by Bo Shell, GA Voice, 9/2/11
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“It was really in such contrast to the stereotype of gay men,” said Ron Suresha, author of “Bear on Bears” and another founding member ― if one could call it that ― of bear culture. “We’d known that leather men or BDSM guys were really butch and such, but this group of guys was a different breed. To be able to improvise and adopt an alternative identity that seemed valid is part of what drove the coalescing of bear identity.”
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“Bears don’t fit the normal look of what gay men are supposed to look like,” Beck added. “I never experienced it to be honest, but a lot of us have been chastised or mocked for that, so they tend to do that less and tend to be more inclusive.”
This shared experience and mutual acceptance, along with Suresha’s theory of valuing maturity, is perhaps the other common thread weaving bear culture’s generation gap together.
There’s a strange danger in that acceptance, though, as Suresha points out that perhaps the “fairest criticism” of bear culture is its implied fetishization of fatness.
“You can’t say that as much now, maybe when there was a greater component of Girth & Mirth men in the bears when they started assimilating in the ‘90s,” said Suresha. “It’s a fair enough criticism that you’re not being as healthful and careful with your body, but you have to consider your sources.”
Let’s be clear. There are as many kinds of bears as there are people.
Though predominantly white and middle class, there are bears of all races and socio-economic backgrounds. There are no rules as to who can claim the bear as their totem, though there are still questions of body image and being “bear enough,” however inclusive bear culture’s unspoken bylaws may be.
For Suresha, who has known Wright since the early days at the Lone Star Saloon, the exchange of ideas about the bear culture isn’t always intellectual, but is nonetheless essential.
“There’s a political component, an artistic component, a visual component and the development of the community and culture has benefitted from different kinds of advances and they do engage people,” Suresha says.
“If you have a musician who identifies as a bear, writes music for bears and wants to perform for bears and interact with bears in a bar for bears, that’s not done at an intellectual level, but when this kind of thing take places, there’s a thoughtfulness that helps coalesce the bear community further.”
So there is meaning, then, in this gathering of Southern Bears. The guys here are different from each other, but they celebrate their differences with a collective acceptance that exists proudly outside the mainstream.
Human nature tells us that we are attracted to people who are more similar than dissimilar, but in the bear community, the moment one finds a common strand of truth, it’s accidentally broken with one proverbial clutch of the pearls.
“Flannel?” exclaims Brett, a Southern Bear who happens to be Burcl’s partner of eight years. “I would never wear flannel.”
Photo: Self-identified cubs Michael Knoles and Chris Tripp met at a bear event in 2007. (by Bo Shell)