While there is some element from the pre-pandemic lives most of us are mourning the loss of—casually hugging or kissing the people we love, ending workweek with drinks at the bar, enough PDA to make even the most hardened aunty cringe—I never thought dancing in my underwear in a Sydney nightclub amidst a thousand gay men also dressed in nothing but their undies would be one of it.
Just before the pandemic wrecked our collective lives, I spent an entire night dancing away to disco anthems, almost butt naked. On that cold, breezy, February evening in a back alley in Sydney, I also found myself discussing the politics of the Delhi riots whilst clothed in nothing but a jockstrap. At that precise moment, I thought to myself: I should tell my editor about this. This isn’t the kind of thing that a wet-behind-the-ears, chubby gay boy from suburban Mumbai comes across on a daily basis. Little did I know that would be the last party I’d get to attend this year.
In what can only be termed as a life-changing experience, I got to perform stand-up comedy across Australia at the start of 2020, which at the time was looking like a beautiful, virus-free year full of promises.
For the first time ever, four Asian queer comics presented their stories through comedy in cities like Melbourne, Sydney, Parramatta, and Queanbeyan. When you’re touring as a comic, people imagine you living it up like a rockstar, with limousines driving you to the venues around the corner and alcohol flowing freely. That’s rarely the case, especially when you’re still struggling to fill venues out. But one respite for me after most shows was exploring the city’s queer district. And while Melbourne and Sydney have things popping up all the time with the rainbow plastered everywhere generously, Queanbeyan—located near the Australian capital Canberra—was rather dull. Or let’s call it quaint.
Surprisingly though, the Queanbeyan show had its fair share of Bears and Daddies. Now for those of you who don’t already know, Bears and Daddies are a sub-category within the gay community. It includes men who are hairy, burlier and on the chubbier side—images you don’t easily associate with a queer male due to years of conditioning by the media.
It’s at this show that I befriended a Daddy, who told me about this party he was attending in Sydney. Called the UnderBEAR, the party boasted great music, and well, bears in their underwear. It doesn’t take more than this to convince me honestly. I had only vaguely heard of such parties and watched videos from across the seven seas. Never had I imagined going to a party where I’d be only in my “bear” essentials and shoes.
Thankfully, I knew my Daddy friend would be there too, so I went about trying to score tickets.
Now ARQ is an institution for gay parties, drag shows and performances in Sydney, and this night was no different. Except that I turned up way too early. So at 9 PM, I managed to get my ticket at the door, paying a decent AUD$55. There were perhaps ten men in the entire two-storey venue. So obviously, I was feeling too embarrassed to take my clothes off.
But thankfully, my friend also showed up around the same time. We collected our wristbands and large black garbage bags to dump our clothes and valuables into. We had to strip near the second floor entrance. As I looked around at the other men also doing the same, I felt less weird. We all had big bellies, stretch marks, skin tags, heat boils and patchy hair around our bodies but no one looked at you differently. This is perhaps one of the main reasons I never felt at-home with parties in India. More often than not, we become slaves to our perceptions of what an ideal man should look like, but in reality there is no ideal man. I personally love older men and have never shied away from it. This night felt like a reward for confronting my biggest fears. And boy, was I in heaven.
Once inside, we had to pay for our own drinks. But how does one pay for shit when there is no wallet to hold your money and no pants to hold your wallet? But I looked at the other men changing around me and most of them were shoving things down their socks or underwear. I chose the former. So, a debit card in tow and a friend to show me about, we stepped in. We had to wait about an hour before more men started pouring in, but once that started, it was tough for me to keep my eyes steady. Everywhere I looked, I saw men who were my size or bigger, boldly taking to the dance floor, doing shots, making out, and just having a gay old time. I was an excited kid in a candy shop. Fuck, it felt like home.
“I think the bears wanted a party where they felt comfortable without being judged by the greater community,” Joshua Borja, one of the organisers of the UnderBEAR parties, told me later. “Bears are sexy too, and want dance parties where they can get in their underwear just like their peers in other groups.” This is true because the next night was scheduled to be a underwear party for the muscular gay dudes with gogo dancer bodies. “All of Grindr will be here tomorrow,” a gay bear at the party exclaimed. “But tonight, tonight it’s about us bears.”
UnderBEAR is a regular event as a part of the Bear Essentials festival the Harbour City Bears put on that runs alongside the Mardi Gras festival. “Every Wednesday before the parade,” Borja said. “Every time. Booked a year in advance.”
And as promised, the night was made of hot bears, leather, booze and our dear old friend, amyl nitrite. I also came to realise the luxury of being one of the four brown boys in the entire party. Men started buying me drinks, and I let them. A few Heinekens and Jäger shots later, I kind of lost track of the number of people I’d made out with. I had more or less lost track of my friend with whom I’d entered the party with. For a change, I felt like prime meat and I went hobnobbing around with glee.
The many smoke breaks I took in the alley behind the club were perhaps my favourite, because devoid of the loud music and lasers, it was only men of all shapes in their undies talking about life. I met an older bear couple who was so intrigued about India that I just stood there talking about what was going down back in the nation. I do not know how much of what I said was comprehended by them, but eventually, when we got inside again, I was dancing with them in a bear sandwich. So does it really matter?
I got back to my Airbnb in the wee hours of the morning terribly hungover but safe thanks to the kindness of another brown bear. It was one of those experiences that you don’t quite anticipate having in life, and yet when you go through with it, find yourself changed and having had too much fun. There’s nothing like this I’ve ever witnessed in India. PDA aside, most queer parties in our country are tame and if you’re chubby, you’re rarely going home with a guy. I’ve spent years doubting myself, whether I could ever be celebrated with my gut, my hairy chest and my stretch marks. But that night, all of it was unimportant. The whole fallout of the pandemic in 2020 killed parties and events worldwide. But for queer people, the parties were the only place we find solace, if not absolute acceptance.
But in many ways, I am just lucky. Not only because I got to attend parties and the Mardi Gras with thousands of people, but also travel back and stay alive and well just before the pandemic upturned our collective lives. I only wonder if I will ever feel comfortable enough—physically and emotionally—to do it all again.
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