Where the Bears don't fear to tread; Tracking the pawprints of a gay subculture
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 June 2007)

Andrew Sullivan does interesting things before anyone else gets around to them. He's a man of firsts. When he was appointed editor of The New Republic in 1991, at age 27, he was the first conservative to hold that position, the first open gay, the first foreigner (he's British) and, I believe, the first Roman Catholic. He was, for sure, the first editor of The New Republic to pose for a Gap ad. In 2000, he became the first internationally known journalist to create his own blog, which proved a great success.

And in 2003, he became the first celebrity writer to announce himself as a proud member of the Bear community. He wrote a Salon article, "I am Bear, hear me roar!"

But what's a Bear? Connoisseurs of subcultures, splinter groups and niche marketing should know about Bears. And Bears deserve consideration by anyone who has ever noticed humanity's not altogether logical habit of seeking freedom by bundling itself into categories.

My own informal poll indicates that only homosexuals are familiar with the term and they don't always agree about its meaning. Even Sullivan finds Bears hard to define. But some clarification is available in a slick American quarterly, A Bear's Life, edited by its founder and owner, Steve Harris.

Bears have constructed a masculinist subculture within gay society, disdaining feminized stereotypes. Bears display facial hair, sometimes a lot of it. They wear checked shirts and big boots. Many are fat. Some prefer to be called "large framed," but there's a defiant element willing to wear T-shirts proclaiming, "I'm fat," sold by A Bear's Life. In Toronto, the Gay Pride parade on Sunday will bring out an army of Bears.

Sullivan smiles out at us from the cover of the current issue of A Bear's Life. He's a role model for Bears, and their supporter. He approves of "the emergence of Bears as a subculture" because "Bears are comfortable about themselves as men." They are a kind of anti-stereotype, a conscious rejection of the young, thin and beautifully blond gay ideal.

Bears everywhere celebrated when Sullivan publicly joined their ranks. He gave them an aura of credibility and made them feel a little less marginal. There are now Bear bars across the continent, Bear clubs and Bear weeks at certain resorts. In Provincetown, Mass., where Sullivan has a summer home, Bear week is his favourite part of the summer.

A Bear's Life resembles a women's service magazine, but with a somewhat narrower audience. The spring issue provides recipes, tips on home decor ("The Bear Cave"), some suggestions for travel ("Ursine Adventurer"), a detailed piece on lawn care and an advice column called "A Cub's Life."

It advises against "relationship terrorists," lovers who aren't really serious. Esera Tuaolo, the Bear-sized former pro-football player who announced his gay orientation in 2002, and who has since become a singer and an inspirational lecturer, writes advice for young athletes trying to accept themselves as gay. He tells young Bears to remember that God made them that way and God doesn't make mistakes. There's a feature called "A Bear Goes Bowling," and many photographs of enormous men in shorts enjoying themselves.

The writers for A Bear's Life include a fashion designer, a London theatre critic, a "lifestyle guru," a hair stylist specializing in facial hair, a chef and a Wall Street banker. The ads play out the magazine's theme. There's a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., bar, the Cubby Hole (slogan: Bears in Paradise), where the owners say that they have been Bear-friendly for 11 years. A travel agent offers Bearescapes. There's an ad for Bears Like Us, a clothing line from Chicago.

But when and where did Bears start being called Bears? In trying to answer that question, I discovered that their sect has its own historian, Les Wright, a San Francisco photographer and writer. He compiles Bear historical materials for an archive (www.bearhistory.com) lodged at Cornell University. He's also edited The Bear Book (1997) and Bear Book II (2001). Wright has traced the term to a historical novel many readers consider an American classic, Song of the Loon: A Gay Pastoral, by Richard Amory, which first appeared in 1966 and was last reprinted in 2005 by Arsenal Pulp Press of Vancouver. (A 79-minute film version appeared in 1970 without arousing much enthusiasm.)

Amory's hero, Ephraim MacIver, fleeing a violent ex-lover, arrives on the Oregon frontier in the late 19th century and fulfills, among Indians and trappers, his homoerotic fantasies of freedom. As one critic has said, MacIver discovers euphoria by giving in to his sexual desires. The frontier becomes a gay utopia.

Ephraim has an Indian friend named Bear-who-dreams, and soon after the book appeared, the term began catching on. The minutes of the Satyrs Motorcycle Club, a Los Angeles-based clan claiming to be the oldest gay organization in the U.S., show two entries in 1966 noting the formation of a "bear club." Later, Wright suggests, various gays paired the word "bear" with their vision of a pastoral-utopian ideal, "gay-affirming and sex-positive."

In his 2003 article, Sullivan said that "Part of being a bear is not taking being a bear too seriously." That's no longer true. Bears have turned quite solemn. They are now devoted to what Mordecai Richler used to call "special pleading" -- for instance, they complain that Bears rarely turn up on television except in "obscure humorous references in television sitcoms."

Bears want us to know there's a certain nobility in their clan. Promotional copy from A Bear's Life says the magazine "celebrates the gift of brotherhood, friendship and diversity found in the Bear Community." It even proposes to unify the global Bear community.

Still, it all seemed clear until I ran into three terms in A Bear's Life that the editor and his writers left undefined: Otters, Wolves and Chasers. When I called him, Steve Harris helpfully explained. An Otter is a middle-aged hairy guy who self-identifies as a Bear, but doesn't carry extra weight. In fact, he can be thin. A Wolf is simply a more aggressive version of an Otter. As for a Chaser, he's a guy who definitely isn't a Bear, but loves Bears. And just about anyone in the entire zoo will probably tell you that, being a free soul, he absolutely hates it when people try to classify him.

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