• Peter Conway, 44, (aka "Mr. Harbour City Bear 2015") stands in front of the 'Bears' flag at the 2016 Fair Day in Victoria Park, Sydney. (David Maurice Smith/Oculi)
What does it mean to be a 'bear' in the LGBTQI community? We sent Benjamin Riley to find out.
By
Benjamin Riley

3 Mar 2016 - 3:31 PM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2016 - 3:31 PM

Asked to describe what a 'bear' is, Jeff Hadland responds: “Well, it’s probably a state of mind.”

“It tends to be a furry person that has generally a full figure… I guess they’re a little more open, accepting, friendly.”

Hadland is visiting Sydney for Bear Essentials, a mini-festival run concurrently with Mardi Gras by Harbour City Bears, Sydney’s bear organisation. He’s at the opening night of the festival, where the city’s bears and their international guests (Hadland is from the US) have gathered at Kinselas, a bar on Taylor Square in the middle of Sydney’s gaybourhood.

Since retiring from work about five years ago, Hadland has been travelling the world from one bear festival to the next. Later in the night another bear calls this the “bear run”, and explains both Sydney and Melbourne are major stops on the circuit. Exploring bear travel destinations online landed Hadland on a bear cruise in the Mediterranean, and he hasn’t looked back since.

Although bear communities are often known for their “elders”, even among the middle-aged attendees of the launch there are quite a few relative newcomers.

Colin McArthur is interrupted as he starts explaining how he became involved when a passer-by leans in for a quick pash.

“That’s going to happen lots,” says McArthur, smiling.              

A little over five years ago he was married to a woman. When the relationship ended he leapt straight out of the closet and into the bear scene. He’d been doing some exploring online, and when he saw men he found attractive (and with whom he thought he’d fit in) he decided he was a bear.

"There’s a lot of ex-married men in here. It’s probably because it’s more friendly."            

Within no time he met his partner—who had also been married to a woman—and the two have been together since.

“There’s a lot of ex-married men in here,” McArthur says, glancing around the bar, “It’s probably because it’s more friendly.”

McArthur calls himself “one of the friendliest guys around”, saying: “I would go around the whole room and just give everyone a hug.”

In the middle of the bar, a group of older men—grey-haired but still big and bearded—hold court around a table. People say some of them have been around since Harbour City Bears was founded 20 years earlier, but a woman working the doors suggests another way to figure out who to talk to: “Anyone grey is wise and slutty.”

Walking past, president of the club Robb Barwick shoots back, both of them laughing: “And anyone with boobs is a pain in the arse.”

Barwick says one of the “grey” bears who knows about the history of the scene is Graham Dean. One of the first things Dean says is that his Harbour City Bears badge number is 79—they’re given out in numerical order, and new recruits are up in the thousands.

While it’s certainly an older crowd than you might find in an average gay bar, there’s a real mix of ages—as the night goes on, more and more guys in their 20s and 30s start to arrive, and everyone mingles together. Many of the club officials (identifiable in their branded polos) are younger.

Dean says the club makes an effort to pass information and experience down to its younger members, something there isn’t always a chance to do in gay communities.

“A young bear is a cub, and we try to get them involved in the more senior aspects of the club,” he explains.

What exactly constitutes a bear in gay communities is open to debate these days, but when the movement began sometime in the 1980s it was a reaction against a perception that mainstream gay culture didn’t accept men who didn’t fit a stereotype: the smooth, hairless “twink”. Ironically, in countries like Australia and the US bears have become a new masculine archetype, and arguably the mainstream. But while there are many guys in the bar who fit the mould, the gathered members of Harbour City Bears are a genuinely diverse bunch.

The movement began sometime in the 1980s. It was a reaction against a perception that mainstream gay culture didn’t accept men who didn’t fit a stereotype: the smooth, hairless “twink”

In one corner of the bar a group of bears are having a lively conversation in Auslan—Ward Tooker, who is deaf, met a boyfriend at an early bear event around 20 years ago and kept coming back. He told his friends about it, and before long a large group of deaf guys had become part of the bear community.

“When we first met, the bears were a good community, a nice group. We’d have a laugh, have a talk,” says Tooker’s hearing friend Ian Parker, interpreting.

“It was just a nice space, everyone was friendly.”

He goes on to say there actually used to be more deaf guys in the bear community—as many as 30 guys regularly attending events at one stage—but hand in hand with the dwindling gay venues on the Oxford Street strip has been a decline in the number of deaf regulars.

Tooker explains that when there were more deaf guys in the bear scene, lots of hearing bears were learning basic Auslan to be able to communicate. Parker in turn describes occasions when he’d effectively brokered hook-ups between his deaf friends and guys who didn’t know enough Auslan to get past introductions.

"When there were more deaf guys in the bear scene, lots of hearing bears were learning basic Auslan to be able to communicate."

Along with the launch of Bear Essentials, tonight Harbour City Bears celebrate their 20th anniversary as an organisation.

When official proceedings kick off the emcee introduces Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney, as a VIP guest. Moore has a reputation for showing up to help launch pretty much anything, but her relationship with the bear community goes back a long way—she’s been coming to the launch of Bear Essentials almost since Harbour City Bears began, and the club has named her an “honourary bear”.

Aside from an early heckle (someone shouts from the crowd about the lock-out laws) the bears lap Moore up. She’s done this before and clearly knows her audience, mentioning the “Wet Fur” event (a pool party) later on in the festival before segueing gracefully into a plug.

“I’d also encourage you to try our fabulous new pool at Prince Alfred Park, and don’t worry, our pool filters can cope with a little extra fur,” Moore says, to laughter.

“I’d also encourage you to try our fabulous new pool at Prince Alfred Park, and don’t worry, our pool filters can cope with a little extra fur.”

After the speeches are done, Moore spends 10 minutes posing for photos with her hirsute fans, alongside her political protégé and independent state MP for the seat of Sydney, Alex Greenwich. The two seem happy to keep smiling for the cameras as bear after bear steps forward to ask for a selfie. A succession of farewells follow her out of the bar, with punters all calling her by name as they say goodbye.

“Bye Clover, thanks for coming,” says one bear, following quickly with a cheeky, “You love it.”

Outside, Greenwich says it’s difficult to point to another part of the gay community who contribute as actively as the bears, calling them “wise men” of the community.

Moore, meanwhile, comments on the number of international visitors drawn to the event: “I’ve just been in there meeting a number of guys from Florida, one from Canada, and actually whenever I’ve come I’ve met people from overseas.”

Throughout the night both locals and international visitors on the “bear run” cite “Underbear” as the most anticipated event of the festival. Bears from overseas say they haven’t seen an underwear party as big or as fun anywhere else in the world, and while the locals are proud of the party’s esteem on the bears’ world stage, some lament how it has tamed since Underbear’s wild early days. A couple of older local bears say that while it’s still a little raunchy, a decade or so ago the party was anything goes.

It isn’t just the underwear party that brings in international guests though—Peter Conway has been involved with Harbour City Bears for 11 years, and believes Sydney’s bear community has a reputation for friendliness and genuine inclusivity.

“We’re very friendly, we welcome anybody to come and join us,” he says.

“We get new guys coming in, being in the sash I try to hone in on them and make them feel welcome.”

Conway is also—for the next few months at least—the current Mr Harbour City Bear. Like bear communities elsewhere around Australia and the world, Sydney holds a kind of annual beauty pageant to determine who gets to wear the coveted leather sash. He argues his position carries a weight of social responsibility, one he takes seriously.

“We get new guys coming in, being in the sash I try to hone in on them and make them feel welcome,” Conway explains.

“Buy them a drink, make sure they have a good night so they come back.”

A younger guy in a Harbour City Bears polo shirt is standing out the front of the bar having a smoke with another young guy who doesn’t look quite relaxed—this second guy says he applied to the club for membership the day before, and is very much new to the community.

“I definitely want to be more involved,” says Andrew Weir, the new recruit.

Asked what prompted his involvement, the two exchange an awkward glance.

“I convinced him to join yesterday,” says Kevin Gray, his companion.

It turns out Weir met Gray, a Harbour City Bears committee member, last weekend at the Mardi Gras Fair Day. The two have been hanging out throughout the week and just yesterday Gray convinced Weir to sign up as a member.

An awkward question forces the two to have to think about defining their relationship—the moments that follow are excruciating.

Eventually Gray comes out with: “We’re just seeing what happens.”

Within about a minute the two are pashing, oblivious to passers-by on the now-busy Taylor Square. The bears certainly know how to make people feel welcome.