Bear Culture (Past and Present)

Commenter on Metafilter:

“In 1990, when I picked up Bear Magazine Issue #11 at Sisters & Brothers, the gay bookstore in Albuquerque, I bought it because the man on the cover was über-hot. But when I got it home and started actually reading it, I discovered there was this movement happening within gay culture. Men were tired of being assumed to be this list of things simply because they wanted to have sex with other men, and they were working to reclaim a masculine identity which would be recognized as being something other than that. Here was this group of men reaching out toward each other across the country (even the world) who wanted “gay” to mean something else than what the stereotypes surrounding them said it meant. (Literally reaching out through the magazine — in this pre-internet world, at least 1/3 of the magazine was personal ad listings.)

I suddenly felt I had found my tribe. And on finding this, I had the handle I needed to grasp to actually step out of my closet and be known as gay, and to try to create an identity for myself which fell outside of the bounds of what was considered “normal” for being gay.

It was exhilarating. And greatly healing. And I came to make contact with many of the bears over the next few years. And I went to bear meetups in various places of various sizes and levels of organization, and they were all wonderful. Meeting men who were doubly damaged, both by society’s rejection of them as homosexual, and by gay culture’s rejection of them as “not playing the game”… who all had the same narrative, the same self-doubts, the same agony of feeling like they would NEVER find a home for their souls… and finding us all gathering together and sharing these stories and discovering that we were NOT, in fact, alone in the world… As a 20-something this was some of the most empowering years and adventures I had ever had. (They continue to be so, actually.)

As these things do, this scene began a bit underground and then started to gain momentum and then really EXPLODED. Suddenly the bears weren’t a movement, they were a marketing niche. And the energy of the scene began to change. Big meetups became more, for lack of a better term, corporate. Suddenly you could buy “bear” merchandise easily rather than having to seek it out. Bear clubs were springing up all over the country, and then breaking up into smaller groups as the fights between the “we want to fuck” and the “we want to socialize” groups surfaced.

These were heady, fractious times, but they were still amazing. So many gay men were realizing that they could “hang out with the guys” and want to fuck them and not have to develop this other self to fit in with gay culture. So much self-acceptance and self-realization, if you could have bottled it, you would have powered a small city.

And then, the second change happened. “Bear porn stars” started to become more beefcake. Bear gatherings became more circuit-party-like. I stopped being able to attend the really big gatherings because, being skinny and hairless (despite having a great beard and being fairly cute [or so I’m told]) I didn’t fit into the bear stereotype. As such, I was routinely shoved to the outside at such events. After the second weekend of sitting on the outside at weekends I’d previously been welcomed at, I just stopped going to any of them at all.

“Bear” had gone, within a decade, from being something encouraging and inviting to being something exclusive and filled with spit-shined idealized ego-driven insiders, just like mainstream gay culture had been before bear emerged. Go to most big bear events today (with a few exceptions which I won’t name here because they need to avoid contamination), and you’ll find basically a circuit party full of gym rats who have decided to stop shaving their chests and their faces, full of attitude for anyone who doesn’t meet their standards, and a bunch of fanboys who slaver for their attention. Just like any other circuit party, only with fewer razors.

It was amazing to live through those years, and very educational.

At this point, there is a “new bear movement” taking place, where those marginalized by the mainstream bear movement are once again finding each other and working to build community. I’ve found the one here in my area, and meeting with these men has had the same healing power for me as meeting the first round of bears did 20-odd years ago. It’s funny how life works like that.”

Part of a discussion on Twinks.