Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 10 November 1997

THE BEAR BOOK

Jesse Monteagudo's Book Nook


THE BEAR BOOK: READINGS IN THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF A GAY MALE SUBCULTURE; Les K. Wright, Editor; Harrington Park Press; 284 page soft-cover; $24.95.

In his best-selling book Life Outside Michelangelo Signorile criticizes "the cult of masculinity -- the obsession with attaining a commercially promoted physical standard" that seems to be the dominant fact of urban gay life today. At the same time, Signorile recognizes that the cult "does not necessarily encompass all of the various masculinities within the gay world and its subcultures." The most obvious dissidents, Signorile writes, are "bears": "gay men who break from the dominant notions of male beauty in the gay world and celebrate a much broader range of body types". In a community that is conformist in its non-conformity, bears dare to be different.

Though the bear scene has been around for some time, not much has been written about it, outside of BARE magazine and its progeny. Nor has any book been written about bears, outside of The Bear Cult (1991), a collection of photos by Chris Nelson. This makes The Bear Book a welcome and essential study of a gay scene that celebrates "masculinity without the trappings". Les Wright, editor of The Bear Book, is founder and curator of the Bear History Project, which seeks to preserve the history of this slice of gay life even as many of its participants succumb to AIDS.

What is a bear? Wright and his contributors seem to disagree as to a precise definition. Ron Suresha, writing about "bear roots" Walt Whitman was "the first Bear" -- defines the term loosely as "bearded, hairy, big homosexual men" (or combinations of the three). To Scott Hill, "we're furry in some respect, most often with a beard or nice stache; we tend to dress more casually." Luke Mauerman, tongue in cheek, defines bear as "a furry, smelly, four-legged omnivorous creature of considerable mass. They've been known to eat their young, to kill their mates, and to shit all over the woods." To photographer John Rand, who shot more bears than anyone since Davy Crockett, a bear is "a state of mind, an inclusiveness, open-mindedness, and acceptance of oneself as one is." Wright himself defines a bear as "a gay man who is comfortable being a man as he is being gay, and who has a good heart." Basically, a bear is a man who says he is a one.

Though the bear cult is a recent phenomenon, the word goes back to the 60s and 70s. For example, when I was growing up in Miami the Spanish word for bear (oso) was used to define a very hairy man. However, an organized bear scene did not develop until the 80s, after the onslaught of AIDS and after the young, slim, hairless gymboy became the accepted standard of male beauty. Certainly the appearance of BEAR in 1988 told many bears and bear hunters who they were and what they were looking for. Today there's hardly a city that does not have a bear club (South Florida has two); and events like Orlando's annual "bear bust" attracts hundreds of hungry bears from around the globe. The Bear Book is what every bear (myself included) has long been waiting for: a comprehensive study of the bear phenomenon, including history, sociology and literature. It runs the gamut of bear culture, from magazines like BEAR, through bear clubs, bear bars, "bearaphernalia", "bear hug" and "bear soup" (hot tub) parties and "cybearspace".

Nor does The Bear Book ignore the negative aspects of the bear cult. Eric Rofes, a self- described "Middle-class Bear", worries that "bear sites are populated entirely by middle- class men playing dress-up as working-class men". Philip Locke, while analyzing "Male Images in the Gay Mass Media and Bear-Oriented Magazines", notes the bear scene's inevitable tendency to glorify a particular body type at the expense of all others: "If Bearish men flocked to magazines like BEAR and American Bear because they felt excluded when looking at images in other magazines, what happens when they see in Bear-oriented magazines a parade of 'superbears' -- men of ideal Bearish beauty?" In 1990 Richard Bulger, then owner-publisher of BEAR, tried to gain ownership of the word "bear" as his company's trademark. Fortunately for all of us, Bulger failed.

The Bear Book, as a scholarly study of its subject, will disappoint those who seek "hot" bear stories or bear gossip. Nor is The Bear Book published to titillate you -- there are a few photos but not enough to qualify. Certainly essays with titles like Michael S. Ramsey's "The Bear Clan: North American Totemic Mythology, Belief, and Legend" an excellent piece, by the way -- are sure to scare off the tender-hearted. However, as both a bear and a bear hunter, I found little to criticize and much to enjoy in The Bear Book. Here is a book that has everything -- from San Francisco's Lone Star Saloon to Australia's Ozbears and "The Bear Essentials of Country Music". If you are not a bear, you will learn something about us by reading this book. Even better, run to your nearest bear bar and pick up (in Mauerman's words) "a big furry fella -- preferably one who snores just a little bit". You won't be disappointed.

1998 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
For reprint permission e-mail gaytoday@badpuppy.com