Soon after I came out in college, an elder gay in my a cappella group explained that since I weighed more than 200 pounds, played contact sports in high school and had hair on my back, I was considered a “bear” — despite lacking a beard.
He also was a member of the extended bear family, he explained, but clarified: “Scrawny guys like me are called otters.”
He continued to describe a vast ecosystem of gay monikers:
- Wolves: Lean and bearded a la Joe Manganiello
- Bulls: Ripped and tatted a la The Rock
- Twinks: Young and thin a la early Bieber
- Twunks: Young and ripped a la current Bieber
- Pups: Young and naive a la Joe Jonas
- Cubs: Fat and hairy a la Jack Black
- Chubs: Super fat a la John Goodman
As for the ursidae, my pal Andrew Sullivan, the preeminent bear advocate, was among the first to identify bears as a gay subculture back in 2003:
Bears at their most typical look like regular, beer-drinking, unkempt men in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They have guts. They have furry backs. They don’t know what cologne is, and they tend not to wear deodorant. One mode of interaction is the occasional sniff of each others’ armpits. Nature’s narcotic.
I’ve sniffed around plenty of caves, dens and cubby holes, and while I’m not into bears myself (exclusively twink/twunks here), I’ve grown defensive of my husky tribe. In fact, if anything, I’m proud to possess a beastial identity that signifies excess hair, girth and masculinity.
I was especially peeved when I learned Kevin Smith (decidedly straight, and way more of chub than a bear) was to be the keynote speaker at the 16th Annual International Bear Rendezvous in San Francisco in 2010. Wait, I thought: The largest bear gathering in the country is headlined by the hetero director of Clerks and Cop Out?
It didn’t matter that he never made it to the event — he was kicked off the plane en route for being such a chub. From there, began a stampede of overweight, bearded, homonormative straight dudes stealing our sobriquet.
Or, as Andrew explained in 2014:
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gave us Special Ops heroes who grew big beards to melt into the surrounding population more easily. Of course, bearded hipsters are not actual war heroes, but they sure don’t mind looking like one. And what greater fantasy of male derring-do than a bearded, horse-riding badass chasing the Taliban in the mountains of Af-Pak? Think of it as testosterone’s last permissible stand against the forces of relentless sameness. And all you have to do to display it is…nothing.
Here’s the thing: Straight guys love bears because we’re relatable and similarly flawed, aesthetically. Bears aren’t threatening to my 73-year-old father the way twinks are. They’re just friendly bearded dudes who probably know who won the game last night.
They’re also, it seems, emerging from the forest into the mainstream. And authentically this time, unlike big fat non-bear Kevin Smith. This is best embodied by an ad campaign launched late last year for Britain’s Rowse Honey (the “UK’s favourite honey”) entitled “The Three Bears.” It’s essentially a short-form online cooking show — three episodes, two minutes each, released weekly on Facebook and the Rowse site — in which Phil, Joel and Matt (aka “Papa Bear,” “Mama Bear” and “Baby Bear,” respectively), the ultimate connoisseurs of porridge, teach us how to make it juuuust right.
And while they each bring something unique to the cabin — Phil’s an amateur chef, Joel’s an outdoorsman, Matt’s an ex-Olympian — they’re most definitely gay.
Over the course of Season One, the bears:
- Play Rock-Paper-Scissors to see who gets to choose the aprons.
- Debate their favorite berries. (“Mary Berry, obviously.”)
- Offer life hacks. (“Whilst you’re waiting for your porridge to cook, why not heat your undies on the stove?”)
- Finish with (what else?) a bear hug! (Or an arm wrestle.)
“We never set out to make a controversial LGBT campaign featuring gay bears,” explains Harry Boothman, a copywriter who dreamt up the campaign at Beattie McGuiness Bungay, an indie London ad shop. “The client came to us with a simple business challenge: How could we get more people to put Rowse honey on their porridge?”
After brainstorming “some truly terrible ideas,” he tells me, the conversation shifted to a fairytale he remembered fondly — Goldilocks and the Three Bears. “We needed some charming and charismatic hosts to deliver delicious honey and porridge recipes,” he explains. “When we identified the vibrant and diverse gay bear community, we knew we’d found everything we needed in spades.”
Boothman credits the success of the campaign to — much to my chagrin — the increasing popularity of straight bears. “The LGBTQ+ community has always been a progressive trendsetter for wider culture,” he explains. “Much like the ‘metrosexual’ trend that was widely adopted in the 1990s, straight men have now flocked toward the ‘lumbersexual’ look. This has undeniably been a major factor behind the success of ‘The Three Bears’ campaign and why it’s been so well received by a wider audience.”
Madison Avenue has long courted a gay audience. After all, we earn more, owe less and have fewer children — but it’s typically done so within gay environs like the Advocate, which is where I spent my early 30s writing sponsored essays on the Costa del Sol and Great Australian Cattle Drive, courting the “double-income-no-kids” gay traveler.
But now we’ve hit the mainstream — hocking breakfast condiments! It’s a development I applaud, because I think it represents, finally, a willingness of marketers to authentically — if playfully — portray the LGBT community as we are. And besides, the bastardization of the bear moniker is a lot less jarring when it’s done by these guys…
…as opposed to these guys:
“Gay people aren’t confined to small pockets of culture anymore,” Boothman explains. “They’re very much a part of this beautiful tapestry called modern society. It’s time we stop treating gay people like a marginalized sub-group and start making work that more accurately represents our audiences in all their diversity.”
Or as Andrew Sullivan put it when I sent him the “Three Bears”: “This is America. At some point, everything becomes shopping. Even hairy backs.”