I was flattered at first. A burly, stubbled, broad-shouldered man, who could barely keep tufts of hair from sprouting from under his T-shirt corners, leered at me across the bar. He was drunk, alas. But it was five minutes to closing and this was Provincetown in July. “You know what I think is so fucking hot about you?” he ventured. I batted my eyelashes. “Your pot-belly, man,” he went on. “It’s so fucking hot.” Then he reached over and rubbed.
It was Bear Week in Ptown. Bear Week? Well, where do I begin? Every time I try and write a semi-serious sociological assessment of the phenomenon, I find myself erasing large amounts of text. Part of being a bear is not taking being a bear too seriously. And almost every bear and bear-admirer I asked during the festivities came up with different analyses of what it is or might be to be a “bear.” But no one can deny that bears are one of the fastest growing new subcultures in gay America — and that their emergence from the forests into the sunlight is culturally fascinating. Quite what it means for the future of gay America is another thing entirely. But my, er, gut tells me it’s, er, a big deal. So here’s my own idiosyncratic, CIA-unapproved take on what this new and obviously growing phenomenon in the gay sub-subculture amounts to.
Bearism grew up in San Francisco at places like the revived Lone Star bar in the early 1990s and has metastasized since. From a bunch of heavy, hairy fellas getting together casually, it’s now a full-scale phenom, with “American Bear” magazine, a “bear flag,” bear conferences, a “Bear Book,” “Bearotica,” and on and on. Perhaps the most obvious place to start is physical appearance. “Bears” almost all have facial hair — the more the better. Of all the various characteristics of Beardom, this seems to be one of the most essential. The Ur-bears have bushy beards that meander down their necks and merge with a large forest of chest and back-hair to provide a sort of all-hair body environment. Bears are also big guys. Yes, I know that might come off as a bit of a euphemism. A townie friend of mine suggested making T-shirts for the week, with the slogan “Fat Is The New Black.” But obesity, while not unknown, is not that widespread. Bears at their most typical look like regular, beer-drinking, unkempt men in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They have guts. They have furry backs. They don’t know what cologne is and they tend not to wear deodorant. One mode of interaction is the occasional sniff of each others’ armpits. Nature’s narcotic.
Bears are known secondly for their attitude. They’re friendly — more Yogi than “Bears Gone Wild.” They’re mellow. They’re flirtatious in a non-imposing kind of way. If a bear sees another hot-looking bear, his most likely expression will be the one word: “Woof.” (Yes, I know that sounds like a dog. But somehow it makes sense.) The sexual tension isn’t that tense, because the sexual imperative is less present than in other gay subcultures. This came home to me this year in Provincetown, because in a gay resort town in the summer, you get to see the various sub-subcultures intermingle or follow one another. The contrasts can be quite severe.
To give one example: We have what the locals call “Circuit Week” over July 4 when all the party boys and drug addicts show up to take drugs, dance and drink bottled water for days on end. I have no problem with that. But the perfect torsos, testosteroned rivalry, crystal-nerves and endless egg-whites all make for a somewhat overwrought time. When the bears arrive, all that unease evaporates. They’re cheerful; they don’t give a shit what others think of them; they’re more overtly social than sexual; they drink rather than do drugs; they seem, on the whole, older and far more grown-up than their party-boy cousins. They eat and drink and joke and cuddle and stroke and generally have a great time. And their mellowness is wonderfully infectious.
Whence the name? Well, it’s obvious in a way. They kinda look like bears. Big and burly and friendly, they are legions of Yogis, followed by quite a few Boo-boos. The smaller, younger ones tend to be known as “cubs.” The more muscular ones go by the name of “muscle-bears.” Some leaner types who aren’t that hairy but enjoy the atmosphere that follows the bears are known as “otters.” There are other nuances. Bears like to enjoy the outdoors and organize joint camping trips and festivals in the forests. They tend not to have kids; and they avoid politics. To the outside world, they are largely invisible, because they don’t fit the obvious stereotype of gay men, the kind that is featured prominently, and somewhat offensively, on “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” and “Boy Meets Boy.” These bears look more like the straight guys than the queer eyes.
But their masculinity is of a casual, unstrained type. One of the least reported but significant cultural shifts among gay men in recent years has been a greater ease with the notion of being men and a refusal to acquiesce in the notion that gayness is somehow in conflict with masculinity. In the past, gay manifestations of masculinity have taken a somewhat extreme or caricatured form — from the leathermen to the huge bodybuilders. Bears, to my mind, represent a welcome calming down of this trend. They are unabashedly masculine but undemonstrative about it. They are attractive precisely because they don’t try so hard. And they add to their outdoorsy gruffness an appealing interior softness. They have eschewed the rock-hard muscle torso for the round and soft and hairy belly.
As always, Camille Paglia gets it just about right, when she writes: “In their defiant hirsutism, gay bears are more virile than the generic bubble-butt junior stud, since body hair is stimulated by testosterone. But the bears’ fatness resembles not the warlike Viking mass of a Hell’s angel but the capacious bosom of the earth mother. They gay Bear is simultaneously animalistic and nurturing, a romp in the wild followed by nap time on a comfy cushion.”
That captures something of their unforced maleness. But Paglia underestimates, I think, a rebellion among many gay men against both the feminizing impulses of the broader culture on the right and left and against prevailing norms in gay culture as a whole. In recent years, after all, men have come under withering attack — not just from the p.c. pomo left, which tends to view all forms of unabashed maleness as oppressive, but also from the nannying right, which views men as socially irresponsible sexual miscreants.
Bears are simply saying that they’re men first and unashamed of it. More, in fact. What they’re saying is that central to the gay male experience is an actual love of men. And men are not “boys,” they’re not feminized, hairless, fatless icons on a dance floor. They’re grumpy and kind and responsible, and also happy to be themselves. There is no contradiction between being a gay man and being a man as traditionally understood. And if that includes cracking open a six-pack and watching the game; or developing a beer-and-nachos belly; or working in a blue-collar job; or having the clothes sense of the average check-out guy; or preferring the company of men to women; then so be it.
But what bears also do, of course, is take this frumpy, ordinary image of undemonstrative masculinity and eroticize it. Instead of sexualizing the perfect abs or the biggest bicep, bears look at a mature man’s belly and see in it the essence of maleness and the motherlode of their sexual attraction. What women (and, now, the gay men on “Queer Eye”) often do to their men — clean them up, domesticate them, clothe them properly, groom them, tame them — is exactly what bears resist. Go to the Dug-Out at the edge of the West Side highway in New York on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll find a den of cheerful, frisky, thick and hairy guys, all enjoying a few beers and their own gender. Or check out the club “XL” in London and find hundreds of big, fat, hairy blokes dancing to their hearts’ content until the early hours of the morning, without the slightest sense of self-awareness or embarrassment. In London, even the “pot-belly” is becoming formally eroticized.
Bears also resist the squeaky clean and feminized version of manhood that appears in most gay magazines and even pornography. Take a look at the Advocate and Out and you will barely find a man over 30 with a gut or a hairy chest anywhere. But that’s what most men — including gay men — end up like! Bears in this sense represent the maturation of gay male culture. For the first time, we have a critical mass of older generations of gay men who have always been out but who don’t identify with the boyishness and effeminacy of the old-school gay subculture. And they’re not looking to replicate or mimic the male-female relationship in any way. Yes. There are “bears” and “cubs.” But you are just as likely to find two mature, big guys who are simply into each other. As equals. As men.
Some of this aesthetic, of course, is rooted in class. Upper middle class and middle class bears tend to idealize the working class stiff; and working class bears, for the first time perhaps, find their natural state of physical being publicly celebrated rather than ignored. I made a point of asking multiple bears during Bear Week what they did for a living. Yes, there were architects and designers and writers. But there were also computer technicians, delivery truck drivers, construction workers, salesmen, and so on. Again, what we’re seeing, I think, is another manifestation of the growth and breadth of gay culture in the new millennium. As the gay world recovers from AIDS, and as the closet continues to collapse, the numbers of gay men keep growing and the diversity of what was once called the gay experience is exploding.
At some point, in fact, it might be asked if bears are a subset of gay culture or simply a culture to themselves. From Ptown, it’s pretty clear to me that the “circuit” set, for example, has next to nothing in common with bears and vice versa. Even the leather bars recognize bears as a discrete subculture. The impression of gayness that you get from, say, the New York Times’ “Sunday Styles” section, or the excrescent tripe in “Queer As Folk,” is light years away from what the bear subculture represents. In this sense, bears might be “post-gay” inasmuch as their fundamental identity is far more complex than any simple expression of their same-sex attraction.
And, as with most developments in gay culture, they could well influence straight culture as well. Bears, after all, are the straight guys in gay culture. Their very ordinariness makes them both more at ease with regular straight guys; but their very ordinariness in some ways is also extremely culturally subversive. Drag queens, after all, are hardly the cutting edge any more. Straight people love their gay people flaming, or easily cordoned off from the straight experience. Bears reveal how increasingly difficult this is. Their masculinity is indistinguishable in many ways from straight male masculinity — which accounts, in some ways, for their broader invisibility in the culture. They are both more integrated; and yet, by their very equation of regular masculinity with gayness, one of the more radical and transformative gay phenomena out there right now.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a lovely exchange in the invaluable book “Bears on Bears” that captures some of the weirdness of trying to explain such a natural and cheerful development too abstractly. Rex Wockner, furry gay journalist, is talking to Wayne Hoffman, another Bear follower:
“REX WOCKNER: A few intellectual eastern bears may think it’s about subverting the dominant paradigm. Here on the West Coast, it’s about sex.
WAYNE HOFFMAN: It’s more about ignoring the dominant paradigm than rejecting it actively, in my humble opinion.
REX WOCKNER: It’s more about not using words like ‘dominant paradigm.’”
I take Rex’s point. In some ways, bears represent gay men’s long delayed embrace of their own masculinity in its simplest and sexiest form. In other ways, they represent gay men’s desire for normalcy, for a world in which their natural state of being men is neither constrained nor tortured nor contrived. In a strange and undemonstrative way, it’s therefore a sign of the extraordinary fluidity of a gay male culture that is changing out of all recognition before, perhaps, with accelerating integration, it disappears for good.