Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Bear 101

We all pretty much love a bear: Winnie, Teddy, Smokey, Yogi (and Boo-Boo too)--the bears of our childhood (and in the case of mommy bloggers, also the bears of adulthood), potent and mythological. Images of bears clawing salmon from streams, bears on frozen snow, and bears with fuzzy cubs bop through our memories courtesy of Wild Kingdom and its modern offspring. We all love a bear.

What is a bear?
Superficially, a bear is a chubby, hairy, masculine, gay male who likes beer and flannel shirts. However, according to many bears and their admirers, the bear culture is not so much about physical appearance, rather it is about living a particular philosophy of acceptance, respect, and the celebration of diversity (Bill Picture, SF Gate). Furthermore, a bear is a gay man who rejoices in his masculinity (masculinity of a relaxed and undemonstrative nature) rather than suppressing his true gender identity to assimilate into the pretty-boy standards of much of the gay "community." A bear is, well, a big teddy-bear of a man--gruff and bristly on the outside but mellow and squishy-sweet on the inside. Bears are considered almost universally friendly and likeable.

Those who study such things, theorize that the bear phenomenon is a "maturation of the gay culture (Andrew Sullivan)" in that most bears feel no need to take on conventional gay identities and display--they are simply masculine dudes who really, really like other masculine dudes. Bears see no conflict between being gay and being a genuine man and therefore achieve a kind of identity-based personal harmony that does not require any sort of outside validation. Unlike much of gay cultural identity--which equates being gay with somehow not being a regular guy--bear culture simply accepts the notion of masculinity. That being said, most bears eschew politics--the politics of being gay included.

So when and how did this all start?
The origins of the bear movement are unclear but it is believed that it first began 15 to 20 years ago in San Francisco (of course!). It is my belief--if we hold the theory of bear culture being a maturation of gay culture to be true--that beardom evolved out of the ashes of the first scourge of the AIDS epidemic. Years of burying dead lovers and friends, years of fear and rage created a populace of battle-wearied men that began to turn their backs on the hierarchal and carefully orchestrated customs of gay society. The do's and don'ts and other bullshit possibly seemed less important.

Hey! This sounds cool, but I'm not quite up to the physical standards.
Well, you're in luck. As in almost every other group, there exist subgroups--in this case, if you're not old enough or hairy enough or chubby enough or cuddly enough, you can be a cub, an otter and/or a wolf.

Cubs are simply young bears. Cubs have all the physical and mental attributes of a bear, they just aren't old enough to be a full-fledged bear.

Otters are slimmer and less hairy bear-admirers (BA's?).

Wolves are bears that are typically more aggressive and OVERTLY masculine.

My oldest and dearest friend and I were discussing bears and he lamented that although he is old enough and hairy enough, he is not chubby enough to be a bear. I suggested we call men like him, "bruins."

How does a bear greet another bear?
Easy, one just says, "Woof!" and/or growls.

Where can I see and learn more?
Well, a GREAT and fun portrayal of bears in action is to be found in John Waters's 2004 film A Dirty Shame. Also in August, be sure to check out the annual Hairrison Street Fair in San Francisco--the largest (and only) Bear Festival in the world. Most recently Bear City and Bear City 2 -The Proposal

 Some Bear Candy!

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