By Joel Barrett
When a bear walks into the bar, don’t panic! Buy him a beer, rub his furry chest and he just might follow you home.
Bears are hairy men who are usually large in stature – or at least large in belly. While there’s no official categorization, bears are often 30-plus years old. Cubs are younger bears. Within the bear community you will find other woodland creatures such as otters (thin hairy men) and wolves (slender, semi-hairy, but more muscular men). Pups are slender younger men with little hair. Not sure where you fit in this gay animal kingdom? Don’t worry, everyone is welcome in the community and no categorization is required. What IS required is a lack of body-shaming, age discrimination and judgment. This is the appeal of the bear community. The gay male community has a long history of valuing youth and a chiseled, well-manicured body. Bears celebrate all body types: hairy or smooth, big or little, mature or young, muscular or not.
There is some debate as to when the term “bear” was first coined in the gay community. The Advocate Magazine traces it back to 1979 when the article “Who’s Who at the Zoo?” by George Mazzei appeared in the magazine. In the article, Mazzei humorously categorized gay men and lesbians as types of animals in the zoo. It wasn’t until 1987 that Bear Magazine appeared on the market. Since then the community has grown. The International Bear Brotherhood Flag was introduced in 1995. The colors of theflag denote either hair colors or skin colors of the human race. Brown hair/skin, red hair/Native American skin, blond hair/Asian skin, light blond or peach-colored hair/white skin, white hair/albino skin, gray hair, and black hair/Black skin. The flag celebrates the inclusion of the community. The gay bear culture celebrates secondary sex characteristics such as body and facial hair which is typically considered a bear trait.
Across the nation local and regional organizations like Kansas City’s Bear Mafia host weekend retreats, parties and gatherings. Bear bars aren’t uncommon in many cities. In our city, Woody’s and Hamburger Mary’s host Bear Bust, a monthly gathering of 300-400 bears, bear lovers and many other members of the LGBTQ community.
Jeff Edmondson, owner of Hamburger Mary’s and Woody’s, was inspired to host Kansas City’s first Bear Bust in 2002 after finding inspiration at a Los Angeles bar where he and his partner, Eric, stumbled upon the simple, but effective concept by the same name. Fourteen years later, bears are still gathering every first Saturday of the month at Hamburger Mary’s on 3700 Broadway Blvd. Men are encouraged to dress according to the theme and compete for prizes. In August, porn stars and real-life husbands Dirk Caber and Jesse Jackman competed in a wrestling match to the entertainment of all who attended the wrestling-themed Bear Bust.
“It’s evolved over the years,” he reflects. “Today Bear Bust offers something that no one else is doing here in Kansas City.” Like many gay clubs, there are shirtless men dancing on a box to the throbbing beats of the DJ, but it’s not limited to the typical, lean, muscle boys commonly associated with gay dance clubs. Patrons are just as likely to see men who look just like themselves dancing on the adjacent box. Local men of all shapes, sizes and ages dance each month. “I’ve been able to get a wide variety of guys who will dance for Bear Bust. We have the younger, more muscle guys dancing, but we also try to have the huskier guys as well.”
If there is one word that describes the appeal of the bear community it is acceptance. Jeff describes them as “A much more laid-back, easy going, and accepting subset of the LGBTQ community. They accept everybody. They’re just nice guys. They get camaraderie with each other.” He feels Bear Bust is an event that has lasted because men of all varieties can attend and feel accepted for who they are. “No one feels like they’re out of place or shamed. They can come every month, have a great time and meet new guys.”
Bear Bust isn’t limited to the bear community. There’s acceptance for all. “When twinks (usually, young, hairless men in their twenties) come into the bear community, they aren’t looked down on by the bears. The bears are okay with it.” Jeff says even a few ladies occasionally show up. “When ladies come in, the bears don’t complain or get angry. They are accepting of all. There’s something about that people are just attracted to not being made fun of, being accepted for who they are. There’s a strong community that’s based around that.”
Jonathan DeRaps, marketing and PR leader for Bear Mafia explains how men often feel when walking into many gay-male environments. “When you are a larger person, there is often discrimination. You’ll find the bear community puts down that stigma and is more accepting. That acceptance spreads to other people as well, and they realize it’s an accepting community for all kinds of guys.”
Bear Mafia is a group that started in 2009 as a social group for men of all shapes, sizes and ages. It is member driven. Members organize and coordinate events and social outings that range from coffee and conversation with bears to more active events like weekly, summer volleyball games in Sunnyside Park where all are invited to show up and play.
In 2013 Bear Mafia became an official nonprofit organization which allows the group to raise money for local charities through its numerous events. Recipients have included Like Me Lighthouse, Mid America Freedom Band, Foster Adopt Connect and Heartland Men’s Chorus.
Every spring Bear Mafia hosts Dragnarok, an annual drag show of bearded beauties. The event provides the opportunity for men to have fun performing in drag for the first time while raising money for charity. The 2016 show raised over $2500 for charity.
The highlight of the year is Bear Crossing, a weekend long event in Westport that draws over 300 men from all across the region and nation. The weekend, hosted at a local hotel, consists of activities, social gatherings, cocktail hours and themed dance parties at the hotel as well as at locations around the city. Visit bearcrossingkc.org for details about these and other upcoming events.
Jonathan emphasized the intentional inclusion of Bear Mafia. “The purpose of the group is to include everyone. You don’t have to be a bear to be involved. Bears, bear lovers, admirers of bears are all welcome.” Even women sometimes show up at local bear events. “A bear, just like a teddy bear, is cuddly and something that everyone wants to have around.”
Justin Ruggieri, who describes himself as an otter, is an active member of the bear community. He attributes the growth and success of the community to acceptance as well. “I think there is a certain ‘live and let live attitude’ within the bear community that fosters inclusivity. We all may not fit certain boxes in one way or another, but what I see in the bear community is a willingness to acknowledge that and to be broad-minded. This broad-mindedness is the glue that keeps the bear community together and helps it grow.”
For more information about Bear events, follow Woody’s, Hamburger Mary’s and Bear Mafia on Facebook.