It has been nearly 20 years since the publication of Bear Book II. The bear phenomenon has exploded world-wide and worked its way into mainstream popular culture. Bear Book 3 seeks to bring up to date the international development and speed of bear culture, the ideas of bears, e.g. in the mass media. Bear websites and other cyberspace, bear films, bear music, alternative bear culture, e.g. Bear Your Soul at Easton Mountain, the rise of a bear party circuit, bear clubs and events, muscle bears, transbears, disabled, bears, bears of color, theoretical bears and bear space, among other historical and social topics. No fiction or poetry please.
Submissions and inquiries may be submitted to the editor Les K. Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org. Submissions should be submitted as documents in Microsoft WORD format.
posted by Les
on 08.25.2014, under Blog
Yesterday I finally finished Robert Hofler’s Sexplosion, about the taboo-breaking films and books of 1968-73. I remember all of them as they came out and I became of age during this time. I remember seeing Women in Love as an undergrad in 1972 with my then girlfriend Sheera. I was totally blown away by the nude wrestling scene between Gerald (Oliver Reed) and Rupert (Alan Bates). I was very much into D.H. Lawrence in my undergraduate years, reading him as secretly homosexual. After all the supreme union was between two men and this wrestling scene was a high point of the film. While called Women in Love to me it was all about men in love. I did not see any hint of gay men being masculine in the gay lib movement years I was living in. Gay activists tended to be more hippie-ish. I would soon discover the leather scene and read profusely from the small library of books on the subject. Larry Townsend’s The Leatherman’s Handbook became a Bible for me into masculine gay love. But during the years I was at SUNY Albany (1971-74) I did not know about the leathermen. At the time I thought being gay meant wearing dresses in drag, having pursed lips and being catty. It was only after I moved to Germany that I began to read the GLF literature, the plethora of books, like The Healthy Homosexual and The Gay Mystique, that were being published in rapid succession.
My only contact with gay men during my Albany years, when I was 19 and 20 years old was with tricks. I’d pick up a guy in either GJ’s Gallery or the Central Arms, a bohemian bar and the a gay bar, and my knowledge of gay men was very sketchy. Mostly I would wake up early and leave a note of thanks behind, and slip out the door before the guy woke up. I was really wary about getting more involved n any “gay lifestyle.” I don’t think I was aware of “gay community” at the time. These were simply random sexual partners I picked up. I tried very hard to keep y gay activities separate from my life on campus and in my fraternity.
But the nude wrestling scene was very important to me. It held out an image of two masculine men, who had girlfriends, but who secretly were wrestling with being in love with each. I also saw Midnight Cowboy and was completely devastated by that film. I read it as Ratso (Dustin Hoffmann) had a crush on the Jon Voit character. I did not understand at that age that Voit dressing up as a cowboy was a gay hustler’s costume. I’ve seen the film a few times now, and it blows me away what a brilliant piece of film-making it is. Later I would grow tired of D.H. Lawrence’s closeted homosexuality. I became downright angry with Lawrence after I’d discovered E.M. Forster and read Maurice. Now there was a story the way Lawrence should have written it.
The 1970s saw the birth of gay presses and the origins of a real gay library of books available for anyone to buy. AS I traveled in the US I always looked for the local gay newspaper, in Boston, New York City San Francisco, and I even came across GPU News out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I subscribed to the Advocate, which on those years was more of an activist newspaper with its notorious pink insert section with all the personal ads in it. I read publications out of London and the gay magazines out of Germany, like Revolt (German edition) and Du und Ich and Don.
One I came out all the way in Germany I read a lot of gay literature. T was mostly American and British books, both fiction and gay li stuff. It totally changed my perspective to read books that saw homosexuality as normal and natural and gays as the victims of a homophobic society. It was not the gay man who was the problem, but rather the sick and twisted thinking of heterosexual society. I became a very angry activist in Germany.
I kept up with what has happening in the US by reading the Advocate, GPU News, Gay Sunshine, and Fag Rag. I also read Guy Hocquenheim’s Homosexual Desire and Foucault’s History of Sexuality Part I, plus all the gay activist materials in Germany I could lay hands on. I discovered Rosa von Praunheim, who was trying very hard to bring American style gay activism as a socioloigcal phenomenon to Germany. I read his Die Armee der Liebenden (Army of Lovers), about gay liberation in the U.S.
In Germany gay aciivism was centered in the universities across the country. In Tübingen we had two factions, the theological activists, who were very conservative, and the left-wing activists, who took a more or less Marxist view of things. Lesbians were involved with the German women’s movement and did not at all interact with gay men. We had consciousness-raising meetings and we discussed taking political actions and holding regional meetings for the gay activist groups come together. We were a small band of maybe a dozen out and closeted gay male students. Germany was a big home to leather and my first experiences with leathermen came from tricking out of the Munich Eagle and a gay Kneipe/resaurant where Munich gay men gathered for meals. Can’t belibe I can’t remember its name, ouch.] It was place that Rainer Fassbinder hung out in, though I never met him in person.
In my early twenties I was very popular. It helped that I was handsome and had a swimmer’s physique from swimming a kilometer a day five days a week. I did not think of myself as being striking, which I realize in retrospect I was. I just know I had no problem, tricking with whoever I set my mind to seduce. I was very popular in the leather scene as well as in Tübingen and London. My favorite bar in the 1970s was the Coleherne in London’s Earl’s Court district. I would wander through the packed bar and narrow my focus on three or four guys I wanted to have sex with that night. And I would inevitably reel in one of those four, usually the first one I approached. Even though I was very nervous and dran a lot to overcome my shyness and nervousness, I got very loose and bold after a few drinks. I could mix and mingle, and I loved it. The Coleherne was my idea of gay heaven. My lover for the night was inevitably very handsome and masculine. I really liked English gay men a lot. They did not have the sexual hang-ups of American gay men. And German gay men were very matter of fact and down to earth when it came to casual sex. I always talked with my partners before and after sex. As a matter of fact, tricking became the rimary way I made close friends in the 1970s, once I got out of Albany and living in the twilight spce between being closeted on campus and out off campus.
The 1970s was a wonderful time to be young and gay. And it was even wilder when I got to the party that was called Castro Street in San Francisco in 1979. I caught the tail end of the pre-AIDS party years. And that’s another story.
posted by Les
on 08.12.2014, under Blog
Hard news last night. Just before the start of the Monday AA meeting Matthew got a tweet saying that robin Williams had died of suicide yesterday. What a terrible loss, and yet how perfectly understandable. Williams battled with alcoholism and depression most of his life. I have too. I understand he was bipolar, just like me I battle with suicide to this day. And I shared something at last ight’s meeting I have never shared in an AA meeting before:
From roughly 15 to 25 years of sobriety I did not go to meetings. I copped a huge resentment at Boston AA and stopped going to meetings. I sponsored myself and I went slowly mad. During those ten years I was at Mount Ida College. After ten years at Mount Ida the place gave me a nervous breakdown. This led me to make decisions whereby I quit my job there, lost my career, decided to move to San Francisco and lost my house and eventually my husband. On the drive cross country from Boston to San Francisco I panned to commit suicide in the desert outside Santa Fe. But I was transformed by the desert, th energy around Santa Fe and I decided not to go through with it. When I got to San Francisco I rededicated myself to AA. I have gone to meeting a day ever since. I am always with a sponsor. I worked the twelve steps thoroughly with one sponsor in San Francisco, I sponsored other men. In the middle of all that I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, which explained the clinical depression and the panic/anxiety disorder I suffered through during those years and still suffer fro to this day. I cling to AA to save my life now. It is what has kept me sane for the past nine years. I could not survive without the tolls, the steps, the program, and fellowship. For all the fears I have about other people, I force myself to walk through it all and to cling to AA as if my life depended upon it because it does. I am thankful I have never been compelled to pick up another drunk or drug since I originally put down my last drink and have up speed back I 1981. I know I can maintain physical sobriety, But the Program gives me spiritual and emotional sobriety too. I have remained alive thanks to the support and help of very many people and a sometimes shaky trust in my higher Power.
So when I learn of Robin Williams suicide, I think, there but for the grace of God go I. I am deeply saddened Williams’ demons got the better of him. I do know what a horrid struggle it is to live with alcoholism and depression, I know it well. It is a terrible loss of a great talent, someone who brought joy to millions, a wonderful actor and consummate comedian. But his talent and success were powerless to affect his demons. I have known too many friends who have taken their lives when they could not take the depression, the bipolar, the schizo-affective disordered illness any longer. As I say, still wrestle with depression and suicidal thoughts. And I am overjoyed at the new hope that Bear Your Soul awakened in me. I feel there is a chance for me to have a good quality life once more. It will be hard doing it from Cortland, but I have been plugging way, seeing out kindred spirits (I found one in Freddy Freeman, and I may have found others at Easton Mountain.) I have been adrift for the last several years with no idea what to do with my life. And I am serious when I say writing my memoirs has given me a reason, THE reason to not kill myself It has been the one big purpose I have had this past year.
Posted at Origins Coffeehouse, Homer, Ny
posted by Les
on 07.18.2014, under Blog
Dave cancelling on me, my trip to P’town was like a punch in the stomach. I have tolerated a lot of his eratic and irresponsible behavior over the years, but this really crossed the line. His life is as out of control as ever. It never gets better. I feel like I have been betrayed oe time too deeply.
And it leaves me feeling all the powerlessness of my life situation. I can’t make people like me or befriend me or hare their confidences with me. I feel very alone and isolated. And I see no way out of this. It seems like I am doomed to alife of poverty trapped in this small radius for as long as my car works. And then I’ll be royally fucked when my car dies.
And so, the answer, after crying tears of frustration and disappointment and fear is to turn back to The Program. For the last few days that passage has been rumbling around in my head. And I finally looked it up this morning. When I finally can’t take the frustration and fear and disappointment and bitterness any more, there is always a release.
In the story “Acceptance Was the Answer,” which was on page 449 on the Third Edition and is now on page 417 in the Fourth Edition of the Big Book we find: “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place , thing or situation—some fact of my life—unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.”
There is another passage I cannot lay my hands on where the author talks about his magical looking glass. Like a pair of binoculars when he looks through the lens with a negative mind set the problems grow worse and worse; when he looks through the lens with a positive attitude the problems diminish and life looks good, better and better.
So AA developed at the time of positive psychology and Dale Carnegie and participates in some of the pop psychology of the era, that thinking positive thoughts creates a positive reality. It also taps into very deep and ancient spiritual truths about this.
When things seem darkest it always pays off to reach to some inspirational literature from AA and reframe it all as a recovering alcoholic. Sometimes I think of my childhood in East Syracuse when I lived in a four-family house and was surrounded by my cousins. My cousin Dave was my best friend. Our cousin Danny was a part of the gang, and other cousins sometimes joined in for board games or rough-housing or exploring the used car lot behind our house. Even with the fear introduced by my cousin Jimmy (Dave’s oldest brother), who incested me, it was a time of innocence and no clue of what the outside world would hold n sort for me. My Aunt Mona would say and my mother would echo her, sayig “You’re going to grow up to have a miserable life.” I had no idea what they were seeing in me and I just found it very annoying and stupid. But they must have been seeing something in me. I know later in life my mother told me she and my dad had figured out I was homosexual by the time I was five. I suspect this is what they were envisioning me being gay in a hostile and dangerous 1950s world. I was five in 1958. The Fiftis were a horrid time for nonconformists of every sort.
In was 10 in 1963 when my parents yanked me out of my rich world and moved us to Preble. I always resented that and we remained outsiders in Preble for the 6 ½ years we lived there, my formative teenage years. I feel like I am back in the Preble environment now that I am in McGraw. But back than I read a lot, I had school, I played in the band, I had a best friend and lover Phil Wetmore with whom I did everything. It was just the two of us as an inseparable pair. Phil’s older brother called us pansies, and he wasn’t wrong. Our 12-year-olds’ friendship was evidently more than us test friends, obvious to the adults n our world. But no one ever said anything about it otherwise. I had the Boy Scouts with Phil ad we went camping and hiking a lot. Phil and I used to go camping up on the hill along Route 11 at the foot of Preble Road. We would play games I the woods, take out clothes off and play sex games with each other. It was all somehow very innocent. It was our private life together. I had Phil for companionship and I had my home activities. I also collected tamps and had a couple dozen penpals during those teenage years. And I wrote very, very long letters. Gods know what I had to go on about, details of life in Preble and how wonderful America was.
We have discussed how we would likely have ended up like Brokeback Mountain staying in Cortland County and working for Smith-Corona, and me becoming an alcoholic, like Phils’ dad—if we had been born a generation earlier. I wonder if we would have lived together somewhere in Cortland County together. And now Phil has been married, closeted, had two girls, and gotten divorced and met up with his life partner Lee. They live I Houston, where Phil is now retired from teaching elementary school. They are coming to Preble to get married this September. I have been invited to the wedding, and I feel rather mixed about it all. Somehow it seems it should by rights be me marrying Phil in 2014. But our lives moved in very different directions and we are still friends by virtue of our shared past, not by anything we have in common today. It’s like being long-time family members.
The happiest time in my life were my years in Tübingen, with my first life companion/lover Denny Anderson. We lived a charmed life both involved with the university. Denny taught American Studies and I was a graduate student. We had a wonderful, warm, close circle of friends, mostly fellow expatriates and American fans. Our communal lives centered around music and drinking fine wines and smoking hash, and exploring Tübingen and environs. We were all coupled and Denny and I were the token gay couple at the center of the circle. We had parties and gathering at our lovely apartment all the time. We’d drive down to Ofterdingen and to hang out with Hel [German] and Barb [American] Bredigkeit, smoke hash and listen to music. And a Sunday night ritual was watching Tatort (Crime Scene),a police drama that has been on German TV for forty years and is still going strong. When I was getting DWTV and the German-language TV package on DISH satellite TV a few years ago I was back watching reruns of Tatort, in Fitchburg, in San Francisco, and in Eureka. It was an umbilical cord that tied me back to the reality of Tübingen days.
I was young and full of fire. I was very passionate abut left-wig gay politics and was involved with the iht, the local gay activist group. I had my circle of gay friends. I also went to the gay Pub 13 almost every night, usually ith Denny. And I often went home with whoever I could pick up. I had tons of sex, and gave no thought to how it might be affecting Denny. I lived in a fool’s paradise. But he was very tolerant and forgiving. And I was something of a trophy boyfriend, so my indiscretions were overlooked. I was the handsome young thing on Denny’s arm outside out close circle of friends.
I worked out and swam a kilometer very morning at the university pool, a morning ritual Denny and I did together. I was in excellent shape. After visiting the US in 1976 and going to a gay disco in Minneapolis I was horrified to realize I had a beer gut and everyone n the US had gym-trim bodies. I turned myself into a US clone when we got back to Germany. I could only get me waist down to 29” because that was the diameter of my hip bones. I had a swimmer’s grim boy with muscular upper body fro years of swimming. (I swam starting in Preble days.) I was definitely one of the hottest gay men in all of Tübingen, and a little vain and arrogant about it, in retrospect. I had no problem turning tricks. No one ever turned me down, In fact, I ad to fight the guys off at times. I certainly seemed to be living a charmed life and loved every minute of it, even as the dark shadow of unacknowledged alcoholism screwed things up at times. After all, I was just a heavy drinker.
Denny was twelve years older than me and was finishing up his PhD when we first met in Würzburg, the year before we moved together to Tübingen. I was a senior at Albany State and on my second year of study abroad at the University of Würzburg when we met. That was not much of a fun year. The best thing that came out of it was that I came roaring out of the gay closet and I met Denny, who had been y German teacher in summer prep school before the academic year started. He was a huge Bob Dylan fan and loved country and western music, especially the old=time stuff he had grown up listening to o the radio in Minnesota. He was a hobby folk musicologist and we went to a folk music club in Würburg frequently to listen to folk music from all over, a surprising amount from the US, a few blocks from our apartment in downtown Wurzburg. We also went tot eh movies. There was an art house theater not far from our pace and we saw international movies in the original with German subtitles. I saw a lot of Ingmar Bergman, and I remember seeing the Marx Brothers in German for the first time.
Anyway, I think of the wonderful times in my past and get very homesick for the life I once had. What I rally miss is having another Phil Wetmore in my life today. I think I could handle living in cow country if I had a partner, to form a twosome with and do stuff with. I am so lonely. And I am mostly resentful at Dave because I got cut off for the companionship I was looking to renew with him in P’town this weekend.
My sister is no boon companion. But at least when she is around the house is not empty.
So how do I accept everything as it is today? I live in my head a lot. I dwell less on the past the lnger I am here. I never thought I’d end up back in Cortland County. But I am not at the end of the rod yet. Who knows what is still in store for me? My therapist Emily is impressed at how much effort I put into circulating and reaching out and trying and trying to connect. Time takes time, as they say in local AA.
posted by Les
on 03.10.2014, under Blog
Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement, edited by Rob Okun, has been released by Interlink Books. It contains an extensive collection of essays and articles originally published in the quarterly magazine of the same name. I am pleased to have four original essays included in the collection.
posted by Les
on 03.10.2014, under Blog
This site was hacked some months ago by radical Kurdistanis (self-identified). Happily, my webmaster Craig Freeman was able to undo the damage and bring this site back into service. Many warm thanks, Craig.
posted by Les
on 10.17.2011, under Blog
Since the occupation of Wall Street first began on September 17th, the mainstream media has criticized the general assembly for its lack of a cohesive list of complaints or demands.
Not to be rushed by expectations of corporations and the elite they serve, the Occupy Wall Street action took its time fulfilling this demand.
On Thursday night, Occupy Wall Street participants voted on and approved the first official “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City.” It it reprinted in its entirety below.
As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.
As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.
They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals, and actively hide these practices.
They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.
They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.
They have sold our privacy as a commodity.
They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.
They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.
They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
They have donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them.
They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantive profit.
They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.
They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.*
To the people of the world,
We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.
Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.
To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.
Join us and make your voices heard!
*These grievances are not all-inclusive.
posted by Les
on 09.02.2011, under Blog
Click here for the story.
posted by Les
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.
posted by Les
on 10.12.2010, under Blog
Herewith the original English language transcript with me by pinknoir, a gay blog in Italy. It will appear in Italian translation, and quite possibly edited down in length.
1 – You study the history and the evolution of the bear subculture. Could you sum up, broadly, which are the roots of this subculture? How did fat and hairy men “become” sexy?
The short answer, of course, is—read my books!
But seriously … “bear” has long historical associations with certain types of male bodies and behaviors. People still refer to “bearish men” in this manner. In the 1980s gay men began to refer to themselves, or each other, very playfully as “bears” in this sense. Anecdotal reports in my early research indicated this was happening in many places across the US.
Bears coalesced into a gay identity in a specific time and place. One may ask, so why the 1980s? and why San Francisco?
First and foremost, the AIDS epidemic played a pivotal role. As the AIDS plague spread and no one really understood WHAT was going on, the gay community went into hiding. We were afraid to have sex. We even feared the gay community itself would collapse and disappear. Because of AIDS-related wasting syndrome, some gay men believed gaining weight might stave off AIDS. Being heavier LOOKED healthy by comparison.
During the early 1980s in the big gay urban enclaves in the US, as I mentioned, everyone went into hiding. The bars emptied out. The bath houses closed. Gay men stopped having sex with each other. After all, gay men were dropping dead left and right. In the midst of this terrifying situation, gay men began to peek out of their bomb shelters, yearning to connect again, socially and sexually.
In San Francisco this manifested in several ways: the Lone Star, the first “bear bar,” opened South of Market, among the numerous leather bars there (and all the now closed baht houses) it was something different. All sorts of gay men showed up there.
Because the bath houses were closed, an alternative was invented–private sex parties for invited guests. The Bear Hugs play group began, and became quickly very popular. Richard Bulger capitalized on this “bear” theme and started “BEAR” magazine, which was originally a small photocopied ‘zine consisting of sex ads and nude photos of gay men who did not conform to the classic “young and slim” ideal of beauty. Indeed, at the bar, at the sex parties, and in the pages of the ‘zine were all sorts of gay men. What they had in common was their failure to embody this beauty ideal– or, often, their lack of interest in it altogether there was a collective rejection of the “Castro clone” and all the social climbing and social posturing associated with that. there was a political dimension to this, even though most bears of the time would have laughed at the idea.
Add into this mix the birth of “cyberspace.” There was no Internet yet. As it happened a number of these bears worked in the high-tech industry of nearby Silicon Valley, and they were experimenting with email and BBS’s (electronic bulletin boards). And, so what did they communicate with each other about? Well, Who did you see at the Lone Start last night? Are you going to the Bear Hugs play party? Guess who I met through my BEAR sex ad?
San Francisco became a natural incubator and transmitter. BEAR magazine became internationally popular. Electronic communications exploded. San Francisco as gay Mecca and home to a huge gay sexual tourism culture drew lots of bears to the city’s venues. Pockets of self-0idenitfying bears elsewhere suddenly found themselves part of something much bigger. And the rest is history.
2 – Bear appearance is the opposite of the mainstream concept of beauty, but it’s judged beautiful by a lot of gays. If we consider beauty as a source of power, could we consider bear aesthetics as politically revolutionary and subversive?
“Bear aesthetics” has the POTENTIAL to be politically revolutionary and subversive. On the one hand, there is an undercurrent in the gay male community, an unstated dictum that the more beautiful you are the more sex you will have. The more sexual capital you have, the more social power it will net you. In short: “ugly” gay men do not, should not, and do not deserve to have sex. Ugly gay men have little sexual capital, and therefore “deserve” little social capital. They are, or “should be,” weak, powerless, marginalized in every way. In this sense, “bear aesthetics” could be said to have had some subversive effect.
Unfortunately, the possibility for “bear aesthetics” to serve a broader disruption of the order of power relations has largely been unfulfilled. Indeed, since it is the desire of the vast majority of of middle-class society, I would say the effect of “bear aesthetics” has in fact been counterrevolutionary. And most of the self-identifying bears I can think of would vehemently insist on their right to be conspicuously consuming, middle-class gays.
This points in the direction of assimilationist American “gay rights politics” and the failure of such politics to help anyone beyond mostly white, mostly middle-class American gay men (and lesbians). And that is a whole other discussion.
3 – Do you think that the complex and detailed classification system for bears is in contrast with the “freedom from beauty” promised by bear culture? Is there the risk to arrive to an excess in formalizing, to a sort of standard of bear beauty?
We are already there–at a “standard of bear beauty.” We are already there, at least in the US.
You know, the whole bear classification system was invented by two scientifically trained bears as a JOKE. They used the star classification system to poke fun at how absurdly gay men objectify each other. But the whole spirit of “camp” is now totally missing in the bear community. I wonder how those guys reacted when they saw their joke get taken seriously and then promulgated all over the world.
In reality, there is a vast and nuanced hierarchy of bear beauty. Just as gay men in general have subjected themselves and each other to the same beauty system that has historical oppressed women, bears have happily embraced their bear icons–what the bear media has been able to sell so successfully. “Jack Radclilffe” was the first embodiment of this new bear beauty ideal. (If you look at early BEAR magazines, it had not yet developed such a clear, and traditional, aesthetic.)
So now we have “A-list” “musclebears” and the assertion of “body fascism.” We have “ordinary” bears and a lesser hierarchy of beauty. We have an often completely separate “chubby-and-chaser” aesthetic which objectifies gay men who weigh in the 300-400-pound range. Mix in the dynamic of body hair and how much of it is needed to qualify as a bear. T you see how complex and nuanced it all is.
Ironically, it’s all there, but it is impolite, as well as “politically incorrect” to point it out. It reminds me of the historical “shade” issue among African-Americans: the lighter your skin color the more “desirable” you are,the more social capital you have. The darker you are, the more “African you are. Again, this was something most African-Americans have been painfully aware of, but something you would mention, especially outside of black circles. More self-oppression. And so much for “freedom from beauty.”
4 – Bears are often represented as very masculine men. Which is the connection between virility and bears? Could a real bear be a fairy?
It’s interesting that you choose the word “virility,” and not “masculinity.” The latter is a simpler, more direct question: “Bearish” men, in the old and broader sense of the term, points to the secondary sexual characteristics of adult males: the broad and deep chest, physical strength, the presence of copious amounts of body hair among certain ethnicities (Celtic, Mediterranean, Semitic men, for example), the tendency to a thickening of the body, especially as a man ages.
“Masculinity” also carries the implicit “male gender role” expectations, which vary from culture to culture. In the US men are expected to not be emotional nor even be able to articulate feelings; men should be quick to violence: you resolve an argument with a fist fight and you pull a gun on an intruder in your home. Men are “physical”– drawn to sports, to outdoor activities, to action (and not thinking things through). I am exaggerating American stereotypical thinking here. But I’m sure you get the point.
Since the Middle Ages, and thanks directly to the Catholic Church, male same-sex attraction has historically been conflated with effeminacy. There is no “natural” correlation between the two, but it is a long-standing cultural “truth.” Among those early bears back in the 1980s, a lot of them were blue-collar, or “turned off” by urban gay male (middle-class) culture, or came from the leather community, or actually were truck drivers, cowboys, bikers, construction workers, etc. They happily embraced the new pronouncement form BEAR magazine: “masculinity without the trappings,” they were “naturally” masculine gay men. What was new and different was that gay men had been all about being “gay.” And except for the leather community, they did not address their being “men.”
Two points here: (1) not all early bears WERE “naturally masculine” to begin with, and (2) to the extent that masculinity is about expected gender role performance, there is nothing “natural” or inevitable about masculinity per se. Hypermasculine, effeminate, or “typically” male–it’s ALL a performance, regardless of how deliberate or unconscious one is in the process of developing a gender role for oneself. One is not natural, nor naturally “superior” to another. (And now we enter into the unsolved issue: nature or nurture? And that is another discussion.)
You use the term in English “fairy.” I am guessing here oyu mean what might better be termed “sissy”– effeminate-behaving gay men. In English, when you use the term “fairy” I immediately go to “radical fairie,” the subculture founded by Harry Hay in the 1970s, as a radical alternative to assimilationist gay politics of the time. The fairies are alive and well, and there are even some fairies who identify as bears, and vice versa.
To my sensibility, the definition of “bear” is still fluid. A bear is SELF-identifying to me, so I see no discrepancy with being a bear and being a fairy. Often, as I have observed, one’s definition of a “bear” is wrapped up in what one finds sexually desirable–so someone may exclude effeminate men who self-identify as a bear because that particular person is not sexually attracted to effeminacy.
What I find really interesting about this question is that it points to the “Masculinity Police.” who the fuck are these gay men who are dictating who IS and is NOT masculine, who IS and is NOT included among the bears? Obviously, there is no elected or officially appointed police squad. But there might just as well be–because there IS some mechanism of judgment and (dis)approval in action. Again, this is a whole other discussion of what Foucault called the “panoptical gaze.” It’s VERY real, and omnipresent, even as it is difficult to pin down explicitly.
5 – Do you think that there are differences between American bears and “Eurobears”?
I have completely missed the developments of bear identity in Europe over the last ten years.I had, in fact, taken a personal hiatus from all things bears from roughly 2003 to 2010. So, I am like Rip Van Winkel (or Cinderella), awakening after a long sleep and being confronted with a community I scarcely recognize any more. As I am becoming re-engaged, I look forward to doing new work on what has happened in Europe, and in taking a more politically engaged position.
What I learned from living in Germany for most of the 1970s and being involved with gay-left politics there may now be outdated. “Gay” as a social identity used to be VERY American. Europeans tended to be more “discreet” about sexuality: what you did was your own business. It was a worse to discuss your sexual affairs than to engage in them–as contracted with the US and its policing efforts to discover sex perverts wherever they could: self-confession led directly behind the political strategy to “come out” as gay.
So, I am fascinated by the question myself. How do European bears conceptualize themselves? Are there now actual, physical enclaves of gay bear communities? Have European gay men enslaved themselves to media-generated ideals of male beauty they way American men have done over the last 30 years? To what degree do European bears fetishize the ‘American-ness” of American bears? Has gay American cultural imperialism taken total root, and is now totally accepted? Have European bears, or Europeans in general, embraced the consumer-capitalization (“you are what you consume”) of society as much as their American counterparts?
Indeed, please tell me more!