Monday, 20 March 2017

Bear Beginnings

One of the deaths that went virtually unnoticed, even by me, was the passing of George Mazzei a year ago today.  His name may not be very familiar to most people but in the world of late 20th century American journalism his name was better known, and no more so than in the pages of “Advocate” and “GQ”. George also became something of a celebrity briefly in the 1980s after he write a book called “The New Office Etiquette”.

In 1979 George Mazzei wrote an article for “Advocate” called “Who’s Who at the Zoo” which was published on 26th July 1979. It was a light-hearted article illustrated with cartoons of the various anthropomorphic gay types it described. Subtitled “A Glossary of Gay Animals” George described seven types of gay men he had seen around the bars of Los Angeles and represented them as animals. The first type he described was the “bear”.

George’s article can arguably be described as the first publicly published attempt to define, albeit humorously, what we now accept as the sub-group of the lgbt community, the big and hairy man, the bear. But he was not the first to use that word in this context.

Various people have delved into the origin of the term “bear” as used in the lgbt community. Most prominent among these is Dr. Les K. Wright who, during his time as Assistant Professor of English and Humanities at Mount Ida College in Boston, Massachusetts, founded the Bear History Project in 1994. This project is ongoing and continues to uncover the hidden heritage of the international bear community.

It was Les Wright in “The Bear Book: Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture” which he edited in 1994, that George Mazzei gets the credit for producing the first published reference to bear as a gay identity in the “Advocate” article.

The term “bear” had been used to describe a masculine body type for several decades. In fact, it had been used for centuries to describe a person who was rather brutish and savage, a complete opposite to the image modern gay bear-men portray. It has also been used for a long time in speech and print in the form of the phrase “a bear of a man”. This referred typically to a large, well-built man with a lot of facial hair. Its use as a specific term within the gay community developed out of this, specifically within the leather community after World War II.

It is generally accepted that the USA was the place where “bear” began to be used as self-identification. Various gay leather communities in cities around North America began to form informal gatherings of big and hairy leathermen without necessarily knowing they were creating a subculture or even creating a term for a new subculture at the time.

During the 1950s when the hanky code was expanding and being used more extensively these leather-bear pioneers began to place teddy bears in their pockets or belts rather than hankies. These teddy bears were to symbolise the wearer being fond of cuddling. In this way it can be argued that these men were the first bears as we know them today, even if they still hadn’t specifically used the term as the name of a subculture. It was the time when the men described as bar took the bear as a means of identification.

The teddy bear had effectively become an object of affection after the real bear cub rescued by President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was immortalised as a cuddly toy. The teddy bear softened the image of the creature from a savage and brutish animal whose crushing bear-hug became a friendly hug. I wonder if Teddy Roosevelt’s niece Eleanor Roosevelt realised that her uncle had become the grand-daddy of the gay bear community!

No-one know who or where the word “bear” turned from being a description of body type to being a name of a subculture. It started with the first group who used the word “bear” in their name. In Les Wright’s “The Bear Book” there is reference to the minutes of a meeting of Satyr’s Motorcycle Club in Los Angeles in February 1966 in which the formation of a bear club is mentioned.

While George Mazzei was living in Los Angeles in the 1970s he and a friend were in a leather bar people-watching when they thought of categorizing the customers into animal types. Having already self-identified themselves as bears they went on to develop other anthropomorphic identities for the other customers in that bat that night. From this emerged the “creatures” described by George in his “Advocate” article “Who’s Who at the Zoo?” in 1979.

The publication of that article provided a wider realisation across America that such an identity existed. Many bear-men who had no link or interest in the leather community saw themselves in George’s article Cowboy-bears, construction-worker-bears, sporting bears, and others, joined the new bear groups and clubs formed originally by the leather-bears.

The emergence of the internet spread the word further and before soon isolated bear groups around the world were joined by many more. And, as befitting a self-identifying community, a flag was chosen in 1995 at a Chesapeake Bay Bear pool party.
George Mazzei defined the bear community before it was fully formed, and led thousands of men to declare themselves to be bears. So, a belated thank you, George, for helping to turn a general gay slang term into a full-fledged community.

If you want to read George Mazzei’s article you can see it reproduced on the Advocate’s website here.

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