Bears

Bears

Bears

Text Josie Pyke    Photos Jan van Breda

 

Heavily set, rugged and fiercely hyper-masculine, these are males who convey strength, identity and are an ever-growing subculture of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (lgbt) population. Welcome to the “bear” community.

 

Evolving in the 1980’s, with a carefree effervescence, this social movement of homosexual males has increasingly become an influence and a symbol of many things, from self-expression to self-identity, from literature to fashion. Literally taken from the English noun “Bear”, these hairy, thick-set males gained this status due to their acceptance of their masculinity. How one defines a Bear is ambiguous. Some refer to it as a way of life, a social movement. Others see it as an image or a perception, more based around aesthetics.  Yes, bears have grown in society because of their image, but it’s an image of free-will. There is no rule book within the Bear community that says you have to look thin, well groomed and effeminate, to be classed as a homosexual male.

Even though the Bears on the surface seem a positively unpretentious community, there are several subcultures, sometimes known to be quite strict. There have been debates as to what actually constitutes these subcultures. Younger or aspiring bears are labelled cubs or otters. Otters are the slimmest type of Bear with finer hair, cubs can be as hairy as they like, but are typically younger looking: a baby bear. The wolves exhibit maturity and masculinity and are usually the older and more dominant males. Bearded, larger male covered with a blanket of hair? You’re a definite grizzly. Muscle Bears speak for themselves and have created a successful separate culture to the rest. Their muscular, body builder status has become a demand within gay culture and events such as Mr Muscle Bear pageants are a growing demand. These muscle Bears are known to shun the idea of cubs or the otters being part of the community. Adversely, the muscle Bears have the same idea of Bears with higher body fat, often referred to as “Chubs”. Muscle Bears and their culture have been known to exclude males who do not conform to their standards of a “real Bear”.

Whether you’re a cub, a grizzly, or simply just an admirer, BEAR Magazine caters for all varieties of Bear lovers. 1985 saw the beginning of the Magazine. Published by Richard Bulger in 1987, it was released as an alternative to the mainstream gay men’s mags. It featured erotic content including stories, photos and even  dating ads which allowed the readers to meet other likeminded males, making BEAR magazine a successful network. Men would also submit photos of themselves to be featured in the magazine. Although under new direction, BEAR Magazine is still growingly popular in the USA and gracing the top shelves, it’s also available digitally. Two years after Bear Magazine came the Lone Star Saloon, also known as “Bear Bar USA”. Set in San Francisco, the Saloon is known as a defining point in Bear history. 

It infamously provided Bears and bikers with a source of familiarity and welcoming. Now known as the world’s most famous bear bar, the Lone Star Saloon is still in full swing today. The bar holds an annual “International Bear Rendezvous” as well as monthly “Cubcake” parties for fans of the younger less masculine bears known as the Cubs. The late eighties became the rise of The Bear Hugs Group and private “play parties”. 

 

The diversity on Furball is immense. It doesn’t matter if you’re big, small, young or old. It’s a very fascinating scene.’

Described as inhibited and erotic, these private liaisons provided bears with a safe, intimate environment to meet, play and often result in orgies. Spreading the love of the bear community overseas, these groups and parties reached Great Britain and soon after, steamy hot tub parties known as “Bear Soups” were introduced. Flemish fashion designer and self proclaimed Bear, Walter Van Beirendonck, known for his powerful colour combinations and unconventional context, brought Bears to the catwalk. In preparation for his summer 2010 fashion show, bored of casting for regular male models, Beirendonck held an open casting call for “Muscle Bears”. Understanding the shock element he would be giving to the public, Beirendonck says for him, although there’s a sexual attraction, he simply likes to see different body types on the catwalk. He describes the Bear scene as a “nice vibe” not caught up in drugs or heavily focused on sex, a “positive scene”. 

Continuing to excel Bears as symbols of vanity and fashion, International Mr Bear contests are now a global event. This wonderfully masculine beauty pageant, in which the winner becomes the symbol and representation for bears in their hometown, first started in Bear birthplace San Francisco 1992, but has now spread to Germany and the UK. The categories for Mr Bear are Grizzly, Cub, and Daddy, with one winning the overall title. There are various Bear comics by Jeff Jacklin, contributing to Bears recognition in the media. These fantasy bear worlds have been known to excite Bear readers with their stories of powerful muscle Bears teamed with fabulous comic book art.

Today, Bears are role models of self belief and confidence, a fierce display of all types of masculinity in this fabulous, rapidly expanding sub culture of the LGBT community. Bears are considered symbols of sex, fashion and lifestyle and have created a whole new category within the LGBT community. If that’s not impressive enough… . What I love most about the Bear community is their desire to break the enclosed stereotype of homosexuality. Right from the beginning, they said no to generalisation. In the 21st century, there are enough problems with generalising as it is, but the Bears questioned the fixed idea that a man had to be thin, hairless and young to be accepted as part of gay culture. What’s wrong with being homosexual but still loving yourself as a man? According to the Bears, absolutely nothing.

 

www.janvanbreda.com

 

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Et Alors? magazine. A global celebration of diversity.

House of Hopelezz

House of Hopelezz

House of Hopelezz

Text JF. Pierets   

 

If you’re lucky you can bump into them when in Amsterdam. Accompanied by a human cluster of flies, they picturesquely attract and they puzzle. With their expression of beatific good humour and their gaily coloured dresses, people are vying for their attention. With pleasurable interest they pose with them whose age range from 8 to 88 and go from place to place where their fancy takes them. One member of the gang – intelligent, big hair, big ass and a beard – paved the way for this radiant group of drag queens and –kings and brought to the surface all the things that were boiling inside. With pleasurable interest, Richard Keldoulis tells us about becoming Jennifer Hopelezz, about his role in the Amsterdam gay scene and the mere idea of creating a family. 

 

I grew up in Sydney in a kind of conservative environment. My grandparents came from Greece, I went to private schools and lived in the suburbs. My father was a dentist and everybody around me became a doctor. So I studied medicine as well. I went straight from school to university so I was 23 when I finished studying but the last couple of years I decided that this was not what I wanted to do. I was kind of strangulated by the environment. I’ve always been bisexual anyhow but around that time I had a boyfriend so it stayed that way. Suddenly my whole childhood world became very narrow. I finished all the exams, worked for one year in a hospital but I hated it.

I would probably be alright as a doctor and could have chosen some field in medicine but I was so over that life. I wanted to leave it and discover the rest of the world. You have no life experience, and suddenly you’re in a role where people look up to you. You see how that changes people. It’s not actually very good for you. Basically I was too young and wanted to get away. So I escaped all that. I moved away from Sydney and I never went back to live there. I need to roam, that’s my character. My Chinese sign is tiger and I find it very suffocating to stay where I’ve grown up. Sydney is a big city, 4 million people. But when you grow up in the suburbs, everyone lives there; your friends, your family. So it’s more like living in a small town.

At that time, Japan was really booming and there were ads in all the Australian papers looking for English teachers there. I applied for a job and got it. I persuaded my boyfriend, landed in Tokyo and the next day I had a job and the day after we had an apartment. We stayed in Tokyo for 1,5 years but I got caught up in that making money, working system. I remember clearly being on the train at 8 in the morning, going to work with thousands of Japanese and I realised it was not what I wanted. So I left Japan and went to Amsterdam.

What brought me here was the liberal atmosphere. The only thing I hated was the weather. As an Australian you know that England has bad weather but you never get to think that it would be the same in Amsterdam. But then I met my husband Elard and I never left. I really feel at home here. I can be who I want to be. It’s a funny sort of freedom when you live somewhere without friends of family. Away from where you come from. You are given the possibility to invent your own personality. Since organising is a genetic thing I’ve got from my mother, I soon got involved in all kind of events and exhibitions. We started to create festivals for the Homomonument and on Queens day, started Pink Point, an information point for gays and lesbians and all of a sudden we had a scene.

Running a sex club
In 1998 we started organising sex parties on Sunday afternoons. People were shirtless or nude and went after a few hours.  We hardly did any publicity but it was always full. Since we were organising more and more parties, we decided to start our own club. Church. We knew these parties worked, so we just opened the door. Now it has evolved into a lot of mixed theme nights- some hardcore men-only events but also dance parties with drags, trannies and women. Not the easiest way to go because the public has strict ideas of what a cruise club should be. It has to have a cement floor and lots of metal so it was nice to mix that up too.

One problem is that there’s a thing against sex at the moment in Amsterdam. I don’t know if it’s a socio-cultural thing but I think it’s more general. At the end of the 80’s sexual freedom seemed to peak, and since then it’s been pretty much all downhill. Young people are quite conservative these days. They are cleaning up red light districts everywhere because sex has become somehow very negative. And that’s a pity. Sexy is okay but sex is not.  I have lived here for 20 years now and in that time 18 darkrooms have disappeared. Church is the only new one that has opened. Straight hetero fetish parties are also having a hard time getting a licence. Such a shame. When I read about Berlin: being the fetish capital of the world, I think that’s what Amsterdam is meant to be. Not the gay capital, but the fetish capital. That is much bigger and wider. That’s what we once were but not are anymore.

Being gay in Amsterdam
The Amsterdam gay scene can sometimes be a little misogynous, so it’s good to stir things up every now and then. I too live mostly in a world without women but it can in many ways be quite distorting. A lot of gay men are more or less anti-lesbian as well. They still harbour the weirdest clichés about them. I think it’s much more healthy to mix- apparently businesses with men and women on the board do much better than when there are only men. The gay community is really important, for the visibility of it, but it’s got a negative side as well. People start to identify you with your sexuality, your identity becomes your sexual identity. So gay people are seen like a different kind of thing. If you look at countries like Morocco, were the gay community is very low profile, boys have more experimental sex with other boys because it’s not ‘called’ gay, there’s no label. But here in the West we have become so labelled. Either you’re gay or you’re straight – you can’t be bisexual because that’s apparently weird – and that has a huge downside. People are scared to experiment with sex because it can lead to an identity crisis.

My whole life I’ve been working with the gay community and as I said, it’s important to be visible but the downside is that we are seen as a totally different animal. Like some special kind of species. Gay is a swear word at school, but kids don’t even realise that gays are even humans. So you categorise people, it’s ‘them’ and ‘us’. And that’s the flip side of a strong gay community. Because of that you live in a cocoon with your gay friends in your gay world. But then again at the gay parade in Amsterdam this year, I saw so many same sex couples holding hands in the streets. That of course is the positive side of a strong gay community.

 

‘The idea of starting a family came quite naturally. It all fitted together easily. Everybody liked the idea so much that they all hooked up.’

The birth of Jenny
Jennifer was born in 2000. Every year my husband and I go back to Australia for the holidays and take part in Mardi Gras, Sydney’s huge gay pride festival. We’ve entered lots of floats in Mardi Gras, and one year we went in drag, as a parody of Greek-Australian girls, who coincidentally are quite similar to Jennifer Lopez. A little bit too much make-up, tight dresses, custom jewellery. A bit cheap and very loud.  What I’m doing is a different kind of drag, especially with the beard and all. A lot of people like it because it shows that drags are not always bitchy queens with shaved legs. I think that was a bit of an eye opener for people here in Amsterdam, because it’s done with a lot of humour. I don’t take myself seriously by trying to look like a beautiful woman and after a while the beard and the ass even became my trademark. I like to fuck around with the different ideas on femininity and masculinity and confuse people with it… a drag with a beard and hairy legs, a macho guy who likes wearing lipstick. I think it’s empowering for a lot of people when they realise they don’t have to be a conventional drag queen or a transvestite but just who they want to be.

Jennifer goes politics.
I soon discovered that drag queen elections or lip syncing shows were not really my thing. I tried it but I always seem to come last, they were still expecting a traditional drag. So I started to get a little bit bored and wanted to move on, organise new things. I always knew that drag +  lip syncing was no novelty. But drag with sports or with politics, that would be news. The Drag Olympics were a great move. No one has ever combined Drag with sports and we were literally in every newspaper. And because I like politics on a local level and I already had dealings with the local council, talking about Pink Point or the Homomonument, I came up with the idea to run for night mayor. So I thought it would be a great thing for Jennifer to go into politics. It’s a kind of ludicrous thing, being a night mayor, since it’s not an official but a made up position. But even though it’s not a real function, you can still achieve a lot of things for Amsterdam’s nightlife.

Because of the elections we decided to build a drag family. I never had the ambition of being well known. The campaign gave me a reason to push Jennifer as a character. We had planned a year-long campaign and took it very seriously. We had a website, facebook group and started making appearances around town. The idea of starting a family came quite naturally. Jennifer Lopez had twins so I wanted twins. It all fitted together easily. Everybody liked the idea so much that they all hooked up.  Suddenly there were sisters, a nanny for the twins, godparents,…it became so big that we started the House of Hopelezz. We had to actually, because by the time we got to ‘the neighbour’s daughter’, nobody could keep track anymore.

The woman with the beard
The election itself ended somehow with a downer. Although we had over a thousand people there and were overwhelmingly voted for, we still didn’t get chosen. They didn’t take us seriously. The jury, a group of 5 people – supposedly artists – couldn’t see through the make-up.And that really shocked me. The public voted us first place, the jury gave us last place- and they ultimately decided. We were the only ones with a campaign, a website, a 10 page policy, etc. But they just couldn’t see through the drag thing. With drag, you get a lot of attention, but it is also a distraction from your message. It’s a double-edged sword. As Jennifer, I try to use the attention to get my message across. Whether it’s effective or not is another question.

Jennifer versus Richard
Jennifer is more famous and more liked than Richard. I created the character of Jennifer in my head. She’s always friendly, she’s positive and she’s nice. As Richard I’m more businesslike, a bit grumpier, but when something happens, it always goes through my mind; how would Jennifer react? But as time goes by you grow towards each other. Jennifer has grown a bit more like Richard and the other way around. I don’t feel like I have two personalities but it’s definitely a part of my character I didn’t know was there. The whole thing about being extraverted, being on stage and being all bubbly, that’s something Richard would never do. But I notice people are much more open to me as Jennifer. They tell her things they normally don’t tell Richard.  And that’s a good thing. In that matter she can help people to explore who they really are. And that’s really cool. I think because I make such a spectacle of myself as Jenny, people are less inhibited to try things themselves. I’m very curious as to where it’s all going to. With Club Church, the members of the House of Hopelezz, the acceptance of our community,.. But after all, you know that quote from Ru Paul “We are all born naked and everything else is drag”?

 

www.homomonument.nl
www.dragqueenolympics.nl
www.clubchurch.nl
www.jenniferhopelezz.com

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Et Alors? magazine. A global celebration of diversity.