I’d always wondered what it would be like to run my fingers down a hairy chest to a big, furry belly, and then back up and around to wide angel wing-shaped bristly traps and down a bushy lower back. But never enough to actually go out and do it.
Truthfully, I’ve never even kissed a beard. Preferring a neat workspace, I find excessive body hair too unwieldy.
Still, I must admit that I’m also strangely titillated by it. When a massive, full chest of fur is staring me in the face, I just can’t avert my gaze, and with such a vibrant Bear scene in San Francisco, there are always hirsute torsos at which to stare.
Sprouting locally in the 1980’s, the Bear community embraced those who didn’t conform to the skinny and smooth “twink” ideal. If Bears found their main gathering spot at San Francisco’s The Lone Star Saloon, they found promotion in SoMa’s Bear Magazine. Today the city boasts Bear social clubs, events and contests such as International Mr. Bear, part of International Bear Rendezvous, an annual gathering of Bears and their admirers.
As the Bear scene swelled into a global phenomenon, it broke off into sub-categories including Leather Bears and Muscle Bears (many of whom shun heavy Bears) and developed a vocabulary to differentiate between the various types within the community. There are Chasers (Bear admirers),
Cubs (younger, smaller-framed Bears), Ewoks (shorter Bears), Ginger Bears (red-haired Bears) and Otters (thinner Bears), among others.
Slender and smooth, I don’t fit any of these molds, so for the most part, I’ve always felt invisible at Bear events. But I wasn’t going to take this lying down. I was going to undertake an “exbeariment” to see whether I could finally fit into the Bear scene. If it’s easier to attract bees with honey, then I was going to have to look the part by growing out some scruff. But is there more to being a bear than the beard and broad frame? If so, could I be a Bear for the weekend?
The following Saturday night, after a week of growing, I tested out my new beard with two bearish buddies on a Bear run to Bearracuda @ Deco Lounge in the Tenderloin. Run by notable local Matt Mikesell, the three-and-a-half-year-old club was founded for Bears that boogie, in opposition to the stand-and-stare bars like The Lone Star Saloon or The Eagle Tavern.
The art deco club was specially festooned for disco-to-acid-house- DJ collective Honey Soundsystem’s “Bears Love Honey” with trademark “HNY” cardboard cutouts hung on fishing line and streamers. Suspended sheets over the buffet of crispy snacks created a tent effect in the back room. The rooms were soon filled with a variety of men. Some were more muscular, some were heavier, and some were hairier than others.
Out on the back patio I chatted with numerous club-goers to get their take on the Bear phenomenon. I quickly discovered that a Bear was more of a look than a personality; the appeal was a masculinity thing – stomachs could be soft, but chests had to be hard – and it was nice to have hair to rub up against.
There were differing opinions, however, about how much body hair was appealing… for some it was only a hairy chest, for others chest and shoulders, and for others front and back fur were acceptable.
Things got uncomfortable when one self-described Gummy Bear (young, more femme Bear) turned the conversation to me. “What’s your hair pattern?” he asked. It was the Bear version of “How big is your cock?” I buckled under the pressure. “Oh, ummm...” I suddenly felt like the odd man out for being smooth. Thankfully, my Ginger Bear friend came to my rescue. “Wow, you have that ginger beard, too, and that’s hot,” he interjected.
As guys began lifting their shirts to compare chest and back-hair patterns, I made my exit. I had a long day of Bear hunting planned for Sunday.
On my way out I ran into someone I had fancied four years back, when we met one enchanted evening. He was a twiggy and trimmed “alternaqueer” with the prerequisite punk rock attire and piercings. He had asked me to go home with him but I turned him down because I was seeing someone at the time. A couple months later, after my relationship ended, I ran into him but he seemed distant. Maybe I wasn’t his type.
I next saw him a year later—and to my surprise he had gained 100
pounds and grown out his body hair. Suddenly he was no longer my type. I would see him at Bear events and began to wonder if he was embracing his inner-grizzly. Over the years we developed a quick, “hi, bye” relationship, but nothing more.
So as I was squeezing my way out past the throngs of Bears, Cubs and Otters at the now packed club, he said “hi,” rubbed up against my hairy cheek with his and kissed my face. Going into insta-shock, I felt a static electricity run from his
face to mine with the bit of friction. As my fingers caressed his furry upper chest through his V-neck shirt, I suddenly understood what everyone was talking about. I discovered the joy of Bear.
Still buzzing from the experience on Sunday morning, I stopped and wondered if it was me or the beard that he was attracted to. But I had little time to dilly dally as a girlfriend and I headed down to The Eagle Tavern in SoMa for Beer Bust.
The bar, which looks like an old, Western movie set from the outside, surprises with a motorcycle clubhouse interior complete with truck stop accoutrement such as license plates and beer memorabilia up on walls and motorcycle-part art above the bars. As punk rock and indie music blasted through the speakers, we made our way to the weathered, wooden outdoor patio, and homed in on the many Bears in attendance.
In this environment my cohort, whose general type runs thin and trimmed, turned into a goldilocks (a woman who admires Bears),
pointing out all these beer-guzzling grizzlies that were cute. Had the scruffy Bear spell rubbed off on her? Or was it simply that seeing so many in one spot made it somehow more acceptable?
As the Bears migrated towards The Lone Star Saloon for more beer-busting, we followed, but quickly felt out of place among the older, cliquey crowd in baseball caps, unbuttoned flannel shirts and tight jeans, fingering their facial hair that filled the “roadhouse” bar’s wooden-fenced back patio, which was decked out in license plates and old beer and road signs.
Some were playing pool or eating hot dogs, but most were standing around conversing. I felt invisible again, because no one seemed to want me on their menu.
Maybe I’d have better luck at Honey Soundsystem Sundays at nearby Paradise Lounge. It was a friend’s birthday that night along with “MLK and Honey” the club’s popular Martin Luther King weekend tribute night.
As I climbed up the steps to Paradise Lounge, rare acid house was pumping through speakers, and the rooms were filling with t-shirt and jeaned, bearded hipsters and a growing number of Bears, Cubs and Chasers as the beer busts were ending and drinkers were trailing over.
Amid the red lights, hanging sculptural decorations and disco balls, I observed some Bear Daddies cutting rugs around the still mostly-empty dance floor. I couldn’t help but think that when this music wasn’t retro, they were the twinks cutting their teeth at the clubs during the tweezed- and-waxed late 80’s.
But the look has since become so popular that many young people, gay and straight, have adopted it. Being big and hairy 20 years ago suggested to others that you were untouched by the AIDS epidemic as a whole generation of gays was shrinking away. Now it means “I want to be comfortable rather than obedient to societal norms.”
Moving to the bar area, I chatted with the birthday boy for a few minutes until we were interrupted by his Bear friend’s new boyfriend.
“Aren’t you lovely?” the Wolf (an older, more aggressive Otter) asked. “Woof ,” he added, cornering me against the wall. As I attempted to make my exit, he suggested that I look him up on cruising site Bear411.com. Thankfully DJ Pee Play of Honey Soundsystem, an admitted Bear aficionado, swooped in to give me his take on Bear culture.
“As someone who has gone through his own roller coaster of weight issues, I think the whole Bear trend is about empowerment and subversion,” he said. “Never mind that I think a guy with a beard and gut is hot, there are some simple themes of brotherhood and protection that are what draw me to the Bear scene.”
Yes, finding your niche within a community is important, but as I piled my carcass into a cab and headed home, I realized an important truth.
While I finally felt the allure of Bears, I couldn’t pretend to be something I’m not to attract someone. Life is too short to spend trying to fit into a scene. As inherent outsiders, maybe our time as gay men would be better spent relaxing the belt of acceptance with each other, and more importantly, ourselves.
After all, it’s the man who makes the beard, and not the other way around.
Design: Volume Inc.