“Woof,” he growls, pawing my crotch while ashing a thick cigar on the patio bar.
I reflexively turn to express my displeasure at being groped by the handsy Santa, but he’s moved on to a pair of identically dressed 60-somethings who erupt in high-pitch laughter as he approaches, belying their menacing appearance. The old friends greet each other with gentle nut tugs and rounds of “woof.” I smile, realizing my perceived victimization actually marked acceptance into an affable club: the International Bear Convergence (IBC), a joyous reunion of 3,000 oversized, hairy men and their male admirers, now in its sixth year. (The “bear” moniker is affectionately used in the gay community to describe husky men with excess body hair.) Not surprisingly then, the IBC is all about “authentic masculinity,” evidenced by a large sign over the Barracks bar that clearly, politely and aptly lays out some ground rules:
- The “scent” of men is preferred here, so please avoid wearing perfumes, colognes or anything else that might mask it.
- No frontal nudity, please.
I’ve frequented gay haunts for 20 years, but never one like this. You could easily mistake it for a biker bar if it weren’t for regular outbursts of jovial guffaws. Giant, bearded men, hundreds of pounds heavier than I, lumber about the room on the prowl. One wears a T-shirt reading “Got Fur? Lone Star Saloon,” referencing the San Francisco bar that’s believed to be the birthplace of the bear movement in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, a pack of “muscle bears” with swollen biceps and furry pecs stand with enviable posture in a circle by the bar. Across the room, in what looks to be a makeshift dungeon, three leather bears in assless chaps take turns flogging each other while a 300-pound rave bear swings a pair of lighted globes between his legs like a scrotum timepiece. And next to me on the patio, what looks to be a grumpy grandpa nuzzles his furry pot belly into the back of a decades-younger, slimmer (yet equally hairy) man, occasionally tugging on his harness to remind him who’s boss.
I strike up a conversation with Chris Kingry, among a handful of hirsute middle-aged go-go dancers, to ask if such play is typical in the bear community. Indeed, he nods, explaining that younger bears, or “cubs,” often seek security and protection from an older, masculine presence because their actual fathers disowned them long ago. Additionally, he adds, the AIDS epidemic wiped out an entire generation of gay men, resulting in a large age gap. Thus, men on the lower end of that gap have grown up to create a previously nonexistent gay demographic. “So we’re now all experiencing it for the first time together,” he says.
In addition to go-go dancing and dabbling in gay fetish porn (“They have me fucking in a garage, on a loading dock, in the woods, on picnic tables…”), Kingry’s day job is in marketing and PR. A longtime client is the White Party, the mack-daddy of circuit soirees catering to traditionally body-obsessed, youthful gays. “It’s very glamorous and attracts a crowd that likes to see and be seen,” Kingry explains, noting some attendees hit the gym daily for a year in preparation and starve themselves entirely for a week preceding the event. In response — and in contrast — the IBC modified the White Party to fit a bear community that typically had been excluded from the gay circuit scene. “Most of these big hairy guys in harnesses would feel too self-conscious stepping onto a dance floor at the White Party,” Kingry notes. “But a DILF at the IBC? They’re in their element.”
While the term “bear” is most often used as a noun, Mark McCormack, professor of sociology at the University of Roehampton, London, thinks it’s connected to something broader. “Many gay cultures are exclusionary,” he tells me. “Bear culture, which is partly a rejection of gay spaces that can be hierarchical and youth-orientated, connects with traditional versions of authentic masculinity. Since gay men are often rejected from their biological families, part of what bear culture does is create a chosen community built upon acceptance.”
This weekend, that community is based at the Hotel Zoso in the epicenter of Palm Springs. While waiting for the elevator to the lobby to attend a pool party featuring DJ Sirdoggy, who spins retro remixes of 1990s hip hop, I meet Kingry’s brutish, flocculent husband — 45-year-old Ed Mitchell, a powerlifter and risk manager for longshoremen in Seal Beach, CA — whose fertile back hair and protruding belly epitomizes beardom. He recalls joining Kingry at the White Party for years, which required shaving his body hair (or “mowing,” as he puts it) with multiple pairs of clippers. “It’s intimidating. I wanted to fit in, and everybody was tan and hairless,” he explains. “Bear events are great because regular guys like me fit in.”
“Get ready to experience masculinity at its most basic level,” he continues, pointing out the window to the pool party below. “You won’t see a lot of manscaping down there.”
I’m typically hesitant to reveal my man boobs and lower back lawn at a gay pool party, but after encouragement from Mitchell, I strip off my shirt, exhale my gut and defiantly step outside. There, I run into Tyler, a friendly, bearded 29-year-old facility maintenance technician from Minnesota, who invites me to join him on what he calls a “wildlife walkabout” around the pool. Following a quick loop to survey the phylum, Tyler and I retreat to some elevated lounge chairs where he offers a quick tutorial on the variety of hairy beasts roaming about.
There are, of course, the aforementioned bears and cubs. But also represented are…
- “Otters”: Bears with smaller frames and slender/toned bodies.
- “Pocket Bears”: Short bears, small enough to fit in your pocket.
- “Polar Bears”: Older bears with gray fur.
- “Wolves”: Sexually aggressive, semi-hairy bears.
- “Nair Bears”: Hairless bears, also known as “bare bears.”
- “Chickenhawks”: Older men preying on younger bears.
- “Chubs”: Super fat bears.
Similarly, an outgrowth of the bear community includes a subset of chubs known as “gainers” whose singular motivation is getting bigger. As a powerlifter, Mitchell counts himself among them, pointing me to the Grommr app, “a social network and dating site for gainers, bloaters, encouragers and admirers.” (The bear equivalent is Growlr.) Mitchell explains that a lot of twinks are “encouragers” (typically smaller men who help gainers increase in size either via muscle or fat), and do so at “feedings,” which generally involve the encourager preparing a big meal and watching the gainer consume it. But, Mitchell notes, “When a person would normally say, ‘Okay, thanks, I’m full,’ the encourager says things like, ‘Come on big guy, you can take a little bit more…’ They get a lot of sexual satisfaction out of food play. It may not be healthy, but it’s definitely a fetish.”
“I’m a ‘jock,’” Tyler says, a designation that’s included among the otter family. He’s also, though, a bear in training. “I’ve always been into bears. It’s the masculinity, toughness and security I feel when I’m with them.” Likewise, Jay, a cub from Oxnard, CA, says he’s attracted to the protection he feels being married to an older, hyper-masculine hairy man. “I got a flat tire visiting some new locations 200 miles away,” the 42-year-old manager of public storage units throughout California explains. “[My husband] said, ‘I’ll be right there,’ and arrived in less than three hours to change my tire. That’s an element of security I can’t find with a twink.”
For others, like Ursus, it’s all about the sex. The 45-year-old data-process analyst traveled here with his husband Chad, a 53-year-old ER doctor, to escape the Milwaukee winter. But the setaceous snowbirds also were seeking something more scandalous. “Chad instigated a hook-up with a beautiful couple of bears last night,” he confesses with a grin. “Everyone had a good time because nobody got left out. Pass-the-spouse around, and nobody gets hurt.” They were inspired after attending a “Pig Party” at the Tool Shed, a dive bar in a strip mall where belching and scratching crotches are encouraged. Obviously, though, last night the Shed was brimming with horny bears. “As I was walking by, I saw a couple of nerdy cubs in jockstraps bent over barstools getting railed,” recalls Ursus (Latin for bear, incidentally), who joined a small crowd gathering around to watch. “One bear would finish, and the next would take over. Seeking sexual pleasure is a natural element of being a male — it’s just guys being guys being guys.”
“Oh you’re a total bear honey,” chimes Rob, a beardless (but not gutless) health-care salesman from San Francisco double-fisting Bloody Mary’s who couldn’t help but overhear our homo-zoological banter. There are really only two types of bears, he clarifies: “A twink who aged out of his status and reluctantly became a bear because that was the only way he could party, and a nerdy 40-something like me who’s finally come into his own. I realize I’m not the epitome of gay beauty, but I’m comfortable.”
Rob pauses when I ask why he came to the IBC. “To get a little attention,” he sighs. “People are nice to me here. I go to work everyday and don’t feel sexy. I come to a bear event, and suddenly, I’m the center of the universe. And I like the way that makes me feel.”
“The fun part about this event is the escape from body consciousness,” agrees James Jurnigan, my seatmate at the pool who’s wearing a sky-blue thong that might as well be see-through. The 56-year-old from Charlotte admits he’s not really a bear, noting he “fits the size” but “not the fuzz.” He mostly bought an IBC ticket for permission to dress down. “Last year, I walked around in a G-string, and people really liked that. It’s tremendously liberating for a big guy like me.”
The same goes for 310-pound writer/producer/actor Ben Zook, who in 2012 co-created the webseries Where the Bears Are, which just wrapped after seven seasons. Zook used a small windfall he received for writing the original screenplay for the Adam Sandler Razzie-winning film Jack & Jill to self-produce a project co-starring himself and fellow bears Rick Copp and Joe Dietl (also Zook’s husband), both of whom had likewise grown tired of being a Hollywood punchline. “I can’t tell you how many times in the last 25 years we’ve gone in for auditions where we were the butt of the joke,” he says. “The character description would inevitably include something like, ‘Fat with back hair. This guy is HIDEOUS.’ And the agent would say, ‘Hey, why don’t you go in for this?’”
As such, Zook et al rightly suspected that a community of marginalized gay men were ready to decide en masse that they would no longer put up Hollywood’s shit anymore. “It was psychologically demeaning because there was nothing wrong with us,” Zook recalls. That made the opening scene of the Where the Bears Are pilot — in which Zook unironically wakes up next to a hairy heartthrob — all the more powerful. “In a typical comedy, the hot guy would’ve woken up after a long night, taken one horrified look at me and thought, Oh, my God, what have a done?!?! I slept with THIS guy?” Instead, they played it straight(ish).
And yet, for all the talk of inclusion, one thing is glaringly obvious: This is a predominantly white, cisgendered event. While lack of diversity in bear culture is by no means exclusive to the IBC (Provincetown Bear Week, for example, is notoriously white), it’s clearly on display here. “We’re open to anybody that wants to come and play and have a good time,” explains Nino Eilets, co-producer and current torch bearer (last one, promise) of the IBC. He adds that minorities have never really shown an interest in attending the IBC, which is “their preference” rather than “our exclusion.” “A lot of people in the the black and Hispanic communities, maybe they don’t want to be a part of this community. Maybe they wanna do their own thing, which is cool. It’s not because they’re not being accepted. The more the merrier.”
I’m happy to finally connect with a number of black bears on my last day at IBC. Each of them says they’re having a blast and feel totally welcome. In fact, Rodney, a 32-year-old muscle bear from San Diego, is on a personal quest to fix the lack of diversity. “I like coming to these events to make sure other black bears know it’s a comfortable place.” A limiting factor, however, is the cost. Weekend passes run between $120 and $180, with hotel rooms an additional $200 per night. “A lot of people can’t afford that,” agrees Mark, a 35-year-old leather bear from Northern California. “So much of this is class-based. People of color make less money in the United States, so bear retreats just aren’t financially viable for many of them.” That said, he notes there are annual events catering to the demographic, like Orlando’s BlackBoyPride in April, which he calls “the biggest bear event in the world for people of color.”
Also seemingly contradictory, for all their disdain for superficial gay culture, bears can be obsessively body-focused as well. For example, I find Bobby, a nervous 33-year-old wallflower, near the elevator, wearing a pair of vintage heart-shaped sunglasses. When I ask him why he’s not out by the pool, he explains that he’s been dreading this moment for weeks. “If you’re like me, you feel your most vulnerable and exposed in gatherings like these. The fact is, some of us don’t share the same comfort with our bodies. I’m glad there’s a feeling of empowerment here, but some of us aren’t there yet. That’s why I’ve pretty much exhausted every excuse to delay going to this pool party.”
More than anything, Bobby hates the term “bear-lebrities,” a celebrity bear who is attractive within bear community standards (i.e., excess muscles, chest hair and confidence). He says it creates toxicity within a community explicitly formed to be non-toxic. “Look at the Instagram feeds of bear celebrities. They tend to all have a certain background, body type and exercise regimen. Fetishizing those bear attributes excludes everyone who doesn’t have them.”
Not long after I run into Bobby, I’m sitting in the hotel bar checking my email when a volunteer asks if I’m here for the speed-dating event. “Suuure,” I respond, reminding myself that the universe works in mysterious ways. I’m told 12 bears, including myself, will sit at tables as 12 “admirers” alternate spots every five minutes. I’m assigned a number to wear on my chest (25) and a scorecard to rate my suitors using a 5-point scale:
- Never again.
- Not for me.
- Better friends.
- Let’s date.
- We need to fuck.
If our numbers match up, we’ll both be notified by 10 p.m., just in time to party.
My first admirer, surprisingly, is an elusive “panda bear” (i.e., Asian bear). Sang, a 30-year-old stocky Chinese man living in San Diego, admits he’s not considered very big by U.S. standards, but he’s a giant in Asia. He’s struggling to grow a wispy beard despite being “extremely attracted” to all the body hair on display at the IBC. “Beards are so manly and sexy,” he says longingly. “Why don’t you have one?” Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a “2” written next to my number, realizing he’s penalized me severely for my absent whiskers.
My second and third admirers are, miraculously, both 21-year-old twinks (my personal preference) who live 20 minutes away from me back in L.A. (Universe? Is that you?) Jesse, a cute nerd with glasses, explains why bears are his “favorite” body type on a man. “I prefer really big guys,” he says, noting he’s dated a gainer before. I hope my gut is showing, I think for the first time in my life, writing a “5” on the card and underlining it twice.
Likewise, Bryan, Jesse’s even thinner roommate, says he’s attracted to daddy bears “mostly for the body hair.” I hope my neck hair is peeking through my collar, I think (again, for the first time ever), adding another “5” to my card. Bryan’s been attracted to bears for as long as he can remember and explains he usually has to make the first move because they don’t typically expect him to be into them. “I’ve always been a little self-conscious about my chest hair,” I explain, unbuttoning the top button of my shirt. “Why would you be?!?!” he asks. “You barely have any!”
I’m officially sunk. And so, that night, I sit alone while 10 p.m. comes and goes and my phone remains silent. I briefly, though, get lost in fantasy, imagining how things could have ended up with an empty hotel room, a hot tub and a pair of 21-year-old twinks. If only I were older and hairier, I think.
And a little bit fatter…