You may have seen a recent spate of articles on an ecology nut named Charlie Russell who made a splash because he’s spent the last 10 years living among the grizzlies. Impressive huh? Not hardly. Bubba has been living with Bears for more than two decades, and here’s what she and Ann (a dabbler in Bear Culture) have learned about this very special species.
As much as we have enjoyed kicking back to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, that show, mainstream media, and far too many gay magazines overlook the wide variation among images and desires in the gay male landscape. Pretty boys are fine, but Bears are really critical to the meaning of Queer.
There they go, hairy and big bellied, very often leather-clad and sweaty. If you have fallen for the propaganda of the fashion Nazis you might actually think these guys are bubbas (not Bubbas, she’s far too scrawny). But look again. There’s a little mince in that swagger, and frankly, the denims and lumberjack shirts are just a little too tailored. And most tellingly of all, they don’t treat “girls” like dirt, as real straight bubbas do.
Bear Culture, of course, is not just about smashing stereotypes, but is a whole erotic scene. We asked one Bear whether all Bear eroticism involved Bear-Bear love. “No,” he said. “Bears are into all sorts of things. Some bears go for hairless skinny guys. We don’t really understand them.”
Another fascinating aspect of Bear Culture is the fact that while it is almost exclusively male, Bears have a long history of political involvement with dykes. (Once when Bubba was wearing a shirt with cute little bears on it, one of her Bear friends gingerly asked, “Are there lesbian bears?” Bubba replied: “The whole point of lesbianism is to get away from all that hair!” But if there is a secret coven of Lesbian Bears out there, please let us know right away!)
Some of the simpatico between Bears and dykes goes back to the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when HIV most visibly hit Bears and leather queens. The Bear/Leather/AIDS connection was mostly stereotype; mainstream gay culture was never very comfortable with leather or hair, so in the blame-someone-else mode, minorities within the minority initially took the rap for the Bad News.
But it’s more than that: as men who thwart both the stereotype of pretty gay man and the stereotype that big bellied guys are straight neanderthals, Bears got a double dose of gender politics. Before it was “cool” (or sort of okay) to be straightly gay, Bears and dykes stuck out like a sore thumb.
In the early days of gay liberation, those who couldn’t manage to look straight more or less bonded, sharing their stories and issues: they were the gender renegades before somebody invented Queer.
Now, Bears are facing a whole range of new issues. The media and our medical practitioners are all over us about that roll of fat on the belly. Turns out to be predictive of heart attacks. So several Bears we know have recently gone on diets. They’ve lost their bellies and in many ways, begun to look more like the mainstream ideal of the pretty gay man. Is this a crisis? Said one newly trimmed Bear: “I think my hairiness still distinguishes me from the real gym queen. I was a little worried that I would not longer be attractive to big hairy men, who really turn me on. I find other men-non-Bears-looking at me, when before they wouldn’t have given me the time of day. I guess I’m confronting how deep the anti-fat socialization is, and how much it has shaped my sexuality. I still really dig fat guys, but I’m digging them now from a different body. It’s different. I don’t know how I feel about this yet.”
Of course, not all Bears have a belly, and not all Bears are hairy. Like all of our queer categories, it is Bear identification that is most important. In order to understand what Bear identity is really all about, Bubba took the plunge and went to a Bear dance.
This proved very instructive. Indeed, body shape was quite variable, and hairiness varied, but every Bear exuded a kind of “let’s just get in there and wrassle” spirit. There was much more hugging than you’d see at a circuit party, and while we’re sure that there is a Bear snub, we couldn’t really find it. Bubba finally got to her limit of extremely sweaty embraces. Bears are friendly to the point of excess. What the fuck!
* In our next column we help you beat the Christmas blues/find a serious relationship just in time to get you through the holidays.