Periwinkle Dragonfly

Interview with NoirPink Magazine

posted by on 10.21.2010, under News

Click here to go to the interview (in Italian).

Interview with in Italy

posted by 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!