At a recent holiday fundraiser at Town, even Santa Claus was a bear. Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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You start with a quick peck on the cheek, allowing your scruff to velcro the brush on his face.

Then you pat his belly, briefly handling a soft, furry mound beneath his flannel button-up.

“It’s been too long,” you might say.

“You’ve put on weight,” he’ll respond with a wink.

“It goes straight to my gut,” you’ll say, rolling your eyes as he signals his approval: “Woof!”

Voices quickly rise over the soft music. A DJ spins Pink Floyd, then the Eurythmics—as much classic rock as four-on-the-floor pop, all of it gaining volume as the dance floor fills with mammoth, hirsute bodies. No one’s dancing, not yet; the kiss-pat-woof ritual repeats across the room. You raise your individual pitcher of Bud Light and swig.

The Bear Happy Hour on Friday nights at Town Danceboutique doesn’t resemble the scene at later hours or on other nights in this palatial gay club on 8th Street NW. There’s some Top 40, true. There are almost no women. And you might spot a few vodka tonics sitting half-consumed on the bartop. What you won’t see much of is the gay urban archetype known as the twink, or what you might call mainstream gay nightlife: no young, toned, shirtless bodies in tight Diesel jones; no Madonna marathons or skinny go-go boys grinding on pedestals. Not for the first hour or two, anyway.

Instead of hot-blooded 20-somethings, Town begins each weekend with a different sort of eye candy: blue-collar fashion, proletarian body types, and nearly 500 beards so dense they seem to exert their own gravity. An hour or so in, anyone hoping for a quick shot is out of luck. The line at the bar is mosh-pit-thick.

What’s remarkable about the Bear Happy Hour and the District’s wider bear culture isn’t simply their success as an alternative to more mainstream gay nightlife. Now at least 30 years old, bearism may have begun as an older, less effeminate scene for gays who felt they didn’t fit into other gay subcultures, but by the 2000s it had become its own mainstream, especially in bear-friendly D.C. There are regular bear gatherings at DC Eagle, The Green Lantern, and even PW’s Sports Bar & Grill in Laurel, Md. There are bear social clubs that host hiking trips and pool parties. On Facebook, pages for local bear groups boast thousands of likes.

And now a whole taxonomy of bears and related archetypes—cubs, muscle bears, otters, chasers—has complicated the scene, clarified its folkways, and opened it up to more ages and body types and interests. There are bear alternatives within the wider bear ecosystem—some bears are more outre or punk or traditionalist than others. And there’s a withering sense among some old grizzlies that the scene has lost sight of its inclusive ethos—and the opposite concern among others that it has become too open to outsiders.

Charger Stone
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Being a bear, in other words, has gotten pretty complicated. On its website, the organizer of the Bear Happy Hour, DC Bear Crue, defines the appellation by more or less declining to, admitting that “there is ongoing debate in bear communities about what constitutes a bear, however a CONSENSUS EXISTS THAT INCLUSION IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE BEAR COMMUNITY.”

Whatever bear means to him, a single man interested in bigger guys could certainly do worse than Town. Thanks to the dearth of tables, most attendees stand but don’t dance; for a dance night, the conversational circles are unusually porous. Couples aren’t uncommon, but neither is nonmonogamy. Just about any male body type has a shot at making friends, or going home with a new one, though depending on who you ask, some have better odds than others.

Fans of serious debauchery may be disappointed. There’s no public man-on-man action among Town’s early Friday crowd, and aside from an occasional frisky make-out session, drunken hookups happen elsewhere. Ask the regulars about their past, and you’re as likely to find someone who cautiously came out late in life as someone with a wild and reckless youth behind him. Most of the bears in the room are older, comfortably settled professionals interested in a night without drama. “Most of my job is done before I walk in the door,” says Charger Stone, the founder of DC Bear Crue and a massage therapist. “By the time I get there, it’s just tons of hugging and kissing and greeting friends.”

In an hour or two, it’ll be Town as usual—go-go boys, Madonna anthems—and as the Bear Happy Hour wanes, the two constituencies begin to overlap.

For bears, it wasn’t always like this. They had their own clubs (or their own dank basements beneath clubs), staying away from more common, more effeminate strains of gay culture. But in 2013, the bears are at mainstream-gay ground zero.

“It all started when I grew a beard,” says Joe Tresh, who works in operations at a technology company and photographs LGBT events. In the mid-1990s, when Tresh lived in Philadelphia, a flirtatious stranger unexpectedly introduced him to the ursine world. “He said, ‘You’re my type. I only like guys with facial hair,’” says Tresh. “That blew my mind. Not that I thought facial hair was unattractive, but that someone might only be interested in guys with it.”

Later, while Tresh was still exploring Philadelphia’s gay scene, he found himself at a sparsely attended leather bar. He was about to leave when he heard a crowd on the floor below the main bar. Stepping down the stairs, he stumbled into a bear event—and realized he’d found his people. A sturdy-built, even-keeled, 42-year-old gay man, Tresh looks the part. He now sports a well-kept beard and a laid-back demeanor, and documents bear culture on the website Bear Nonsense and a Facebook group dedicated to bear history.

Like many bears, Tresh once felt out of place in a gay culture that—at least to a young gay man—can seem to prize feminine traits and a slim, smooth look. “There were very effeminate guys—who are normally that way and that’s fine—but they were saying, ‘We’re what gay men are,’” Tresh says of the subculture’s origins. “And there were these other guys that were like, ‘But that’s not me.’”

Bears might be best defined by what they’re not: the trim, well-manicured Will & Grace stereotype. The blogger and journalist (and until his recent move to New York, prominent D.C. bear) Andrew Sullivan attempted to define beardom in a 2003 article for Salon. “Bears at their most typical look like regular, beer-drinking, unkempt men in their thirties, forties, and fifties,” Sullivan wrote. “They have guts. They have furry backs. They don’t know what cologne is, and they tend not to wear deodorant.” Traits that outsiders might attribute with graceless aging—guts, body hair, rugged features—are desirable marks of maturation among bears.

Outside the bear community, the view can be less charitable. In his 2012 treatise on homosexual archetypes, Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, the fashion personality Simon Doonan goes on a bear hunt:

Most Bears are at least twice my size. I have visions of being accidentally crushed to death, or mistaken for a light snack. The Bears are a whole lotta gay, and a whole lotta straight. Somehow, they manage to embody both the scary libidinal excesses of the gays with the even scarier belligerent, beer-guzzlin’, wife-beatin’, redneck-trucker aesthetic of the worst kind of straight men.

Joe Tresh
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Still, by the end of Operation Goldilocks—after interviews with a “Gingham Bear,” two “Fashion Bears,” and a “Blasé Bear”—even Doonan gets it. “By adopting that brutish, hetero, aggressively un-gay disguise, [bears] have created a safe space where they can live happily and cum all over the carpet whenever they feel like it. You go, girls!”

In one fashion or another, bear culture represents a kind of normalization of gay culture. In some ways, Sullivan argued in 2003, beardom represents some gay men’s desire “for a world in which their natural state of being men is neither constrained nor tortured nor contrived”—a bridge between gay culture and guy culture. For others, like the well-known post-punk singer Bob Mould, who was a mainstay of D.C.’s bear scene in the mid-2000s, the subculture is an entrée for misfits into mainstream gay life. In his 2011 memoir See a Little Light, Mould describes discovering Dupont’s DIK Bar: “It reminded me of my punk rock days: guys in flannel shirts, T-shirts, and jeans. There wasn’t a lot of pretense, sarcasm, or campy behavior…I enjoyed the company of guys who were comfortable with their masculinity. At DIK Bar I didn’t feel like I had to do anything to fit in except be myself. I didn’t have to try to look or act like a bear because I already was one.”

Certainly, beardom remains both a gay alternative as well as an “alternative” scene in the larger subcultural sense—at bear parties, the music tends to be a little more rock, and a little less Top 40—even as it’s grown from an obscure subculture to one that’s recognizable in pop culture. That alternative stance also means an emphasis on openness. By defining what they were not—young, thin, carbonated—bears, in theory, could be just about anything else.

Over time, the larger bear culture has defined some of the different kinds of people it attracts. Plaid-wearing hairy guys without the heft are otters, and have a growing imprint of happy hours and charity events in the District. Hairy gym-lovers are muscle bears, younger bears are cubs, larger men without body hair are chubs, bear appreciators are chasers, and AARP members are leather daddies or polar bears, depending on whether they lean toward bike culture or beardom.

Adding to the potential confusion, the taxonomy of bears can be fluid. “There are two ways of looking” at beardom, says Stone, of DC Bear Crue. “As a strictly physical description, or in how you relate to someone else. In my current relationship, I’m the chaser and [my boyfriend is] the bear…I had another relationship once where I was the bear and he was a cub—he was younger.”

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None of them are deadly serious, but the mammalian names create a linguistic shorthand for both physical and emotional needs. A younger gay man needn’t always explain his attraction to older men; he can simply look for a daddy. Rather than blush at explaining a preference for beer guts, a middle-aged queer can just call himself a chaser. For any gay man struggling to stake out his particular claim to manhood, these archetypes simply offer more prefab options to explore. “Stereotypes can be horrible, of course,” says another local bear, Jake, a federal employee who declined to give his last name, “but there’s some truth to [the terms]. They’re shortcuts—as far as what I like, what I am, and what you like, and what you are.”

Historians of the subculture typically date beardom to the late 1970s or 1980s—early proponents of the term include Bear Magazine, founded in 1987, and the Lone Star Saloon in San Francisco. Some explain beardom as an outgrowth of leather culture. A related theory looks to changes in the aesthetic of gay pornography: Where the smut of the 1970s was full of untrimmed, mustachioed gentlemen, the acid-washed decade was unkind to body hair. As young, thin, and hairless became the new normal in the gay community, not everyone fit in. Over time, the bear scene overlapped to varying degrees with other gay subcultures that didn’t fit the twink mold, including the leather community, the daddy scene, and the chubcentric Girth & Mirth clubs of the ’80s.

The emergence of HIV around the time bears appeared as a cohesive culture may have played some part in the scene’s aesthetic development. “Some have suggested that the bear movement, in coinciding with the AIDS epidemic, represents a move toward a physical appearance that should in theory seem safer, healthier, more attractive,” writes Dr. Lawrence D. Mass, a co-founder of the New York-based nonprofit Gay Men’s Health Crisis, in The Bear Book II. “If your partner is heavy, so the simplistic logic would go, he’s less likely to have AIDS.” Some bears I interviewed theorized that the bear community, hoping to support HIV-positive individuals, wanted to recast the weight gain that comes with certain HIV medications as a virtue rather than an unfortunate medical symptom.

Informal bear clubs sprung up in San Francisco, and the idea quickly spread to D.C. and other major cities. Perhaps the first group of its kind in the area, the Chesapeake Bay Bears emerged in the early 1990s. Other clubs, like Beltway Bears, 495 Bears, and in January 1995, the D.C. Bear Club, followed. Typically, bear clubs have meager membership dues and host meetings, pool parties, bar nights, and camping trips. (One of D.C. beardom’s more important contributions to the subculture is the International Bear Brotherhood flag: a spectrum of skin and hair colors with a bear-paw track in one corner. Created by Paul Witzkoske and Craig Byrnes, the flag was selected at a Chesapeake Bar Bears event and now shows up bear events across the globe.)

These days, Stone’s Bear Crue isn’t the only organizer of D.C. bears, but its calendar is a key portal to the rest of the scene. D.C. Movie Bears gather on Wednesday nights. Monday night is Bears Do Yoga, second Saturdays feature Bears Can Dance, and in February there’s a bearcentric ski trip. Tresh’s Bear Nonsense lists events like a cigar party benefitting Brother Help Thyself that is co-sponsored by 495 Bears. Private bear parties born from Friday night conversations pop up most Saturday evenings. A furry gay man from Chicago could quickly plug into the D.C. bear scene and find plenty to do.

Though membership-based social clubs are less prominent now, for bears like Stone, hairy gatherings have consistently offered a safe haven from judgment about his physical preferences. “It was difficult for me coming out,” he says. “I was in the Marine Corps, so I would leave Quantico and hang out with lesbian friends in Virginia Beach. When I would see somebody and say, ‘He’s hot,’ the immediate reaction was, ‘He’s old and fat.’ So I just stopped pointing people out. I’d never heard of a bear before, but I thought beards were nice and I liked furry bellies.”

Most of the bears I interviewed shared a similar story of discovering the subculture—and becoming comfortable with their own identities by finding a D.C. bear gathering or starting their own. “It’s like coming out a second time,” Jake says.

When Mould moved to D.C. in the early 2000s, he began making electronic music with Rich Morel, a songwriter and producer who’s made remixes for mainstream acts while building an underground dance following with his own tracks. When in 2003 Mould suggested they start a gay dance party, they began spinning at Velvet Lounge. They called the party Blowoff.

“We never viewed it as a bear event initially,” says Mould. “It was a rock ’n’ roll party, but it became a beneficiary of the bear community.” The night soon moved to the basement bar of the 9:30 Club, and eventually to selling out the entire 1,000-capacity venue. The dance music-focused party, which tends to draw a heavyset, leather-friendly crowd that mainly seems to comprise men in their 30s, now tours the country. “When I talk to people who haven’t heard of Blowoff, I tell them it’s my generation’s Studio 54,” says William Tyler, the founder of Gen-X D.C. Bears. “It’s always a good time. There’s dancing, bears take their shirts off, they’re sweating and grinding.”

Certainly, Blowoff isn’t the only outgrowth of bear culture that feels mainstream. Only a decade ago, the term was relatively unknown outside the gay community. The cult director John Waters may have been the first filmmaker with a large following to mention bears, in 2004’s A Dirty Shame. Now, the idea is relatively commonplace: John Goodman, a longtime favorite of bears, recently referenced the subculture in a sketch for the comedy website Funny or Die. On television, characters like Glee’s Dave Karofsky or Modern Family’s Cameron Tucker would fit in easily at Bear Happy Hour.

And where bears may have once stood apart, now there’s outside interest. This is certainly true Fridays at Town, where there are always a few younger guys that Jake describes as “bear-curious,” skinny-looking twinks that sneak away from their usual crowd to see what the fuss is about. Though the bear crowd is typically, almost genetically, inclusive, Stone admits, “With that size crowd, not everyone is going to be nice to everyone.” A handful of older bears might complain that certain guys don’t belong at bear night. It’s not the norm, but “when more skinny or effeminate guys walk in, a few bears get an ‘I’m gonna eat you for breakfast’ sneer,” says Stone.

To a degree, the bitterness is understandable. If, after choosing to stand apart from younger, fitter men, a bear finally finds his den, it’s natural he wants to defend it. “I definitely know through experience that there are people who want to be part of the bear community that have had a difficult time—because they’re younger or they’re twinks,” Tresh says. “You’re going to get the asshole who says, ‘Who are you to be hanging out with us? You just look like you’re 13 years old.’ So that poor [23-year-old] kid gets treated like a jerk by this asshole who wants to feel better about himself, but hopefully that kid turns around and meets me and says, ‘You know what, forget about that asshole.’”

For bears, becoming culturally accepted has turned out to be a mixed blessing—a feeling any outsider culture knows once it’s absorbed into the mainstream. Bear culture is now more visible and accessible—and also more susceptible to dilution. Noting that several local social clubs for bears had died out while other gatherings are too porous, Tresh last year started a new happy hour at Rock & Roll Hotel that’s purposely more intimate than Town’s. “I noticed I wasn’t getting a chance to really talk to the guys who had been coming to Bear Happy Hour all along,” he says. A middle-aged, once passive member of an aging scene, Tresh says he wants to keep the scene thriving. Each month, his bear night attracts as many as 200 attendees to the rock club’s rooftop deck. For Tresh, it’s most important that the night belongs to the bears, not to a bar. (Stone doesn’t seem to be sweating the friendly competition. He says Tresh’s night offers a quality alternative for local bears on the same night of the week, though he quickly notes its inception hasn’t harmed Town’s numbers.)

Proponents of a purer form of bearism encounter a kind of paradox: They want to keep their gatherings within the family, but they also risk betraying the time-held inclusiveness that the culture values. That can lead to a kind of reverse-ageism, for one thing: While Jake has found a place to hang in Rock & Roll Hotel’s bear gatherings, his personal preference for slimmer, smoother types doesn’t always go over well. Some bears may enforce an aesthetic dogmatism, as well. “Certainly, there are going to be some bears who say, ‘You’re not going to be a part of my clique unless your fur is perfectly manicured, and you go to the gym twice a week.’” Tresh says. “But that’s going to be anywhere.”

The changing nature of dating has impacted bear culture, too. A bear no longer needs happy hours to find a fellow bear to roll around with, thanks to Scruff and Growlr, geocentric apps that are like bear-specific versions of Grindr, the popular smartphone network for finding gay men in one’s vicinity. What bears then risk losing, Tresh says, is their community.

No longer ghettoized, bears face a soft tyranny of acceptability. They were once a kind of underground resistance, like-minded individuals cutting against not only a straight society but against the dominant LGBT undercurrents. Now that they’re no longer a strange, hairy outlier—a frequently cited marketing survey by A Bear’s Life magazine estimated the United States has 1.4 million men who identify as bears—how do they rally the troops? As Town’s weekly gathering grows, the bear purist would argue, the camaraderie of shared discontent begins to fade. The scene diversifies, its options multiply exponentially, but the glue that held the movement together from the start threatens to dry out.

Which might be just as well—and for the better. “To be able to go to 9:30 [Club] and [Rock & Roll] Hotel, places I would want to go anyway, but not just as someone in the crowd, as openly myself, and to be accepted there—it’s just validating,” says Jake.

A large man is navigating the crowd on the roof of Rock & Roll Hotel, and he wants you to put your teddy bear in his box.

Tonight, the Beltway Bears are collecting plush toys to take to Children’s National Medical Center. While Tresh catches up with his old friends, I chat with a number of other bears. Many say they prefer the more intimate atmosphere to the more mainstream, diverse vibe at Town. Others dislike the curious bear admirers at Town, whom they say make the evening too much of a spectacle. Some say they prefer the punk and metal played at Rock & Roll Hotel to the range of dance and classic rock at Town.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

When I run into Tyler and Witzkoske, who are partners, I bring up their standard greeting among friends: the kiss, belly rub, and occasional “woof.” Some bears say it stems from the actress Madeline Kahn—perhaps not a gay icon, but close enough—in her role as Elizabeth in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. When the monster wordlessly propositions her, and after an initial shock, she notes the impressive bulge in his pants and exclaims, “Woof!” The same humor and insinuation underlie the term today, which is an apt fit for a bear gathering: an atypical but exciting sexual situation that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

It’s an older crowd—at 28 and with no belly to speak of, I feel slightly out of place—that pays deference to age and is slightly suspicious of youth. More traditionally attractive men might be surprised to find themselves having to prove their worth, and those lacking a tuft of chest hair might have to fend off unexpected feelings of inadequacy.

A crew once unified by a threat that’s now largely dispersed must appear outdated to some of the scene’s newcomers. Where Stone’s Crue pushes for bigger, broader appeal, Tresh errs on the side of tradition; both work to bridge the gap between historical identity and contemporary relevance. Tresh speaks to a deep-rooted but open-armed congregation, while Stone exudes the contagious excitement of a freshly minted youth pastor, eager to win new souls for the cause.

That Tresh thinks a primordial version of beardom is worth preserving speaks to the crucial role its mores have played in making men like him comfortable with their sexuality. One cynical view interprets beardom as a sort of straight-person drag, a means of overcompensating for feminine tendencies. But Tresh doesn’t see it that way. “The ’70s were about liberation, not equality. It was about being in your face and queer, and I think some of the campiness from some of the guys at the time might have been trumped up as a political statement,” Tresh says. “Whereas now, were they to be that age today, they’d be comfortable being more masculine.

“Now that we have liberation, and we’ve had it for a while, the goal has changed to equality,” Tresh says. “Marriage is the goal; not getting fired from my job is the goal.” The shift—and a more expansive definition of gayness—enables more average-seeming guys to feel a part of the gay movement, Tresh says.

Tresh’s views of beardom may seem traditionalist now—but then the subculture was always about carving out one’s own niche, about finding a different way to be gay. “I guess we’re lucky, in that we got to name ourselves,” Tresh says. “We self-identify, and we built our community on our own terms.”