In 1996 I was fourteen years old and realizing I might be gay. I hated it. I wanted nothing to do with it. Because of shows like 90210, The Real World, and school-based safer sex discussions due to Magic Johnson’s post-HIV fallout, I had a very clear understanding of what being gay meant and I couldn’t stand the fact that it was happening to me. Sure it was fine if others were gay. But not me. I raged with a bitterness that this was singling me out and I felt doomed. I tried whatever I could to block my curiosity about men that was relentlessly creeping its way into my thoughts, into my dreams. Being gay was the first thought I would wake up with and the last thing I’d think about before I went to sleep. It was inescapable and plagued me terribly. The stress of this caused me to break out in canker sores that were cratered all over my mouth from cheek to tongue. All I remember feeling was that I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to sleep and be someone else and just be away from it all.
1996 was also the year my family would get our first dial-up modem and AOL 3.0. The internet was slow and chunky and would take what seemed like forever to download a single jpeg file. But there I would be, every day after school, the pit of guilt so heavy in my stomach as I clicked my way through searches I told myself I didn’t want to search for and images of men I wished I didn’t want to look at. During the loading process I would try to will myself to shut off the computer, to occupy my time in a different way, but I couldn’t. There was a force too strong, an interest too deep. The truth is, as much as I hated it, I wanted to discover more.
Most of the images did nothing for me except remind me of how much I didn’t want to be part of this lifestyle. I remember many images of what seemed like young men. Often they were blond, smooth, blue-eyed, thin….boyish. I felt nothing, no solace, no reward, just…gay. But it wasn’t until an image popped up—an image like nothing I had seen before, an image of two full-grown, thickly built, hairy-chested, bearded men kissing each other—that the key turned, the lock popped, and the floodgates opened.
These were two men, who looked like men, kissing each other. The image made my heart skip. It made me hungry. It made me feel that there might be options or a different angle or something I never considered about being gay. It gave me a sense of relief. It made me feel good. It was the first time in a long time I felt alright.
I can still remember that image. It’s ingrained in my head and I’ve seen it time and time again since I first saw it fifteen years ago. It was the first image that would actually give me hope about being gay, and it was an image of what we widely know of today as bears.
I didn’t come out of the closet until I was 18, and ever since then bears have been at the epicenter of my gay life and one of the most beloved aspects of my entire being. Everyone has their own personal definition of what bear means to them or what bear is but for me, bear was the first time I felt okay about being who I am. I’ve always liked older men, hairy chests, a more blue collar-looking form of masculinity, and it wasn’t until I saw that image that it all dawned on me. I realized I always had crushes on my male teachers or my soccer coach, and it finally made sense as to why I’d find excuses to linger in my father’s tennis club locker room. There were real men in there. Unmanicured, and unapologetically male. I liked men and I had always been into men. Not boys or models or smooth-faced actors. I liked a little thickness, a burly factor or two, and fuck me if I didn’t love a hairy chest.
I’m thirteen years out of the closet now and the term bear is one of many personal definitions. Sure, bears can be fat or stocky or burly or built or thin or covered in hair or kind of hairy or slightly hairy or bearded or goateed or neitherl, and sure, it helps if you’re some of those things, but I suppose it only matters to the person you’re chasing or the person chasing you.
To me, bear is just a mind-set these days. It’s a way of classifying yourself to a certain niche in a greater community. I have always felt that bears represent the earth tones of the rainbow spectrum. In my personal experience, bears more often seemed a little more laid-back, easygoing, and less concerned with themselves or what others think. Yes, in the end we’re all gay men, and yes, we all have our moments of well-celebrated and cherished queeniness, but in a world of vodka tonics and Stolis with a splash, I think bears are the brown alcohols, the beers and the black and tans. We are a community of men who appreciate the look and feel of other men. Handsome, rugged, stocky, burly, built, hairy…whatever it may be. But always men. Men who like men. Bears. —Eric Leven