I’ve now moved three times to avoid the florid coughs of several typhoid marys in the departure lounge at Auckland International Apart, one of whom was considerate enough to sit right next to me.
I’m departing for the biggest bear pride festival in the southern hemisphere in less than half an hour—Melbourne’s Southern Hibearnation—and I can’t afford airborne pathogens before I even clear Customs. I know it’s winter, but I’m half-expecting a nun to emerge from the toilet with a sinister-looking man screaming, “Bring out your dead!”
I’ve been to a number of bear pride events in Australia and New Zealand over the past few years.
Bears, for those of you who don’t know, are a mostly hirsute subculture of gay men who don’t conform to the media stereotypes of what gay men are like.
What media stereotypes? Well, mainly the shaved, plucked and moisturised variety, impeccably dressed for every occasion with a well-timed piece of advice for their BFF (a heterosexual woman) about how to please their man, while their own sex lives are relegated to two extremes: (a) tittering about how much cock they’ve had, or (b) so anodyne that they carry no sexual organs at all, just plastic underpants and a trademark.
Please don’t take the above as an assault on diversity: contrary to popular belief, all types of men are welcome at bear events. You don’t have to be hairy-chested, fat or like pies. You don’t have to be a sci-fi geek who paints model tanks at the weekend (although it helps). You don’t even have to sport facial hair.
The bear movement began as a reaction against the gym-buffed, shaved clones that continue to dominate much of the gay media’s representation of gay men.
Men don’t all have six-pack abs and look pre-pubescent, and particularly for guys who have experienced the simultaneous release of coming out and the crushing depression of finding nowhere on the gay scene that they fit in, bear bars, clubs and events provide a place where you can just be a man who enjoys the company of other men.
In recent years, some have become disturbed by what they see as a perversion of the ideals of the bear movement. As bear culture has become more mainstream, so too have images of bears, but they are often not too different from the dysmorphic pictures we grew up with.
The stomachs are disappearing, the muscles are getting bigger (much like the ludicrous steroid-assisted inflation of GI Joe and Action Man figures), and natural beauty has given way to Photoshop. Essentially, we see gym bunnies who used to sport an all-over wax letting the garden grow and strapping on a bit of leather to advertise a dance party.
I came to the bear community at the end of my twenties, after a decade of feeling isolated in the gay wilderness. I’m not hyper-masculine, but I don’t dance round a handbag (except on Tuesdays). I like dance-pop music, but I also like art-rock. I like to keep fit, but I have no desire to sport abs so defined that they double as sperm gutters.
Much to my chagrin, there’s hardly a hair on my chest unless you count the handful that sprouts around my nipples (what on earth was evolution trying to protect there?). When I first started going to bear events, I wondered if I’d be welcome, or told that I wasn’t a “real bear”. It hasn’t happened.
Debates over “what makes a bear” will always be around, but I think they’re doomed to failure if we concentrate purely on the physical.
Joining the bear community gave me pride in myself for the first time—not just as a gay man, but simply as a man.
I experienced things that had never happened to me before at gay events. Not only did men find me attractive, and weren’t shy about telling me so, but they actually talked to me.
Friends were made so easily I thought I was dreaming, and these friendships were based on a mutual respect and caring for each other as whole men with lives that stretched beyond the bedroom. Age didn’t matter. Gone were the creepy Logan’s Run ideals that implied you were dead as a gay man once you passed thirty.
That’s not to say that things are perfect. In any community, you’ll find negative elements, toxicity and in-fighting.
But mostly, what sets the bear community apart is a sense of shared values. No matter where you go in the world, at a bear event you feel part of a brotherhood.
Many gay men are forced to redefine their notion of family when they come out, as they often become estranged from their blood relatives. Friends step in to fill the gap, and among bears, you’ll find yourself a ready-made foster family, with ever-extending boundaries.
I can’t think of anything that embodies the notion of gay pride more.
Photo courtesy of the author (second from the right)