Do you know what a Bear is?

I think the concept is now widely known enough that most people will have encountered it at some point. No, not the giant, hairy, salmon or bamboo eating mammals, it's a subculture. It's only fair to warn you here that this post is going to contain some adult themes, particularly the discussion of adult human bodies and, to a limited degree, sex too.

The term "Bear" emerged in the late 1980s, though the exact origin is up for debate. In fact almost everything about Bears as a gay subculture is up for debate but there's more on that somewhere below. The preeminent understanding is that the subculture emerged in a period where gay culture revolved around a young, slim, exactingly groomed, popular media stereotype of male homosexuality as a more inclusive counterculture. It formed around men who were bigger, fatter, and hairier than was the established ideal and that it would serve to be less judgemental about men's bodies. Not all of us can be or want to be slim and precisely maintained.

In a sense, bigger gay guys defined a subculture in which they were accepted. Where nightspots and events could cater to them rather than exclude them. This notion of acceptance is going to be important, so hang on to it.

No subculture comprising adult humans is free of some degree of a sexual component, and for Bears that sexual component is part of the founding intent; an environment in which gentlemen with bodies that defied the magazine ideal did not face the same sexual judgement or rejection. Naturally, those traits that might have been an uncomfortable feature in the wider gay community before, became desired and fetishised traits in a culture designed to embrace them. While bears self organise for all manner of social activities, many of which are quite mundane, sexual proclivity is an undeniable driving force and will, again, be an important point of note.

Bears are fairly easy to identify. They tend to be the guys with beards, they're often (but not necessarily) quite hairy in general. They tend towards being slightly to significantly overweight. Tee shirts, cargo shorts, jeans, and flannel are the day-to-day uniform. It's a subculture that embraces some very well established masculine aesthetics; sometimes outdated, but on at least some level as a rebellion to the effeminate homosexual stereotypes that permeate the collective consciousness. Gay men often have the option and indeed some meaningful incentive to present those features they find most appealing in other men and so gay male subcultures have this uncanny knack for being kinda clone-prone as aptly demonstrated by the (potentially unsafe for work) Tumblr account Boyfriend Twin.

It wouldn't take you much searching of my Twitter account to find some evidence of me being referred to as a Bear. I also do so self-referentially from time to time. For as long as I've been aware that I was gay (and discovered that the internet had porn on it) I've also been acutely aware of the Bear subculture. These guys did it for me, and as it happened I was destined to present all the typical Bear secondary sexual characteristics in abundance. I'm chubby, abnormally hirsute, and have the kind of beard that many men possessing of their own excellent manes still tell me they are jealous of. I am pretty much the cookie cutter Bear and quite often, when it suits me, I lean into that identity.

As I've gotten a little older and wiser though I have definitely withdrawn from the Bear community. What on the face of things seems like it should be a generally positive influence on self respect and my opportunities to interact socially (and otherwise) with a group that share many of my life experiences is actually a double-edged sword. One that is often quite viciously hypocritical.

'Bear', given the apparent notions of inclusion, you would expect to be a broadly applicable term. Distinctions are made however; generally distinctions that serve to identify some individuals as markedly separate. A black man in the bear community is, sadly with great predictability, a 'Black Bear' and of course a gentleman of Asian ancestry is far too often referred to as a 'Panda'. I find these distinctions pretty cringeworthy at best (and often times these are self adopted labels, and I have no meaningful experience with which to unpack that), but the lack of Individuals of Colour in the community does speak to an undercurrent of exclusion. The number of non-white gay men who fit the bill is not insignificant yet they are plainly underrepresented.

I've also witnessed discussions whereby individuals are judged more or less by their potential for in-group fetishisation. Not hairy enough, not beardy enough, not fat enough. While the elevation of physical traits used to define a subculture are naturally going to progress towards fetishisation their use to define a supposedly inclusive group on exclusive terms is twisted, and clearly serves those with the greatest social privilege. This of course plays tidily into issues with racial division as touched on above. Those, then, with the greatest social influence become those who most closely fit a continually narrowing definition of the ideal. Subsequently it becomes harder and harder for those who would benefit the most from inclusion in the community to meaningfully participate in it.

'Bear' should be a matter of self identification. Your own acknowledgement of the things you like and dislike about your own body in a wider culture that we recognise for it's harmful attitudes towards beauty. It should present the freedom to choose to express some masculine tropes without mirroring the poisonous masculine ideal that contributes to everyday homophobia. I don't think the community meets those standards, and so while I self identify I intentionally stand apart because it does not represent my ideals, and has not lived up to the goal inclusion that I was taught to expect.

It's a silly label that compares us to big hairy animals, but it should allow for anyone to be accepted. It should provide safety for guys who are constantly told by the popular media that they are inadequate, deficient, or damaged. These things aren't difficult to provide, honestly, but it won't happen while parts of the community are hostile to men that would participate essentially on the basis of whether or not they hit enough fetishised tropes for wanking to. It shouldn't be about self-sorting based on mutual erection potential — but it seems to me that this is the case far too often. We don't have to sort at all.