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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The cult of masculinity

Earlier this month Robb Willer, a sociology doctoral candidate at Cornell University, published a report with the unassuming academically-suitable title of "Overdoing Gender: Testing the Masculine Overcompensation Thesis."

That's not to say that Willer's research findings are as staid as the title. Quite the contrary. Willer found out that when you question or in some way threaten a guy's masculinity, he'll get in touch with his inner-Rambo and go all macho on yo' ass.

It's not that Willer's research should be surprising in its conclusions. Ever see two grade school boys engage in a "my dad can beat up your dad" argument? Ever been a junior high school boy who's terrified on that first day of dressing out for gym that his dick might be smaller than someone else's? Ever roll your eyes when two grown men try to convince each other that their SUV is bigger and better? It's all the same thing.

According to the Cornell press release announcing Willer's findings:

"I found that if you made men more insecure about their masculinity, they displayed more homophobic attitudes, tended to support the Iraq War more and would be more willing to purchase an SUV over another type of vehicle," said Robb Willer, a sociology doctoral candidate at Cornell. Willer is presenting his findings Aug. 15 at the American Sociological Association's 100th annual meeting in Philadelphia.

"Masculine overcompensation is the idea that men who are insecure about their masculinity will behave in an extremely masculine way as compensation. I wanted to test this idea and also explore whether overcompensation could help explain some attitudes like support for war and animosity to homosexuals," Willer said.

So if men insecure about their masculinity tend to be more homophobic, what happens when you have gay men who overcompensate for their masculinity?

The answer is simple. You get the "bear" movement.

In general, bears are men who are the antithesis of the usual stereotype of gay men. Where the stereotype calls for gay men to be young, flawlessly sculpted and willing to suffer any draconian cosmetic remedy to remove unsightly body hair, bears are generally older, more "full-figured," and glory in the ability to grown a beard, a healthy thatch of chest hair and even the dreaded back hair that would make most gym-bunnies cringe.

During the '70s the young gym-bunnies - what are contemptuously known among the bears as "twinks" - were the gold standard. If an advertisement in The Advocate or one of the other gay magazines featured a male, invariably his shirt would be unbuttoned to show off a glorious expanse of smooth, tanned, bare skin. In this wilderness of hairless skin and six-pack abs arose the bear movement.

The twink culture, with its attempts to look forever teetering just on the verge of puberty, drew the ire of the bears whose battle cry was "Real men! Masculine men! WOOF!"

And thus was born the bear movement. And it was good ... for a while.

Feeling they had been excluded by mainstream gay culture, the bears went overboard on being inclusive. Sure there were (and still are) efforts to define just what constitutes a "bear." The best example of the movement trying to define itself is the introduction to the BML, or Bears Mailing List, a popular e-mail digest among the bear community, in which the moderator throws up his hands and makes the statement, "If you think you're a bear, you're a bear."

During the late '80s and '90s, while AIDS was cutting a wide swath through the gay community, suddenly bears became trendy. The skinny gym-boy look was out. Starving and exercising oneself to the point of emaciation made one look more like someone in the last stages of AIDS. Having a spare tire (or a whole set of tires) around the midsection was starting to look like a healthy alternative.

With its new popularity, the bear movement went from being a subculture to having its own flag (a brown and beige and white flag that twinkie-ish decorators might charitably describe as "heavy on the earth tones"); its own venues and bars that are as well known for its clients' open hostility to the occasional smooth-skinned, Izod-wearing twink who wonders in by mistake as they are for the bears who comprise their clientele; and its own gatherings. These gatherings have grown in popularity and number. Almost any large metropolitan area plays host to an annual bear event where bears from all over come to socialize and frolic.

For bears, the definition of socializing and frolicking has apparently been updated to "fucking indiscriminately." Granted, there are some bears who go to socialize in the old-fashioned sense; but the majority are more concerned with bed-hopping in an environment awash with testosterone.

The the first (and last!) time I attended a bear event was an eye-opening experience. Free from the normal restraints society imposes, most of the bears believed that if you were in attendance, you were fair game. To be groped by a stranger was the norm. To show resistance to having someone who hasn't taken the time to at least introduce himself placing a hand on your crotch or ass could quickly result in being labeled a "tease" or an "ice queen."

Like the members of the ursine order from whom the bears took their name, the bears at the event were predatory and didn't seem to care who their next conquest came from. If you were within a paw's reach, you would welcome the attention of a grope.

I went into the event thinking I was a bear. I was, after all, big, burly and bearded. I left the event thinking I had been mislead. "Bear," it seemed, wasn't named in honor of the hirsute forest denizen. Instead it came to be an acronym for "bitchy, egotistical, arrogant and rude."

The bear movement as it is today is nothing like the original bear movement. Back then it was about joining together to share something in common. It was open and accepting. But this openness and acceptance spelled the doom for the original bear movement. As it became trendy to be a bear, more and more people who wouldn't have given the bear movement a second thought before were clamoring to be let in. "I think I'm a bear, so I must be a bear ... so you gotta let me in!" they seemed to say. Into the movement poured new members attracted not by anything bearish, but by the attraction of being part of the new "in" thing. Many of these were the aging "twinks" who desperately wanted to fit in somewhere now that wrinkles and sagging pecs had cancelled their membership in twinkish circles.

Once on the inside, they did what they had done as twinks: decide who was and wasn't part of the "in" crowd. Suddenly the BML was filled with catfights over the definition of a "bear." Bear clubs developed pecking orders. You had the bears at the top of the heap. Underneath them were the "not really bears" who were tolerated as long as they realized their role was subordinant to the "real" bears. Then there were the lowest of the low ... the "nelly bears." These were the guys who just didn't measure up to the standards of masculinity.

I remember standing around the bar after a meeting of the local bear club. (Yes, I was a member at one time.) The guy standing next to me was decked out in full leather gear - what I prefer to call "leather drag" - and bitching about the preponderance of "nelly bears" at a function he attended in St. Louis. The guy - a excellent example of the aging twink late-comers to the bear movement - was pontificating about nelly bears in a voice that could easily be mistaken for Truman Capote on helium.

Where once the bear movement was about acceptance, it has been transformed into a cult of masculinity. One of the major drawbacks to bear clubs is exactly what draws a certain crowd to the clubs: unbridled masculinity. Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating meetings where we flail our wrists like flags in the breeze; but it seems that so often the most negative and destructive "masculine" traits get trotted out and rewarded. The testosterone gets flowing and pretty soon you've got a group full of guys who seem more like straight teenagers in a locker room than mature gay men. All that male competitiveness kicks in and before long you've got guys preening in front of the magic mirror to determine who's the butchest of them all. In high school, if you're not at the top of the pecking order, you get called faggot, fairy, or sissy. Apparently in the world of bears, you just get referred to as "nelly."

It would be interesting if one day Robb Willer could conduct a study of masculinity on guys who identify as bears. I have a hunch I know what he'd find. When bears' masculinity is questioned, they don't go out an buy SUVs. They get nelly-phobic and look for what they perceive as the weakest, less-masculine members to ostracize.

Seems rather pointless. But then so does the whole bear movement these days.

It reminds me of what a friend - one who was without doubt the kind of gay man most bears would describe as "nelly" - once told me: "Honey, just how 'butch' do you think you look with a guy's dick in your mouth?"