Written by Yu Dung Shiu
Image credit: Kicior99, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
When we think of a typical gay man, we often produce a white boy with a cute face, perhaps with feminine elegance, wearing an oversized white T-shirt tucked into skinny jeans. We might also imagine a more traditionally masculine gay man: a well-tanned hunky boy with six-pack abs. However, many different kinds of gay men exist in the pan-gay culture, and only a few in the community live up to these common stereotypes. The subculture that interests me the most is the so-called “bear community.” I have been studying Taiwan’s “bear community” for around a year now. Once I told my friend that I was researching ‘bears,” my friend was confused about why a sociology student was interested in animals. However, the bear community is one of the most popular subcultures within the gay community. With the expansion of their culture, more people have got to know them, and as a result, they have formed a stabler community with their own social spaces like bars or nightclubs, dating apps and online platforms. They have also developed their aesthetic standards as to who is a “real’ bear. The bear community typically refers to a group of gay men who self-define and usually have high body fat, body hair, and an air of rugged masculinity, but who is and who is not a bear is not always that simple.
Once, I spoke with a man who looked like a bear; he was shocked that I called a man sitting about two meters away from a “bear.” That man was bigger than anyone else in the café and was eating a lot of food (a large size dinner box, two loaves of bread and a whole bunch of grapes) for his dinner. “I think you’re too naïve to recognise who is a bear and who is …it may be harsh but…a pig,” said the bear-man smoking with me. So, I asked him if he could teach me how to recognise who is a bear and who’s not.
Who is a Bear, and who is not? An introduction to Taiwanese gay bear cultures
The bear community is a branch of the gay subculture that began in San Francisco in the 1980s. It is focused on strong big muscular bodies with dense body hair. These distinct body types set them apart from the mainstream Twink community (cute, typically white skinny gays) or other strong gays with low body fat percentages. However, Taiwanese gay bear men usually cannot have the same lush body hair as Western gay bears but still use the same high muscle and body fat standards to identify themselves.
My informants and Dr Lin Chwen-Der’s research reveal that the Japanese gay bear culture has highly influenced Taiwanese gay bear culture, especially in bear magazines like G-Men and porn videos. Dr Lin’s definition of the Taiwanese gay bear as ‘strong or chubby, but not too fat” is useful. They also add that for Taiwanese bears ,” thick body hair is not necessary,” “but it can make you more competitive.”
With the rise of bear culture in Taiwan, a new aesthetic standard has appeared in Taiwan. Greater Taipei, Taiwan’s most populated region, is where gay culture has flourished and developed the most. There are now a lot of social spots for gay men’s nightlife. Nightclubs, bars, and cafeterias for gay community can be found all over Taipei, especially downtown. If you are a gay bear in Taipei, you will have heard of Ximending, a popular tourist area in downtown Taipei. It is also an important social place for gay bear men, with many bear bars and saunas. Many bears go there after work, looking for some fun, making friends, or spending their evenings chilling. Indeed, sauna culture is one of the distinctive features of bear culture. Gay bears go to Ximending and enjoy their social life in the sauna room. In addition, I have heard of some young gay boys who go to Beitou, the outskirts of Taipei City, for hot springs and looking for someone to hit on.
Despite emerging as a counterculture to tackle the normative body types preferred in gay communities, such normative standards of masculinity have also started to remerge in the bear community. For example, with the rise of fitness culture in Taiwan, many gay bears go to the gym intending to grow bigger muscles, which will increase their popularity in the bear community. This has also made gyms a popular hangout spot for bears and part of the bear culture. Although increasingly subject to ideas of masculinity and strength, these norms are not interpreted the same way in the bear culture. Unlike more mainstream gay men, gay bears will focus on training their chest and abdominal muscles. I once asked a bear friend why this was the case, considering most bears don’t have a six-pack. “We can’t have six-pack abs,” he replied, “we can only have buffalo abs because of our high body fat percentages.” Buffalo abs is a special term to describe the armour-like abs, which are not divided into six packs but don’t have too much fat hanging there.
New aesthetic standards and challenges for bears?
One night I was chatting with a bear-y man who does not see himself as a bear; he told me about the unfriendliness in gay bear communities. “I always think that people have to be themselves,” he said, “if you’re a fat man, just be yourself, and you will find someone who loves you.” However, not everyone in the bear community thinks that way. “Bear men always expect others to be hunky, masculine, and handsome,” said the waiter at A-Drop Cafe, a popular bear cafe, . “We want everyone to be themself, but at the same time, we are also imitating others,” he added. Dr Lin Chwen-Der has pointed out that there is a hierarchical standard in the gay bear culture in Taiwan. The stronger you are, the higher you are in the desirability hierarchy. Therefore, if you want to be more competitive in the gay bear community, you must go to the gym more often and get bigger and hunkier. Dr Lin also highlights the need for capital to purchase clothes and accessories like the popular brands of Superdry or Abercrombie & Fitch, which are not cheap. This said Dr Lin’s research was published over ten years ago, and subcultures have evolved. When I asked them about the common attire in the bear community, one of them told me that these days, Superdry and A&F are no longer popular in their community. Instead, influenced by the Japanese gay bear culture, people often wear Jinbei (じんべい), a loose Japanese kimono jacket, or Rokushaku Fundoshi, a traditional Japanese underwear.
In my experience, although they were hanging out in a marginal social spot (compared with others at the centre of Ximending), I was told that these bears can still feel the effect of this desirability hierarchy. Moreover, their self-perceived low placement on it hurts their self-esteem. To be more attractive or popular in a socially competitive community, gay bears become more similar. As a result, the invisible expectation of what constitutes a bear has quietly emerged. The bear community initially formed as an identity group to run against the mainstream gay community, seeking a friendlier and more tolerant community. However, as new aesthetic standards have emerged, it is time for the bears to rethink how they can build a more accepting community.
Perhaps the best way to help address the creep of normative standards is to realise and accept just how diverse the bear community is. This is a fact that is obvious in so-called bear spaces themselves. For example, I am doing my fieldwork at A-Drop Café, a cafe located on the outskirts of Ximending. One day I asked someone: is everyone in the café gay? I received a surprising answer: “Nah, some of them are just straight men who live around here or just want to find a place to do their own thing,” said a bear who works there. Some straight guys go there every day. Also, many people will always pass under building overhangs due to these spatial conditions (located in a popular downtown, with no doors and open to the street). Some are gay, but most are not. It’s a place full of all kinds of people regardless of sexuality.
The bear community emerged as a response to strict beauty standards in the gay community. As the community has internationalised and entered new contexts like Taiwan, the precise standards have shifted and continue to evolve but have created new forms of restriction. As bears have gained visibility, the pressure to be the correct kind of bear increased within the bear community. For example, in Taiwan, only certain people can now be “bears;” others are referred to using new stigmatised language like “pig.” This is a shame because the community in practice is much more diverse than the standards imposed. Going into bear spaces, I have met a range of people who come together to interact. If the bear community could define itself by its areas and by creating real communities rather than by narrow beauty standards, more people could feel included. The bear community could return to its roots as a challenge to mainstream gay masculinity.
Written by Yu Dung Shiu studies anthropology and sociology at National Taiwan University
This article was published as part of a special issue on “Queer Taiwan”