If you cruise down to the woods to play on a regular basis, you will probably end up bumping into more bears than Goldilocks ever did. Growing out of San Francisco’s gay culture, bears have migrated worldwide, and now many major cities have gay bear communities.
The term “bear” is used to describe a large, typically rugged or hairy homosexual or bisexual man. Hairy, cuddly, ferocious and big, like their animal namesake, bears are now an established subculture in the gay community. Bears are masculine gay men who have embraced a new type of gay masculinity that shuns effeminacy in a hypermasculine reaction towards the girlishness of “pretty boys”. Paradoxically, the bear subculture also characterises itself as warm and inclusive.
Bears first emerged from hibernation in the 80s, partly from an organization called Girth and Mirth – large men and their admirers. The gay masculinity of bears eroticises a body that is heavier, hairier and older than the regular gay stereotype. Bears are predominantly gay men who are perceived as straight by the casual observer but identify as gay. They usually meet at “bear clubs” or other bars and clubs open to the gay community with a regular “bear night” or “bear run” on the calendar.
Bears see themselves as being subversive within the gay community. With their defiant hairiness, bears are considered more virile than the smooth-chested junior stud, as body hair growth is stimulated by testosterone. It has been suggested that bears emerged as a distinct subculture because the hairy and rugged men of the gay community could not easily identify with the appearance and style of the rest of the community. But even with their own easily recognisable look within the culture as a whole, insiders still debate what constitutes a real bear. And, as with all distinctions based solely on appearance, fashions change, and the notion of the ideal bear has shifted accordingly.
A big issue in contemporary bear culture is just how much chubbiness is acceptable. Old school bears had no problem taking a bit extra on board, as they were comfortable in their own bearskins and not too worried about superficial appearances. With the rise of muscle culture, both in the straight and gay worlds, younger bears are spending more time in the gym and bulking up with muscle mass. There are now two very different approaches to bearism, which are not particularly compatible.
Today’s bear subculture is on the cusp of going overground. With their easy recognition factor and their own set of codes, bears are beating a path into mainstream culture and media, with regular references to bear culture popping up in films, comics and music. There is even a band, the archly named Bearforce
100 subcultures insight: The bear community has a particularly creative set of terms for different types of bear, including: “Cub” – a younger bear; “Ewok” – a bear of shorter stature; “Polar bear” – an older man whose hair has turned grey; and, of course, “Goldilocks” – a female friend of bears.