Periwinkle Dragonfly

Interview with gay paper Georgia Voice

posted by on 08.25.2011, under Blog

1. What prompted your interest in studying bear culture? Has there been any effort in the past to do work similar to yours? Were there any prevailing schools of thought that had been correctly or incorrectly applied to the bear community before you began your own research?

In the mid 1980s a I became aware of the latest local fad, of guys calling themselves :bears: in San Francisco. Everyone else treated as just that, something cute and gimmicky, typical of creating trends in The Castro/South of Market communities. 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 molehill, that it was just something very silly and of no consequence.

There were other members of the  community who were paying attention to what was going on, but obviously no academics (i.e., the queer theory people across the Bay at Berkeley) in any way aware. It would be anachronistic to ask if there were any schools of thougth being applied to something that was not yet on the radar.

2. What is the bear community? A sub-culture? A counterculture? A tribe? (Playing devil’s advocate here) A fetish? What term would you use to define the community and why is that term most appropriate?

From the beginning, one asked the question, is beardom a community, a subculture, or a movement? I can unequivocally say it has NEVER been a “movement.” It has no  agenda for social or political change.

Bears are definitely a tribe, in the sense of being a group that self-identifies and self-organizes around a set of sexual and social attributes. This is perhaps the  most accurate way of describing  how bears fit in to the overall gay/queer community.

It’s hardly a counterculture, int hat it has become the epitome of niche-market consumer-capitalist marketing category. Bears ar enot socially or politically opposed or alternative to anyhting; they are exemplars and paragons  of the consumerist  mainstream middle class of today.

To some degree bears are a mostly gay male sexual subculture. They have their insider coded language, they has community-wide practices and events, and there is often a sexuasl component to collective gatherings. One attends a bear weekend to eat, drink, socialize, and have sex (just like other folks). Being gay, bears tend to be more upfront about the sexual component of social events.

Are bears a community? I must confess that I have spent my adult life in search of gay/queer community, in a variety of venues and geogrpahci8al places. I must admit I am not even sure what “community” means. If it’s defined analogous to ethinic minority or immigeant communities, thewh I would ay we used to have a gay community, with many of the same components as, for example, an immigrant community. As LGBT folks have become mainstreamed, we have shed much of those old mutual aid dynamics. In the erarly years of beardom there were a good number of such community components in place, rather along the lines of the old subterranean, under the radar gay world before Stonewall. Nowadays, community seems to be synonymous with marketing niche. In the sense that gay community is applied nowadays I would say bears constitute a community. Buyt I personally feel we have most much of our sense and institutions of community, and am personally uncomfortable calling us an LGBT “community: nowadays.

3. What makes bear culture a unique point of study within queer theory? Are there specific themes that separate bear culture and the study of bear culture from queer culture, black gay culture or transgender communities? Can they be seen as equally relevant as sub-groups in the whole of LGBT culture?

Bear culture is unique. Well, it breaks down into a couple of ways of thinking about it. The radical/.queer interpretation sees bears as queering gay masculinity. What struck me in the early years was that bears were equally comfortable being gay as being men. They adopted the rubric that theirs was a “natural” masculinity. This was in contrast to the hypermasculinity of the leathersex community, and an extension of the “all American” image and values of the Castro/Christopher Street clones, which bears in part evolved from.

I suppose bears are both in and outside the “queer” notion of contested gender identity and sexual orientation identity. There are bisexual and trans bears, who in some places are accepted as bears, in other places are rejected as not bears.

I would not see bears as comparable to black gay culture or transgender communities because these latter have community formation around being rejected by larger communities, i.e., black homophobia informs the black gay culture and transphobia form both gay and straight society informs transgender community and identity.

The “natural” enemies of bears are “twinks”–the polar opposite and exact mirror for the bear cicuit in the party circuit of the “twinks” crowd. Bears have become identified as a very white and very mainstream middle-class subculture. Bears of color, trans bears, etc, tend to become invisible in the larger order of things. I thinik the phenomenon bear identity and community has been largely ignored by QT academic precisely because it is seen as “middle class white men.”

4.  It seems that defining what it means to be a “bear” has been difficult from the moment the word was used to describe gay men. Why do you think it’s so difficult to define?

From the beginning there was tension between schools of both of what is a bear. some maintained it’s about “beards, bellies, and body hair.” Other maintained it’s about an “inclusive, easy-going  attitude.” Some maiontgained bears had to be both. Of course, once the bear press got going, it all became visuals for advertising, 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. Asa bear presence in the media grew, bears also transformed from being a kind of word-of-mouth community to one that was known primarily or solely by its advertising presence, and became stripped of some of the subcultural elements.

Everyone now “knows” what is a bear. Some bear clubs and groups have attempted to monopolize the right to designate who is a bear, etc. And so we now end up in exactly the same place we started from: everyone makes up his, or her, own definition of what is a bear. And 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.

5. Are there any specific characteristics (beyond identifying as a bear) that ALL bears share? Less specifically, how would you define the bear demographic? Some of the most interesting research points out that bears are usually middle class and share an affinity (or even fetish) for working-class presentation. Is that true of most bears? Are there other qualities that bears similarly (or unknowingly) share?

Along with middle-class I would add 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 (consumerist values), i.e. they dress and comport themselves in a way that aligns with bear dress and behavior.

Beyond that I have to confess I am not up to date on the research.

6. On one hand it seems that the definition of a bear has expanded greatly to include many body types and hair patterns, but on the other, despite this inclusion, it seems there are still anxieties about “being bear enough” for some communities. Has the bear community, over time, become more inclusive or exclusive? Has the answer to that question helped or hurt the community?

Over time the bear community has clearly become more exclusive. There are bear groups and events that may go out of their way to be clear they are “inclusive” (bears and admirers or friends). I thik it is a very sad sign of how exclusive bears have become that there should be folks worrying whether they are “bear enough”–it seems like a betrayal of the original values of identifying as one. I am very old school on this, I suspect. I feel this exclusivity habit has been very detrimental to the bear community. It has been a HUGE turn-off for me.

7. What are the primary differences in bear culture at it’s genesis and now? How have the internet and proliferation of bear media played a role in this? What would the fathers of this movement think about it today?

I thin there is a clear thread in my answers that answers this question. I know plenty of old school bears who have given up on the bear community and see it as having gotten completely too ‘serious.” Also, most early bears are now ion their late fifties sixties and seventies, and we find ourselves written off and invisible due tot he rampant ageism of the gay/bear community. A few have clung to the early ideals and see their presence and efforts as a way to keep offering an inclusive vision. And there are some who have simply gone along with the flow and continue to want to be a part of whatever is happening.

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. To be a bear means to have money and spending it in a certain way.

8. Are there any health or social issues that affect bears more than the rest of society? Is there any information available about HIV rates in the bear community?

Bears have a higher incidence of diabetes and problematgicbody  weight issues. It has liong been politically incorrect to talk about these health issues, as it might be perceived as not accepting one self as one is (once a core bear value).

I am not aware of any studies about HIV in the bear community. I would imagine it to be in consonance with the gay mainstream rates. Bears are, after all, quintessentially mainstream now. I have been living with HIV/AIDS for 30 years now myself.

9. What has been the reaction to your work from the non-academic bear community? Do the working-class ideals that in-part typify the bear community generally inhibit their interest in this research? What lessons should the bear community take from your work?

Where bears are aware of it, they are very happy and grateful for my work. Some have complained that my books are “too academic.” and have asked me to write a popular book about bear history and culture. (Do you know any publishers interested?)  Bears/gay men are not the readers we used to be when reading was a primary pay to learn about gayness (I came out on the cusp of Stonewall and knew well the pre-Stonewall gay subculture.)

My intention in writing and editing the bear history books was to create a case book of a particular gay subculture and the “take snapshots” of it in its earliest formative years. Most history is written after the fact, and it is the interpretation of the winners that gets told as “the truth.” The bear community has evolved quite a lot, and I feel if my books had not happened when they did, the roots of us would have been cast very differently. As it is, it seems most bears know nothing about the history of the community and have no interest in it either. I hope my work is seen as an example of doing history from the grassroots up. I know I learned a lot, and came to understand that the bear community has evolved in exactly the expected trajectory, moving from outsider to insider status.

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