Bear is a subcultural term used primarily by gay men, referring to a subset of men who embrace and subvert traditional masculinity and defy the stereotypes typically applied to gay men, who are usually seen as feminine due to their attraction to men. Bears may be defined by physical appearance, tastes, expression of traditionally gendered traits, or personal affiliation.
The generic image of a bear is a larger man with a hairy body, usually having facial hair and dressing in a typically masculine way. Bears tend to project the aesthetics of working-class manhood in their choices of self-expression, particularly through their personal grooming and appearance. Often, bear culture is associated with the rural gay community, in which the idea of rugged traditional masculinity is considered both an ideal and a defiance of gay stereotyping that tends to portray gay men as overwhelmingly thin, white, exceptionally well-groomed, lacking in facial and body hair, and averse to physical exertion.
The bear subculture celebrates such masculine traits while queering masculinity through the reputation of bears being affectionate, similar to how femme lesbians defy the heterocentric stereotype of lesbians being masculine by necessity and instead queer femininity.
The bear subculture is not a furry subculture.
Bear culture originated in San Francisco in the 1980s. Developing from the romanticization of the solitary nature of working-class manhood (seen in the homoerotic conception of lumberjacks, for example) as well as a response to the expectations of cruising culture, bear culture was solidified in the growth of the gay bar scene and biker communities. Bears created in-groups from these spaces, referred to as “bear clubs.” The main reason behind the development of the bear identity was firmly rooted in isolation from mainstream gay culture, which at the time celebrated urban, middle-class gays who fit the physical description of twinks (i.e. young, thin, hairless, and effeminate). In addition, the need to provide a community for lower-class men and those from rural areas, who did not identify with or have access to the idealized city gay community and lifestyle, was urgent.
Bear physicality originally referred to larger, heavy-set cisgender men men who were middle-aged. At first, the assumption was that most bears were gay men. However, bi men have historically been at the front of bear culture alongside gay men. Since the 2000s, new terms have emerged to describe a variety of bears. Some terms that are in use include:
- Cubs, younger bears.
- Muscle bears, bears who are generally extremely fit and hairy.
- Otters, leaner bears.
- Leather bears, bears who may be more involved in leather and BDSM cultures than the average bear.
- Ursulas, historically lesbears, who are sapphic women or women-aligned individuals who are generally hairier and heavy-set.
- Femme bears, queer femme individuals with the typical characteristics of a bear.
- Trans bears, achillean transmasculine individuals who are hairier and heavy.
Some communities use more specific terminology to encompass men who may not be able to fit the general physical stereotype of a 'bear' and to make clear their inclusion in the community, such as "polar bear" for older men. However, the use of racialized terms for non-white bears, such as "panda bear" for East-Asian men, has come under scrutiny amongst bears. Some heavy-set hairy men attracted to men may not identify with the term bear or else refer to themselves as “post bears” or “ex-bears.”
The bear flag consists of seven stripes in various shades of brown and gold, with a bear’s pawprint in black in the upper left quadrant. The colors are designed to reflect different real-world species of bears and thus celebrate the diversity of men encompassed in the bear community, emphasizing its origins as the other side of the exclusive urban gay culture.
It was designed in 1995 by Craig Byrnes, who had spent extensive time producing a project about the bear community and wanted a flag to include in his research. After creating four prototypes, he attended a local Chesapeake Bay Bears event and asked attendees to vote for their favorite design, determining the design of the International Bear Brotherhood Flag still in use.
The transgender bear flag was created by the now deactivated tumblr user beartrans.
The non-binary bear flag was created by the now deactivated tumblr user duwang-flags-inc.
- "Chapter 6. Academics as Bears: Thoughts on Middle-Class Eroticization of Workingmen’s Bodies" by Eric Rofes, The Bear Book: Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture, edited by Les. K. Wright, Routledge.
- "Chapter 1. A Concise History of Self-Identifying Bears" by Les Wright, The Bear Book, edited by Les. K. Wright, Routledge.
- The Bear Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for Those who are Husky, Hairy, and Homosexual and Those Who Love 'Em, Ray Kampf, Haworth Press.
- The Bear Handbook, Kampf.
- "Coming to Terms" by Ron Jackson Suresha, Bi Men: Coming Out Every Which Way, edited by Pete Chvany, Routledge.
- "Lesbears and Transbears: Dykes and FTMs as Bears" in Bears on Bears: Interviews & Discussions (Revised Edition), Ron Jackson Suresha, Lethe Press.
- Article “Beary feminine: Lesbians are claiming an identity gay men monopolize” on ursulas by Tanya Gulliver for Xtra.
- Article “A woman in the bear community” on being a queer femme and a bear by Iz Connell for Archer.
- "Lesbears and Transbears," Bears on Bears, Suresha.
- "Ethnic Bears and Bears of Color" in Bears on Bears, Suresha.
- Scholarly article "Bear Bodies, Bear Masculinity: Recuperation, Resistance, or Retreat?" by Peter Hennen for Gender and Society.
- "A Space beyond Beardom: Postbears and Ex-Bears," Bears on Bears, Suresha.
- Blog post detailing the origin of the International Bear Brotherhood Flag. (Warning: This is an older webpage and may be unsecure.)