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Hanging Out at New York's Sex-Free, Alcohol-Free Bear Den

There's no sex or booze in the New York Bear Den, just plenty of red velvet cake and outgoing gay men.

by Eric Shorey
26 January 2015, 6:11am

All photos by Amy Lombard

When you think about bears, you might think of heavy-set gay men in leather, but the bears of the New York Bear Den defy the stereotype. As I entered the Bear Den—a sober meet-up spot in Queens—I expected a casual bacchanalia, but instead, I found an endearing group of friends eating red velvet cake in the shape of a teddy bear.

The New York Bear Den bills itself as a "hate-free, alcohol-free, attitude-free" alternative to the gay bar scene, and most members see body positivity as a core part of bear culture.

"To be a bear is more about being a member of the bear community than it is anything about one's appearance or style," Mark, a well-spoken bear who has attended nearly every meeting in the Bear Den's six-year existence, told me. "For every description you could use of a bear there will be bears that will not fit the rule—other than being big hefty men."

Chaz, a biker with stark black tattoos on his arms, agreed: "The majority of people that come here aren't necessarily big and hairy. You're going to see skinny hairless guys [and] skinny hairy guys," he said. "There are a lot of guys out there who like the bear community because we're so inclusive. We're all strangely unique and uniquely strange."

For a subculture known for embodying a specific "type," the bears' inclusivity was striking, as was the bears' positivity about people who identify as transgender. Robert, the resident Latino bear psychic, wore a silky 70s-inspired outfit, while Edurds, a tall, squeaky-voiced black man, wore strictly utilitarian work clothes. While LGBT people are still fighting for more diverse representation of gay men on TV and in film, 30 or so out and proud men from a handful of ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds filled the Bear Den. Many guys embraced their own cutesy ursine nickname: panda bears, black bears, polar bears, grizzly bears, mama bears, cubs, and otters.

The bears also have their own set of icons and heroes, preferring celebrities like Tom Arnold, John Goodman, RuPaul, Adam Lambert, and the late Billy Mays. "It's nice to have a bear icon who is actually gay," Adam said about Daniel Franzese, the gay actor best known for playing Damien in Mean Girls.

At the Bear Den, most bears focus more on winning the afternoon's trivia game than on getting laid. Carlin Langley and many of the other bears present that Sunday founded the Bear Den six years ago, as a non-sexual, non-alcoholic space expressly created for the purpose of forging new friendships. Founded after the dissipation of Bear Cafe (a similar booze-free hookup-free organization), the Bear Den now attracts regulars and new members alike.

"Because we're a drug and alcohol free event, we're also friendly with AA, NA, and other 12-step programs, although we are not a 12-step program. We're not a support group by any means," Chaz said. "There are events that we do host that are in bars. [But] this is our safe place."

Langley acknowledged that some heavy petting does occur in the den, although no one ends up getting naked. "Whatever they want to do afterwards is up to them," he said. The bears are—in Langley's words—a largely "self-policing" crowd. No one seemed tempted to sneak in booze or poppers. In the Den, back rubs seemed far more popular than blowjobs.

Although the bears socialize together, a couple bears admitted they also date men outside the bear community. "There's a lot of body fascism that goes on in the gay community—very nice and intelligent and attractive men are more than happy to turn their backs on the bears," Mark said. "[But] coming to identify with the bears and the bear community has increased my confidence and my feelings of being attractive."

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For more information on the New York Queens Pride House, which offers LGBT-friendly health and social resources including discussion and support groups, visit their website.