a larger man with a hairy chest and beard who could be described as a gay bear with long hair standing shirtless in the forest

Anyone who has hooked up or befriended a gay bear knows they’re proud of their beards, furry chests, and burlier bellies. In fact, they often act as the gatekeepers of queer subcultures, organizing events and parties celebrating identity – in their case, rugged masculinity. 

Whether you believe you might be a bear or want to get under one, here’s all the fuzz on the gay bear community and its significance to queer culture.  

What are gay bears?

A bearded man winking.

Urban Dictionary says a gay bear is a hairy and sizeable gay man. However, their physicality varies depending on the person, and you’ll find many self-identifying gay bears with different degrees of hair, fat, and muscle. 

And that brings us to the subcategories manifested in the bear kingdom to enhance community further and help individuals express attraction. 

A muscular hairy male body in briefs.
  • Cubs: As the name suggests, cubs are often shorter, younger, or less masculine-looking (like a bear in progress). A cub might simply be the more passive partner in a relationship.
  • Muscle bears: A muscle bear embodies the characteristics of a gay bear but with a muscular physique. 
  • Otters: Folks who are leaner, have smaller builds, and are less hairy. Otters are kind of like the little brothers of bears. 
  • Polar bears: Think older bears – a bear silver daddy, if you will. The “polar” implies gray hair. 

The origins of gay bear culture

A stuffed teddy bear holding rainbow flag.

You can trace the origins of the bear identity to an article published in 1979 in the Advocate by George Mazze exploring queer personality stereotypes through zoo animals. In “Whose Who at the Zoo,” the author equated seven queer personality types to animals, and the profile of bears made the gays run wild. 

Initially, there was a connotation between bear culture and the aesthetic of the gay working class in rural America. Historically, they tended to be rooted in whiteness, but any ethnic group can identify.

The term was popularized with the founding of Bear Magazine by Richard Bulger and his then-partner Chris Nelson in 1987, which opened the curtains to the bear lifestyle and presented a tug-o-war between identity and affiliation. Some folks considered untamed masculinity an uncompromisable aspect, while others were more inclusive and lenient in who could identify as a bear.  

A bearded man sleeping cuddling a stuffed teddy bear.

Ultimately, it wasn’t any public figure but the gay bears themselves that propelled the identity into a thriving subculture, curating associations and events that were just as much about sex and pleasure as they were about forming social connections and a sense of belonging. 

The Bear History Project, founded by Les K. Wright in 1995, documented the evolution and is archived in the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University

Why do people identify as gay bears?

A cartoon of a bald man with a beard and the word "BEAR" trimmed in his hairy chest.

Simply put, gay subcultures are a way for people to express their physicality in a sexy and fun manner. As liberated as gay sexuality can be, it’s not free from vanity and the toxic grip of societal beauty standards putting smooth, chiseled bodies on a pedestal. 

Larger, hairier folks wanted to own their bodies and celebrate them as intentional in a world that presented six-pack abs as the end goal for male body types. The rejection of mainstream beauty standards empowered unconventional physiques to step into their sex appeal and find mates who lusted after them. 

In other words, gay men identified as bears because it made them feel sexy and welcomed them to be around a community that agreed. 

Common misconceptions about gay bears

Two shirtless hairy men with beer bellies.

As with anything queer, haters will hate and cast judgments without facts. Gay bears aren’t spared from misconceptions and stereotypes, including from fellow gay men. 

A good rule of thumb is to consider any generic assumption about a group of people as questionable at best. For example, you might encounter rumors that bears are less unhygienic because they may embrace manly body odor, but avoiding cologne or deodorant doesn’t mean you don’t shower or use soap. 

A shirtless hairy man wearing leather dog mask.

Another dangerous misconception is that they engage in kinkier or more promiscuous sexual practices than the average gay, and that’s also false. Gay subcultures are entwined with pleasure and sex, but that’s the sexual liberation of queerness, not affected by how much body fat or hair a person has. Your sex drive is in your libido. 

Lastly, don’t assume a gay bear is insecure or confident or only plays with other bears; most likely, they’re multifaceted humans who can achieve an erection with various types of men, including twinks.

Notable gay bears in pop culture

Parks & Recreation‘s Nick Offerman plays a classic bear daddy on and off screen

Game of Thrones actor Kristian Nairn growls in Polar Bear glory

Country music star Zach Brown is proof we ride bears to save horses in gay culture

Embracing the fuzzy world of gay bears

Gay bears are the pioneers of gay subcultures, and their larger, hairier bodies were the face of a social revolution when it came to body positivity and deviating from toxic beauty standards.

As intimidating as their prominent masculine aesthetic can be, bears are also some of the warmest, kindest, and most welcoming people you will meet in the LGBTQ+ community.

Understanding gay bears and their subcategories will help you connect with gay or bisexual men, take ownership of your physicality, and empower your sexuality. If you’re looking to meet with gay bears, apps like Scruff and Growlr are great places to start.

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