Voice Male - Winter 2005
A Different Kind of Gay Identity
by Les Wright
During the mid-1980s something was percolating in gay San Francisco. The phenomenon of "bears" broke into my consciousness when I returned to the city in 1989, after spending a year on the East Coast in my first-ever professional position as a visiting lecturer at a small, smart, rural liberal arts college.
It had been a thoroughly miserable year for me, away from anything and everything gay. I had envisioned it as a sabbatical year away from AIDS, a chance to escape the daily impact of living in the Gay Holocaust. In the end, it proved a terrifying experience--so far away from anyone who understood my epidemic-ravaged world.
Once back in San Francisco, I sought to re-engage with life, to take charge of living with HIV, and to begin to mourn the loss of vision of what my life was supposed to be (something, anything other than what it had become). I attempted to reinsert myself into life through companionship with my newfound "bear" friends, and I sought to create for myself a new vision.
What Is a Bear?
Simply put, a bear is a gay male who has tended to self-define by two distinct categorical aspects: 1) a preponderance of male secondary sexual characteristics (beard, body hair, and girth, or how the excess body weight is typically distributed across the male torso), and/or 2) an essence of mind, spirit, personality, or sexual politics that sets the self-identifying bear apart from normativizing contemporary gay mainstream values. In 1997, when The Bear Book: Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture was published, I summarized a decade of bear community internal contestation: "...it is impossible to answer the question 'What is a bear?' in any definite way, beyond the array of connotative associations in our culture, suggesting a large or husky body, heavy body hair, a lumbering gait, an Epicurean appetite, an attitude of imperturbability, a contented self-acceptance of his own masculinity (however that maybe defined). The debate, generally framed as bear-as-image versus bear-as-attitude, is as unresolved as ever."
Beardom as Sexual Refugee Camp
In the first moment of bear-identity formation in the early to mid-1980s, at least in San Francisco, self-identifying bears found like-minded companions through a localized social-sexual nexus. In the wake of AIDS, the daily street carnival which Castro Street had become during the 1970s disappeared virtually overnight. In its stead, a scared--traumatized--predominantly gay male population saw a whole world disintegrate. Fear of the unknown meant fear of infection and death, causing the sexual subculture to shut down almost completely. Gay bar, club, and business owners died rapidly. People stopped going out, causing business to plummet. The bath houses were closed. The gay boom town went bust, and most gay men feared gay community itself would disappear permanently.
It is vital to understand, from today's perspective, how overwhelming and total was this moment, when it looked like the gay world had reached cataclysmic annihilation. It was then that some gay men found, or rather invented or reinvented, themselves as (self-identifying) bears, as a strategy to cope and move past the historical moment of trauma. It was a time for feeling one's way out of the metaphorical darkness, back into community, back into sexual connection and social adhesion. It was also an opportunity to jettison the baggage of failed past experiments.
For me, beardom was about gay liberation, all over again. In 1979 I had fled Germany, and heteronormative society in toto, to seek community in the sexual refugee camp of San Francisco's Castro District. Coincidentally, I was to all appearances the quintessential "Castro clone"--I was 26, 5'9", had a 29-inch waist and wore 501 jeans and flannel shirts. But on the inside, I could not have more alien.
Where was the sexual democracy I had expected--men and women of whatever nonconformist bent, coming in every shade, shape, color, and persuasion, united only in our radical vision of community? Like many an immigrant before me, I was bewildered and dumbfounded to find myself more of an alien--a sexual alien--than ever before. I had come home, and my house (like Odysseus's) was filled with strangers. And, as I was about to rudely discover, I was plummeting to the depths of full-blown alcoholism and drug addiction. All the neat gay urban homesteads and funky, campy, or chic gay businesses looked very peculiar from my vantage point as an unintended 26-year-old gutter drunk.
I first became conscious of the healing strategy of the recovery narrative through Alcoholics Anonymous. Later, I was struck by its presence at the heart of gay coming-out stories. Having come out as gay, and later as sober, it seemed natural for me to come out as a person with AIDS (PWA), and later still, as a bear. In the 1980s bears were typically gay men who came out twice--the first time as gay, the second as a bear. Today, the concept of bear has become fundamental, and younger teenaged males may come out as a bear (bear replaces gay as basic category). Others may come out as a bear, after coming out in some other way, and then negotiate the category of bear as "not only male gay"--for example, as a bear of color, or as a transgendered, bisexual, or lesbian bear.
I originally debuted as a "sober leather bear." What makes my story different from that of most bears, whether in the 1980s or today, is twofold: First, I got sober before bears happened, so being a bear was anteceded with sobriety--I could become a bear, because it could be a sober identity for me. Second, I was conscious of being HIV-infected (indeed, I had fully expected to have died from AIDS) before bears ever came into being--I could become a bear as a gay man with HIV. What for me has been so disorienting and demoralizing has been the evolution of bears, along the hippie-yuppie fault line, into a category whereby being sober and having HIV are now qualities that separate me from, rather than bonding me with, other self-identifying bears. Nowadays I am a bear with a difference, a queerly queer bear--I am a trauma bear.
Bears, "Failed Gays," and Metrosexuals
"Bear," as a gay, bi, trans, lesbian, or queer identity, remains virtually unknown in American mainstream society. It is curious that even at the time of this writing, some 20 years after the emergence of self-identifying bears, they are still essentially invisible at the level of public discourse or cultural-political recognition. Bears, it seems, are rarely mentioned, and if they are, the remark often contains some sense of incomprehension or bemusement (the oddness of a bear identity), or some form of social disapproval (fat, hairy, older, ugly gay men "doing" bear "drag").
To have a fat or obviously untamed or unregulated body is be a "failure" as a gay man. The physicality of "bear" has also challenged the (often media-driven) gay-mainstream value of body-as-commodity, whereby not just sexual desirability but social recognition per se is contingent upon conformity to a "fit body" standard. Self-identifying bears have claimed the nonconforming male body as the primary physical site of their implicit cultural sex and gender politics. The assertion of bearish bodies arose as conscious refutation of "clone" and "twink" models of beauty, and occasionally of "good gay" or "consumer queer" values and fashions (urban, white, upwardly mobile middle-class).
However, as the notion of bears has permeated queer culture and media and reached a greater level of acceptance, bears have increasingly acculturated to gay-mainstream values. "Musclebears," "A-list bears," and those more formally recognized as "superior" through celebrity (bear contest winners, magazine cover models, objects of flattering gossip in electronic and print media) signal the transformation of the bear phenomenon into a structured and self-regulating community assimilating into the gay-dominant value paradigm. But in the millennial decade, the fad of "metrosexuality" made plain the problem of social "acceptance" of gay men by mainstream society. Everything positively (and stereotypically) gay became viewed as a taste, a sensibility, a set of mannerisms to be embraced and adopted by straight people. Metrosexual men dress, talk, comport themselves, and in general create the illusion of "being gay"--everything except experiencing homoerotic desire. Bears may be seen as the exact obverse--reasserting sexual desire as primary to sexual identity.
Bears wrestle with the problems of being a man (we lack meaningful analysis of the significance of gay male masculinity--the "man" part of "gay man"). Bears wrestle with the problems of being fat--of being "damaged goods" in a culture of complete self-commodification. And bears wrestle with the trauma induced by the phenomenon of gay-on-gay homophobia. Fat gay men suffer the same sort of discrimination that (straight) fat women do. In a sexual subculture where looks are even more important than in mainstream society (because so much of it is about having sex), being sexually rejected--actively or by being rendered invisible--constitutes a double trauma. Not only is one's choice of sexual partners greatly reduced, but one's entire raison d'être is rejected. In a society that has categorically defined homosexual males as "failures" as men, there can be no greater failure than to enter the gay world, only to find oneself being rejected as a "failed" homosexual (i.e., sexually desirable, sexually realized) man.
Where the Bears Are
As the bear phenomenon continued to gain ground as a gay mainstream identity--predominantly white, middle-class, male homosexual--I became painfully aware of how much I had attached myself, my personal values and sense of identity, to bear identity. My surprise, shock, and dismay arose as bears went, at least in the publicly visible segments, in directions I had no desire to go myself. This has proved an enriching experience in observing how communities and societies function and develop, and in this sense bears have gone the same way as every other subculture or community I can call to mind. Similarly, it has been a very instructive firsthand experience in understanding the limitations of identity politics.
As I have worked my way through to understanding my own guiding beliefs and principles, for example as a radical egalitarian, as a relatively privileged (because) white multiculturalist and (because) male feminist, as an internationalist (with very US-American feet of clay), and as a victim-survivor, I have slowly, painfully, and with large servings of humble pie learned my own limitations. I have healed victim-survivor wounds, at long last (child abuse, AIDS, social marginalization). I experienced illness, nervous collapse, and loss of a career vision in those two years--all sparked, in part, by the self-inventorying this article necessitated.
My own bear history work is done. It is now the work of many others, who have much different stories to tell. "Queer as one, queer as many" symbolizes reality and the work that activists and historians must do. My path is now one not of contestation, but of acceptance. I am bear, unique unto myself, as I am queer in a multicultural community. I am finding a rebirth of my political activism through spiritual activism. What is important is not my words, but my actions.
Les Wright is a writer, teacher, lecturer, cultural studies scholar, and frequent contributor to Voice Male who continues to explore social and spiritual visions of alternative masculinities.
The bear community is arguably the first queer community to arise in cyberspace and to exist to a prominent degree on the Internet. Perhaps the most comprehensive web source for bear culture may be found at www.resourcesforbears.org, administrated by Bob Donahue. Fragments of the original Bear History Project may be accessed at www:bearhistory.com. One of the earliest bear clubs to organize and still in existence is the Bear Buddies of Toronto, at www.bearbuddiestoronto.com. More than a dozen bear-identified clubs were active across Canada at the time this article was completed. Although all links for the very popular Ours Montréal Bears club appeared inactive at the time of publication, active Montreal and Quebec bear groups include the dinner club Le G.R.R.R.R. À OURS de Montréal (www.upbear.com) and the Generation X club (http://genxbears.org/montreal).
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