Bear Week attracts diverse homomasculine culture to Cape end

Bear Week attracts diverse, urbane, homomasculine culture to Provincetown

Our week-plus coastal vacation turned into one big, furry, queer multimedia Ren-Faire

by Ron Suresha

Photography courtesy of Angel Colon

The 11th annual post-Independence Day international male tribal gathering on Cape Cod more commonly known as Bear Week spanned two prime Summer holiday weekends, drawing to its dens and coves not just the usual throngs of big, hairy, mature sexy gay and bi guys looking for bearclaw T-shirts and other bear apparel, but also a homomasculine Ren-Faire of Bear-wrought crafts, artwork, photography, performance, cinema, literature, and music — topped with the presence of Bear community cultural icons Armistead Maupin and Ben Cohen.

Banners at the Boatslip during Bear Week

Taking advantage of the near-perfect weather, a total estimated eight thousand men came to Ptown for Bear Week, according to Tom Quinn, one of a hairy handful of dedicated volunteer organizers that include Provincetown Bears founder John Burrows; Chris Ricciotti, pioneer in gender-role-free queer folk dancing; Frank Mahoney, and other leaders in the New England Bear community.

Saturday the husbear and I arrived and checked in at the Gifford House, where we first met almost ten years ago. After tea dance and dinner, we went to a packed “sneak peek” screening of Bear City 2, a feature-length film for which I extra-ed (in what amounted to about 3.75 seconds onscreen time). The first Bear City (in which husband and I also were background extras in NYC) was critically acclaimed, nabbing several awards. Last summer director/writer Doug Langway shot the sequel here, starring Gerald McCullough and Joe Conti as a NYC couple who decide to get hitched on the Cape, as a love letter to Provincetown and its evolving bear culture.

In many respects a community-based film, this delightful romantic comedy involves a wedding with no lack of close zany friends, including many local characters and Bearish actors Frank deCaro and Jason Stuart; crowd scenes were shot at the Boatslip tea dance showing wall-to-wall big furry guys. Now, having seen the whole film, I can say that I adored it and am incredibly proud to have been part of it. The returning characters have matured somewhat, but the film still questions fidelity and male-couple open relationships, with a truly unexpected and completely moving ending. Bear City 2 is now making the GLBTQ film circuit, so go see it. You’ll laugh (a lot), you’ll cry (a little), and you’ll get to see me wearing a leather harness.

Sunday morning the joke going around was: “Wake up, or come to?” Apparently lots of folks had partied hard the night before. For some of us, there wasn’t much recovery time, as we had to set up for Bear Market at Crown & Anchor that ran 11am-4pm. I hosted a table for Bear Bones Books, an imprint of GLBTQ publisher Lethe Press, but mostly promoting my new coffee-table art book, Fur: The Love of Hair. Bear Market, now in its third year, takes place in Ptown during Bear Week and at the Spookybear weekend in October, attracting not just all manner of bearwear from vendors such as from event organizer Shane Ruff‘s studio, but framed art and photography, pottery, music CDs, film DVDs, and more.

The week was packed with opportunities for Bear-gathering, including even a “Bears Occupying Wall Street” event scheduled at the newly reconstructed Public Library Marc Jacobs Reading Room. If I forgot to mention it, all these sorts of major events and performances are taking place upon a daily schedule of daytime yogabear sessions, spiritual meetings for bears, folk dances (in years past), Bear City 2 screenings, beachside tea dances, sunset bear party cruises, nightclub DJs, house parties all over town (some have become annual events such as “Pelt” party hosted by my friend Cyrus), beachside bonfires, and post-bar mingling outside Spiritus Pizza.

Which is where, on Sunday afternoon en route to tea, the husband and I encountered Armistead Maupin, beloved author of the Tales of the City books, and his husband, Chris Turner, a contributing photographer to Fur. I had briefly introduced myself to Armistead in May after the Lambda Literary Awards ceremony, but had never met Chris. Roc and I had planned to attend Armistead’s reading the next day, but after introductions and discovering that they were also (late) heading to tea dance, we escorted them the few blocks to the Boatslip. Chris and I chatted about FUR, BearCentral.com, and Daddyhunt (I wrote for their blog for a while), and Rocco talked with Armistead, as we strolled then stood, continuing to chat, until we hugged goodbye and released them to other fans and the final thumping minutes of tea dance. This was the first of several short but delightful encounters with Armistead and Chris.

I got to tell Armistead of my initiation to his Tales, SanFran 1986, when I first started dating Chris Nelson, the original Bear mag photographer. At the time I was living in Emeryville, and on our first or second date, upon finding out I hadn’t read any of the Tales of the City books, Chris presented me with the first three books in their original edition, and then took me for three Irish coffees to the Buena Vista. That night, hopped up on Irish coffee, I read all three books. Since then I’ve been an avid follower, and have read all his published books to date.

Armistead’s reading at Paramount the next day was sold out to readers and fans, many younger but no less devoted to the author than me. He charmed the audience with his introductory comments before reading a passage from his next book, The Days of Anna Madrigal. For those of us who have read the Tales series to date, including his most recent novel, Mary Ann in Autumn, this was a rare treat, a sneak peek into the novel-in-progress, in which the divine Mrs M, now 92, recalls her days as a young boy living in a Winnemucca flophouse. Following a short Q&A, Armistead greeted readers and signed copies of his books.

Several Bear musicians and DJs came during Bear Week to share their voices and grooves, and the Bear-eoke nights were packed. Tuesday afternoon, the husbear had to return home for rest of week, which was sad, but that evening’s performance of the Bears of Comedy, featuring two offbeat, charming/disarming, furry NYC funnymen, Frank Liotti and Neil Thornton, cheered me up fast. Wednesday brought also an entirely new Bear Week tradition, the Bear Light Parade, hosted by Bill and Andy of the longstanding, popular bear social website, BigMuscleBear.com.

The handsome, scruffy, hirsute English rugby champ Ben Cohen also came to Bear Week, at a HRC-sponsored fundraiser at the Paramount. To a SRO crowd, assisted by entertainer Miss Ritchfield 1981 and 20 handsome, rugged, furry men in Ben’s signature white-and-aqua blue underwear, the ruggedly masculine sports icon explained why he chose to launch the Ben Cohen Special Edition underwear line from Bluebuck and to present his Stand-Up Foundation to combat bullying during Provincetown Bear Week. Although the crowd of gay / bi guys were already undoubtedly sensitive to the issue, Ben moved us with his own story, about how his dad was killed by a bully in an unprovoked attack. The audience was so inspired by the presentation and Ben (who was bare-chested a good deal of the time) that the auction of Ben’s used underwear and shirt drew a bidding war that eventually netted Stand Up Foundation $4800. ¡Bravo, Ben!

With all these other goings-on happening during Bear Week, you could easily forget that Ptown is a vibrant art community, and that the Bear visual arts are an important presence this week. Photographers Joel Benjamin and John O’Connell were featured at a successful gallery showing at Full Kit Gear store, and in three days the men photographed 34 new models for The Bear Sessions, “a series of photographs exploring authentic masculine images.” On Friday there were three gallery openings, including a “Den” showing at 411 Gallery, and “live art” bear portraits at Charles-Baltivik Gallery. I also got to chat at length about Bear art and photography with Mike Senger from Bowersock Gallery, which has hosted a bear photography book release event in the past.

At noon, Saturday, we held a reading and book signing for my new book, Fur: The Love of Hair, just out from German publisher Bruno Gmünder (order your copy from TLABooks here). I was already excited, knowing that the handsome cover model, Jordan, was coming from Montreal with his boyfriend Johnny for the event (on his birthday!), and that contributing photographer Angel Colon from NYC (author of the excellent photo book, Hirsute) would be on hand as well. But when Chris and Armistead strolled into the room, I knew we were in for a very special time. The audience of more than 30 men had a fun and fur-filled experience, I read a few selections from the book and introduced the contributors and honored guests present. Finally, in a (honestly random!) drawing, we gave a free signed copy of the book to my friend Arctic Chen of NJ, the contributors signed the few copies of FUR available, and everyone got to talk and take photos with Armistead.

Fur: The Love of Hair reading with Chris & Armistead
Fur: The Love of Hair reading with Chris Turner & Armistead Maupin, photography by Angel Colon

On the Sunday return drive, I had plenty of time to reflect on the significance of Bear Week in the calendar of a resort area like Provincetown. Most merchants and locals acknowledge that Bear Week is now the biggest tourist event in the coastal town’s year-round schedule of weekly themes. Bearing in mind that the town basically shuts down after Spookybear, the Northeast Ursamen’s Halloween weekend, it seems now as if the main tourist season begins and ends with Bear events.

When a gay resort town like Ptown bookends its high season with Bear runs, it’s important to note the fact. Though we may not be able to assess the significance of Bear Week to the worldwide community of Bears, cubs, otters, bear-lovers, and all the other men who migrate to Cape Cod land’s end in mid-July, we do know that a warm ‘n’ fuzzy time is had by all when the Bears come to town.

Author: Ron Suresha

Ron Jackson Suresha is an editor, anthologist, and writer. He is considered an authority on emergent queer masculinities, in particular the subcultures of gay and bi male Bears and of male bisexuality. For Ron's service to the bear community, he was named "Bear of the Year" 2008. Born in Detroit, Michigan, Suresha attended the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, 1976-8), where he studied creative writing, and Vista College (Berkeley, Cal., 1989-92), where he studied American Sign Language. For more than two decades, he has worked as a freelance proofreader for trade book publishers such as Shambhala Publications. He was married in October 2004 to Rocco Russo. He is also a licensed Justice of the Peace in Connecticut, an ordained minister, ULC, and a member of the New London Green Party. Nonfiction works include Bears on Bears: Interviews & Discussions; Bi Men: Coming Out (coeditor, with Pete Chvany); Bisexual Perspectives on the Life and Work of Alfred C. Kinsey (editor). His latest book is The Uncommon Sense of the Immortal Mullah Nasruddin: Stories, jests, and donkey tales of the beloved Persian folk hero, published by Lethe Press.