Bear is a folk identity for Gay men with girth, body hair, and facial hair who value a nurturing and less manicured masculinity. As a community within the larger LGBTQ collective, Bears have their own organizations and their own festive folklife.
Bear identity developed during a period of self-definition and division in the young LGBTQ community during the early 1980s. The name became official in 1987 with the advent of Bear Magazine, but Bears had already been self-identifying as an outgrowth of the Gay biker community, and later of the Leather and “Girth and Mirth” communities. The Lone Star Saloon, a San Francisco blue-collar Gay bar that played rock music instead of dance tracks common to urban-scene Gay establishments, became known as the birthplace of the Bear community, and it remains a place of pilgrimage for Bears the world over.
The AIDS epidemic coincided with and accelerated the rise of Bears. In an era when thinness evoked illness and death, the Bear look of abundant body weight affirmed that a man was healthy and alive. In addition, AIDS forced the LGBTQ community to develop its nurturing side in the absence of outside help. Bear identity was also a reaction to two urban Gay stereotypes: the underweight, manicured, and hairless twink, and the muscular, macho clone.
By the mid-1980s, online chat rooms began serving Bear interests, and Bears began forming their own organizations. Bear Paws of Iowa was registered as the first Bear Club in 1989. By 1996, the International Directory of Bear Organizations (maintained by the Tidewater Bears of Virginia) listed 137 Bear or Bear-friendly organizations and bars worldwide. The list of Bear organizations includes Harbour City Bears (Darlinghurst, NSW, Australia), Forest City Bears (London, Ontario, Canada), Osos de Buenos Aires (Argentina), Suomen Karhut (Helsinki, Finland), Bartmänner Köln (Cologne, Germany), E.U.R.O. (Epicentro Ursino Romano, Rome, Italy), Vereniging Dikke Maatjes (Amsterdam, Netherlands), Mad.Bear Club de Osos de Madrid (Madrid, Spain), and Bears of Japan (Tokyo, Japan).
Bear social events include Bear runs (gatherings with dances, contests, and stage performances), cookouts, camping, and touring weekends. Bear organizations often engage in fundraisers for LGBTQ causes. Many Bears favor working-class and Leather clothing styles, and wear variations of the Scottish kilt, often made of leather.
When mainstream film director Kevin Smith was shown on the cover of A Bear’s Life Magazine in Winter 2007, Bears proclaimed that their identity was known even in the heterosexual world. However, such achievements for Bears have given rise to definition anxiety. Some argue that a community originating out of a desire for inclusion has in some cases become cliquish and economically driven. Merchandise, event, and travel options marketed toward Bears have in some cases underscored an economic divide within the community. There has also been criticism of Bear preference for facial and body hair to the exclusion of men whose bodies are not hairy, itself implying racial discrimination, and possible exclusion of transmen from the Ursine (L. ursus, “bear”) brotherhood.
Bear Lexicon, Code, and Flag
The Bear lexicon includes humorous names for members according to body type:
Cub: young Bear
Otter: thinner hairy man
Pocket Bear: shorter Bear
Polar Bear: silver-haired Bear
Red Bear: Bear with red hair
Black Bear: Bear of African descent
Panda Bear: Bear of East Asian descent
Bruin: athletic Bear
Lesbruin: a Lesbian or female Bear
Leather Bear: a Bear who wears outfits favored by the Leather community
Woof: common greeting or exclamation
The Bear Code enables Bears to classify and describe themselves in print to other Bears according to their beard length (B, from 0 to 4), body hair (F for fur), height (T for tall), youthfulness (C for cub), weight (W), muscle (M), openness to being touched (G for grope), openness to sexual experimentation (K for kinky), and the like, followed by + or – to indicate more or less of a characteristic. For example, D++ denotes an older man who sees himself as a father-like figure (D for daddy). This code is expressed in a chain of characteristics, for example B0FT-W+CR+MG+K- (B0: no beard, F: somewhat hairy, T-: short, W+: hefty, C: cub, R+: rugged, M: medium-muscular, G+: likes to be touched, K-: not kinky).
The Bear flag shows a bear’s paw print in the upper right quadrant and seven horizontal stripes: dark brown, light brown, very light brown, very light yellow, white, gray, and black.
Bear music encompasses folk, rock, alternative, and country genres. Recording company labels include Bears on the Run and Woobie Bear. Bearapalooza, a large festival celebrating Bear music, was founded in 2002 by Bear singer-songwriter Freddy Freeman. Since its inauguration, Bearapalaooza averaged two shows per year, one always in Nashville and one in a different location.
International Bear Icon: Azis
Bulgarian pop music star Azis has become an icon in the Bear community. Though he made a name for himself by performing in semi- or full drag, Azis kept his facial hair and displayed his hirsute figure as glamorous. His video for the song “No Kazvam Ti Stiga,” which features three body-shaved muscle Bears in very short cut-off jeans shorts and Azis as both masculine boss and exotic diva, became an international hit in the Bear community.
Turkish Bears Controversy
The Türkiye Ayilari (“Bears of Turkey,” the first in a Muslim country) gained notoriety internationally in the late 1990s for their financial support of the Kirkpinar Tournament, the most prestigious venue for Turkish oil wrestling. This sport is an honored tradition in which men and boys strip to their kispet (leather short trousers), cover each other’s backs with an oil-and-water mixture, and wrestle in a field of grass using maneuvers that include sticking their hands into each other’s pants to gain leverage. The homoerotic appeal of the sport complicates the officially enforced link between Turkish oil wrestling and heterosexual manliness, and the presence of openly Gay Bears at the Kirkpinar has been a point of contention.
Leap, William. Beyond the Lavender Lexicon: Authenticity, Imagination, and Appropriation in Lesbian and Gay Languages. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Wright, Les K., ed. The Bear Book: Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture. New York: Harrington Park, 1997.
Wright, Les K. The Bear Book II: Further Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture. New York: Harrington Park, 2001.
“No Kazvam Ti Stiga,” www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbeLVoWgraQ, accessed July 2010.