‘Bears’ Come Out To Play

GaySAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – Those who think they know what the stereotypical gay man looks like should pay attention to street life in San Francisco this weekend.
Instead of clean-shaven, perfectly manicured men, a rapidly growing subculture of hairy, often chubby guys — known in the gay community as “bears” — will be enjoying a South of Market street fair Sunday, along with other events throughout the city.
At least 5,000 bears are expected to attend the aptly named Hairrison Street Fair, which is in its third year. Traffic from the Bay Bridge construction project is being diverted near the fair, giving Bay Area motorists an opportunity to see bears in their natural environment.
The bear aesthetic emerged in San Francisco a few decades ago, and the city remains its epicenter, but in recent years bears have become a noticeable presence in gay communities around the world.
Bears are showing up in popular culture as well, with references to bears on TV shows, including “The Simpsons” and “The Daily Show.” Fashion designer Marc Jacobs’ fall advertising campaign features two gay men who are unmistakably bears.
Largely a reaction against the stereotype of gay men looking like Abercrombie & Fitch models, bears display a matured-male look. Facial hair is the most common characteristic — along with body hair — and there is a range of body types, from chubby to obese to slim and points in between.
Runway fashion and popular culture play less important roles in their lives. The actor John Goodman is a bear icon, and even Santa Claus would fit the image.
“More and more men are coming out because they see the bear aesthetic and identify with some aspect of that male image, the maturity, and say, ‘Oh, OK. I didn’t know gay people could look like that,’ ” said Ron Jackson Suresha, who has written books on bears and hosts an Internet radio program called “Bear Soup.”
June’s gay pride observations are “good at showing ethnic and cultural diversity of the community, but not other kinds of diversity. One big thing about the bear movement is men who are older. You never see older men portrayed in the gay community,” said Pete King, founder of the Hairrison Street Fair.
The bear aesthetic has appeared on a small scale in the gay community for decades. The book “Song of the Loon” — a story about gay cowboys published in 1966 that was later made into a movie — is an early example of bears.
The opening of the Lone Star Saloon in San Francisco in 1989 is viewed by many as the most significant event in establishing the bear community. Known as “Bear Bar U.S.A.” — and for some people as mecca — gay men tell stories of visiting the bar and for the first time seeing men who looked as they did. Some men have openly wept upon entering the South of Market bar, according to Suresha, who lived in San Francisco but now resides in Connecticut.Gay
Bear groups have started in cities around the country and around the world, and most major cities in the United States and Europe have bars that cater to bears.
The Bears of San Francisco group has 250 members and hosts an event called International Bear Rendezvous, which attracts about 1,000 bears during Presidents Day Weekend in February.
Last month, 8,000 people attended Lazy Bear Weekend on the Russian River, where more than $200,000 was raised for charitable organizations, said Harry Lit, founder and president of the Lazy Bear Fund.
“I think this community hasn’t really been tapped into or catered to before because of the stereotypical image of the Calvin Klein or Abercrombie & Fitch type. These are people who have always felt left out, including myself,” Lit said.
Many members of the bear community say the rejection from mainstream gay culture is reflected in the attitude of the bear community.
“There’s a social aspect to being a bear in that we tend to be pretty friendly, more friendly than the average gay man, I would say,” said Rich Tramontozzi, president of the Bears of San Francisco, who said the group’s membership has boomed over the past five years.
Still, the bear subculture struggles with how not to reject people who don’t fit its mold in the same way the mainstream rejected bears.
“It does end up excluding,” said Suresha, the author and radio host. “But after being invisible to the straight mainstream, as well as in gay culture … the creation of bear spaces like Hairrison, where a different aesthetic is placed on the throne for everyone to worship or at least acknowledge, is very important.”
What impact the bears have on images of mainstream gay culture has yet to be seen.
“We’re not trying to fatten the GQ crowd. We’re not trying to convert anyone to becoming bears against their will,” Tramontozzi said. “However, it’s more of a, ‘We’re here to stay, and we’re only going to get stronger in our cohesion and in our ability to be a formidable power within the gay community.’ “
from The San Francisco Chronicle

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