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When Bears Attack

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Tuesday Sep 11, 2012
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What do you envision when you hear the word "bear"? Some see a guy with plenty of body hair, a gut and a full beard. For others, it’s manscaping and muscle accented by a neat goatee.

What makes a bear a bear has been debated since the movement started back in San Francisco in the heady post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS years. In some ways, the issue echoes other thorny questions of identity, such as "Who is a Jew?" Like Jews, bears love to argue among themselves about who should be included in their community and, more to the point, excluded.

It’s probably inevitable that a group that to some extent defined itself by what it was not would face such a dilemma.

Bear culture, which thanks to pop-culture references is becoming increasingly familiar in the American landscape, began as a reaction to the defined, body-sculpted aesthetic that has long been synonymous with gay men in the larger public mind. For proof, one need only look at the boys on boxes in bars and on floats in Pride parades. The association has become so close that Simon Doonan, one of the best-known gay tastemakers and creative director for the ultrachic Barneys stores, has written "Gay Men Don’t Get Fat," an only slightly satiric takeoff on the best-selling "French Women Don’t Get Fat."


Self-Segregation As an Answer to ’Thin Is In’

It’s true that, in certain precincts of Gay Nation, overweight men have been shunned or have opted out.

At the huge outdoor Matinee party during New York City’s Gay Pride in June, I took an informal visual survey. Of the many men in my sight line on the dance floor, I’d venture that not more than three percent would be considered as having a body mass index (the accepted objective measurement of body fat) above five percent. Though that’s highly unusual in a nation where most adults are overweight and a significant percentage are obese, it’s hardly out of the norm in body-conscious parts of the country like West Hollywood, Fire Island Pines or Miami’s South Beach.

Even before the modern Gay Liberation movement got going, thin was definitely in for urban gay men. In the 1970s, the look was the Marlboro Man, aka the "clone": wiry, muscular, masculine. In the ’80s, the film "Pumping Iron" and its star, a rakish young Austrian named Arnold Schwarzenegger, turned bodybuilders from freaks into sex objects - a look that told the world, "See, I don’t have AIDS." In the ’90s, men aspired to photographer Bruce Weber’s all-American Abercrombie & Fitch’s sun-kissed models. And in the new century, men have veered toward the slender silhouette of actors like Robert Pattinson and Brad Pitt.

So it’s natural that guys who treasure their body hair and girth, and reject the overly groomed peacock appearance of metrosexuals would form their own society. As Joe Erbentraut wrote in the Village Voice last year, even some straight men, such as the film director Kevin Smith, have embraced the bears’ fat acceptance.


Bears Find Their Own Cave

The bears have been wildly successful in developing their own institutions, such as Bear Week in Provincetown and the Blowoff parties produced by DJ-musician Bob Mould. The bears, Mould told EDGE, gravitated to his parties - which began in Washington, and have expanded to New York and San Francisco - largely because of the music, which is more hard rock than dance diva. The events have flourished as a haven for bears (and their admirers).

Like other gay subcommunities, bears did not want to keep to themselves, according to Joe Fiore, a New York DJ and promoter whose weekly Rockbear bar events and Furball dance parties are hugely popular.

"They got tired of being singled out as fat, hairy guys," Fiore said.

The question is whether bears are now guilty of reverse discrimination, practicing a version of the body fascism they rejected.

"In the beginning, they felt so isolated by the whole ’Chelsea Boy’ look that they formed their own world," Fiore said. "Now old-school bears only want to be among bears" - that word defined narrowly, to the exclusion of gym-hanging muscle bears.

Bear Magazine Editor Steven Wolfe has been critical of "Jabba the Bear" as the group’s only acceptable standard.

"How did bears become synonymous with any chubby homosexual?" Wolfe asked in the documentary "Bear Nation." "The presumption that ’bear’ equals ’fat’ does not reflect the reality of today’s bear movement."

Some of the enthusiasts in "Bear Nation" decried the irony of a group formed in response to perceived rejection now doing the rejecting.

"The bear community is in trouble right now," one man asserted. "It’s hard being a splinter group of a splinter group." Another cited the "ideal of what it’s supposed to be - a club." He attributed it to a sense of empowerment: "I’m fat and fabulous."

"What was supposed to be an accepting community is not accepting," Wolfe said. "These guys piss me off incredibly."


The Final Insult: ’Fag’

Some have said that the bears’ attitude tops that of the worst body fascists in the mainstream gay world.

Young Angeleno Andrew Extein wrote on the website Pretty Queer of being in a bar where a man approached his group and said, "What the fuck are you guys doing here? Get lost."

Extein wrote: "Finding offense in our slim bodies and hipster attire, the man continued, ’You guys don’t belong here. You guys aren’t gay; you’re fags. Look at what you’re wearing.’"

Though one asshole does not a movement make, that fellow’s intemperate response is not wholly isolated.

A few years ago, bear hookup site Beard411 reportedly refused membership to men not seen as up to par for size or body-hair reasons. In addition, Joe Jervis reported on his website, JoeMyGod, that hookup website Bear Trapping was sniping at other sites for not being masculine enough. When confronted, Bear Trapping’s owner called his detractors "fluffy fags."

Obnoxious as they are, these incidents illustrate an inherent problem of bear culture. Standards contrary to the norm - untrimmed body and facial hair, unrestricted body fat, no cologne or deodorant, a fashion sense that is self-consciously anti-fashion - are one thing. But rather than adopt a "live and let live" philosophy (or at least "separate but equal"), a small minority has decided that whoever doesn’t meet its criteria is a girly man, a "fluggy fag" beneath contempt. The body-hair requirement brings up the racism suggested by excluding men who can’t grow any - common among blacks and nearly universal among Asians.


Best antidote?

The best antidote to this self-loathing is probably a good shot of humor, directed both outward and inward. To their credit, most bears have always brought along a healthy dose of gentle self-mockery.

What makes the anti-"fag" screeds even more ridiculous is that these men probably work in the girliest of girly professions. Women’s fashion designers Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra are prime examples of men who play up their bearness as an ironic counterpoint to what bear fascists would consider sissy work. Better to celebrate it than deny it.

Most self-defined groups have to confront internal hatred at some point. To give only two examples: At the turn of the last century, educated German Jews looked with horror at the hordes of peasants fleeing czarist Russia. In the more recent past, African-Americans associated social status with skin color - the paler the better.

The gay world may be evolving toward mainstream acceptance, military service, marriage and parenthood. But as long as the process of coming out is with us, so will be problems of self-acceptance. If we don’t take ourselves too seriously or insist our chosen aesthetic is the only one possible, all of us - the buff, the bears and everyone in between- can get along fine while we enjoy one another’s absurdities.


Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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