Ron Suresha's book Bears On Bears is an exploration of the gay male subculture that came of age in San Francisco in the 1980s and is now flourishing into a young adulthood round the world in the 21st century.
Far from the Queer As Folk, Bel Ami, Calvin Klein portraits of hairless, toned male bodies that have come to represent the ideal gay body image, Bears embrace a brotherhood of gay men who challenge these images of the masculine ideal.

They are men who are defiantly uninterested in society's ideal of physical appearance, who instead celebrate the fact that they are often large, never shave their body hair, and don't give a hoot about what fashions are parading down the runway this season. Stevie Gardener spoke to Ron about the Bear pack.

Australian Bears
OutUK: When did gay men first start identifying themselves as Bears?
Ron: There have been men, both gay and straight and probably a handful of women too, who through the ages identified with the four-legged creature. To talk about the gay subculture particularly, it seemed to coalesce in mid 1980s San Francisco. Of course subcultures are extremely complex things just as individuals are, so there's not really any one source. There are several different streams from which the early bear folks emerged.

One was probably the most obvious - the advent of The Bear, an adult magazine which was very low key at first, but eventually caught on. Another thing that took place at the same time was there happened to be a bar where a lot of these beartype men, bearded hairy biker types, not necessarily big in girth, but definitely older gay men, that came to form a very small but strong intense community around the Lone Star bar which was very closely identified with the people behind Bear magazine. Simultaneously with that there happened to be a group for bigger men in San Francisco called Bear Hugs basically organised to have hot tub sex parties

Those were the three main things, but if you look at how sub cultures are formed you'll find many more smaller tributaries that contributed too this stream.

OutUK: What particularly interested you in Bears?
Ron: Personally I've always, always, always been attracted to men of this type, more mature men, not elderly but not younger or what we think of as the stereotype of the younger smooth cleanshaven type. I've always been more attracted to what you might see as the biker type. It was my own personal interest.
OutUK: Do you identify yourself as a Bear?
Ron: Yes I do, but in a certain way I don't. I'm bearded and hairy-chested but I'm not as hairy as some other folks. I'm middle-aged, balding and getting a paunch.

OutUK: Do you think the rise of the Bear is a reaction to the image of the most desirable gay man as under 30, well defined and hairless particularly amongst those gay men whose age and body type makes it impossible to achieve that look?
Ron: I think that's very true but again sub-cultures are very complex. It's not simply the result of any one factor. For example some people claim Bears are a reaction to the wasting of Aids. Yes, many people were dying from Aids in the mid-80s especially in San Francisco and people at that time were looking towards images of vigourous huskier men as being healthy. But again nothing is quite that simple. There are some who identify as Bears who are not in reaction to anything. this is just the way that they are. They accept their bodies for what they are and they didn't react against any other idea at all.

OutUK: Is there anything more to be being a Bear than the look?
Ron: I think there is a great deal more to it. Again it's a very complex thing, which is why I've written a book that has 57 contributors from all over the world and 25 chapters. There's really a lot to it, much more than I would have even suspected when I first gotten involved.

OutUK: So what most struck you or surprised you?
Ron: There were some disappointments and there were definitely points of affirmation for me as I began to examine the subculture and some of the trends that existed in it. I guess one thing that surprised was that for many years Bears had been excluded from the gaystream, that's mainstream gay images and gaystream culture.

I'm pleased to say it's less true now, but for decades bears were, well... rejected, reviled, shunned. There's also been a certain amount of strong rejection that a lot of men experienced within the Bear communities. That was true if you didn't quite meet the full description - by being fully bearded and boasting a perfect pelt.
Twinks & Bears Proud Together - Photo: Tim Schapker
CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
There's definitely a bear icon image that developed and if you didn't meet the full description ..say for myself I'm not particularly fat so there's some people who would not consider me to be really a Bear...they would call me something like a wolf or an otter I think this is somewhat perjorative and I used to find this exclusionary factor very disturbing.

On the other hand, time after time, I encountered men whose self-esteem was non-existent before they came into the Bear community. People talk about experiences of walking into a bear bar or a bear club and suddenly they feel admired for the very first time. Here are people who like to look at people who look like me.That's incredibly liberating, very much in the sense of what gay liberation was meant to be. For many many men there's definitely a freeing-up and an upliftment of their self-esteem.

Nowadays it's much easier. Gay guys mix together more whatever brand they like to call themselves, and certainly I have found that as I get older I am more and more in demand from younger men who love to take their bear around with them. Just like they did when they were kids, although the bear himself might just be a little bit different!

Ron Suresha grew up in and around Detroit. After studying creative writing and journalism at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, he edited several alternative periodicals, ran a community switchboard, went to India twice, and lived in yoga meditation ashrams around the US for about ten years. He has written extensively on Eastern philosophy, but Bears On Bears is his first commercially published book.

Order Bears On Bears from Amazon


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