Words: as told to Alastair James; Photography: Dennis Leupold
Since gaining popularity in the 1980s, the term 'bear' has been synonymous with bigger, brawnier and more hirsute gay guys.
As the antithesis to the waxed, preened and highly muscled look of gay men popularised in '80s and '90s media, 'bears' have often been seen as more accepting sub-culture of the gay experience, even marching under their own flag - the International Bear Brotherhood Flag, created by Craig Byrnes in 1995.
In Attitude's new-look March/April issue - out now - we meet the guys of California bear night Megawoof, which hosts events in Los Angeles and Palm Springs and has fast become a byword for those who like their club experience big and beefy.
With exclusive photography from Dennis Leupold, here are just some of their personal testimonies...
Pete Cincinnato, 50, Event's Lighting Coordinator
When I first heard the term ‘Bear’, I felt right at home. Finally, I had found a subculture of the gay community that loved hairy men and accepted the extra bit of weight that I had.
I love the bear community. It’s a place where men like me can feel accepted without the insecurities of body or hair dysmorphia. I feel comfortable identifying as a bear and I enjoy being part of a fun social network that has grown all over the world.
I’ve weight-lifted all my life. At 50, I can easily get into some negative thoughts about what I used to be able to lift and what I can lift today. There’s a huge difference. Sure, I get a little resentful or jealous when I see an attractive young man lifting a bunch of weights. However, these are just thoughts. I’ve learned to accept those and challenge myself to push harder and accept what I can and can’t do at my age. It all starts in my head!
James Stuart, 25, Bartender
I have learned to love my body by embracing and celebrating my biggest ass-ets, the parts of me that I am most proud of, my unique qualities, and what makes me feel sexy.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the word ‘bear’ is strength, power, and masculinity. Personally, as someone who fits more into a ‘cub’ category, the term is definitely a characteristic I see myself transforming into as I move into my 30s.
No other group of gay men in my experience has guided and mentored me as the bear community has. I have so many of them to thank for where I am and who I have grown to become.
Andrew Danielsen, 35, Landscape Designer - Fine Art Painter
After realising that my opinion of myself is what matters most I was able to tune out other people’s opinions and be happy with my body. Seeing other big guys live their true self also gives me the motivation to be happy with my body.
I like the term 'bear'. It’s a goofy thing to label people by animal names, and I like not taking life too seriously. It’s also a very fitting term because a lot of us are big and hairy, but it’s more than just a look - it’s a community where everyone is welcome. It’s a community of friends and like-minded people where we can be celebrated for who we are.
Rod Martin, 41, Marketing Manager
Being gay in Chile is all about being young, hairless, and fit. For many years, especially when I was growing up, I was ashamed of my body. I couldn’t see myself reflected and I had this feeling that I didn’t belong there. When I met the bear community, that is when I realised that you can be a bigger size and still be sexy and desirable. But it took years to change that mindset and start loving my body.
When I moved to the USA, I had broken up with Omar (my current partner) and I was afraid of not being able to make new friends. In South America, there’s a view of Americans as being quite cold and distant. Thankfully, my experience was completely different, and I met some amazing people, and we are so thankful for the bear community that embraced and welcomed us.
I just love the analogy of the 'bear'. A bear is a big strong animal, and if there is something that goes across the whole LGBT+ community is that we need to develop that internal strength to face our fears and live our life to their fullest.
Omar Quiroga, 35, Physical Therapist
It’s definitely been a journey for me to love my body. I always thought I didn’t fit in with the stereotype of what’s supposed to be beautiful or sexy. My partner has been the biggest help in feeling comfortable with my body. He tells me every day about how beautiful I am and that motivates me to be healthy and dedicate time for myself and my body.
The word 'bear' for me identifies a group of gay people. That amazing word created a community that supports one another. At this point in my life, it really means a lot, because being an immigrant from South America with no family here, it’s so wonderful to be able to count on the support of people like you and being able to share different experiences and just be a part of the LGBTQ community.
Tye Gonzales, 35, Medical Sales
In the past, I used to like working out religiously to try and look a certain way, but that mentality never made me happy. Working out makes me feel healthy - I feel like it’s good for my mental health in general and makes me feel good afterward. I’m comfortable in my body no matter how it fluctuates now whether I’m going to the gym or not. I think that shift in mindset has changed how I see myself for the better.
‘Bear’ was created to describe men who didn’t fit mainstream perceptions of what sexy is. I like that there is a word to describe the kinds of men I find attractive and how I see myself. To me, it’s a term that describes the kinds of men I typically find attractive, but it’s important to know that you don’t need to be a bear to be part of it, everyone is welcome. The bear community is bigger than just the traditional ‘bear’, it’s more inclusive than you might think. It’s a pretty approachable and friendly environment.
Jun Fukukita, 45, Hotel Management
I think it’s still a learning process, to love my body. However, the key is to focus on being proud of your achievements rather than focusing on your flaws. Then you will be happy for most of the time at least.
I feel like the meaning of the word ‘bear’ has changed slightly. It used to mean more of a physical presence and the character of a gay man but nowadays with everyone embracing themselves more and straight guys embracing their femininity it has become more of a term to describe gay men with beards.
I’m proud to be showcasing my Japanese and Brazilian heritage and to represent a bear who doesn’t necessarily fit in with the image of being big and burly. It’s often forgotten that bears come in different shapes and sizes and I am happy we are celebrating bears of all sizes.
DeAndre Smith (Dre), 24, Aviation Mechanic
Growing up, I was put in typically larger clothes. I always wondered why I couldn’t have regular-sized clothing. I used to get teased in school by girls who made jokes about my big legs. After starting football and wrestling, I began to appreciate my size more because I could squat the highest [amount] and I was also an immovable force on the mat.
When I joined the Marines, I was pressured into losing weight because I didn’t fit with their ‘standard’ look, yet I could still do what they could and more. I won’t lie, it bothered me. The moment I realised I didn’t need to conform was when I went for a medical. My doctor was this burly man and he told me my body type would not let me get down to [the weight] they wanted, so I shouldn’t worry.
Later, I went to a bear event in Palm Springs, and I saw my doctor there. Talk about mind blown! He introduced me to the bear community, where I was met with love. To be honest, when I think about bears, I think of Baloo from The Jungle Book. He was so friendly, loving and chose to push the barriers of the norm with a carefree mindset about society’s view of him. To me, that’s what a bear is.
See more from the men of Megawoof in Attitude's new-look March/April issue, out now.