Bears have become such an important part of gay culture that it’s surprising how relatively recent the movement actually is. It’s one of the few post-Stonewall subcultures to have developed independently of mainstream gay society and it has become a fellowship with such profile and power, it is now very much a mainstream force all of its own.
It’s as difficult to define what a bear is, as it is to account for its sudden flourishing in the fading years of the millennium. For sure, the bear movement fetishised fur and fuller figures among gay guys and it legitimised the sexual attractiveness of older men. What seems to unify these ideals is a preference for the ‘natural man’, a striving for a masculine authenticity opposing what has been perceived as the feminine artifice of drag, gym and ‘twinkie’ culture that so informed the way gay men saw themselves in the latter part of last century.
For decades before the birth of bears, the ‘motor club’ was the predecessor to the bear club. These clubs have their origins long before even the street battle of Stonewall, the fabled watershed moment in modern gay history.
After World War II in North America, a disenchanted underclass of men formed among returned soldiers after many men of that generation discovered their sexuality in service. Once back home these men found no home in the deeply closeted and profoundly feminised gay scene. Fraternities of men formed away from the subterranean scene in the guise of motor clubs where a more masculine sexual identity was fostered. A fellowship was created that emulated both their army experience and the emerging motorbike culture that at least shared a degree of criminality with the gay scene, if little else. Clubrooms became as vital a site of gay gathering as the hole in the wall bars that insinuated themselves into every major city throughout the ’50s and ’60s in North America.
In Australia this phenomenon was not felt until the ’70s and coincided with the global growth of the gay scene and the explosion of gay life in Sydney. This also has something to do with the popularity of the leather scene in that decade and how it became central to gay identity. To see images of the time now is to see an endless procession of ‘clones’, masculinised men easily identifiable as they are today by their short-cropped coif, tendency towards facial hair and a predisposition to more working class modes of dress (a bit like bears really). This could be identified as the first time modern mainstream gay culture celebrated the ‘natural man’ and placed him in a central position of adulation.
But this embracing of the ‘natural man’ was being expressed, ironically, in an incredibly self-conscious and artificial way (although it could be argued that the current bear image is as equally contrived). The leather scene that reached its critical mass in the ’70s created a series of what can almost be seen as superheroes for gay men at the time. These costumed characters picked up on powerful images from straight society, tradesmen, bikers, cops, cowboys, soldiers, marines (hell you only have to look at the Village People to collect the set). It appropriated these looks and these formed the basis of leather culture, which can be seen as the birthplace of bear culture both here and abroad although it has moved far beyond that scene and could be regarded as having perhaps surpassed it in terms of popularity, accessibility and influence.
The leather scene was profoundly affected by the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, not because its practices were of themselves inherently unsafe but because that culture had been the coalface and crucible for sexual expression in the decade before. Bears seemed a more wholesome, healthy alternative, and the robust ideal of the big ol’ daddy bear appeared in stark contrast to the leather scene that was considered unkindly as doomed dinosaurs long before its current renaissance as the vital and invigorated community we see today. It was also in contrast to the emerging gym culture of the ’80s that expressed itself in all areas of society but became particularly popular in gay culture because it empowered men to take control of their physical world at a time that it seemed to be deteriorating.
But the bear scene grew up also out of the suburbanisation of gay society. Once seen exclusively as a middle class movement of hairdressers and interior decorators, it became incredibly clear that gay men were everywhere, in every walk of life, in country towns and in working class suburbs.
There was a new boy in town and he had a gut, a growth of body hair and a more knockabout attitude than the airbrushed airheads that the gay scene seemed to celebrate. He wore flannies rather than fashion, a beard rather than a bum bag, and a cheeky grin rather than a studied scowl. And he had a desire to meet more of his kind, to embrace not only his masculinity but also that of others (not only embrace, but grope in fact). The Natural Man had finally arrived, and the modern bear was born.
Once a maverick tendency, the bear cult has now become a mainstream force. Once a fetish of few, the bear has now become a crucial icon beside the leatherman, the gym bunny, and the twinkie club kid. Once an egalitarian celebration of the ‘everyman’, it has evolved its own hierarchies, its own ideals of what it is to be bear. Once a loose affiliation of like-minded and bodied gentlemen, it has become a well-organised network of clubs and clans the world over and you can chart a city’s scale and the size of its gay scene by the presence of a bear chapter.
The proliferation of these scenes and social clubs has seen beardom grow as big as the bellies of some of its members and as mature as some of the daddies it has given its due. It has gone from a fraternity of the hirsute and ursine, to a club that while idealising and idolising these images, still strives to encompass many lifestyles and looks as more and more men discover the benefits of a good bear hug.
It has also become something of a rite of passage for many gay men who would never otherwise have entered the gay scene due to its focus on youth and other ideas of beauty. Bears have been a pivotal experience in many gay men’s lives in Sydney and abroad. These days men identify as bears as readily as they identify as gay and the effects on the lives of its members has often been profound, providing for many of us a place where we feel we finally fit.