Gay men aren’t supposed to look much like the balding, hairy-belly-up-to-the-bar crowd at the Dugout in the far West Village. The place doesn’t smell much like gay men are supposed to, either: beery, sweaty, like a frat party gone on way too long—in some cases, at least judging by the bushy gray facial hair in the dank room, for decades. But everybody’s having a pretty good time, even the skinny guys who wandered in for the $3 Buds at the Sunday-night beer blast and find themselves outnumbered, and largely ignored, by the husky men around them—the bears.
The Dugout is the city’s best-known bar for bears—gay men who look rather like middle-aged straight men who haven’t been metrosexually harassed into banishing carbs from their diets and hair from their shoulders. It’s a quasi-intellectualized, entirely merchandized subculture of “those who are husky, hairy and homosexual,” as the Bear Handbook ($14.95 at your local Barnes & Noble) puts it. Bears have been a fully fleshed-out alternative gay identity for at least a decade, but it seems the growling’s louder than ever.
And like any subculture, the bear community comes with its own distinct taxonomy—its minorities within a minority within a minority. Most bears are bears: big and often balding, with bushy beards and beefy arms; the look is distinctly blue-collar and unfussy. Some consider themselves cubs—usually younger, though that can also just mean smaller and younger-looking. The assumption is often that a cub’s more submissive (Boo-Boo to his Yogi “husbear”) but that he’ll likely grow into a bear. Body types can be difficult to categorize firmly, but a more muscular, hairy man who styles himself as being more sexually aggressive is known as a wolf (especially online, where these distinctions are key for personal erotic marketing). And then there’s the otter, who’s cublike in age and, perhaps, disposition but thin—a not-so-hairy younger guy who’s looking for a “daddy bear.”
Director John Waters used the Handbook when researching his 2004 sexually utopian farce, A Dirty Shame. In the film, a “family” of overall-clad bears moves into suburbia, scaring the locals. Waters first realized how big the movement was when he happened to be in San Francisco for its annual bear festival. “They call it coming out of the second closet,” he says. This is partly because recognizing one’s own ursine nature or desires can mean accepting a particular set of rules, values, and inside jokes that places bears apart from many gay men obsessed with looking young and perfecting their abs. (Bears even have their own earth-tone version of the rainbow flag: Theirs is yellow, brown, and black, usually with a paw print.)
And though this might seem like a defensive posture—particularly in Manhattan, whose citizens, both straight and gay, tend to take a certain subconscious pride in living on an island stocked with beautiful, rich, thin people—bears consider themselves above all that. More manly, less sleek and effete. In 2003, Andrew Sullivan, himself increasingly ursine-identified in his middle age, wrote an ode to guys like himself in Salon: “Big and burly and friendly.” He went on to argue that “to the outside world, they are largely invisible, because they don’t fit the obvious stereotype of gay men” propagated by shows like Boy Meets Boy and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. “These bears look more like the straight guys than the queer eyes.”
These days, there are bear Yahoo meet-up groups, bear hooking-up Websites, bear nights at bars, and earnest bear memoirs. There’s even a bear circuit (coming up this month: International German Bear Week in Cologne, Woof Fest in Fort Lauderdale, and A Lazy Bear Christmas in Palm Springs). The current issue of A Bear’s Life magazine—“your guide to the rapidly expanding bear phenomenon”—has Rosie O’Donnell’s big, bearded big brother, Danny, the state assemblyman, on the cover, strangely barefoot.
And of course, there’s tons of bear smut: “The porn section in Lambda Rising in Baltimore is half-nude 350-pound men, and I don’t get it,” says Waters. Though, to be fair, the fetish is not really about being fat; it’s largely for regular guys who don’t worry about a little paunch. The Dugout is full of flannel, work boots, some leather.
Maybe because so few people call them pretty in everyday life, bears seem peculiarly fond of holding beauty pageants. Last month, the Mr. MetroBear and Mr. MetroCub competitions in New York drew a beer-swilling crowd of men in black jeans (and some kilts). The judges included Mr. Philadelphia Leather and International Mr. Deaf Cub. A floor show featured a synchronized dance number to song parodies (“Milkshakes / Bring all the cubs to the yard”). And in the end, the Mr. MetroBear tiara—actually, a studded leather sash—was won by a strapping bartender named Carmine, despite his having only a 36-inch waist.
Mr. MetroCub went to a five-five guy named Louis. There was no award category for otters, for whom many bears seem to evince little interest (committed to their subculture, they can be just as petty and dismissive as any buff, well-coiffed man at Beige).
“Every group has to fetishize itself,” says John Waters. “This one caughton because most people looklike this. My generation has to eroticize everything.”
Which doesn’t stop the otters from trying. As one friend of mine—whose blond, Bruce Weber–model looks belie an interest in older, hairier, heftier Bruce Weber–like men—wrote to me, “At its heart, I think it’s an aesthetic of age, of finding men who look older (hence, facial hair) attractive.” His gay friends have always been a little scandalized by his taste. But as he points out, “This has been a part of gay culture since the Symposium. Gay culture has its own denial issues.”
Still, with an increasingly out gay population, what gay looks like, smells like, and labels itself as will continue to diversify. “I’m for [bears] because they have a sense of humor,” Waters says. “They’re not muscle Marys. They’re faux–blue collar. Their fag hags are called ‘goldilocks.’ ”
“Every group has to fetishize itself,” he adds. “This one caught on because most people look like this. My generation has to eroticize everything. There’ll be back rooms at old-age homes.”