ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
With the arrival of TBRU, we ask a fundamental question: What is it that makes a gay man a bear?
With the warming weather and approach of spring, bears across the continent are emerging from their winter hibernation and striking out to enjoy what life has to bring. And many of them will be headed toward North Texas.
Not, of course, the ursine variety: These bears shop in the big and tall department of the clothing store and have been known to pound back beer like men in the desert.
Texas Bear Round-Up XVI is almost here.
By the close of official pre-registration earlier this week, the annual fellowship of the hirsute gay male — which chose for its theme this time Bears of Justice: Heroes and Villains — had exceeded 1,100 confirmed attendees, and organizers say many walk-ups are expected throughout the weekend at various events. That makes it among the largest of gay-specific social events in Dallas.
But why do bears feel they need their own “runs” — the common name for the dozens of bear gatherings around the country?
“That’s a very interesting concept,” observes John Ahrens, when pressed to explain why bearevents have proliferated (See sidebar, Bear events and resources).
Ahrens has attended several TBRU events in the past and, at 6-feet, 2-inches and 270 pounds of furriness (everywhere but the top of his head, he notes), has long identified as a bear.
“Why do they have to have a bear round-up [and not a twink round-up]? I really don’t know. The whole concept of bears was originally that we never fit the cut, buff, skinny young look [that dominated gay culture]. This is a culture for the rest of us. It was to counteract the exclusivity of the rest of it — a place where big hairy guys could go to be themselves.”
The Bear Movement emerged from a reaction to a kind of cultural elitism within the gay community that tended to value youth, gym memberships and low-digit waistlines above all else. Bears dared to stake a claim on the alternative to the stand-and-model twink ideal or the flamboyant drag queen that often defined gay culture, both in mainstream society and within the LGBT community itself.
Which raises a fundamental issue about bearhood: What, exactly, is a bear?
It’s a question that, when posed to self-identified bears, does not elicit quick or consistent responses. The term, by design or accident, has become a portmanteau word that tends to encompass all those gay men who like to identify as “other.”
But other than what is not wholly clear. (See sidebar, What is a bear?) For that matter, beardom is something that often must be embraced, almost like its own version of the coming out process: When does a bear admit he is one?
“I never thought you’d ask that,” says Rafael McDonnell, programs manager at Resource Center Dallas and a member since 2007 of the Dallas Bears, the organization which mounts TBRU.
“It’s a question of identity which, to a certain extent, is claimed by people. There are different parts to what our identity is; it’s where you end up fitting in the world as it is.”
“It’s very flexible and fluid and very personal,” says Ahrens. “I have a really close friend who never identified as bear for years, but there he is now, right on Bear411.com. The definition is so vague.
Generally, I want to say the bears tend to be older, but that’s not really true, either.”
Not at all. Carlos Deleon lives in Chicago and will be returning to TBRU for a fourth time later this month. And he just turned 30.
“It depends on where you come from. Some guys don’t look particularly bearish but identify deeply with it. Then there’s the big guy who goes to a bar and is told he’s a bear.
“For most of the guys around my age, it ends up being driven by an online thing: Looking at the various websites and finding one where you find guys who you think are attractive. You start dating those people. Then you spend more time in that part of the world,” Deleon says.
For a long time bears couldn’t go into regular gay bars and couldn’t find people to interact with, says Deleon, “so they kept finding safe spaces to congregate.”
That led to events such as TBRU.
But that was nearly 30 years ago, Deleon points out; “It’s a lot different than it was. Now it’s big business.”
And business sometimes leads more toward exploitation than inclusion.
“What finally put me off the whole [bear] thing is that it has become anything but inclusive — if you aren’t big or hairy, or are morbidly obese, you would be asked, ‘Why are you here?’” says Ahrens. “And that crap about bear codes? Oh, geez. The whole concept is trying to find an alternative community that accepts you. But [some in the bear community] have gone to the opposite extreme.”
Not everyone agrees with that assessment, although McDonnell says he has seen it.
“I think one reason TBRU has been successful is we are inclusive and organized,” he says. “I attended my first bear run outside of TBRU last fall in a city I won’t name. This event was disorganized and exclusive.”
Bear culture hasn’t always been its own beast, although the cliché has usually been that bears represent a less metrosexual, so-called “masculine” version of gay culture. (See sidebar, Celebearties.)
“Some gay men didn’t enjoy the prevailing ideas of looking and acting and being a certain way — that urban aesthete gay man,” says Deleon. “They grew up being truck drivers and wanted to stay truck drivers even though they were gay.”
Initially many such men joined the leather community, but bears slowly carved their own, separate identity.
“There is the crossover with the leather stuff, too. There’s a basic assumption of masculinity in bear culture, which we both know is perfectly false. You can wear lots and lots of dead cow and be the nelliest person in the world,” says Ahrens.
“I think about guys who are rugby players but do leather, too — are they in both communities?” asks Deleon. “Bears were more a part of the leather community [once] and now are more separate from it. Younger guys who are attracted more to traditional daddy types may feel they are still separate communities.”
Scott Moore, who was Mr. TBRU 2007 and is the current Mr. Dallas Eagle (a leather title), is a prime example.
“I think the easy part for the crossover is that leather is a fetish, so it’s open to anyone of any type and background — it’s something you choose to be,” Moore says. “Being a bear, you grow into — it’s more of a character trait than a choice.”
“I think in my case it was both nature and choice,” says Ahrens. “I don’t like skinny hairless guys; I like big hairy guys and I am one. I just turned 60 and there’s this whole daddy thing that kind of goes along with it.”
“Here’s what I find interesting: Among the Dallas Bears, there is lots of cross-pollination with the court system, the Leather Knights, etc.,” says McDonnell. “I don’t know if that’s unique among bear clubs.”
One thing that newcomers often notice that is typical among bear clubs is that bears often engage in their own rituals and forms of, well, etiquette.
“If you can call it that at all,” laughs Ahrens. “Compare the balcony at JR.’s to the patio at the Hidden Door: There are fewer boundaries. That ultimately for me was kind of off-putting,” although he agrees it probably contributes to the conventional wisdom that bears are among the friendliest of gays.
“The boundary lines are somewhat different,” agrees McDonnell. “There’s much more of a tactile physicalness [to bear culture], but I’m not sure where it originated. The thing I have found is, it is an extraordinarily welcoming and affirming community, to borrow some religious language. You can go into a bear bar in Vancouver and receive the same level of acceptance as you would in Denver or Dallas.”
Whatever the definition, or the appeal of the culture, one thing is certain: Sometimes you can’t put your finger on something — you just have to know it when you experience it, and be open to its mystery.
“It’s pinning Jell-O to a wall. Some of it has to do with body size, but [being part of bear culture] is a combination not only of physical characteristics but that elusive thing that is chemistry,” says McDonnell. “Life isn’t the Sears catalogue.”
The Texas Bear Round-Up runs March 17–20 with events across the city. Visit TBRU.org for a complete schedule of events.
What is a bear?
The terminology associated with bear culture actually reaches deep into a variety of other animal identities: Bears “woof” at each other (a distinctly canine trait) and have subclassifications with the community that relate to other wild animals.
Although definitive descriptors are elusive and subject to change, here is a primer on some of the most common and the generally accepted definitions.
Bear — A member of the Bear Movement, usually identified as tallish, hairy (on the face and/or
body) and with a certain amount of meat on his bones. Can be anywhere from morbidly obese to a few extra pounds around the middle.
Musclebear — The same as a bear, but the meat is usually more muscle — often, though, while maintaining a stocky build. To be considered a musclebear, one normally has to have and keep a certain amount of body hair and not merely have a gym body.
Cub — A younger and/or smaller (McDonnell theorizes 5-feet-8 and under) bear; also, a bear who identifies more as a submissive in a sexual relationship.
Otter — A hairy guy who is usually thin; can be old or young, but often considered younger.
Grizzly — An older, heavy, often aggressive or dominant bear.
Polar bear — An older, often larger bear with white or grey hair.
Wolf — An older, sometimes thinner bear-identified male; also, one who tends to be aggressive.
Grey wolf — The same as a wolf, but with salt-and-pepper hair.
Daddy — Not strictly part of the bear culture, many bears are considered daddy-types, being older and somewhat nurturing of younger, more docile gay men.
Admirers/chasers — Gay men, usually younger, who do not personally exhibit the characteristics of a bear but are physically attracted to men of that type.
Cougay — A creation of my own, used to describe a gay man over 40 who is attracted to, or sought by, younger men, who can be bears or not. The cougay can, but does not need to be, a bear himself.
Here are some celebrities who, if they were gay, would probably qualify as bears:
Tom Colicchio, chef and TV personality on Top Chef.
Zach Galifianakis, comic and actor (The Hangover).
Steve Holcomb, Olympic bobsledder.
Jamie Hyneman, special effects whiz and host of Mythbusters.
Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears linebacker.
Bear events and resources
In addition to the Texas Bear Round Up, well-known national bear events include Lazy Bear Weekend in Guerneville, Calif., International Bear Rendezvous in San Francisco, and Bear Pride in Chicago.
Several magazines and websites are devoted to bear culture, including Bear Magazine and A Bear’s Life.
Scruff is a smart phone application, similar to Grindr, dedicated to bearish guys. Bear411.com is a dating/sex website for bears.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 11, 2011.