Speaking of Bears

Simon Sheppard,

Not every gay man is a slim, smooth, clean-shaven guy in his 20s – though it sometimes seems that way. But back in the mid-1980s, when the dictatorship of the gym bunny seemed to reign supreme, along lumbered the bears, their big, furry bodies oozing lust. Utterly unlike those twink models in gay fashion magazines, your basic bear is bearded (often bushily), heavier (and sometimes, frankly, fat), older, usually clad in comfy denim or leather, and, in theory at least, exuding an unforced masculinity.

One bi-coastal cub of my acquaintance, a cute, furry Italian with a pretty dick, says, "The bear thing's more popular now than it has ever been. I think that it's regionally based, more so in places like San Francisco, less so in places like Boston, but more popular across the board."

Sure, some guys were always into men with bigger bodies; they used to call 'em "chubby chasers." But the bear phenomenon, as movement, cult, or community, is really something new. At a time when AIDS has made gay men's relationship to our bodies problematic, the bear mystique celebrates the sexiness of flesh.

Bear sexuality emphasizes a nurturing escape from the competitive heartlessness that's found in other parts of the queer community. As Les Wright writes in The Bear Book, "A bear attitude ... seeks out and promotes emotional intimacy in sexual encounters ... and sustained primary relationships while accommodating the realities of casual sex – fuck buddies, tricks, play partners, and the like."

It's a cultural phenomenon unique to the gay community, too. Some straight guys fetishize larger women, but gay bear culture is about more than what makes your dick hard. Since the early days of Bear Magazine (with its breezy motto, "Naked hairy homo smut") there's been a veritable bear invasion: bear bars, bear books and magazines, events like Chicago's Bear Pride, the inevitable shelves of bear merchandise, and the makings of a subculture within the gay subculture. And then there are the subgroups within the subgroup – cubs (younger bears, natch), otters (thinner hairy guys), and muscle bears (pretty much what it sounds like).

So beardom is somewhat of a cross between a social movement and a sexual fetish. Like all social movements, there are internal disagreements, and some bears endlessly debate who is and who isn't a "real" bear. What really counts: size, hairiness, attitude? There's even a rating scale that someone has come up with, giving numerical values to things like the bushiness of a guy's beard and the girth of his belly.

And, like any sexual fetish, the attraction of bear types may baffle guys who aren't into it. But sexiness is, to a good extent, a culturally determined phenomenon. What's supposed to be hard-on producing changes with time; many a '70s porn star, with hairy chest and non-steroid body, looks positively old-fashioned. But, like platform shoes, all sorts of fashions get revived.

Bears have taken elements of things that have had sexual value – the outdoorsy look of the Castro clone, the male signifiers of body hair and beards – and added an emphasis on size. Not cock size, waist size.

Some complain that the rise of bear beauty contests and bear porn stars echo the mainstream pecking order that the movement originally opposed. And maybe that's true, but spending a Saturday night at such (in)famous bear haunts as San Francisco's Lone Star Saloon make it clear that fun-loving big guys are out in force and here to stay. And, let's face it, notwithstanding the politics, the spirituality, and the camaraderie of the bear bunch, a lot of it still comes down to sex. Thank goodness.

"Here I am, a big guy. C'mon and fuck me, buddy," says Mr. Bear. And who are we to argue?

Simon Sheppard is the author of Kinkorama: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Perversion

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