The New York Times' Lens blog has posted a series of photographs of gay bears (as in gay dudes who identify as bears, not actual homosexual Ursidae) snapped by 30-year-old Alan Charlesworth. They're decent shots of dudes that are hairier and rounder than your average dude. They represent a visual alternative to the pretty-boy, gym-bunny stereotype — you know, just as bears are meant to be.
In the accompanying piece, Charlesworth discusses his rejection of that tweezed-and-sculpted gay-male stereotype that he sees as perpetuated by society, in favor of this secondary, slightly lesser-known bear type. There's a degree of awareness that this move represents the a flipping of a binary, a way of creating another box for those who don't fit into the main one: "He said, for all their disdain for superficial gay culture, Bears can be obsessively body-focused, too, just on bigger bodies."
But then there is this:
Yes, bears tend to idealize larger, hairier men, he found. But Mr. Charlesworth also found that there was room for cubs (younger bears), otters (skinny, but still hairy), polar bears (older men) and, "whatever other strange woodland creatures" as well.
The more he photographed, the more he came to see that being a bear had little to do with adhering to one body type. He said he now sees the culture as a way for gay men to be accepted as part of a group, no matter what its members look like.
That's ridiculous. Even within the range that Charlesworth describes, he is still capturing guys who all tend to be bigger and more hirsute than others. The idea that this somehow represents an all-embracing pool of men is just untrue – there are no discernible men of color in the 18 shots on the site, for one thing. For another, you could just as easily find variation in the stereotypically perfect subset of gay men, too: tall guys, short guys, brunettes, blondes, Latinos, black guys, white guys, and so on. The problem isn't the variety within the subset, it's defining the subset based on appearance ideals in the first place. If gay bear culture were really so accepting, it wouldn't need to exist as such – it would just be an amorphous free-for-all.
Charlesworth said he had a hard time "identifying" with the scene he so wanted to understand, which I can relate to. In my experience, the bear scene is not open to just anybody. That's fine. Bear culture has its place. It isn't hurting anyone and there are essential, positive components of it that go beyond hair and heft and "Woof," even. But let's not pretend that grouping for primarily superficial reasons is better than conforming to the first group that wouldn't have you as is for its own superficial reasons. Let's not pretend that choosing a group, even if it's niche, is an expression of individuality.