Bear Essentials: A Local History
About 15 years ago, the bear community began to join together formally in the Twin Cities. Two groups were established in the early 1990s: North Country Bears and MinnBears. Has it ever crossed your mind that some gay men actually love being larger than the average body type, sport facial and body hair, and embrace their sexuality—all at the same time?
For decades, the GLBT community refused to acknowledge—or chose to ignore—gay men who pack a few more pounds than doctors would allow. Consequently, a subculture formed that, for the past 15 years, has become a phenomenon garnering the attention of celebrities such as Kathy Griffin, Kevin Smith, and Esera Tuaolo.
However, bear culture is not a new sensation. It is far from being the latest trend. Certainly, plenty of talk has circulated about this subcommunity for years without even considering what it is really all about. Perhaps now is the time to look closely at one of the most active, cohesive, and vibrant segments of our local GLBT community.
Bears always have been a part of the GLBT community, going back to the early years of gay liberation. Not surprisingly, larger-framed men are prominent figures in Upper Midwestern mainstream society. The archetype of the strapping young corn-fed man points to the conditions from which gay men came in rural sections of this region. When they moved to the Twin Cities, and settled into gay culture, they found avenues to bond with other masculine, strapping young (and older) corn-fed men for camaraderie and carousing.
If they arrived here looking like Paul Bunyan or any other regional archetypes, eventually, they became somewhat similar to them. This aesthetic alone is what brings bears together. In turn, they are invited into local establishments, patronizing their local bar, and finding the man of their dreams (or for the moment).
About 15 years ago, the bear community began to join together formally in the Twin Cities. Two groups were established in the early 1990s: North Country Bears and MinnBears. They differed in their approaches to memberships, but served their purpose as a place for bears to enjoy themselves with varying events around the area. MinnBears was modeled more closely on the traditional bear-club organization—strict membership rules, including a minimum age limit of 21 years old, as most of its events were based at a bar. At the time, both bear clubs seemed to have an equal number of members attending their events, with a significant crossover between the two.
By 1997, a new movement arrived in the Twin Cities that conformed to the traditional bear-club model. Originally founded in Northern California, Gen-X Bears started a chapter locally for younger bears who did not fit in with either of the existing two bear clubs. The organizers enlisted the help of a local Internet service provider, Hockey.net, to run the Web site and e-mail listserv for the entire national and later international organization.
Reception of Gen-X Bears by the mainstream bear clubs ranged from stoic to hostile. By the time the newer movement began to die out locally, it had become influential in shaping the way bear clubs do business with their community by eliminating traditional methods of membership and participation. Currently, North Country Bears is one of the few bear groups in the world organized similar to the Gen-X Bears model.
In the meantime, another original idea emerged the bear community’s rank and file. With the information technology boom in the Twin Cities, a significant number of people employed in that field happened to be members of the GLBT community, including bear-identified men. In addition to bar events at the Town House and subsequently Trikkx, a group of bears employed in the IT industry started a coffee group on Sunday afternoons. It led to what became Bear Coffee at Café Prague in Minneapolis, a weekly gathering for these men to discuss their lives and their work. Another Bear Coffee was formed around the same time at a Starbucks on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. With the closure of Café Prague, the midweek coffee gathering eventually moved to Dunn Brothers at Hennepin and 34th in South Minneapolis.
At the Millennium, North Country Bears stood alone as the bear club for an entire region. Smaller groups then began, including Chippewa Valley Bears in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Bear Coffee in Rochester. Additionally, the genesis of bear-based teams in the Twin Cities Goodtime Softball League and the recent foundation of Minneapolis Movie Bears meant more social and philanthropic opportunities for local bears.
In the course of 25 years, no one would have guessed that a diverse group of hirsute men and their admirers would become a cornerstone in the Twin Cities GLBT community. Is it a trend that will go away in a year or so? On the contrary, as long as bear-identified men still are relocating to the Twin Cities, this subculture is definitely here to stay.