In 1996, I was fifteen years old and was just beginning to get the first pangs of the realization that I might be gay. I was having dreams in which naked men started to appear regularly. I began having unprovoked curiosities of what my male teachers would look like without clothing. I started noticing bulges in my peers' and track coach's gym shorts and was only able to enjoy making out with my girlfriend when I’d imagine her as Bruce Willis or Tom Selleck. With this came an unrelenting amount of stress and torment upon my adolescent mind. I knew what was happening to me, and being a pretty well known and popular guy in my high school I knew other boys weren’t experiencing the same thing. Yup, despite my best attempts at denying these feelings and forcing myself to think of women during masturbation, I was experiencing homosexual tendencies. It wasn’t easy. In fact, as my curiosities grew, so did stress-related canker sores, fantasies of suicide, and the feeling that I just wanted to leave the planet. How was I going to get through this? What was I going to do?
Fortunately, the Internet, or what we called the World Wide Web, developed simultaneously to my sexual discovery. The Internet of the mid-90s was a chunky collection of slow-loading and hard-to-access content. However, this archaic form of binary code became my safe haven. I soon began to realize that I wasn’t alone, and before long I found that men, not just fags, could be gay too.
I was a latch-key kid. My parents both worked through the day and didn’t come home until an hour-and-a-half after my bus dropped me off from school. This time was my only breath of fresh air throughout the day. I would run home, fling off my back pack, and shoot right down stairs to flick on the computer. I would sign in, slowly and with much frustration, and with shaking fingers would type in words like “naked men,” “pubic hair,” and “hairy chest.” I was very careful to never type the word “gay” as the word alone was still too much for me to handle. However, all the other keywords were somehow rationalized as appropriate and I found myself scouring pictures of all things I had always felt so curious to see. The keyword “hairy chest” seemed most natural and intriguing to me. There was something about hairy men that I couldn’t quite put my finger on but drove me absolutely wild. It was something I remember feeling from the youngest of childhood memories. There he was, a real man, standing naked before me, everything exposed. Images like these showed me what lay beneath another man’s tightly fit white briefs. The pictures answered the question of where all that hair ended up, the exact midpoint between chest and legs. Suddenly I discovered a link entitled “bears” and so I clicked. Like a child’s awe-struck gaze upon the Empire State Building, I had discovered a gold mine of men in their most masculine and unapologetic form. Hairy, beefy, older, dirty, macho, brutish, construction worker-type men filled my computer screen. I could hardly contain myself and cursed the fact that I only had an hour-and-a-half each day to explore.
There was one man in particular who I would visit school day after school day. His name was Jack Radcliffe and he was either referred to as a “bear” or “muscle bear,” depending on the site. There were tons of pictures of him, in all different forms, exposing every inch of his beefy, hairy, bearded flesh. I was lost in him, but more strongly I was lost in trying to conceptualize how a man like that, who seemed more intimidating than any straight man I had ever known, could possibly be into men. But he was! And I loved it! Jack and the community surrounding him helped me become more comfortable in my shoes. He, this “bear,” side-stepped any preconceived notion that one must transform himself into effeminacy upon his realization of being gay or coming out. I found that like these men, I too could be a regular guy and gay at the same time. This is something that never crossed my mind, but relieved me as I headed into the future. Although I never considered coming out in my half-Italian, half-Jewish, provincial New Jersey high school, by the time I was a senior I had accepted to myself that I was definitely bisexual, if not gay. I decided I’d wait until the freedom of college to explore these feelings.
Now, eleven years later, in my mid-twenties, I am a certifiable member of the bear community. But what does it mean to be a bear, a cub, or simply a member of the bear community? Finding an answer to this question is among one of the more difficult aspects of identifying within the gay community.
At 26, by all means, I should be a cub. A “bear” is usually identified as one in the 35+ community. I go to the gym, stay fit, and am attracted to muscle bear types. What does this mean? It means that I identify with the bear community because I find attraction, more down-to-earth men, and good friends within this small circle. I consider myself neither a cub nor a bear, but rather, get ready for this, a furry ambassador. Yup, that’s right, let’s add another term to the already inane list of “bear,” “cub,” “otter,” “musclebear,” “daddybear,” “wolf,” “behr,” and “silverfox.” I call myself a furry ambassador because I feel I bridge the gap between “bear” and “cub,” while also making both more acceptable to the straight community. I have a large group of straight friends who I keep up to date on bear culture, forcing them to look at gay men from a different perspective. Yes, gay men can be as aesthetically manly, if not more so, than the typical straight male. In fact, upon showing my mother pictures of my friends and me at a circuit event, she responded, “My god, Eric, it looks like you hang out with bikers or axe murderers!” I responded, “I know Mom! Isn’t it hot?!”
Unfortunately, along with the pride that comes with tagging myself to this community is a grand misunderstanding and judgment from my gay, non-bear friends. I’ve learned the dangers and the cruelty associated with claiming my membership within the bear community. The judgment is cold and ugly and it’s all based on the shallow requirements of the gay aesthetic: young, smooth, thin or fit, clean cut and proper.
The Bear Community is a vast umbrella term for anyone subscribing to an aesthetic outside of the above mentioned. Hell, you can even be the above mentioned and still subscribe, which is one of the many aspects I love about the bear community, but one that also throws a curveball of confusion. Now, I often proclaim, “I love a bear,” or, “I love hanging with the bears,” and often I receive a bitter snap of judgment in return. “You like fat men?” is something I’m usually asked or, “Eric, you’re a handsome, fit, young guy. What are you doing chasing these men? You must have problems.” Why, when one declares their attraction to this community, does the gay peer immediately jump to the far end of the spectrum? Suddenly I’m assumed to be into obese, purposefully unattractive men.
This is not the case. I like men. I like men that don't come complete with six- packs and who don't fret about the amount or pattern of their chest hair. I like men who enjoys themselves in his own natural form, who aren't afraid of eating ice cream or, dare I say it, a carb! Instead, I get ridiculed for liking “fat men.” When I ask my friends to describe what they perceive as my type they respond in a snarky tone, “Older, fat, and hairy.” Now, I might like older men, sure. But fat? I don’t think the men I chase are fat. Beefy, maybe, but not fat. Yes, I like men who have a small to medium-sized belly, beefy arms, and pecs. But is this fat? No. They’re just not as fit as you happen to be or not as fit as the gay aesthetic dictates. Please don’t take this as discrimination against men of the XXL size. I highly respect these men and honor them for the courage to be themselves and revel in their girth and mirth in a rather shallow, superficial community. I even honor the chubby-chaser for his outspokenness and attraction to men of this stature. I am just making the case that bears should not all be grouped under this one perspective. I should just be able to say I like bears and have that mean that I like any number of men under the umbrella, but not exclusively fat men. What is fat anyway?
Being a bear can mean any number of things, but really it's just a community of men who stand outside of what the gay and straight world expects of us. It is a community of men who appreciate their look and refuse to apologize for it. In my mind, a real man stands up for himself and his identity and rejects conformity. Bears are comfortable in their own skin and should not be judged by their looks, stature, or friends they choose to be around. So, for all of you who are quick to judge or dismiss someone for their identifying with the bear community, understand that “bear” is a mindset that goes beyond thin or fat, hairy or smooth, and that there are tons of sub-genres within the community itself. Therefore, next time you meet a bear, rather than jump to conclusions or make assumptions, understand that he could be any one of many animals in the forest that is the Bear Community. Next time, think “woof” as opposed to “ugh.”