Bear Essentials: A Local History

By Randy Stern November 6, 2008

Categories: Uncategorized

Tags:

About 15 years ago, the bear community began to join together formally in the Twin Cities. Two groups were established in the early 1990s: North Country Bears and MinnBears. Has it ever crossed your mind that some gay men actually love being larger than the average body type, sport facial and body hair, and embrace their sexuality—all at the same time?

For decades, the GLBT community refused to acknowledge—or chose to ignore—gay men who pack a few more pounds than doctors would allow. Consequently, a subculture formed that, for the past 15 years, has become a phenomenon garnering the attention of celebrities such as Kathy Griffin, Kevin Smith, and Esera Tuaolo.

However, bear culture is not a new sensation. It is far from being the latest trend. Certainly, plenty of talk has circulated about this subcommunity for years without even considering what it is really all about. Perhaps now is the time to look closely at one of the most active, cohesive, and vibrant segments of our local GLBT community.

Bears always have been a part of the GLBT community, going back to the early years of gay liberation. Not surprisingly, larger-framed men are prominent figures in Upper Midwestern mainstream society. The archetype of the strapping young corn-fed man points to the conditions from which gay men came in rural sections of this region. When they moved to the Twin Cities, and settled into gay culture, they found avenues to bond with other masculine, strapping young (and older) corn-fed men for camaraderie and carousing.

If they arrived here looking like Paul Bunyan or any other regional archetypes, eventually, they became somewhat similar to them. This aesthetic alone is what brings bears together. In turn, they are invited into local establishments, patronizing their local bar, and finding the man of their dreams (or for the moment).

About 15 years ago, the bear community began to join together formally in the Twin Cities. Two groups were established in the early 1990s: North Country Bears and MinnBears. They differed in their approaches to memberships, but served their purpose as a place for bears to enjoy themselves with varying events around the area. MinnBears was modeled more closely on the traditional bear-club organization—strict membership rules, including a minimum age limit of 21 years old, as most of its events were based at a bar. At the time, both bear clubs seemed to have an equal number of members attending their events, with a significant crossover between the two.

By 1997, a new movement arrived in the Twin Cities that conformed to the traditional bear-club model. Originally founded in Northern California, Gen-X Bears started a chapter locally for younger bears who did not fit in with either of the existing two bear clubs. The organizers enlisted the help of a local Internet service provider, Hockey.net, to run the Web site and e-mail listserv for the entire national and later international organization.

Reception of Gen-X Bears by the mainstream bear clubs ranged from stoic to hostile. By the time the newer movement began to die out locally, it had become influential in shaping the way bear clubs do business with their community by eliminating traditional methods of membership and participation. Currently, North Country Bears is one of the few bear groups in the world organized similar to the Gen-X Bears model.

In the meantime, another original idea emerged the bear community’s rank and file. With the information technology boom in the Twin Cities, a significant number of people employed in that field happened to be members of the GLBT community, including bear-identified men. In addition to bar events at the Town House and subsequently Trikkx, a group of bears employed in the IT industry started a coffee group on Sunday afternoons. It led to what became Bear Coffee at Café Prague in Minneapolis, a weekly gathering for these men to discuss their lives and their work. Another Bear Coffee was formed around the same time at a Starbucks on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. With the closure of Café Prague, the midweek coffee gathering eventually moved to Dunn Brothers at Hennepin and 34th in South Minneapolis.

At the Millennium, North Country Bears stood alone as the bear club for an entire region. Smaller groups then began, including Chippewa Valley Bears in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Bear Coffee in Rochester. Additionally, the genesis of bear-based teams in the Twin Cities Goodtime Softball League and the recent foundation of Minneapolis Movie Bears meant more social and philanthropic opportunities for local bears.

In the course of 25 years, no one would have guessed that a diverse group of hirsute men and their admirers would become a cornerstone in the Twin Cities GLBT community. Is it a trend that will go away in a year or so? On the contrary, as long as bear-identified men still are relocating to the Twin Cities, this subculture is definitely here to stay.

6 Responses to Bear Essentials: A Local History

  1. Logan Quinn says:

    This article misses a couple key historical notes on the local history of bears.

    One: That the North Country Bears, absorbed the failing MNBears (Correct name) in an effort to preserve the peace and unit the two very different mindsets between the groups. While the NCBears was run by three friends and focused on being just a social, no-dues, pay-as-you-go-club, the MNBears were more politically active, running fund raisers and the like for local causes and had a $25 annuakl membership fee, which gave voting privilages. The NCBears’ model was far more popular than the MNBears model. The NCBears, having no legal status, took on MNBears’ Not-for-profit status with the merger and added a fourth board position of treasurer.

    Two: As I was a member of the board after the merger for a time, When the Gen-X group formed up (or perhaps reformed), I recall no hostility towards the group from the board, and we welcomed them with open arms to the community. We even gave the President of the group a seat on the board as an At-Large member.

    Three: The Grand Ave Bear Coffee at Star Bucks actually predated Cafe Prague, and for a while the two co-existed, until Cafe Prague closed. When the Club started to actively advertise the Wednesday Night Bear Coffee gatherings at Starbucks on their website calendar, the group got too big for the space, and the new location at Dunn Bros. was selected. And for a year or so there was even a bear dinner gathering after coffee nights, which started in St. Paul, and moved across the river with the coffee nights, but that died away.

  2. Scott Schumacher says:

    What a great article! Bears Rule!

    Who wrote this article and why is there not a byline?

  3. Logan Quinn says:

    I thought Randy Stern wrote this article?

  4. Andy Lien says:

    Logan,

    Since this was in 2008, I’m not sure who wrote the article. The website went over a major overhaul two years ago and some of the bylines were lost. I can check with Randy to find out if he wrote it; or try to find out who did.

    Thanks,

    Andy, Managing Editor

  5. Andy Lien says:

    I just checked with Randy and he did write it. Thanks for asking! I’ll update the post byline.

    Andy

Links to this post
  1. […] if you live outside the area I described above, you can read it online here. Just a note: The online version does not have a […]

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!