Culture  Big, burly, and beautiful

A step inside the world of Montreal’s bears

Bears are roaming around downtown Montreal. Really. It wouldn’t be unusual to find a variety of these furry guys wandering out of the Beaudry metro station at 12 a.m. on a Saturday, clad in leather or wearing suits and ties, or perhaps a T-shirt and jeans. But don’t worry – they won’t claw your eyes out.

I should probably start by saying that the term “bear” refers not only to a massive, four-legged animal associated with brute strength (and, to some, cuddly cuteness), but also to a gay subculture whose members have distinctive characteristics in both appearance and personality, and whose origins date back to ‘80s San Francisco.

In the late ‘80s, Bear Magazine, a publication out of the San Francisco area, popularized the image of the muscular, blue-collar bearded man and drew a fan base not only from the gay community of rural America but also gay communities abroad. Noting the success of Bear Magazine, Rick Redewell opened the “Lone Star Salon,” a now-famous bar where the bear identity developed among gay men who preferred rock music and motorcycles to the flamboyancy of late-’80s mainstream gay culture. In a matter of years, the image of the hyper-masculine gay man had spread internationally. This representation has been subjected to considerable modifications over the years.

At the most basic level of terminology, a “bear” is a heavyset man with abundant facial hair. But to limit the description to physical characteristics alone would be to unfairly shortchange this idiosyncratic group of people, whose members form many varieties and subsets of the community. These may include designations like the age-specific “cub” or “daddy bear,” which refer, respectively, to the youngest and oldest bears, Asian “Panda bears,” white-haired “polar bears,” “muscle bears,” who are especially lean, and “leather bears,” who have a particular fascination with leather apparel. There are also the less-obviously named “otters,” hairy bears with an athletic build, and “wolves,” who are more or less otters with a more intimidating nature. And let’s not forget “goldilocks,” a woman who prefers the company of bears.

Although mastering bear nomenclature is a difficult task in itself, the complexity of bear culture cannot be reduced to easy labels; identity relies on much more than outward appearance. To learn more about bear culture and values, as well as what a bear-oriented activity would entail, I arranged to meet with Martin Brisson and Yves Aubertin, two members of Bearevent Montreal’s board of directors, at a Second Cup about two blocks from the Papineau metro. Bearevent or, for francophones, Événours, is a nonprofit organization that caters to Montreal bears and friends of the bear community.

Arriving early, I ordered a coffee and proceeded to people watch, an activity I cleverly concealed by pretending to read the bibliography of my Russian literature course pack. While I had done a little online research on bears prior to the interview, I still had no idea what Brisson or Aubertin might look like. Could they be the two big guys behind me? To my left, there was a thinner guy with a beard…might Martin Brisson be an “otter”?
I eventually discovered that the two had been waiting for me upstairs. Brisson greeted me first, and brought me over to the table where Aubertin was sitting. We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, and began to talk.

The two first presented the basics of the bear community. As Brisson explained it, a bear is a “hairy, fat guy,” pointing for example to Aubertin, who laughed lightheartedly in agreement. When asked to distinguish bear values from the rest of the gay community, Martin replied, “We’re friendlier, less judgmental, and more true to ourselves.” Aubertin added, “Also warm, cuddly, and less artificial.” A man at the next table voiced his own opinion: “They’re less self-conscious. And more fun.”

According to Brisson and Aubertin, bears have been present in Montreal for about 20 years, with significant growth within the last 10 to 15 years, a development that is largely due to the Internet, which has been an invaluable resource in the spreading of bear culture. Bears can find each other online in bear-oriented chat rooms and fan sites. On these web pages bears learn of local bear-friendly bars, clubs, and activities. I had found Brisson, for instance, by simply Googling “bears in Montreal” and clicking on the Bearevent page.

For offline bear-related fun, Bearevent seems to be a party catalyst for the Montreal area, organizing a number of fantastically peculiar events. On March 26, for example, the fifth annual “bear fashion show” will provide a showcase for both bizarre and practical attire.

One of the main attractions this year?
“There will be a man on the runway wearing a size 40,” replied Brisson.

Another standout activity is Bear Noel, during which bears (or virtually anyone) can come meet “Santa,” a bear dressed as Santa Claus, and take pictures sitting on his lap.

At the conclusion of the interview, I asked where I might find a bear bar that would be welcoming to a small girl on a spying mission. Brisson suggested Bar le Stud, offered to accompany me, and even arranged an interview with the manager, Mario. This must have been the legendary bear friendliness at work.

On Sunday at about 6:30, Brisson, Mario and I met at Bar le Stud.

As I walked in, men of all sizes and ages turned to stare at me – my presence appeared to make the customers uncomfortable, but nevertheless I headed to the back to meet with Mario.

At first glance, Mario doesn’t fit the typical image of a bear, being a tall but moderately sized and clean-shaven man. But he’s been working at Bar le Stud for over a decade, because the bear image and the community’s lack of inhibition appeals to him.

Mario provided a brief overview of bears around the globe. He claims to be able to identify the nationality of a bear at first glance. French bears are “fat, maybe the fattest,” and there is quite a bit of diversity in the American bear scene, with a prevailing “muscle bear image.” Germany is viewed as the “leather bear” capital of the world, and home to the trendsetters of the bear community at large.

I asked Mario a bit about the bar, which plays a variety of music, from alternative rock to house, has a karaoke night, and is now in its fifteenth year. Bar le Stud mostly sees a crowd of bears and bear-lovers between the ages of 35-55, but not much of the younger crowd. I looked out at the dance floor – an overweight man in leather shorts and no shirt was dancing with a man in sweatpants and a Nike t-shirt. Next to them, three men, sporting suits and ties, danced in a sort of conga line.

In Mario’s opinion, there are a number of reasons why the younger members of the gay community, ranging from 18 to 30 years old, have yet to embrace the bear lifestyle in Montreal. He proposed that being a bear requires self-knowledge and freedom from inhibitions that the younger set is too naïve and inexperienced to have developed, and that for the time being, they would prefer to go to clubs like Unity, which place more emphasis on dressing well and offer the traditional club experience.

Situated on Ste. Catherine east of Papineau, Bar le Stud is nestled at the geographical centre of Montreal’s gay culture. Montreal’s gay village is one of the largest in North America, and walking through the village, a tourist might feel that they have entered another world unto itself. Because of its massive size, there are bars and clubs to suit all needs.

While this may have a segregating effect among disparate gay subgroups, it is a particular asset to bear newcomers and visitors who may have difficulty identifying with what they perceive to be the superficiality of stereotyped gay identities. Though many bears are comfortable with the rest of the gay community, the bears I talked to spoke of the mainstream gay community with some distaste, and seemed to prefer to surround themselves exclusively with other bears.

It is understandable that the hyper-masculinity and defined preferences of bear culture may be intimidating to younger people going through processes of self-discovery. In a society in which body type has the capacity to define a person, however, the bear community provides an environment where being heavier or hairier becomes an embraced aspect of one’s image, and an empowering source of confidence and freedom. For the first time in many bears’ lives, people are able to see past outward appearances and treat them as individuals.