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A Gay Bear Porn Mag Changed My Life

When I stumbled upon <i>BEAR Magazine</i>—and realized hairy, hulking guys can be gay too—I had nothing less than an existential revelation.

by Benjamin Adams
Dec 14 2016, 11:30pm

Illustration by Adam Mignanelli

I never expected to find existential enlightenment from the pages of a porn magazine. But when I was 18, that's exactly what happened, after I wandered into one of Portland's many adult bookstores on a lark.

I was browsing the racks when I came across a bare-chested, lumberjack-built man on the cover of a magazine called BEAR. He wasn't waxed or tanned, and instead of the chiseled bodies on the covers that surrounded him, he was bearded, beefy and hairy all over. To my eyes, he was perfect—and seeing him on the cover of a gay magazine was, in that pre-internet era of the late 80s, a revelation.

For homos like myself, BEAR Magazine was much more than a porn rag. It was my first exposure to a subculture that would come to dominate the next decade of my social life. Seeing that cover made me realize that there were other men out there who were attracted to heavyset, hirsute guys like I was. And the magazine itself heralded a new era for a broad demographic of gay men that until then existed mostly in bars and local clubs.

I had come to terms with my homosexuality two years earlier; coming out was potentially catastrophic for me, since I was raised Mormon by a devout family, and my father was a church bishop. Being a "sexually deviant" homosexual was bad enough—worse, I thought, was that I was attracted to big, hairy men.

That was something I realized in one of the most uncomfortable ways imaginable: from an illustrated book my parents owned that depicted the Gospel of Luke. One of the pages showed Jesus on the cross, flanked by two common thieves, and it will be hard to forget one of them, who was perched on the cross with his bare, hairy chest exposed. The weight of guilt I experienced from it is still hard for me to fathom.

Our religious household meant that I had slim pickings for any kind of exposure to gay culture or media, and I didn't identity with what little I saw of the mainstream gay community, based mostly on TV shows like Queer as Folk. The gay community, as far as I could tell, was made up more or less of fit men in gay dance clubs. Anyone who was overweight or balding, I thought, was socially dead on arrival. And while I knew there was nothing wrong with being into dancing or drag, it didn't help that the community I could have turned to as an escape from my upbringing was one I couldn't picture myself within.

I was caught between two worlds: my parents' church, and my alienating (and naive) idea of the gay community. That's why seeing that cover of BEAR was monumental; it meant that I wasn't as alone as I thought.

It was a beautiful coincidence that the bear community rose to prominence in America as I entered adulthood. The Advocate may claim they coined the term bear as early as 1979, but it took until 1987 for Richard Bulger and his boyfriend Chris Nelson to deploy the phrase as a marketing scheme when they founded BEAR. Knowing there were untold others out there that shared their taste in men, they released the first issue as 45 xeroxed copies rife with portraits of masculine, rugged guys, and the publication took off from there. During the 90s, bear culture would ascend from a little-known subculture to a full-fledged national movement; thanks to publications like BEAR, a bear pride movement arose and the community began to wear the label with gusto. Little did I know all that would await me as I entered my twenties—I'm just glad I found BEAR when I did.

BEAR ceased publication in 2002, as the internet turned America into a digital society; bear-focused dating websites like Bear411 (and, later, dating apps like GROWLr) came to replace print publications focused on the community. But magazines like BEAR, including competitors like Bear World and Inside Bear, became instrumental in planting the seeds for bear culture to evolve from a fetish into a full-fledged identity. BEAR began as porn, but as its reach expanded, it began to include articles, lifestyle coverage, and discussion of topics important to the community that formed around it, as did its competitors.

Today the bear community, like the larger gay community it sprang from, has declined as an identity at the hands of cultural assimilation from its peak in the 90s and 2000s. In some ways, it's still robust: Just ask the owners of innumerable gay bars saved from economic ruin by bear nights, or the more than 10,000 people who attend Provincetown Bear Week each summer. But it's hard to imagine the need for a publication like BEAR, which still soldiers on, published semi-annually by editor-in-chief Steven Wolfe.

Kids today looking for atypical depictions of homosexuality are practically inundated with them—bears, especially, have become something of a cliché of gay stereotypes, figuring into the punchlines of Family Guy and movies like Inside Out; even a main character on Modern Family, one of the country's most popular sitcoms, is a bear. They've been anatomized in documentaries and become part of our shared cultural imagination. And that's a beautiful thing, especially for confused kids growing up under devoutly Mormon roofs. After all, nobody should have to wander into a sex shop to realize they're normal.

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