Bear (gay culture)

Pride flag of the Bear community, one of many flags for sexuality and gender identity-based cultures

In male gay culture, a bear is often a larger, hairier man who projects an image of rugged masculinity. Bears are one of many LGBT communities with events, codes, and a culture-specific identity. However, in San Francisco in the 70s any hairy man of whatever shape was referred to as a 'bear' until the term was appropriated by larger men and other words had to be found to describe hairy other-shaped men such as otter (slim) or wolf (medium-build).

The term bear was popularized by Richard Bulger, who, along with his then partner Chris Nelson (1960–2006) founded Bear Magazine in 1987. There is some contention surrounding whether Bulger originated the term and the subculture's conventions. George Mazzei wrote an article for The Advocate in 1979 called "Who's Who in the Zoo?",[1] that characterized homosexuals as seven types of animals, including bears.[2]

Bears celebrating the 2007 International Bear Rendezvous, an annual gathering of bears and bear-lovers held in San Francisco

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of who can or cannot identify as a bear. The bear concept can function as an identity or an affiliation, and there is ongoing debate in bear communities about what constitutes a bear. Some bears place importance on presenting a clear masculine image and may disdain or shun men who exhibit effeminacy,[3] while others consider acceptance and inclusiveness of all behavioural types to be an important value of the community.[4]

Bears are almost always gay or bisexual men. However, as LGBT culture and modern slang has taken on a wider appeal in modern society, it is possible to call a hairy and burly straight man a bear (although they would not be strictly part of the gay bear community).[5] Increasingly, transgender men (trans men) and those who shun labels for gender and sexuality are also included within bear communities.[6] However, heterosexual men who have bearish physical traits and are affirming of their gay friends and family (or their gay fans, in the case of a celebrity) may also be informally accorded "honorary" bear status.[7] A smaller number of lesbians, particularly those portrayed as butch, also participate in bear culture, referring to themselves with the distinct label of ursula.[8]

Events and activities

Bears at the 2009 Marcha Gay in Mexico City

At the onset of the bear movement, some bears separated from the gay community at large, forming "bear clubs" to create social and sexual opportunities for their own. Many clubs are loosely organized social groups; others are modeled on leather biker-patch clubs, with a strict set of bylaws, membership requirements, and charities. Bear clubs often sponsor large yearly events — "bear runs" or "bear gatherings" like the annual events such as Southern HiBearNation in Melbourne, Bear Pride and Bear Essentials in Sydney, Bearstock in Adelaide, HiBearNation in St. Louis, Missouri, SF Bear Weekend, CBL's Bear Hunt,[9] Bear Pride in Chicago, Texas Bear Round Up (TBRU) in Dallas, Orlando Bear Bash,[10] and Summer Bear Week in Provincetown, drawing regional, national and international visitors. Many LGBT events attract a significant bear following, such as Southern Decadence[11] in New Orleans. A feature at many bear events is a "bear contest," a sort of masculine beauty pageant awarding titles and sashes (often made of leather) to winners.

Mr. DC Bear Cub 2006 and Mr. DC Bear 2006

One example of a bear contest was International Mr. Bear, formerly held each February at the International Bear Rendezvous in San Francisco. It attracted contestants, often with local titles, from all over the world. The first International Mr. Bear was held in 1992 and the last in 2011. The contest included Bear, Daddy, Cub and Grizzly titles with the contestant who receives the highest score winning the bear title, regardless of what type he is. Example: "Mr. Washington, D.C. Bear, 2006."

Gay "leather-bears" have competed in leather contests, and "muscle-bears" are another subculture noted by their muscular body mass.

The bear community has spread all over the world, with bear clubs in many countries. Bear clubs often serve as social and sexual networks for their members, who can contribute to their local gay communities through fund-raising and other functions. Bear events have become very common, to include smaller sized cites and many rural areas. Most gay oriented campgrounds now include some type of bear-related event during their operating season.

The bear community constitutes a specialty niche in the commercial market. It offers T-shirts and other accessories as well as calendars and porn movies and magazines featuring bear icons, e.g., Jack Radcliffe. Catalina Video has a bear-themed line, the "Furry Features Series." Other adult studios who feature bear-type men are Bear Magazine, 100% BEEF Magazine, BearFilms, Bear, Butch Bear, Raging Stallion, and Titan Media. There are also social media websites and smartphone apps that market to men of the bear community.

As the bear community has matured, so has its music and literature, as well as other (non-pornographic) arts, media, and culture. Examples include Bearapalooza, a traveling bear music festival; Bear Bones Books, an imprint of GLBTQ publisher Lethe Press, which markets fiction, nonfiction, and poetry titles written by and for bears;, which streams bear and LGBT music and bear-themed podcast shows. The larger organized bear runs often host a "bear market" area where artisans, musicians, and others offer items for sale.

As more gay men have identified themselves as bears, more bars, especially leather or western bars, have become bear-friendly. Some bars cater specifically to bear patrons.


Bears marching in Melbourne's Pride March 2011

Jack Fritscher notes that bears celebrate "secondary sexual characteristics of the male: facial hair, body hair, proportional size, baldness".[12] Over the years, bear culture has subdivided itself. Many claim discrimination has increased within the bear community, as some men who self-identify as "bears" or "musclebears" do not welcome higher-bodyfat men (see chub) at their events. A common criticism of the bear community is that some self-described bears tend to exclude men who do not fit their standards of a "real bear". Fat (or lack of it) is a political issue, some of whom see their overweight condition as a form of self-acceptance. Some also note a lack of racial diversity in the bear community, perceiving hirsuteness to be a standard of physical attractiveness that genetically favors white men aesthetically, socially and sexually among bears.[3]

References in popular culture

The December 2007 issue of Instinct magazine featured an article by Kevin Smith on its "The Last Word" page. Smith wrote about his gay brother Don, about him being on the cover of A Bear's Life magazine and the related cover story, and his feelings about being a "bear icon" in the gay community.[13] Smith later made a cameo appearance in the 2012 film BearCity 2: The Proposal, playing himself in a brief conversation with a main character who works in the film industry.

Bear media

A variety of media has been established specifically to cater to bears. The Internet comic strip Bear with Me[14] centers around the life of the bear Andy McCubbin, a rich entrepreneur and heir to the Howell/McCubbin fortune, and his friends and family. A vast majority of the other characters are also bears. The comics are created by Tim Vanderburg under the pen name Bruin.[15] In Tim Barela's comic strip, Leonard & Larry, a majority of the male characters are bearded men, some self-identified as bears, most not.[16] Another webcomic, Blur the Lines, frequently features bearish men and the two main characters, Rick and Drew, associate with the bear community; the former identifies as a chub, whereas the latter identifies as a chaser/cub. (See below for term definitions.) The events and characters depicted in the strip are inspired by the life of the author and artist, Bob Kusiak, who is also involved to some extent with the bear community.[17]

Films depicting the bear community include BearCity, BearCity 2: The Proposal and Cachorro, and the comedy web series Where the Bears Are.

In 2013, gay singer-songwriter Tom Goss released his song "Bears", singing about the bear community's open-mindedness and size-inclusivity.[18]


Further information: LGBT slang

Some slang terms relating to the bear community include the following:

See also


  1. "When The Advocate Invented Bears". The Advocate. Here Media Inc. Retrieved 6 March 2015.
  2. George Mazzei, (1979). Who's Who in the Zoo?. "The Advocate", pages 42–43.
  3. 1 2 Ron Jackson Suresha, (2002). Bears on Bears: Interviews and Discussions. "Bear Ages and Stages", pages 54–58, 149, 179, 236, 260–262, 294. Los Angeles: Alyson Publications. Retrieved on 2008-09-29 ISBN 1-55583-578-3.
  4. John Dececco and Les Wright, The Bear Book II: Further Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture. Routledge, 2016. ISBN 9781136383274.
  5. Erbentraut, Joe. "Move Over, Metrosexuals: Meet the Straight Bears". Retrieved 2015-06-29.
  6. Ron Suresha, Bears on Bears: Interviews and Discussions. Lethe Press, 2009. ISBN 9781590212448.
  7. Bear Nation. 2010 film, dir. Malcolm Ingram.
  8. 1 2 "Beary feminine: Lesbians are claiming an identity gay men monopolize". Xtra!, May 30, 2002.
  9. "Bear Hunt – Bears Back to the 80's". Retrieved 2013-11-22.
  10. "Gay Bear event in Orlando, Florida. Gay Bear, Gay Leather, Gay Men in Uniform". Orlando Bear Bash. Retrieved 2013-11-22.
  11. "Southern Decadence Official Website". 2013-11-12. Retrieved 2013-11-22.
  12. Suresha, Ron (2009). Bears on Bears: Interviews and Discussions. Lethe Press. p. 83. ISBN 1590212444.
  13. "Instinct Magazine: Kevin Smith gets the last word. The film director and writer gives us his gay View Askew.". Archived from the original on 2009-06-25.
  14. "Bear With Me – Welcomes You!". Retrieved 2013-11-22.
  15. Vandergurg, Tim (2002–2009). "Bear With me". Retrieved 2009-06-15.
  16. Suresha, Ron (2002–2009). "Portrait of the Cartoonist as a Middle-Aged Bear: An Interview with Tim Barela". Archived from the original on 24 July 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-12.
  17. Kusiak, Bob (2009–2011). "Blur the Lines".
  18. "On the Spot: Tom Goss". Washington Post, August 29, 2013.
  19. Kampf, Ray (2000). The Bear Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for Those who are Husky, Hairy, and Homosexual, and Those who Love'em. Haworth Press. pp. "The Bear Cub: Ursus younges". ISBN 978-1-56023-996-3. Retrieved 2008-08-27.
  20. Wright 2001, pp. 77, 91
  21. 1 2 "Bear-y gay". Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2007.


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