For a Wednesday night, it’s a good scene — a burly, handsome scene. I may be recently hitched, but I still get a little hot and bothered at the sight of some 30 men fraternizing in the dim light of Jameson’s, carousing at the long wood bar and slapping each other heartily on the back.
Then there are the bear hugs. And by bear hug, I mean both in the sense of big, beautiful embraces and bear hugs — as in the subculture in the gay community of men who embrace a more conventional, rugged masculinity, at least as far as appearances go. The terms “lumberjack” and “biker” are a good place to start; however, the community, I find, is much more nuanced.
“For whatever reason, gay people like to create their own boxes within boxes,” says Marshall Collins, my bear ambassador for the night. “A bear is traditionally a gay guy who is of larger stature, hairy and just doesn’t fit the mold of what the media and news publications tell us a gay guy is supposed to look and act like.”
Sitting in the thick of a bear pack, I’m told I’m a “Goldilocks,” or a woman who hangs out with bears. But forget Goldilocks; in this story she’s a background character at best. The real crux of this tale lies with the bears.
Tonight is Eugene Bear Bar Takeover, a once-monthly mixer for the local bear community that was started about 18 months ago by a South Dakota transplant who has since returned to that faraway state. From what I gather at Jameson’s, his name was Brian, and he soon realized there was no gay bar, let alone bear bar, in town.
“He met a bunch of friends online on GROWLr, and a bunch of other people in town that had just moved to Eugene, and there was no place to meet,” says Vince Mays, who stepped in to help coordinate the event after his departure. “They decided they were going to, once a month, have an event.” (GROWLr is the self-proclaimed “Gay Bear Social Network” app, in the same vein as Grindr and Tinder.)
What started as a group of four or five people has blossomed to anywhere from 25 to 75 per Bear Bar Takeover, rotating to watering holes like Jameson’s, Cowfish, Falling Sky Pour House, Good Times and Oakshire Brewing, and, typically, part of the drink proceeds of each event go to HIV Alliance.
I ask Mays — a tall, strapping guy with a smartly trimmed ginger beard and handlebar mustache (like a Viking who grooms) — why the event has become so popular, bringing many bears out of the woods, so to speak? “Bears are typically a little lazier,” he explains. “We don’t stay up until all hours disco-ing.” The bar takeover is in the evening, he adds, and “it’s easy to get to. We try to make it easy.”
Mays, a customer loyalty specialist for Symantec, stands next to his partner of 17 years, Brian Haimbach, the head of the Lane Community College’s theater department; they moved to Eugene from South Carolina a couple years ago.
“It’s just awesome,” Haimbach says of the event. “It just quickly grew,” adding that “once a month is enough for me.”
Mays says that it’s also about inclusivity. “Everyone is invited,” he says, adding that in bear circles, men of all ages and sizes are welcome. “We are not the Abercrombie & Fitch model group. We’re not the perfect-body, shaved, make-ourselves-look-perfect group.” He pauses and nods towards a balding, bearded and bespectacled man that just walked in the door. “Mr. Oregon Cub, Jason Clow. He came down from Portland.”
Clow won the 2014 title from Portland’s Oregon Bear organization, which crowns an annual Mr. Oregon Bear and Mr. Oregon Cub. Herein lies the nuance: A “cub” is a younger bear, and that’s only the beginning.
“Bear is kind of a standard. I’m a bear,” Collins explains, leaning back in his barstool and pointing to his boyfriend and friend next to him. “These two over here are ‘otters,’ so they’re small and furry.”
Together they tick off more subcategories: “polar bears” — bears that are older with gray or white hair; “daddy bears,” or older bears that prefer cubs for partners; and “grizzly bears,” or dominant bears of extreme stature or hairiness. The list — “musclebear,” “black bear,” “bear hunter,” “panda bear,” “ewok” — goes on on and on.
This wide net of identities and appearances is why many, including Collins, are drawn to the community. “For me, I’ve always been a big guy,” he says, adding that as a teen he felt like he didn’t fit the mainstream gay culture that the media projects. “It wasn’t until my mid- to late-20s that I really started to feel comfortable with my body and how I looked.” Part of that confidence, he says, came from losing a couple pounds, growing a beard and getting tattoos “all over my body.”
But, he notes, “I’m always going to have a big belly. I’m always going to put down a 16-oz ribeye steak like nobody’s fucking business. That’s who I am.” The bears and otters and cubs around him nod in agreement.
“A bear can look at themselves in the mirror butt naked and know that they’re sexy,” he continues.
A cub to his right, who prefers to only use his nickname Cody, adds, “That’s a big part of why I started identifying as a bear … I had just moved to Eugene. I was so welcomed with open arms. This is the group I need to be in.”
That openness, they say, extends to sex as well.
“It seems like a higher percentage of bears are into fetish and kink, for whatever reason,” Collins says, pointing to a prominence of leather and bondage. “I’m kind of the belief that everybody has a kink, they just haven’t found it yet.” He continues, “Bears go out and find it, like swiping salmon from a river, except instead of salmon it’s cock.”
But more so than hookups or romance, all the bears I ask that night say they come to the bar takeover foremost for the company and conversation.
“Personally, I just want to be with my community,” says Walter Rosenthal, the business planning director for HIV Alliance. Rosenthal is hesitant to pick a bear label, saying he’s still feeling it out. “I have spent most of my adult life focused on my career and I’m relaxing a little on that and want to get back into socializing. I want to be part of a gay community. Eugene needs a gay community.”
This is one Goldilocks that thinks the bears are just right.
To find about the next Eugene Bear Bar Takeover, or for more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.