The mainstream gay aesthetic has made a sharp left into the lair of the bear.
In a 1979 Advocate article called “Who’s Who in the Zoo?” George Mazzei classified seven types of gay men as animals: owls, bears, gazelles, cygnet swans, pussycats, marmosets and pekes/afghans. Though I have never heard anyone declare, “Oh, that gazelle! He’ll hightail it out of any party where the marmosets show their faces,” bears remain deeply embedded in the gay vocabulary.
“Bears are usually hunky, chunky types reminiscent of railroad engineers and former football greats,” wrote Mazzei.
“They have larger chests and bellies than average, and notably muscular legs. Some Italian-American Bears, however, are leaner and smaller; it’s attitude that makes a bear.”
But what, in fact, is the bear attitude, circa 2013? The bear reputation for being mature, low-key, manly, unpretentious, beer-bellied and hairy was radical several years back when gay mainstream culture was considered young, shrill, effeminate, judgmental, skinny and shaved. But the mainstream gay aesthetic has made a sharp left into beardom. When once trendy dyed blondes would have squeezed into Body Body Wear to dance at megaclubs, nowadays bearded hipsters sit in parks drinking canned Pabst Blue Ribbon with fried chicken and poutine. Although social groups like Bears of Toronto and Gen X Bears are no more, Church Street is awash in bear-friendly pubs and the greasy food that’s served in them. We’re all bears now.
But are there too many paws in the honey jar? The spirit of bearhood, some suggest, might be disappearing into a blur of niche subgroups and, horror of horrors, attitude. If an otter attracted to cubs snubs a musclebear who’s only into leatherbears, then old-fashioned bear culture might indeed have come to an end.
“From a businessman’s point of view, it’s ka-ching, bring it on,” says Geoffrey Davis, a bear-oriented jewellery designer (shock-ra.com/bear) who used to be on the steering committee of Bears of Toronto before the group went hairy-belly up. “But you have the younger generation who doesn’t know the politics and takes it for granted. It’s hard to connect a socio-political movement to a dance party. When people go for a night out, being schooled isn’t their top priority. They think mostly with their dicks.”
The International Bear Brotherhood Flag—with a single paw print marking seven stripes representing the colours of (real) bears around the world—was created in 1995 as a beacon against body fascism and gay conformity. But Davis worries that the inclusive message has gotten lost in shifting sexual tastes and aggressive marketing. It’s a dilemma faced by many niche gay groups: While it’s fun to hang out with like-minded people, it’s even more fun to hang out with people you’re attracted to. Our demographics don’t always match our desires.
Take Matt Mikesell, the 37-year-old San Francisco-based founder of the Bearracuda (bearracuda.com) parties now hosted in 35 cities in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Six-foot-six, fit and smooth, Mikesell was a bear chaser from an early age. “I have a long arm span and I can handle a big guy.” He created Bearracuda mainly so he could party with guys he found hot. Though he promotes his events with posters of big beefy guys, the crowd is diverse so Mikesell does not stand out.
“The scene has certainly gotten younger over the years,” says Mikesell. “You walk in and there are people there from their 20s into their 50s. Very diverse body types. When you go to a bar you don’t want everybody staring at you because you’re not the gay norm. You want to feel comfortable and you want to go where you find the men attractive.”
With more and more venues targeting big beefy guys, that’s more complicated than it sounds. Especially here in Toronto.
When restaurateur Jimmy Georgoulis opened O’Grady’s on Church about a decade ago, he decided he wanted to host a weekly bear night. His friends had hung out at the Toolbox, a legendary bar that was the city’s main gathering place for bears and leathermen until it closed in 2004.
“I said I’m going to do this and I’m going to do it right,” he tells me over lunch at The Vic Public House on Church Street, which he also owns.
For a while, promoter Steve Buczek, who had made his mark with bear and leather events at 5ive nightclub and the Black Eagle, hosted O’Grady’s Friday night bear party. But last year Georgoulis ended the relationship and Buczek took his night across the street to Big Johnson’s until that bar went under last winter (it’s now The Garage). Some sources suggest that Buczek, who hosts his annual Beef Dip party (beefdip.com) in Puerto Vallarta, was out of town too much for Georgoulis’s taste. With a “no comment” here and a purposeful pause there, Georgoulis navigates our interview like lives depend on it.
“He and I worked together for a while and now we don’t. Things change,” shrugs Georgoulis.
At one point, there were three simultaneous Friday night bear parties—O’Grady’s, The Vic and Big Johnson’s.
Now Buczek is focussing on a monthly Saturday leatherbear party at the Eagle, as well as his Beef Dip Pride, Puerto Vallarta and holiday parties. Meanwhile, Bear Code, the Vic bear party that launched last year, moved to Zipperz, where it plays the role of a dance-oriented after-party to O’Grady’s pub time.
Despite the drama of the shuffling bear nights, one thing’s for sure. Georgoulis has a proven knack for nurturing Toronto bear promoters. Francis Gaudreault and Steve Palmer launched Pitbull—a bear/mainstream crossover event if there ever was one—at The Vic back when it was called Fuzion. And Zipperz’ Bear Code came into being when Georgoulis asked bear power couple, Louis Amaral and Eric Desbiens to host a bear night after Georgoulis and Buczek parted ways.
Desbiens, a 40-year-old real estate agent, moved from northern Quebec to Toronto just three years ago to be with Amaral. Though Desbiens has got the musclebear look down pat, he didn’t know what a bear was until he started travelling in Amaral’s circles. When they first met, at a birthday gathering at Hanlan’s Point, it was one of Desbiens’ first gay parties.
“I’m not someone who likes to be in a certain category,” he says. “The people who are interested in categories, they usually like a certain type of guy. The label makes it a lot easier. In my hometown, some people didn’t want to date me because I was too hairy. At bear events, you don’t have that judgment.”
Desbiens makes it sound easy to be a bear promoter. Have a lot of friends on Facebook, talk to a lot of people, work the crowd at O’Grady’s so they want to come out dancing afterwards. Having sexy online pics (inkedkenny.com/mens-room/frenchman/) probably doesn’t hurt either. “I am more famous online than in person,” he laughs.
Desbiens views bear parties as more fun than business—he’s not in it for the money. One of the common denominators amongst bear business people is that bears are a no-fuss no-muss clientele—beer, rum and cokes, and no drama. There’s less agreement on other elements of the culture. While Desbiens isn’t a fan of leather, Buczek sees a bigger overlap between bears and leathermen. That’s probably because, at 49, Buczek has seen the bear community when it was too small to have venues of its own. Buczek agrees that there are more younger bears now and, like Davis, thinks there is a generation gap.
“That’s because there’s a whole generation and a half that is missing [because of the AIDS crisis],” says Buczek.
“The younger guys aren’t so aware.”
Out on Queen West, Scooter McCreight, 31, hosts the monthly Cub Camp party at the Beaver. Although “cubs” are part of the established bear lexicon—basically furry young guys—the party’s crowd is a little artier, a little more stylin’ than you’d see at O’Grady’s, Zipperz or the Black Eagle. When McCreight thinks of bears, he thinks of older, furry guys. “I wouldn’t say that when you turn 40 you become a bear,” he says. “Cubs can grow up to be bears, but you can also stay a cub.”
McCreight is quick to point out that the Cub Camp party is not meant to be exclusive. Body size and age take a backseat to an appreciation for electro-house music and, hopefully, beardedness. Still, it’s hard to imagine a swath of Queen West cubs finding their way to the Black Eagle barbecue. The Beaver is more likely to run out of Jägermeister than beer. By the time these guys are 40, they might have decided that shaving is what’s sexy. Or not. “For the hipsters, their aesthetic isn’t connected to their sexuality,” says Davis. “It’s like putting on a Le Chateau outfit.”
Though Davis mourns the dilution of bear culture, he admits he’s only a partial bear himself. However, his partner of nine years is a stocky man with a belly and facial hair “who’s very proud of walking around naked.”
Maybe we’re not all bears now. Maybe we’re all just bear chasers.
Where the bears are
It’s like Woody’s—but with more years and hair. Fridays, 10pm-midnight. 518 Church St.
Bear Code at Zipperz.
These could be the golden years for dancing bears, considering that Zipperz is expected to make way for a condo soon. Fridays after midnight. 72 Carlton St. facebook.com/Zipperz.
Leather Bear Night at the Black Eagle.
Might remind you of the Toolbox days. No dress code, though fetishwear is encouraged. After 10pm on the first Saturday of the month. 457 Church St. blackeagletoronto.com/leather-bear-night.
Cub Camp at The Beaver.
Hipsters or pre-bears? You decide. A San Francisco Cub Camp this September demonstrates this is a party on the rise. 1192 Queen St W. facebook.com/cubcamp.
Beef Dip, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Once Pride’s Beef Ball is behind him, promoter Steve Buczek starts planning this week-long bear fest that draws a Canadian and US crowd, as well as osos Mexicanos. Jan 26-Feb 2. beefdip.com.
Bearracuda, multiple cities.
This dance party, which hails from San Francisco, touched down in Toronto last spring. Promoter Matt Mikesell is eager to come back. bearracuda.com/Toronto.