Bear (gay culture)

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The International Bear Brotherhood Flag, the bear community's pride flag, created by Craig Byrnes in 1995.[1]

In gay culture, bear is a term for men who are large, hairy, or both.[2]

The bear concept can function as an identity or an affiliation, and there is ongoing debate in bear communities about what constitutes a bear. Some bears place importance on presenting a clear masculine image and may disdain or shun men who exhibit effeminacy,[3] while others consider acceptance and inclusion of all behavioral types to be an important value of the community.[4]


Bears at the 2009 Marcha Gay in Mexico City

In the mid-1980s, gay men in the San Francisco Bay Area who called themselves "bears" met informally at Bear Hug (sex) parties and via the newly emerging Internet. The term "bear" was popularized by Richard Bulger, who, along with his then-partner Chris Nelson (1960–2006), founded Bear Magazine in 1987. George Mazzei wrote an article for The Advocate in 1979 called "Who's Who in the Zoo?",[5] that characterized gay men as seven types of animals, including bears.[6]

At the onset of the bear movement, some bears separated from the gay community at large, forming "bear clubs" to create social and sexual opportunities of their own. Many clubs are loosely organized social groups; others are modeled on leather biker-patch clubs, with a strict set of bylaws, membership requirements, and charities. Bear clubs often sponsor large yearly events – "bear runs" or "bear gatherings" – like the annual events such as Southern HiBearNation in Melbourne; Bear Pride and Bear Essentials in Sydney; Bearstock in Adelaide; HiBearNation in St. Louis, Missouri; San Francisco Bear Weekend; CBL's Bear Hunt;[7] Bear Pride in Chicago; Atlanta Bear Pride; Texas Bear Round Up in Dallas; Orlando Bear Bash;[8] and Bear Week in Provincetown, Massachusetts (since 2001). Many LGBT events attract a significant bear following, such as Southern Decadence in New Orleans.[9]

"Sociology of the Urban Gay Bear", written by Les K. Wright, was the first article to appear in print, in Drummer magazine, edited by Jack Fritscher. Fritscher was the founding editor of San Francisco's California Action Guide (1982). With California Action Guide, Fritscher became the first editor to publish the word "bear" with the gay culture meaning on a magazine cover (November 1982).[10]

As well, with producer Mark Hemry in 1984, Fritscher co-founded the pioneering Palm Drive Video featuring homomasculine entertainment. Palm Drive Video expanded in 1996 to Palm Drive Publishing, San Francisco. For Palm Drive, Fritscher wrote, cast, and directed more than 150 video features. His work includes documentary footage of the first bear contest (Pilsner Inn, February 1987). A bear contest is a feature at many bear events, a sort of masculine beauty pageant awarding titles and sashes (often made of leather) to winners. This footage is no longer for sale as Fritscher declined to shift to DVD format and he closed the video company.

Mr. DC Bear Cub 2006 and Mr. DC Bear 2006

One example of a bear contest was International Mr. Bear, formerly held each February at the International Bear Rendezvous in San Francisco. It attracted contestants, often with local titles, from all over the world. The first International Mr. Bear was held in 1992, and the last was held in 2011. The contest included Bear, Daddy, Cub, and Grizzly titles with the contestant who received the highest score winning the bear title, regardless of what type he was. Example: "Mr. Washington, D.C. Bear, 2006". Gay "leather-bears" have competed in leather contests, and "muscle-bears" are another subculture noted by their muscular body mass.

The International Bear Brotherhood Flag is the pride flag of the bear community. Craig Byrnes created this flag in 1995.[1]

The Bear History Project, founded by Les L. Wright in 1995, documented the emergence and early evolution of bear identity and bear community. It became the source material for much of The Bear Book (1999) and The Bear Book II (2001). Publication of The Bear Book led to the Library of Congress adding "bear" as a category. The Bear History Project is archived in the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University. It continues to be added to.[11]

The bear community has spread all over the world, with bear clubs in many countries. Bear clubs often serve as social and sexual networks for their members, who can contribute to their local gay communities through fund-raising and other functions. Bear events have become very common, to include smaller-sized cities and many rural areas. Most gay-oriented campgrounds now include some type of bear-related event during their operating season.

The bear community constitutes a specialty niche in the commercial market. It offers T-shirts and other accessories as well as calendars and porn movies and magazines featuring bear icons, e.g., Jack Radcliffe. Catalina Video has a bear-themed line, the "Furry Features Series". Other adult studios which feature bear-type men are Bear Magazine, 100% BEEF Magazine, BearFilms, Bear, Butch Bear, Raging Stallion, and Titan Media. There are also social media websites and smartphone apps that market to men of the bear community.

As the bear community has matured, so has its music and literature, as well as other (non-pornographic) arts, media, and culture. Examples include Bearapalooza, a traveling bear music festival; Bear Bones Books, an imprint of LGBTQ publisher Lethe Press, which markets fiction, nonfiction, and poetry titles written by and for bears;, which streams bear and LGBT music and bear-themed podcast shows. "Bear Icons, the first bear-themed art exhibit (1999-2002), toured to Boston, Provincetown, New York City, and Washington, DC. The larger organized bear runs often host a "bear market" area where artisans, musicians, and others offer items for sale.

As more gay men have identified themselves as bears, more bars, especially leather or western bars, have become bear-friendly. Some bars cater specifically to bear patrons.[12]


Bears marching in Melbourne's Pride March 2011

Jack Fritscher notes that bears celebrate "secondary sexual characteristics of the male: facial hair, body hair, proportional size, baldness."[13] Since the late 2000s, cisgender women and transgender men with similar characteristics who identify as bears have been recognized in the culture.[14][15]

Over the years, bear culture has been subdivided. Many claim discrimination has increased within the bear community, as some men who self-identify as "bears" or "musclebears" do not welcome higher-body fat men (see chub) at their events. A common criticism of the bear community is that some self-described bears tend to exclude men who do not fit their standards of a "real bear". Fat (or lack of it) is seen by some as a political issue, some of whom see their overweight condition as a form of self-acceptance. Some also note a lack of racial diversity in the bear community, generally perceiving hirsuteness to be a standard of physical attractiveness that genetically favors white men aesthetically, socially and sexually among bears.[16] Example of a modern-day man, the beard is commonly thought of as a sign of masculinity.

Bear media[edit]

A variety of media has been established specifically to cater to bears. The Internet comic strip Bear with Me centers around the life of the bear Andy McCubbin, a rich entrepreneur and heir to the Howell/McCubbin fortune, and his friends and family.[17] A vast majority of the other characters are also bears. The comics are created by Tim Vanderburg under the pen name Bruin.[18] In Tim Barela's comic strip Leonard & Larry, a majority of the male characters are bearded men, some self-identified as bears, most not.[19] The webcomic Blur the Lines frequently features bearish men and the two main characters, Rick and Drew, associate with the bear community; the former identifies as a chub, whereas the latter identifies as a chaser/cub. (See below for term definitions.) The events and characters depicted in the strip are inspired by the life of the author and artist Bob Kusiak, who is also involved to some extent with the bear community.[20]

Films depicting the bear community include BearCity, BearCity 2: The Proposal and Cachorro, and the comedy web series Where the Bears Are, BULK: The Series, and Skeleton Crew.

In 2012, Bear World was first published online in monthly PDF format. The magazine was the first lifestyle magazine for the bear community, offering an alternative from the beefcake and pornographic magazines in print. Over the years, Bear World has grown into the world's leading bear lifestyle magazine, having transformed into a popular news and magazine website.[21]

In 2013, gay singer-songwriter Tom Goss released his song "Bears", singing about the bear community's open-mindedness and size-inclusivity.[22]

In popular culture[edit]

The International Bear Brotherhood Flag is the pride flag of the bear community. Craig Byrnes created this flag in 1995.[1]

The December 2007 issue of Instinct featured an article by writer and director Kevin Smith on its "The Last Word" page. Smith wrote about his gay brother Don and about his (Kevin's) being on the cover of A Bear's Life magazine and the related cover story, and his feelings about being a "bear icon" in the gay community.[23] Smith later made a cameo appearance in the 2012 film BearCity 2: The Proposal, playing himself in a brief conversation with a main character who works in the film industry.

In the 2015 Pixar movie Inside Out, the character Disgust says there are no bears in San Francisco. The character Anger disagrees, saying "I saw a really hairy guy. He looked like a bear."[24]

The San Francisco South of Market Leather History Alley consists of four works of art along Ringold Alley honoring leather culture; it opened in 2017.[25] One of the works of art is metal bootprints along the curb which honor 28 people (including T. Michael "Lurch" Sutton, biker and co-founder of the Bears of San Francisco) who were an important part of the leather communities of San Francisco.[26]

The Canadian artist Astra Zero is heavily influenced by bear culture in his work.[27]


One study found bears were more likely than other gay men to engage in condomless anal sex with casual partners, which is concerning due to anal sex being the act with the highest rate of sexually transmitted infections. The study also found that bears were more likely than other gay men to have low self-esteem, which is a catalyst for their high rates of risky sexual behavior.[28]

Some bears of color have been vocal about the greater bear community's lack of racial diversity. Hence, bear of color subgroups were created so they feel more comfortable and seen.[29][30][31]


Some slang terms relating to the bear community include the following:

  • Big Boy – An Afrocentric term for bears, particularly those of African or African American heritage. Similar to chubs, big boy culture may be considered distinct, if related to, bear culture.[citation needed]
  • Chub – A heavy-set man who might be described as overweight or obese. These men are also a distinct subculture within the gay community, and may or may not identify with the bear movement.
  • Cub – a younger (or younger-looking) bear, sometimes (but not always) with a smaller frame.[32][2]
  • Otter – Considered a subspecies of "bear" by some, an otter is a hairy slim or small-framed man.[33][2]
  • Panda (or Panda bear) – A bear of Asian[34] or Pacific Islander descent.[2]
  • Polar bear – An older bear whose facial and body hair is predominantly or entirely white or grey.[34][2]
  • Trans bear – A transgender person, typically a trans man or otherwise of transmasculine experience, who is hairy and heavy-set.[citation needed]
  • Ursula – A lesbian bear.[35]
  • Wolf – A gay man with body and facial hair and a very lean, muscular, athletic build.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Muzzy, Frank (2005). Gay and Lesbian Washington. Arcadia Publishing. p. 112. ISBN 9780738517537.
  2. ^ a b c d e Moskowitz, David A.; Turrubiates, Jonathan; Lozano, Hector; Hajek, Christopher (2013-04-24). "Physical, Behavioral, and Psychological Traits of Gay Men Identifying as Bears". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 42 (5): 775–784. doi:10.1007/s10508-013-0095-z. ISSN 0004-0002. PMC 5442596. PMID 23613138.
  3. ^ Ron Jackson Suresha, (2002). Bears on Bears: Interviews and Discussions. "Bear Ages and Stages", pages 54–58, 149, 179, 236, 260–262, 294. Los Angeles: Alyson Publications. Retrieved on 2008-09-29 ISBN 1-55583-578-3.
  4. ^ John Dececco and Les Wright, The Bear Book II: Further Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture. Routledge, 2016. ISBN 9781136383274.
  5. ^ "When The Advocate Invented Bears". The Advocate. Here Media Inc. 17 April 2014. Retrieved 6 March 2015.
  6. ^ George Mazzei, (1979). Who's Who in the Zoo?. "The Advocate", pages 42–43.
  7. ^ "Bear Hunt – Bears Back to the 80's". Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  8. ^ "Gay Bear event in Orlando, Florida. Gay Bear, Gay Leather, Gay Men in Uniform". Orlando Bear Bash. Retrieved 2013-11-22.
  9. ^ "Southern Decadence Official Website". 12 November 2013. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  10. ^ Bernadicou, August. "Jack Fritscher". August Nation. The LGBTQ History Project. Archived from the original on 14 July 2019. Retrieved 14 July 2019.
  11. ^ "Bear History Project". Les K. Wright. 2022-02-08. Retrieved 2023-05-30.
  12. ^ "12 Best Bear Bars In The World". Bear World Magazine. 2018-04-02. Retrieved 2018-12-18.
  13. ^ Suresha, Ron (2009). "Bearness's Big Blank: Tracing the Genome of Ursomasculinity". Bears on Bears: Interviews and Discussions. Lethe Press. p. 83. ISBN 978-1590212448.
  14. ^ Suresha, Ron (2009). "Lesbears and Transbears: Dykes and FTMs as Bears". Bears on Bears: Interviews and Discussions. Lethe Press. pp. 273–84. ISBN 978-1590212448.
  15. ^ Connell, Iz (2018). "A woman in the bear community". Archer Magazine.
  16. ^ Suresha, Ron (2009). Bears on Bears: Interviews and Discussions. Lethe Press. p. 83. ISBN 978-1590212448.
  17. ^ "Bear With Me – Welcomes You!". Retrieved 2013-11-22.
  18. ^ Vandergurg, Tim (2002–2009). "Bear With me". Retrieved 2009-06-15.
  19. ^ Suresha, Ron (2002–2009). "Portrait of the Cartoonist as a Middle-Aged Bear: An Interview with Tim Barela". Archived from the original on 24 July 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-12.
  20. ^ Kusiak, Bob (2009–2011). "Blur the Lines". Archived from the original on 2013-11-07. Retrieved 2011-08-18.
  21. ^ "Bear World Magazine -". Bear World Magazine. Retrieved 2018-12-18.
  22. ^ "On the Spot: Tom Goss" Archived 2019-03-31 at the Wayback Machine. The Washington Post, August 29, 2013.
  23. ^ "Instinct Magazine: Kevin Smith gets the last word. The film director and writer gives us his gay View Askew". Archived from the original on 2009-06-25.
  24. ^ Lafuente, Cat (16 February 2018). "Things in Inside Out you only notice as an adult". Retrieved 7 December 2018.
  25. ^ "Ringold Alley's Leather Memoir". Public Art and Architecture from Around the World. Retrieved May 20, 2021.
  26. ^ Paull, Laura (21 June 2018). "Honoring gay leather culture with art installation in SoMa alleyway – J". J. Retrieved 2018-06-23.
  27. ^ John Hernandez (6 October 2023). "Beef, Bears and Horror: The Art of Astra Zero". Retrieved 2023-12-27.
  28. ^ Quidley-Rodriguez, N.; De Santis, J. P. (2015). "A Literature Review of Health Risks in the Bear Community, a Gay Subculture". American Journal of Men's Health. 11 (6): 1673–1679. doi:10.1177/1557988315624507. PMC 5675254. PMID 26718773.
  29. ^ "White Bears, it's time for you to be uncomfortable". 29 June 2020.
  30. ^ "Has much changed in the Bear community since 2020?". 10 February 2023.
  31. ^ "White gay bear privilege is a thing and it needs to end". July 2020.
  32. ^ Kampf, Ray (2000). The Bear Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for Those who are Husky, Hairy, and Homosexual, and Those who Love'em. Haworth Press. pp. The Bear Cub: Ursus younges. ISBN 978-1-56023-996-3. Retrieved 2008-08-27.
  33. ^ Phd, John Dececco; Wright, Les (2016-04-08). The Bear Book II: Further Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture. Routledge. ISBN 9781136383274.
  34. ^ a b "Bear-y gay" Archived 2017-07-08 at the Wayback Machine. Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2007.
  35. ^ Gulliver, Tanya (2002-05-30). "Beary feminine: Lesbians are claiming an identity gay men monopolize". Xtra!. Retrieved 2018-07-16.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cain, Paul D. and Luke Mauerman (2019). Bears in the Raw.
  • Hennen, Peter (2008). Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering the Masculine. University of Chicago
  • Hoffman, Wayne (2015). An Older Man. A Novella
  • Hörmann, Rainer (2004). Das Bärenkult: Das Tier im Mann.
  • Jones, Devry (2022-10-22). "DC and the Development of the International Bear Brotherhood Flag". Retrieved 22 October 2022.
  • Kampf, Ray (2000). The Bear Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for Those Who Are Husky, Hairy and Homosexual, and Those Who Love 'Em. Haworth Press. ISBN 1-56023-996-4
  • Luczak, Raymoind (2019). Flannelwood.
  • Luczak, Raymond (2016). The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still on My Lips (2016).
  • Smith, Travis and Chris Bale (2012). Guide to the Modern Bear.
  • Suresha, Ron (2002). Bears on Bears: Interviews and Discussions. Alyson Publications. ISBN 1-55583-578-3
  • Wright, Les K. (1997). The Bear Book: Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture. Haworth Press. ISBN 1-56023-890-9
  • Wright, Les K. (2000), The Bear Book II: Further Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture, Haworth, ISBN 978-0-7890-0636-3

External links[edit]