Tuesday, August 05, 2003
Bears: On the Charts, with a Bullet

The gay-male bear subculture is on the charts with a bullet. Andrew Sullivan has this piece called "Da Bears" up at his web site; it's also availabe here at Salon, but you have to click through an ad to read it there. What's surprising to me is that Sullivan is writing about the bear thing as if it's the latest thing, when, in fact, it's been around for over ten years.

The Resources for Bears website, started by Bob Donahue, has been up since 1994. (Bob was one of the co-authors of the Bear Code, which was the original online "code." Ironically, the 'B' for Bear in the code has been ignored by the code-come-lately Blogger Code.) It grew out of the Bears Mailing List, which was started in the early 90s (I think) by Roger Klorese and Brian Gollum. (See correction below.) The Bear Community, in fact, probably has as much origins in the online communities of pre-WWW -- mailing lists, Usenet, and BBSs -- as it does in the real-life development of Bear Clubs, Bear Bars, Bear Magazines, etc.

The aspects of bears vs. the rest of gay culture described by Sullivan have been noted by bear types for as long as bear types have been corresponding with each other: hair vs. waxed, flannel vs. silk, gregarious vs. standoffish. And the way mass-market gay media focus on the latter of each of those pairs as a projected norm, instead of just letting people be who they are. That some gay men are hairy, or large, or like cotton, or get off on masculinity shouldn't come as a surprise, but it does come in contrast to other images and ideas presented, and not only in gay media.

Perhaps the best line in the piece is, "Straight people love their gay people flaming, or easily cordoned off from the straight experience. Bears reveal how increasingly difficult this is." But it's not just straight people, of course, to whom this applies. It also applies to a goodly number of gay people. Which brings us back to the eternal problem of true diversity: recognizing it and accepting it. Even within the bear group, there is wide diversity of attitude, employment, background, and just about any other factor you find except the ones used to "define" the group.

I'd seen Sullivan's article available, but hadn't read it yet. When the conservative types at National Review's The Corner are linking to Sullivan and describing the bear crowd as "Da Bears," it might be the beginning of the end, so I finally took a look. Turns out "Da Bears: Behind a Hairy Sub-Sub-Culture" is the title of his piece at his web site, whereas the title at Salon is "I am bear, hear me roar!". "The Bear Phenomenon" would've been better than either, to this headline writer, but no one's asking me. All we need now is a link from the InstaPundit, a mass-market novel featuring bears, a television show on TNN -- or Spike or whatever it's called -- and the bear trip will be completely absorbed into the larger culture. After ten-plus years, not just yesterday.

Addendum: A correspondent writes that it was Steve Dyer and Brian Gollum who founded the Bears Mailing List in 1988. Roger Klorese was running the list when I was reading it back in the early 90s. My friend also notes that there were signs of bear sensibility in gay culture starting in the early 1980s.