wanted to get laid, but sucked if I was trying to date. In conversation, I'd talk about the twenty years I spent as a bit player in the Washington National Opera, and man, you could just see the attention start to drift. I suppose it's a kind of kink-shaming to have come to find the orthodoxy chafing in the obsessive taxonomy beloved of all so-called "communities" (admittedly, I think most of these are categories, rather than communities in any useful sense of the word), but it's just recently begun to dawn on me that an obsession with taxonomy and detailed classification really is another fixation of a culture rooted in patriarchy and a very Anglo-Saxon desperation for everything to fit neatly into a slot.

These days, I am still a husky bearded dude, with a non-husky bearded boyfriend, and shockingly enough, a fresh-faced seven-year-old quasi-stepchild who, when we were setting up the walkie-talkies for our trip to the theme park, first declared that my handle had to be "Honey Bear" before settling on the three of us being "Icebear," "Panda," and "Grizz." I like to think that, if we're all going to do this animals thing, it could eventually be less of a broad brush and more just figuring out our animal identity by the content of our character instead of by the color of our beard, but taxonomies persist, and in the same way that gay guys love to appoint themselves the speakers for all our people with the preface of "As a gay man..." folks will continuously try to pin down the bear thing, too.

It's fascinating, though, how what empowers some is a straitjacket for others, but we live in another really interesting time, when roles are just not as rigid as they once were and the next generation is just patching things together their own way, with a bit of the old and a stroke of the new, and I'll be fascinated to see how it all shakes out after a couple generations down the line.
posted by sonascope at 11:53 AM on August 29, 2019 [21 favorites]

I'm straight, but inadvertently started an online forum for bears when I registered back in 1999. As a very hairy man myself, I was surprised and delighted to discover that there was at least one subculture that celebrated my hirsuteness, and while I couldn't actively participate, at least I was contributing something by having the site up. So I added message boards and an image gallery, which quickly filled with pictures of hairy-backed men in various states of repose.

Sometime around 2006 or so I forgot to renew the domain and it got snapped up, which was very sad. Last time I inquired about buying it they wanted $5k, which, no thanks. Hopefully at some point they realize it isn't worth what they're asking and give it to me for a reasonable sum so I can bring it back to life.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:55 PM on August 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'll be really honest:

Gay men who are femmephobic in the way Mann is are a big part of why I am profoundly uninterested in engaging with the quote-unquote "community." I spend too much time in therapy sessions to put up with that kind of toxicity, because that's how you get people being pissed off that the IML title went to a trans man.
posted by PMdixon at 4:19 PM on August 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

A new brewery near me is called Red Bear Brewing and bills itself "as the area’s first 100 percent gay-owned brewery" (Washington Post). I visited and found good beer and friendly people. From the Post article: The name Red Bear wasn’t the owners’ first choice, but came from a Facebook poll of friends and family. “We liked other names, but people responded to it,” Bee says. “People loved the bear concept,” Van Den Oever explains. 🐻
posted by exogenous at 6:41 PM on August 29, 2019

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.

His identity was literally bought and sold as a commodity, then gifted to him.

This would likely have been Bear #11, I think in 1991, the first issue of Bear as a published magazine, not a xeroxed 'Zine. It had a very young Jack Radcliffe, not a giant muscle bear but an early 20s kid with a lovely body and a handsome face. I bought it and reading it, I discovered there was a community of gay men who were very uncomfortable with the ways gays were being portrayed by the mainstream media and the gay media and the gay porn media in the late 80s and early 90s, and were trying to find people who wanted to approach life they same way they did. Bear Magazine was, well, it was basically a website for the days before the web. It had actual articles, short stories (not all erotica), of course the porn sections, but a large portion of the magazine was personal ads from all over the country, men trying to find each other in a culture which held their sexuality as best invisible, and even with their sexuality cohort they themselves were rendered invisible.

I mean, the late 80s and early 90s was a time when sex had gotten terrifying to the point where the only focus in gay porn was on young, usually blonde, very clean shaven, football body men who looked like they were young enough to be "clean" and therefore safe. This certain Type had taken over the dominant culture which before had been much more diverse. Men who found themselves on the outside of what was accepted when trying to go out and about found other venues. Hotel bars might have one night a week where blue collar gays gathered, informally. Working class gay bars started to be established for the blue collar gay guys.

The Radical Faeries were another group striving to find their own identity during this time, but they tended to retreat from society at large and form intentional communities where they could exercise their own lifestyles. But while pretty rugged outdoors individualist communal hippies, they certainly weren't in the Bear community except for perhaps small overlaps in the Venn diagram.

For the longest time, for me, when I first got involved, finding the Bears felt like finding home or family or something. We had all been damaged in a lot of the same ways (each in our own way), and we knew what we needed from each other, which was basic recognition of being worthy of attention. Attending a bear event or going to a bear bar was like walking into one of the most comfortable, accepting places ever.

But of course, things changed not too long after that. The whole MuscleBear thing started to happen, and of course the beautiful bodies were gaining cache at the bars and gatherings. I'd been to probably a dozen bear events (most of which involved non-trivial travel), but the first one I went to where I couldn't get anyone to engage me in the bar space was the last one I went to. Back to square one -- being ignored by the gays because I'm not the right kind of gay.

I knew it was going happen when the Bears moved from being a movement within the dominant gay culture to being a marketing niche.

I love them, though. I love how they allowed me to find an expression of self that feels like my true skin. I love the community they had when it was all just print on monthly pages, when it was truly difficult to communicate with strangers. I love how they were there for me right up until they weren't. I hope they are helping other young men in their own journeys, which at this time are so entirely different from but possibly much like my own.
posted by hippybear at 8:19 PM on August 29, 2019 [9 favorites]

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