It’s 7 p.m. on Friday at a strip mall Starbucks in Tucker, Ga.
There are eight men gathered around a table wearing an eclectic mix of standard wardrobe choices. Several look like they could be on their way to a golf course, others are more casual in jeans. One looks like he might be headed to a cruise ship after finishing his iced coffee.
The youngest is in his 20s, the oldest in his 50s, and though they’re all what you might call “stout,” their builds vary from husky to just plain big. They gather three or four times a month, and tonight happens to be coffee talk and dinner. You can tell they’re close, quickly playing off each other’s jokes and poking fun in ways only friends can.
There’s an insurance fraud investigator, a retired engineer, a retail manager, a proud convenience store worker and they all say the know tons of folks in IT. They’re sipping their drinks and chatting about the benefits of keyboards to touch screen cell phones.
They’re all sweating and they certainly don’t look stereotypically gay.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this group at the moment that cares what someone looks like,” one suggests. “It’s more of a personality. The only rule I’ve had lately is if there’s drama, I’m going to bitch slap you.”
Oh, but they’re definitely gay, just not the kind you’re likely to see on television or in most magazines.
They’re called bears, rightfully so for their size, fur patterns and usually gentle disposition. And whether they know it or not, they’re carrying a unique culture on their broad, hairy shoulders.
There are 35 years of history behind them and a vibrant culture before them. And, no matter how open their society seems, there’s a constant flux of inclusion, exclusion and nonchalance that can make defining them so simple, but so complex at the same time.
An accidental genesis
The men who founded bear culture only did so in hindsight.
In 1987, Richard Bulger and Chris Nelson launched Bear Magazine in San Francisco. It as the first periodical dedicated to husky, hairy men and their admirers. Two years later, Rick Redewill opened the Lone Star Saloon just down the street. It’s still considered the country’s first bear bar.
None of them, or their like-minded drinking buddies, could have predicted that they were on the cusp of a new culture.
Dr. Les K. Wright was there. He’s edited two volumes of bear cultural history and analysis — “The Bear Book” and “The Bear Book II’.” Looking back, he remembers this new culture as a fad that just couldn’t be discarded.
“Everyone else treated it as something cute and gimmicky, typical of creating trends in the Castro/South of Market communities,” Wright said. “However, it kept going on and was spreading, and my sense, after participating for a while, was that it was something much bigger, and going on for a variety of reasons. Other bears at the time told me I was making a mountain out of a molehill, that it was just something very silly and of no consequence.”
This slow building of subculture ― in many ways a melding of masculine ideals from the leather and biker communities and the physical descriptors of the Girth & Mirth or chub communities ― was at first defined largely by what it was not.
Bears weren’t necessarily leather men. They weren’t young. They didn’t aspire to be mainstream. And they certainly weren’t smooth.
“It was really in such contrast to the stereotype of gay men,” said Ron Suresha, author of “Bear on Bears” and another founding member ― if one could call it that ― of bear culture. “We’d known that leather men or BDSM guys were really butch and such, but this group of guys was a different breed. To be able to improvise and adopt an alternative identity that seemed valid is part of what drove the coalescing of bear identity.”
San Francisco wasn’t the only city where gay men were exploring this new kind of masculinity.
John Burcl came out in Chicago in the mid-to-late 1970s. There was no network of gay men that he knew, so when he first hit the scene, the only places he knew to go were run-of-the-mill gay dance bars, where he was hassled for his weight.
Eventually finding a home in the city’s leather bars, Burcl was a part of the beginnings of Chicago’s bear scene, and helped create what’s become one of the country’s largest annual bear gatherings.
“It was a parallel discovery,” said Burcl, who moved to Atlanta five years ago. “We had started this subgroup in Chicago. It wasn’t leather and it wasn’t Girth & Mirth, and it didn’t start out as a bear group, but that’s what it evolved into. I remember the first bear weekend had 25 people, the second weekend there were 200 and by the third year it really took off: 600-700 people.”
As bears came into their own in San Francisco and Chicago in the late ‘80s, the HIV/AIDS crisis further galvanized—and ravaged—the community, just as it had the gay community as a whole.
And when the internet became more widely available, it dramatically changed the spread of gay culture. Bears were no different, and according to Suresha, they were particularly tech-savvy.
In a testament to the growth catalyzed by the internet and the development of exclusively bear-driven media — including pornography — a 2007 marketing survey by “A Bear’s Life” magazine estimated that there are 1.4 million bear-identified men in the United States.
“We’re all very proud and quite surprised,” Suresha said, speaking of the culture’s inadvertent founders. “I don’t think anyone really expected it would become something this big.”
Defining the bear
According to Wright, there has always been tension between schools of thought of what it takes to be a bear. Some suggest it’s first about “beards, bellies and body hair,” and in this reporter’s research, it is the most common first response.
Others maintain it’s more about an “inclusive, easy-going attitude,” and of course, some say it requires both.
Tackling the physical aspect of beardom has become more difficult as the culture has expanded its acceptable range of body types. Being big and hairy is no longer the only admission to the culture, and the names for these body types stretch far beyond their ursine origins: There are “cubs,” younger or smaller bears, sometimes with less hair; “otters,” thinner hairy bears; and chasers of all sizes and hair patterns are included.
Beyond this diversity, Wright asserts that bear media has played a role in promoting physical exclusivity rather than social inclusivity.
“Once the bear press got going, it all became visuals for advertising,” he said. “It’s far easier and more profitable to use pictures of burly hairy men than to try and convey something as elusive as ‘inclusive’ feelings… there is no ultimate authority, so to speak, to refer the question to. You’re a bear if a group of self-identifying bears include you, or if they take your ticket at the gate.”
So, the definition of bear is both specific and ambiguous, but there are other factors beyond the physical ideal and inclusive attitude.
According to Wright’s research, bears tend to be middle class ― in contrast to their tendency to fetishize and emulate the working class archetype of, say, the construction worker, farm hand or mechanic. Additionally, bears tend to be urban or gay urban-identified.
“There are plenty of bears who are actual blue-collar gay men as well as rural gay men, who see bears as a way of identifying that is not middle class, i.e. they dress and comport themselves in a way that aligns with bear dress and behavior,” Wright said.
But important questions lie in the division of these men, some of whom are actually working class and others who are essentially pretending to be.
As Eric Rofes asserts in his entry to Wright’s first anthology of scholarly bear analysis, “Some insist that bear sites are populated entirely by middle-class men playing dress-up as working-class men… others argue bear culture is one of the few queer spaces ― along with the leather and motorcycle clubs ― constituted in large part by working-class men.”
Lee Floyd, a self-identified bear and member of Atlanta’s Southern Bears group, says most of his friends in the bear community are middle class and he’s dressed in this kind of bear drag.
“The work boots, the tight Levi’s, the flannel shirts: It’s accentuating or exaggerating the masculinity… You’re going to wear something that is presenting how you want to be perceived,” Floyd said.
Bear culture has come a long way, though, since the days when everyone dressed the same. Burcl recalls when it was en vogue to dress like a character later typified by Al Borland, Tim “The Toolman” Taylor’s side kick on the long-running series “Home Improvement.”
“It became a joke back then because we all looked like lesbians with beards,” Burcl laughed. “We just had the Atlanta Bear Fest weekend in July with lots of folks from the South. Twenty years ago everyone would have had on jeans and some sort of a dark shirt, maybe even a leather vest, but everyone was in shorts and dressed like they would every day.”
This apparent lack of code or uniform might be indicative of the bear culture’s overall growth toward inclusivity and openness. There seem to be no rules governing who can and cannot be a bear, yet bears are drawn to each other for reasons that escape simple definition.
“If I had to list the characteristics of a bear and circle only one they have in common, I’d have to go with maturity,” said Suresha, adding that a number of the markers of beardom are also markers of age. “When we grow older, we get hairier, similarly, we gain weight over time and lose muscle.”
Mentally as well, it seems that bears tend to reject the youthfulness or naiveté displayed and sometimes coveted by so-called “twinks” ― whom Wright calls the “natural enemies of bears.”
“When you’re young and pretty, you’re in the bars and by the time you look like a bear or identify as a bear, you should have grown up enough so that life doesn’t revolve around that,” he said. “You’ve got a career and a mortgage to worry about.”
Age plays a role within bear culture as well.
“Older people are tied closer to the history of the culture and the younger crowd is more into the current image and popularity and the trendiness of it,” said Michael Knoles, who’s 33 and met his partner, Chris, at a “bear run” in Orlando. “It’s no different than other groups in the gay community.”
Whether the change within the culture is good or bad, one thing is for sure: there has been a dramatic shift in the values and codes that once defined the culture, according to Wright, catalyzed by the commercialization of the culture itself.
“The internet and bear media have taken control of mediating who or what a bear is. Belonging to the bear community seems to be about going to commercial bear events, buying bear-favored stuff, taking vacations at bear events, etc.,” Wright said. “To be a bear means to have money and spend it in a certain way.”
Orlando A. Santiago, known affectionately as Andy Bear derived from his middle name, is in the process of making “BearWorld,” a documentary about his global search to define bear history and culture. His crew stops at the Atlanta Eagle Sept. 7 to film a music video and collect stories from local bears.
His experience also illustrates the divide between generations that mirrors the gay community’s transformations before and after the worst days of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
“In the AIDS epidemic, many gay people decided not to go out. It was a time to stop with the physical rituals ― the search for the perfect beauty, letting the body hair grow and gaining weight,” said Santiago. “When the epidemic stopped and people started going out again, they saw themselves as they are and adopted this philosophy of acceptance.
“For the younger men, it was just being accepted ‘as I am,’” he continued. “For others, it was a thing of physical attraction, ‘I like hairy men, I like big men,’ and all those things are in the bear community.”
For example, Knoles’ partner, Chris Tripp, 32, has built his bear identity in part because of his attraction to “bearish” men.
“When you’re growing up, there’s an image of what’s male and what’s not male and one thing I always remember is Kenny Rogers,” Tripp said. “He was hairy, had a full beard and was thickly built. That’s what attracted me to the bears and happened at an early age.”
If modern bears who have inherited this culture are more fragmented in the spoils of the post-AIDS crisis and celebrate individuality above group behavior, what brings them together on a Friday night for coffee and dinner in a strip mall cafe in Tucker, Ga.?
“I honestly think we like each other,” said Southern Bears president John Beck.
The Southern Bears formed in Atlanta 18 years ago and Beck has helmed the group for the past seven. Though mainly a social group, they have raised money for a number of local organizations, including Jerusalem House, PALS and even the GA Wildlife Fund ― two local bear cubs were recently abandoned by their mother.
There are picnics and bowling nights, movies nights, day trips and of course, the Atlanta Bear Fest: a regional migration of 300-350 bears to Atlanta for a weekend of drinking, partying and hooking up.
“We get a lot of people that don’t have any sort of gay organizations or places to go,” Beck said. “It’s a vacation for a lot of people.”
Perhaps it’s a vacation into acceptance.
“Bears don’t fit the normal look of what gay men are supposed to look like,” Beck added. “I never experienced it to be honest, but a lot of us have been chastised or mocked for that, so they tend to do that less and tend to be more inclusive.”
This shared experience and mutual acceptance, along with Suresha’s theory of valuing maturity, is perhaps the other common thread weaving bear culture’s generation gap together.
There’s a strange danger in that acceptance, though, as Suresha points out that perhaps the “fairest criticism” of bear culture is its implied fetishization of fatness.
“You can’t say that as much now, maybe when there was a greater component of Girth & Mirth men in the bears when they started assimilating in the ‘90s,” said Suresha. “It’s a fair enough criticism that you’re not being as healthful and careful with your body, but you have to consider your sources.”
Let’s be clear. There are as many kinds of bears as there are people.
Though predominantly white and middle class, there are bears of all races and socio-economic backgrounds. There are no rules as to who can claim the bear as their totem, though there are still questions of body image and being “bear enough,” however inclusive bear culture’s unspoken bylaws may be.
For Suresha, who has known Wright since the early days at the Lone Star Saloon, the exchange of ideas about the bear culture isn’t always intellectual, but is nonetheless essential.
“There’s a political component, an artistic component, a visual component and the development of the community and culture has benefitted from different kinds of advances and they do engage people,” Suresha says.
“If you have a musician who identifies as a bear, writes music for bears and wants to perform for bears and interact with bears in a bar for bears, that’s not done at an intellectual level, but when this kind of thing take places, there’s a thoughtfulness that helps coalesce the bear community further.”
So there is meaning, then, in this gathering of Southern Bears. The guys here are different from each other, but they celebrate their differences with a collective acceptance that exists proudly outside the mainstream.
Human nature tells us that we are attracted to people who are more similar than dissimilar, but in the bear community, the moment one finds a common strand of truth, it’s accidentally broken with one proverbial clutch of the pearls.
“Flannel?” exclaims Brett, a Southern Bear who happens to be Burcl’s partner of eight years. “I would never wear flannel.”
Top photo: Self-identified cubs Michael Knoles and Chris Tripp met at a bear event in 2007. (by Bo Shell) Mural: ‘The Beltline Bears‘ by Kyle Brooks for Art on the Atlanta Beltline 2011.