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Rediscovering furry fun

As their forebears hibernate, a new generation of cubs frolic

CHANGING OF THE (BURLY) GUARD: The BC Bears society may be hibernating but bear culture in Vancouver is far from dormant. A new litter of cubs is breathing fresh life into beardom. Credit: James Loewen Photo

This just in from the annals of “Trends That Gay Guys Set and Straight Guys Follow”: a recent issue of Vanity Fair christened the burly and unequivocally hetero 25-year-old actor and screenwriter Seth Rogen (Superbad, Knocked Up) this year’s It Bear.

Go figure he’s from Vancouver, where bears are a natural part of the environment, frequently spotted on suburban streets when they come over the mountains to see what they can see.

In fact, a sighting was reported near the Fraser Valley town of Chilliwack a few weeks ago —a big one. Sixty bears converged on the TransCanada Waterslide Park, most of them cubs. No, they hadn’t taken a wrong turn on their way to the salmon spawning grounds. They were there to play.

Bears like to have fun. I’m not talking about BC’s two indigenous woodland varieties: American Black Bears and Grizzlies.

I’m talking about a vibrant and still-going-strong subculture of gay men that rose like a furry phoenix from the ashes of AIDS in the late 1980s, partly in response to a growing cult of body fascism which, by the 1990s, had all but hijacked our newfound yet quickly dimming celebration of individuality, visibility and, most important of all, acceptance.

The bears that made a big splash in Chilliwack are members of the social group VanCubz, a bunch of down-to-earth guys who are hefty and/or hirsute, and their admirers.

For the first time in recorded Western history, there are gay generations. This includes a new litter of bears that are hell-bent on getting back to what the bear movement was all about in the beginning. Which is, quite simply, having a good time being who you are meant to be without feeling constrained by narrow definitions of beauty and behaviour prescribed by an increasingly homogenized homo culture.

When did we forget that it’s called “coming out,” not “fitting in”?

Gay men have always been preoccupied with idealized youth and beauty because, after all, what’s not to like. But as most bears will tell you, things today are out of hand.

“I thought that the gay community was supposed to be all about acceptance. That everyone was equal,” 23-year-old Chris May says matter-of-factly. “Skinny gay guys are the most judgmental people on the planet.”

May is a large man. An event manager who spends most of his time travelling on concert tours with a well-known musician, he came out at the age of 16, excited about meeting his peers in a community where he would be welcomed. He was dismayed to discover that the gay world didn’t want him, just because he was big.

Over several years he’d occasionally venture out to gay events but every time he did, he felt dissed and dismissed.

“I’d walk into clubs and dances and guys would roll their eyes and look at me, like, ‘What do you think you’re doing here?'”

His forebears felt the same way 20 years ago.

The bear movement is generally acknowledged to have begun in San Francisco in the late ’80s as an extension and amalgam of the leather community and “mirth and girth” groups, spreading out to cities across North America in the early ’90s.

This was partly in response to an invasion of fabulously abbed aliens with eerily smooth skin that had landed on gay men’s magazine covers, subsequently saturating the web. Like extraterrestrial pods, they took over our bodies, and soon we were all the same.

Then mass-manufactured fagbots started to show up all over TV, with no off button. Slim and neutered, these eyebrow-plucked fashion plates continue to swan from makeover to makeover, while shows like Will & Grace and Queer as Folk are populated by gay Ken Dolls.

Every heterosexual romance and wedding movie has a “gay best friend” who is more interested in his gal pal’s ditzy fantasies and neuroses than he is in his own sex life, or lack thereof.

Coerced by commerce and cruised by big business, today’s gay media promote a singular image of male attractiveness, and the products and procedures you need to look slim, muscular, hairless and most of all, young. OUT, Genre, Bent, you name it; no one’s fat, no one’s hairy, no one’s gray, no one’s wrinkly.

It reminds me of a personal ad I stumbled across a few years ago. “No fats, no fems, no body hair, no negative attitudes.” (No, really.)

It’s hardly a surprise that May grew more and more self-conscious about his appearance.

“I hated my life. I even tried dating girls. Then I decided that I was going to lose 150 lbs. so that I could be a twink too. That was before I met Matt.”

“I’ve always liked big hairy men,” says his boyfriend, Matt Allan, a 31-year-old computer programmer. He is one of the original members of VanCubz, which started up five years ago.

Allan is what is known in bear parlance as an otter. That means someone who is slim or average-sized, with some facial and/or body hair. Bear culture is a veritable Hinterland Who’s Who. There are cubs (young bears), bears, polar bears or grizzlies (elderly bears) panda bears (Asian bears) and wolves (otters who are aggressive).

Originally for guys 18 to 35, VanCubz recently waived its age restriction, filling a vacuum left by the demise of the BC Bears society this spring. The long-running and once very popular group issued a press release stating that it was going into “hibernation” due to a mixture of attrition and lack of interest.

Fur flew, fanned by the internecine politics that commonly crop up in community groups of all stripes. The web lit up with bitchy posts.

When people become part of something that they feel is important, it’s only natural that their commitment transmogrifies into a sense of ownership, especially in the gay community. It’s a sanctuary for a lot of men, women and transgendered individuals escaping conservative families, small towns and rural areas where they were invisible and powerless. For the first time in their lives, they have a say —not only a right to express their opinions, but also a right to be heard. Since no two people think alike, disagreement is inevitable.

In the bear community, disputes arise concerning everything from what a bear is and isn’t, to who’s in charge and how things are organized. After all, bears are only human.

Just as a wild bear makes rounds of its home turf, Vancouver’s bear community seems to have come full circle. Like VanCubz, BC Bears started as a social group for like-minded men who didn’t fit into the prevailing gay scene. Then came official society status, fundraisers and Mr BC Bear, Mr BC Grizzly and Mr BC Cub competitions.

“We don’t do sashes,” says Allan. “Gay culture is becoming a faded stereotype. We’re gay without the rainbow, just normal guys who want to hang out with other guys who like cock, who are more grounded and accepting of people who are different.”

Allan and May met on the internet, which is how the members of VanCubz —there are currently about 200 of them —communicate with one another. VanCubz.org is a blog and forum where guys get together to chat, organize dinners, movie nights, camping excursions, dances and so forth, and post pictures of past events.

“The internet played an important role in the bear movement,” says JP Slater, who was one of the first presidents of BC Bears.

A 48-year-old who works in retail sales, Slater says that a large number of bears are computer nerds. Before the rest of us started surfing for free porn, back when the web was in its infancy, bears were meeting each other on bulletin boards and in chat rooms. As well as helping to spread the movement, this also cemented alliances among groups in different cities, motivating an international celebration of “beardom” that continues today with multi-city and cross-border events people travel out of town to attend.

Slater’s coming out experience more than 20 years ago is almost a carbon copy of May’s.

“I had a beard and chest hair when I was 14, which made me kind of cool for a while,” says Slater. “But it didn’t last long because I was the fat kid. When I came out, I was big with a huge red beard. I’d hang out on the sidelines at Neighbours playing video games.”

When AIDS began visibly affecting huge numbers of gay men in the mid-1980s, and having a little meat on your bones signalled (not always correctly) that you were healthy, bears moved forward from the back of the bar.

Then they got their own bars, starting with San Francisco’s The Lone Star. In the late ’80s and early ’90s the place was wall-to-wall fur, eschewing the usual dance music for the rock and heavy metal favoured by its masculine-identified patrons.

In Vancouver, the late great Royal Hotel Pub was a favourite watering hole for local bears, and today, on any given night, you’re bound to find some bears hanging out at the PumpJack, Numbers or, until recently, The Duff.

The first bear magazine, called appropriately, Bear Magazine, appeared in the city by the bay in 1987, quickly established a large international readership, and published regularly until 2000. Current magazines include INSIDE Bear Magazine and A Bear’s Life Magazine, and there are plenty of websites, such as Bearhistory.com, Resourcesforbears.com and Bear.net, as well as a plethora of porn and merchandising sites.

“It’s a little odd being in a subculture within a subculture,” says Slater, who attended the first meeting of what would become BC Bears in 1993, prompted by a passionate article in Angles, Vancouver’s defunct GLBT newspaper.

“There were eight of us at first, and four were Americans. Our first public appearance as a group was at Pride in 1994 when we hosted a Hug a Bear booth.”

That first meeting took place in Ron Kearney’s living room in his home at 7th and Yukon.

“The article in Angles was almost poetic,” says Kearney, who has his own tale about what it felt like to be rejected by other gays because of his size and appearance.

The first time he went to a bear bar in the States, he couldn’t believe that he was turning heads, and quite liked being a sex symbol.

Now 50, he works with federal prisoners and their families, helping them cope with the transition from prison to parole. He has also been very involved as a volunteer for AIDS Vancouver and the Dr Peter Centre.

“It [the Angles article] was written by this guy called Mario who wanted to start a bear organization. So I contacted him and we met,” Kearney recalls. “He pointed out that bear groups had been formed in many other big cities, so why not start one here. So I called a bunch of guys I thought might be interested, including JP Slater. We talked about what it was going to look like and decided just to see where it would go.”

Early in 1994, BC Bears was registered as an official charitable society. Which meant that they had to form an executive, hold regular board meetings and, of course, fundraise. The primary beneficiary was the BC Children’s Hospital Pediatric AIDS Ward.

The society’s mission statement stated quite clearly who was welcome to join: “The BC Bears Society is a non-profit, non-political, fun-loving group for gay men who are often hairy or bearded, and their admirers. Its membership is open to anyone regardless of age, sex, race, sexual preference or other affiliations. It is a group who makes you feel welcome and accepted.”

At its peak in the mid-to-late ’90s, BC Bears membership was, according to Kearney, at least over 200. He says that many of the members were from Vancouver’s outskirts, the Fraser Valley and far-flung corners of the province such as Prince George and Williams Lake. Many didn’t relate to the urban gay scene, with its emphasis on a lifestyle they weren’t interested in embracing. Similarly, VanCubz attracts people mainly from outside the urban core.

Every November for 12 years, BC Bears held an annual dance, Furrball, which was considered one of the must-attend highlights on the international bear circuit. Unlike other circuit parties, you didn’t have to diet, wax, pump yourself up and buy trendy duds. Nor was there a focus on designer party drugs. Let’s face it; if you do Tina you won’t be a bear for long.

Bears do, however, seem to like their beer, and maybe a little bit of smoke from time to time. But that’s not the only thing they inhale.

“Bear men like a lot of food,” says Gerald McCadden, a 51-year-old potter who was BC Bears president at the time it announced its hibernation. Several people mentioned this affinity for food so it must be true. Food, fun and a clothing optional venue seem to be the recipe for success at any bear event.

McCadden is trying to keep the spirit of the group alive with informal coffee nights at the Davie Street Café every Thursday at 8 pm, which anyone may attend.

“I [originally] joined for purely social reasons, to meet like-minded guys,” says McCadden. “I met a lot of great guys. Overall, the men I’ve gotten to know in BC Bears are excellent. They all have big hearts. Bear men are a little more laidback [than other gay men].”

McCadden, who is bearded but compact, has an interesting take on what a bear is.

“Someone came up to me once and said, ‘You’re a bear.’ That was based on how I look. A bear is a style of man, and style and culture operate hand in hand.”

When BC Bears shut down for the duration, there was a certain amount of conjecture, some tinged with animosity, about why this happened. McCadden would like to set the record straight.

“BC Bears went into hibernation because, like a good theatre show, there was a beginning, middle and end. The style and format had become dated. It’s time to change —but not lose it.”

Slater adds that the society lost sight of its original intent to be a social group because “being a society makes you responsible to the government.”

McCadden says that the workload was too much, and that interest was on the wane. The last Furrball was cancelled because no one showed up.

Yet bear communities in other cities are still going strong and their events remain packed. McCadden thinks that part of the reason a change of the guard is occurring in Vancouver is that many of the older bears have moved into the suburbs, and that the West End is no longer the be all and end all of the city’s gay community. Plus the element of informal fun had been lost, with VanCubz taking up the slack.

Interestingly, although there is a sexual component to the bear community, both McCadden and Allan stress that their groups are not sex clubs, although sex can be a byproduct. Couples comprise more than half of the Vancubz membership. Many BC Bears members were in long-term relationships.

Still, for some bears, it’s all about the sex.

Shawn Ashmore, or Shawno as he prefers to be called, runs a popular website called Gaycanuck.com, which advertises itself as “Almost but not quite a porno site.” It gets hits from around the world, and includes a rather spicy blog. Basically, the site is all about 42-year-old Ashmore’s sex life, and his appreciation of Wild Turkey bourbon.

“I like to dominate big hairy men,” Ashmore says bluntly. He used to be a bear but when he dropped several dozen pounds due to a rare illness last year, he downsized to wolf status.

“Let me tell you what I’d like to do if there were 10 bears in a room,” he adds, in reference to the news that only 10 men attended the last official meeting of BC Bears.

His attitude has gotten him into hot water with some people in the bear community, mainly those who have very specific ideas of what a bear is. He’s received several incendiary e-mails.

“I’ve been called a fraud, a fake and a bad representation of bears,” he says, adamant that he has never claimed to represent anyone but himself. “Someone even threatened to cut my cock off.”

“There is an underlying political correctness in Vancouver,” Ashmore shrugs. “Nobody likes the truth.”

While Vancouver’s bear community goes through its growing pains, elsewhere the bear movement has moved from a sub-community within the gay culture to the mainstream.

The world’s first “bear band,” Bearforce1, launched its first music video on YouTube at the end of July, an upbeat and slightly goofy medley of gay dance anthems. They’ve been getting hundreds of thousands of hits, and lots of feedback.

One person wrote that they are ugly and therefore a disgrace to the gay community.

They’re neither ugly nor a disgrace. They’re a breath of fresh air.

Bearforce1, which is based in Amsterdam, has a legitimate record company. The group debuted at the city’s Canal Parade in early August, to an overwhelmingly positive response, and is now touring clubs in The Netherlands. They’re already getting requests to perform in North America.

“For me, bear culture came into existence as a continuation of the ’70s clone, when the classic Marlboro Man looks were idolized,” says Robert, one of the group’s members, by e-mail. “A subculture formed partly as a reaction to this, which celebrated the heavier, thinner, hairier, heavily muscled, un-toned, young and old, camp and butch.

“Bear is a state of mind,” he continues. “Bears accept everyone, no matter who you are or how you look. There is a plethora of hairless, young, toned guys everywhere you look in the media, as well as pop culture. It seems the entire music industry has polarized in favour of that particular look. Bearforce1 is, hopefully, its wake-up call.”

The members of Bearforce1 clearly don’t take themselves seriously, even if some of their critics do.

“Four guys in pastels? C’mon,” says Robert. “Nothing beats big [gay] anthems you can sing to, wave your hands in the air, and dance around your handbag. Look at the charts at the moment, especially the dance charts. Production of dance music, in my opinion, is at an all-time high. But the smile muscles have been cut. Where is the fun? Where are the laughs? Where is that Ground Zero Hedonism? Our number one aim is to have fun, fun, fun.”

Straight men, it seems, are starting to get the message.

Shaun Cole, a former curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museums and the author of Now We Don Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century, attended a conference in August at Melbourne’s RMIT University called King Power: Designing Masculinities. Referring to gay culture’s influence on men’s fashion, he had some surprising observations about where bears fit in.

“The gay subculture that is currently exerting a big influence on the way straight men dress is the whole bear culture,” Cole is quoted in The Australian. “Rather than fighting ageing, bears are embracing their baldness, changing body shapes and celebrating hairiness. Now we’re really seeing bear culture infiltrate middle-aged straight men. You see the cargo pants returning, butch T-shirts and flannel shirts, boots and bellies being worn with pride by men pushing strollers with their wives.”

Hmmm. Could it be that Seth Rogen is only the first in a long line of It Bears to come?