Bear is gay slang term for those in the bear communities, a subculture in the gay community 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; some may shun interaction with men who display effeminate style and mannerisms, although some actually exhibit these traits themselves. 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, although this acceptance varies from member to member.
Some state that self-identifying as a bear is the only requirement, while others argue that bears must have certain physical characteristics--such as a hairy chest and face or having a large body--and a certain mode of dress and behavior. However, the concept clearly has certain boundaries of plausible self-identification, and an individual identifying as a bear with none of the usual bear attributes would not be accepted as such by others in the gay community or re-labeled as a bear-chaser or another subset like cub or otter (see terminology section below).
"Bears" are almost always gay or bisexual men although increasingly transgender men and those who shun labels for gender and sexuality are also included within bear communities.
The link between the gay Bear and the animal of the same name is a metaphorical one. The features of the bear which are picked up on by the gay Bear concept are the animal's hairiness, its solid proportions, and also its perceived masculine power. The bear is both fat and powerful, and the reconciliation of these two qualities is at the heart of the Bear concept's appeal. It is also no coincidence that Bears are typically very similar in appearance to the ideal of the North American lumberjack. Lumberjacks often encounter bears and the two have always been associated with each other. A romantic conflation of the bear and the lumberjack image provides the Bear trope its metaphorical appeal. Lumberjacks were romaticised and fetishised in gay culture long before the arrival of the Bear concept, and the Bear concept retains strong traces of this older ideal. Lumberjacks appealed to gay men at aesthetic levels but also for reason of their homosociality, the fact that they were working class, and for the fact that their isolation from urban society (and hence from mainstream gay culture) opened up a fantasy of both secrecy and liberation, within an idyllic, rural, North American setting.
The self-identification of gay men as Bears originated in San Francisco in the 1980s as an outgrowth of the gay biker and then later the leather and "girth and mirth" communities. It was created by men who felt that mainstream gay culture was unwelcoming to men who did not fit a particular "twink" body norm (hairless and young). Also, many gay men in rural America never identified with the stereotypical urban gay lifestyle, and went searching for an alternative which more closely resembled the idealised blue collar American male image.
Richard Bulger, publisher, and his partner, Chris Nelson (photographer), started Bear Magazine--originally a photocopied flyer--from their apartment in San Francisco in 1987. Over a 5-year period, the magazine grew to an internationally distributed high-gloss format, but still intentionally kept the stark look of Chris's black and white photography. Their company, Brush Creek Media, obtained a trademark on the name "Bear" for a men's magazine in 1991. Bearded, blue-collar, rural, and working-class men were idolized in the magazine.
Richard's friend Rick Redewill, who had founded San Francisco's "Lone Star Saloon" bought full-page ads in every issue of Bear; they soon found themselves with a huge success nationally, especially among rural gay Americans, who would travel to San Francisco just to find a unique "blue collar" gay bar, filled with a masculine-identified crowd who were radically different than the stereotypical gay bar image.
The Lone Star became "ground zero" for the incubation of the Bear Community between 1990 and 1993. Unlike other gay clubs where dance music was the norm, the Lone Star played rock music for the appreciation of a more masculine-identifying customer base.
Much of the Lone Star staff, including its owner Redewill, became victims of the AIDS devastation which swept San Francisco. The bar was taken over by new owners in 1993. Bear Magazine was sold to Bear-Dog Hoffman, who expanded the Brush Creek Media empire into several special-interest gay magazines and video series.
"Bear Magazine" ceased publication in 2000. Some of its former staff members went on to work on a new publication called "100% Beef." 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 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 BearFilms, 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.
Though not generally widely known outside of the gay community, the "Bear" concept has surfaced in pop culture.
Over the last 6 years Bearapalooza has traveled to vaious cities including Seattle, Washington, Dade City, Florida, and Philadelphia; its current homebase is Nashville, Tennessee. Beginning May 2008 they will be touring the nation, visiting over 15 major cities and showcasing the talent of over 27 Bear Identified acts. CHECK OUT Bearapalooza for tour dates, artist info, music, media and so much more.