Bear HistoryBear Tracks

Bear Tracks: Bears of Color and Identity Politics in the 21st Century

For the better part of my life in the Bear and Leather community I have experienced highs and lows, My first encounters with acceptance were with people who would become not only mentors in my life as a self-identified “Leather Bear,” but also become part of my “Chosen Family” and remain so to this day.  But not everything has been sunshine and rainbows since my introduction to the Bear Community. In the early 1990s I had to fight for my right to exist in the same spaces where many others roam freely. My first foray into the “Bear Forest” made me feel unwelcome when the president of a club in the Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia area I was looking to join told me, “I am sorry but I don’t think you fit in. There is not such thing as a Black Bear.” Those words would hurt me to the core and fuel my fire to create welcoming spaces for other bears of color. It continues to this day. “No one puts Baby in the corner.” Not anymore!

When I became active in the community as the first contestant of color in many bear contests I was not in search of a title or recognition for myself, but for a way to represent the many Bears of Color who felt unwelcome in a community that claimed to welcome you. “Come as you are, Everyone is welcome!” I didn’t want anyone to go through the same experiences that I went through and, like my friend and mentor Steve Kenney said, “They need to see someone who looks like you. Show them who you are!!”

I began entering contests with borrowed leather in 1992. My first was Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend. Steve Kenney and Jim Wright lent me their boots, pants, harness, and vest to wear until the day I could buy own my own. Later that year I became a member of the Centaur M.C., an honor that I am still wearing as a patch on my back and have been for 32 years now. But unlike the Chesapeake Bay Bears, I was asked to join, to become a member, to be a brother in leather. I was wanted!!

Ali Lopez, International Mr. LeatherBear 2019-2024

Winning was never my goal but representing and helping underrepresented communities became my focus and goal. I ended winning Cub at the DC Eagle in 1992, first runner-up Cub at the Highway Men T.N.T., the first International Bear Rendezvous, Chesapeake Bay Bears’ Mr. Muscle Bear 1995, and first runner-up at Bear Pride Chicago, IL.    

My first international title was at International Bear Rendezvous in San Francisco. I was open to either serving as a security volunteer or participating in the contest, so that people would see a bear of color, namely, the first Afro-Latino, enter the contest in 1995.  But this time I did it to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, LA. (The IBR 2006 theme was Bear Mardi Gras, with part of the proceeds going to help the devastated community.) I became the first Bear of Color to win a title as Mr. IBR Daddy Bear in 2006. Unfortunately, the LGBQA+ media never covered it, conducted any interviews with me, or asked me who I was or what I represented. Through it all, I remained determined to help the city of New Orleans, and helped to raise over $10,000 dollars. I have kept working to make sure a Bear of Color is seen and heard at any opportunity that has come my way.

In September 2017 Dorado, my hometown in Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria. Once again I put the lessons I learned during my fundraising efforts for New Orleans to use. With the help of friends and members of the Centaur M.C. we began raising (to date) over $25,000, not just for my people in general, but for a newly emerging Bear and Leather community in the island–Bears of Puerto Rico, San Juan Metro Leather Men, and Puerto Rico Bear Events.

Slowly but surely, progress has been coming. Other Bears of Color would take on the stage, some winning contests, not just here in the United States but across the world. They have been representing their communities and causes which have impacted underserved communities. It has been an uphill climb, but with the rise of MAGA movement in 2016, it became acceptable for people to voice racist ideology as a form of “Free Speech.” Racism reared its ugly head in the Bear Forest once more. In the summer of 2018 a Facebook group called “Muscle Bears” created a questionnaire for membership in the public group. Question 3 added a statement that read, “If you are Asian or African, Do Not Join the group because you will be blocked!” We began to see more ads in Bear Dating apps with “No Blacks or Asians, Fem or Fats” and in Bear sites, It’s just a preference!!”People are increasingly disrespecting Bears of Color at bear events. And the lack of representation in LGBTQA media (magazines, art and cultural programing) continues.

While attending Bear events I have witnessed event photographers covering the event skipping or avoiding the ethnic groups. This has made me approach many photographers and ask “Why are you skipping this group of good-looking Bears?” Many hadn’t noticed their “unconscious biases.” But the end result is that many of our bears of color are not missing from the events, they are just not covered in an equal manner. Many don’t feel welcome, especially when the ads only depict White Muscle Bears. The “come as you are” attitude has been replaced with “only if we find you hot, no Fem, no Trans, no Women, only masculine-presenting. It’s just a preference!!” For a community that wants to be accepted by the queer and straight mainstream, we sure have a lot of prejudice to throw around!

The other day I watched Bill Maher present his “’New Rules’ about Identity Crisis,” claiming that identity politics will be our undoing. He stated we should all be “Americans,” quoting Martin Luther King Jr., who famously said, “One day we will live in a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Morgan Freeman and Idris Elba both want to move away from talking about race. I would love to move away from talking about race.  I would love a day when I would not have to speak about how BOC, Mama Bears and Trans Bears are not welcome, when I could speak as a non-celebrity.

I don’t have that option. I have to work twice as hard for a promotion at work, when others coast or try to report you because they think you don’t deserve the promotion. Twice I’ve had cops pull me over at gun point because I looked like a suspect. I experienced husbands getting between me and their loved ones at a mall to “protect them from the Big Black Man,” when I was casually passing by them on my way to the movies. We are the ones whose history is being redacted, erased, or otherwise changed in school curricula. Could someone please let the conservatives and especially the MAGA crowd know that Critical Race Theory is not being taught in high schools? Let people know that our contributions to the tapestry of the United States of America are valid and should not be erased, but celebrated. Together we are stronger!!  But, I digress…

I have always identified myself as an American from Puerto Rico. I am Black, I am Latino and Taino and 100% Boricua, and I will fight with every breath in me for the day that my voice can take a rest. In the meantime, we have a whole world of Bears in the forest, represented by the International Bear Brotherhood Flag that Craig Byrnes and Paul Witzoske put forward to the membership of the Chesapeake Bay Bears. They voted it into existence.  I am proud to have been present for that vote on that glorious day!

I would like to thank my mentors, like Robert J. Remington and his husbear Rodger Ream, my husbear Ricky Mendez, the membership of The Centaur Motorcycle Club of Virginia, and acknowledge the mentorship and encouragement of Steve Kenney, Jim Wright, and J.P. Halford, who got me to “be the change you want to see!”

Photo by Jen Gaynor at World Pride/ Stonewall 50th Anniversary in New York City

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Ali Lopez

Angel L Alicea Lopez, A.K.A.: Ali Lopez, Beast, Bestia. - I am a Member of Centaur M.C. (30 years), Current Tribune , Fraternal Member of DC Bear Club, Comunidad Osos Puerto Rico,San Juan Metro Leather Men, Helping Orphans Prosper Everywhere USA, (Volunteer), Chesapeake School of Shotokan Karate Do, (Second degree black belt, assistant instructor), Volunteers as Santa Claus for Helping Orphans Prosper Everywhere of Baltimore and other organizations also as“Naughty Claws and his Nasty Elves" for the LGBTQ Community in the DMV. Contributor to The Bear Book II and Bears on Bears. Tittles: Bear Cub 1993 DC Eagle, Mr. Muscle Bear 1996 Chesapeake Bay Bears, Mr. International Bear Rendezvous Daddy Bear 2006, International Mr. LeatherBear 2019-23, U.S. Army veteran (Staff Sargent)

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