Bear is LGBT slang for those in the bear communities, a subculture in the gay/bisexual male communities and an emerging subset of LGBT communities with events, codes and culture-specific identity. It also describes a physical type.
Bears tend to have hairy bodies and facial hair; some are heavy-set; some project an image of working-class masculinity in their grooming and appearance, though none of these are requirements or unique indicators. Some bears place importance on presenting a hyper-masculine image and may shun interaction with, and even disdain, men who exhibit effeminacy. The bear concept can function as an identity, an affiliation, and an ideal to live up to, and there is ongoing debate in bear communities about what constitutes a bear. There is also, anecdotally, more acceptance of tattoos and body piercing in the bear community.
Though the Bear subculture germinated long before advent of the Internet, it can be closely tied to the growth of online social networking. Gay men who felt they were not welcome at their local gay meeting places (or who just wanted a quick hookup) found easy access to and acceptance from similar people online. Gay men were quick to pick up on the online Bear community, but Bears of all ages are part of it.
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 IBR, Bear Pride, TBRU, BearBust, drawing regional, national and international visitors. And many events attract a significant bear following, such as Southern Decadence 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. One of the largest and most notable contests, International Mr. Bear, is held each February at the International Bear Rendezvous in San Francisco. It attracts contestants, often with local titles, from all over the world. The first International Mr. Bear was John Caldera in 1992. The contest includes 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, often very large muscle 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 older, hairier, sometimes heavier gay and bisexual men, and members often contribute to their local gay communities through fundraising and other functions. Bear events are common in heavily-gay communities.
The gay 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.
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. As Bears have become more common in the larger gay culture, and as more gay and bisexual men identify themselves as Bears, Bears have not segregated themselves as much as they once did. Gay Bears are now a mainstream element of the gay community at large because of the community.
- As the Bear Culture has matured, it has subdivided itself, and many claim that 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 (gay slang)) 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 what a "real Bear" is. Fat (or lack of it) is a political issue among Bears, 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, believing this to be largely "white" beauty standard. However what appears as racial exclusion to some may merely be a result of genetic tendency of Native Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, among others, away from body hair.
- The AIDS devastation in San Francisco accelerated the generation gap between older and younger Bear-identified men, peaking in the early 1990s, with few connections that survived between the two. Some older survivors claim that the current Bear culture has become "shallow and catty," which is also their common criticism of mainstream gay culture, claiming that the younger Bear Community cannot identify with the culture's original roots as a masculine alternative for rural, masculine-identified gay men, and further that the idea of Bear "pageants" and "title winners" runs completely contrary to the original Bear concept of idolizing the straight-appearing masculine blue-collar American male. As with all social offshoots, Bear culture will continue to evolve, subdivide, and influence styles and lifestyles of gays and straights alike.
References in pop culture
Some terminology relating to the Bear community includes:
- Admirer - a term that refers to someone who is sexually or romantically attracted to Bears (this term is often used in various communities to describe an outsider who has sexual attraction to people within that community). Also often referred to as a Chaser. Admirers/Chasers can be of any weight, hairy or hairless and any age.
- Bear - a hairy man with a stocky or heavyset build and facial hair. Can be clean shaven and of any age.
- Bear run - a gathering or circuit party for Bear/Cub types and their Admirers.
- Cub - a younger (or younger looking) version of a Bear, typically but not always with a smaller frame. Can be hairy or hairless.
- Gobi - A male, often heterosexual, who is often in the company of bears. Likened to a Goldilocks.
- Daddy bear - is an older guy sometimes looking for a daddy/son relationship with either a younger Bear, Cub, Otter, Wolf or Chaser.
- Goldilocks - A female, often heterosexual, who is often in the company of bears (a bear's fag hag).
- Leatherbear - A bear with a leather fetish.
- Muscle bear - a muscular version of a Bear. A muscle cub is a younger or smaller, yet muscular, version. Can be hairy or hairless and of any age.
- Otter - a man who is hairy, but is not large or stocky - typically thinner, or with lean muscle. Slimmer version of a Bear with little pockets of fat like love handles or a tiny gut, but not as lean as a Wolf.
- Panda bear - a bear of Asian ethnicity. A panda cub is younger version. Usually hairless.
- Pocket bear - A short Bear.
- Polar bear - a silver- or white-haired Bear.
- Wolf - A lean, masculine gay man who is attracted to bears and involved in the bear scene.
- Woof - A greeting often used when a Bear spots another Bear in public and wants to express physical attraction. He might make a growling noise ("Grrr!") or say "Woof!"
"Bear codes" are sometimes used in e-mail (often as part of a signature block), web postings, and online profiles to identify Bear-related attributes of the author or poster. See, e.g., "The Bear Codes" on the Resources for Bears Web site. A sample Bear code is:
- B4 s- m g++ w d+c t+ f+ k+ r e+(+?)
Bear Code may be the earliest example (1989) of Internet self-classification codes. Familiarity with this classification system is concentrated in the subcommunity of Bears who were early adopters of Internet communications, and is not widespread within the general community.
- Castro clone
- Chub (gay slang)
- Leather subculture
- Normal, Ohio
- Ron Suresha, author, Bears on Bears; and editor, Bearotica & Bear Lust
- Bear flag
- Les K. Wright, (1997). The Bear Book: Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture (1997) from Haworth Press.
- Les K. Wright, (2001). The Bear Book 2 (2001) from Haworth Press.
- Ray Kampf, (2000). The Bear Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for Those Who Are Husky, Hairy and Homosexual, and Those Who Love 'Em from Haworth Press.