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Very often we are asked “What is a bear?” The danger here is whatever we define, somehow excludes those that don’t match that description – which never was the intent. The strongest attribute of the bear community is inclusion – freedom to be who you are, to look how you look, and acceptance from your bear brothers.
Bear Riker, Bear Riker’s Berlin
Preserving the past, the present and the future
of the Bear Culture. . .
Modern English “bear” derives from Old English “bera”, which itself derives from Proto-Germanic “*beron” meaning “the brown one”. (Compare Old Norse “björn”, Dutch “beer” and German “Bär” all meaning “bear”).
Both Greek (“arktos”) and Latin (“ursus”) have retained the Proto-Indo-European root word for “bear” (“*rtko”) but it was ritually replaced in the northern branches of the Indo-European languages (The Germanic, Baltic, Celtic and Slavic branches) because of the hunters’ taboo on the names of wild animals. For example the Irish word for “bear” translated means “the good calf”, in Welsh it translates as “honey-pig”, in Lithuanian it means “the licker” and in Russian it literally means “one who leads to honey”. Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper
Gay Bear Resources
- Bears: We’re Everywhere Now
- The Wired Network: Bears in the 1990s
- We’ve Come a Long Way, Cubsters
- Bear and Leather Events
- Great Lakes Bears Campout
- Mr Indiana Leather 1994
- Dore Alley 1999
- A Bear’s Story
- Bear Cub
- Bears – The Documentary
- Shorts from the VT Bear Film Festival
- Small Town Gay Bar
- Big Dipper- The Bear Musical
- Bearly Edible
- Bound in Ink
- Brent D. Marr – Mr. Oregon Cub
- Elijah Black – One Rockin’ Bear
- Joe Mannetti | Joe Falconi
- Joe Mannetti Mr. Los Angeles Bear 2008
- Jose Solomon – Bear Zombie?
- Kendall – Bear on the Run
- Lazy Bear Out to Sea
- Maximus Cigar Socials
- Mr. Bear San Diego 2007
- Ron Suresha
- Sean Canavan – A Special Request
- Sepp of Vienna
- Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
- Selfish Tricks
- Coming On Strong
- Edging – Living on the Brink
- Fear of the Clones
- Hunting for Bears
- Is Chatting Cheating?
- It’s Only Fair
- Living in the Cave
- Lust in the Office
- The Produce Aisle
And so begins bear history . . .
In the beginning, there were no bear clubs, there were few formally organized groups in the earliest days. The bear community originated in the 80’s by men who felt that mainstream gay culture was unwelcoming to men who did not fit a particular bodily norm (thin, hairless, gym-toned and young).
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. Lone star was located in the South of Market district of San Francisco along with other bars in the area, which were primarily Leather/Levi bars.
In the beginning, Lone Star was frequented by the Rainbow Motorcycle Club and other bikers. The Rainbow Motorcycle Club was another key element in the formation of SF’s Bear community. They weren’t into fashion leather – only biker leathers. The original Lone Star was closed due to the October ‘quake of ’89 and opened shortly after in its present location. When the original owner Richard died, it was sold by his survivors to the bar’s present owner.
Today’s bear runs are an outgrowth of the motorcycle runs of the 50’s and 60’s.
Originally, Bear had nothing to do with size – they weren’t a group of guys that went to the gym but neither were most of them big Girth & Mirth sized. That is evidenced by the early couple years of Bear Magazine where there were many thinner guys featured as “models” in the magazine. Many of the “centerfold models” were just guys that hung out at the Lone Star back then. The common denominator was facial hair and a masculine, friendly attitude. But the simplest definition of Bear comes from that magazine’s tagline -”Masculinity Without the Trappings” – a line that was coined by the original owner of Bear Magazine, Richard Bolger (who has been seen on Bear411 recently).
Girth and Mirth members (an organization for large guys) started to merge in with the bear community in the early-90s. Bears eventually began to be associated with size. In recent years, websites like Musclebear.com & Lazy Bear Weekend have had a huge impact on the so-called definition of a “Bear,” further dividing much of the community into 2 camps (gym and no gym – or muscle and chub). Bear Magazine was sold in the 90s. It became more of a showcase for porn stars. American Bear was the next magazine on the scene aimed at our community.
The early Bear gatherings in San Francisco were called Bear Expo. Many of the men involved in putting those on created International Bear Rendezvous (Rainbow MC members Lurch, David Dysart, Steve Stafford – all now gone)so the funds could go to charity. By the mid-90s the triple crown of Bear events was considered to be IBR in SF, Bear Pride in Chicago and Bear Bust in Orlando. Many men traveled the circuit making new friendships and renewing old ones. By that time Bear Clubs were all over the US and beyond.
by Les Wright © 2006
In a mere twenty years, bears have evolved from small clusters of buddies, playmates, and guys recognizing a tacit bond of a kindred spirit to the largest, and fastest-spreading, new expression of gay (queer, bi, lesbian, trans, and even straight) identity. Bears today come in all shapes and sizes, across the socioeconomic spectrum, and across the range of sexual self-expression.
by Les Wright © 2006
Back in the 1980s when the idea of gay “bears” emerged, it was a rather vague, undifferentiated, and not quite defined notion. “Bear” was more a loose umbrella under which many different kinds of gay men began to forge a new way of connecting. “Gay,” which had become a radical identity in the late 1960s was out, and “queer” was the new radical “in.”
by Les Wright © 2007
As a collective gay identity, bears emerged in the 1980s in many places, but most evidently in San Francisco. If the 1980s were the halcyon pioneering days for bears, and San Francisco once again the gold rush capital of this ursine Wild West, then the 1990s were the era of settlers, homesteading the new community, pushing the cyber frontiers, consolidating loose social groups into more formal ones, bringing order and stability to the new community. In a repeat of familiar history, the subsequent decade of the 2000s would see the meteoric rise of the bear community catapult to center stage, closing the bear frontier forever.
Les Wright founded the Bear History Project in 1994. From that came The Bear Book (1997), Bear Book II (2000), four Bear Icons art exhibitions in the Northeast (1999-2002), the Nashoba Institute (501©3 nonprofit), and the online cultural journal of “non-hegemonic masculinities” Verisimilitude. Cornell University provides permanent repository for the BHP archives.
A founding member of the SFBA GLBT Historical Society, he taught humanities for 12 years at Boston-area College. In the 1970s he was involved with gay left activism in Germany, lived through the AIDS epidemic in the Castro during the 1980s and 1990s. He left Boston to return to San Francisco in 2005.
Currently, he is a freelance writer, photographer, and independent scholar. Current goals include: Verisimilitude, re-instating the Homo Macho art series, and curating the “History of Homo-Masculinities.” He is training to become a grant writer.
The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender Historical Society (GLBTHS) collects, preserves, and interprets the history of GLBT people and the communities that support them.
“It’s about telling our stories . . .”