SAN DIEGO, California -- Within the LGBTQ spectrum, there are several subgroups and subcultures that help the many diverse types of people express their uniqueness.
One such sub-group of the gay male community is the “bears.” The term is said to have first popularized in 1987 by Richard Bulger and Chris Nelson when they founded Bear Magazine.
However, The Advocate — a national LGBT-centric magazine — typically takes credit for coining the term in a July 26, 1979 piece titled “Who’s Who at the Zoo?” by illustrator and cartoonist Gerard Donelan. The article categorized gay men and lesbians as different types of animals that can be found in the zoo, and started by describing “hunky, chunky types reminiscent of railroad engineers and former football greats” as bears.
Jeff Breeze, social chairman of Bears San Diego — a local social and charitable organization which is gearing up to celebrate its 20th anniversary next month — has a similar description.
“In general, a bear is a guy who is a little bit bigger than the average gay guy, usually possessing varying amounts of facial and body hair,” he said.
“A bear is usually defined as a gay man who is furry or hairy,” said Jeff Rosenfeld, another Bears San Diego member. “This can be chest, body and/or facial hair. It is truly a state of mind. Cubs tend to be younger and less hairy but aspire to be and/or admire bears.”
In the last few years, the bear community has gained an incredible amount of visibility within the gay community, when in the beginning, Breeze said, it was considered to be something of a fringe element.
“Bear nights” are now commonplace at local gay bars and nightclubs, large-scale national bear-themed events like Lazy Bear Weekend are held annually, and several publications and smartphone apps such as Scruff cater to the bear community.
One local hotspot for the community is Pecs bar, which is known by many as “bear country” with bears hanging out there at all times. Others include The Hole’s beer bust on Sunday afternoons, as well as the monthly bear dance nights at Numbers and Rich’s.
Breeze said though the transformation to being more mainstream has been most evident over the last five years, Bears San Diego has provided an outlet for local bears to meet others and get involved in the community since October 1994.
The organization credits Wayne Dietz, Lee Albert, Robert Sokolowski and John Winkleman as its founding members, who created the group to welcome people of all shapes and sizes. With the exception of Albert, who passed away last year, all the other founders remain active members.
“Our events are open to all who are interested,” Breeze said. “From guys who are big and burly, to those who may not look like a bear but find them attractive, all are welcome. We even have had the occasional lesbian in the mix.”
Breeze said group members and participants regularly get together for dinners, movie and game nights, potlucks (which they call “den parties”), pool parties, group road trips to Los Angeles and the San Diego County Fair, and outings to places such as the tide pools and museums. The organization is also very focused on charity work and regularly organizes and participates in fundraisers like the Mr. Bear San Diego Contest and BearQuake.
Rosenfeld said the organization currently has over 70 members and is highly regarded in the local LGBT community.
David Ferguson, who was selected as Mr. Bear San Diego for 2014-15, said the charitable element is especially important to him and a big part of the reason he ran for the title. The charities he selected for his term include Special Delivery and Stepping Stone.
“I picked these two charities because I have loved ones who are living with and fighting HIV and other life-threatening problems,” Ferguson said. “Since I was 19 years old in the early 1980s, I have had lots of friends and loved ones pass away.”
Ferguson said there have been people in the community who helped him get through those dark times and he wanted to honor them by giving back, and being part of Bears San Diego gives him the platform to do so.
Breeze said that Bears San Diego became an official 501(c)(3) organization in 2006, and since then, the organization has raised over $10,000 each year for local charities such as Special Delivery, Being Alive, Stepping Stone, The Center, The Hillcrest Youth Center, The Matthew Shepard Foundation, The Trevor Project, Mama’s Kitchen, Family Health Centers and many others.
“Each year at the Mr. Bear SD contest, we hand out checks to the organizations we have been raising money for over the past year, and the person who wins the title gets to choose which charity or charities they would like to support for the following year,” Breeze said.
“Basically, I am not a fancy type of person, plus I like what the bear community stands for — we are just a bunch of men who do almost normal things around the city and we accept all kinds of people,” Ferguson said, explaining why he originally joined the group.
Breeze shared similar sentiments and said he was looking for a place to fit in, but what he needed didn’t seem to exist in the greater community.
“What I found is a group who has in many ways become a second family to me, and something I consider myself very proud to be a leader of and represent in any capacity I can,” he said.
Breeze, Ferguson and the entire Bears San Diego family are looking forward to the organization’s upcoming 20th anniversary. In fact, Breeze said the 20th anniversary is an important milestone because the local organization has followed a path similar to that of the greater bear community.
“I see [the anniversary and milestone] as a validation of our motto: ‘Frisky, Friendly, and Attitude-Free,’” Breeze said. “We have undergone a lot of changes over the years. People come and go, some unfortunately are no longer with us, but we are still here, which means on some level we are doing something right.”
For those interested in getting involved with Bears San Diego, Rosenfeld suggests first attending a dinner night or den party to get to know the group.
The entire community is welcome to Bears San Diego’s 20th anniversary celebration, March 7 at Numbers Nightclub, 3811 Park Blvd., in Hillcrest.
At the event, founders Dietz, Sokolowski and Winkleman will be honored, and Dietz will also serve as the evening’s emcee. There will be live entertainment and the annual green underwear contest (in honor of St. Patrick’s Day) will be held.
Refreshments and a no host bar will be available. A $5 donation at the door will benefit this year’s charities: Special Delivery, Stepping Stone and The San Diego Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
For more information, find the event on Facebook. Bears San Diego can be found online at bearssd.org or on Facebook.
—George Vernon is a local freelance writer who contributes to SDGLN, Gay San Diego, and other publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published on SDGLN media partner Gay San Diego.