Founding publisher Richard Jones shares the journey of establishing the world’s leading online lifestyle resource for bears, cubs, and their admirers.
As our community grows in its diversity, it’s important to represent and give voice to the different subcultures within the LGBTQ community. A growing queer demographic within the gay community are bears, however, their aspirations, issues, and identity often escape the attention of the mainstream LGBTQ community. This is why our media matters. It offers a virtual space where pleasure, ethics, and representation intersect. And it’s why publishers and editors are important stewards of our community: Often our own personal struggle for identity and acceptance is entwined with our media careers.
As Richard Jones, founding publisher of Bear World Mag noted recently, “My own personal development of being a bear, or discovering my ‘bear-ness,’ was interconnected with the magazine’s birth and early growth. Creating that first edition was a huge lesson in what the global bear community was like, who was in it, and what we were all interested in. It was very furry, plaid filled and masculine. It’s what I thought was needed at the time. I had not yet discovered Mama Bears, and even Trans bears were not yet part of my bear experience. They would come along wonderfully at a later time.”
Also to come along would be allies, admirers and enthusiastic interviewees such as Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin and India’s gay prince Manvendra Singh Gohil.
Jones — who is one half of Gray Jones Media, the other half being Robin Gray — has long been aware of the power of publishing and broadcasting. British by birth and now a New Yorker where he heads up a growing multinational media company with publications devoted to LGBTQ niche markets, he had dabbled in publishing gay magazines while living in the UK before pitching an idea to transform a dating website for bears into a digital magazine. Enter Bear World Magazine circa 2012. Ten years later it is thriving and delightful.
The first time I met Jones was on a travel media panel discussion during which we examined how to better serve under-represented market segments in our community — such as bears and lesbians. We clicked on this topic because for years I had felt lesbians were all but invisible in the mainstream LGBTQ community, and often overlooked as a viable consumer demographic— and so I empathized with bears!
It was a pleasure to sit down again with the visionary Jones and to look back at a decade of growth, and what’s in store for Bear World Mag and its readers!
You started Bear World Magazine in 2012. How familiar were you with the community and how did you build the readership?
Richard Jones: From April 2012 to September 2012 I basically dove into the bear community more than I already was and I really learned a lot about what was out there and how big a community it was, what were the big events, who were the big players in it? And I was really fortunate that so many people embraced me and didn’t feel like, Oh, who do you think you are doing this? They were, Oh, what are you doing, how can we help, can we be in it? Can we write for you? Can we do something? And it was a real kind of complete groundbreaking moment for myself as a recent bear, kind of discovering who I was as a bear, and what that meant in body positivity and just being who you are.
I was trying to break into TV prior to that, working with my best friend Anthony Miller as we had had some small success with our TV show, Springtime for Hilly on wedding TV. TV producers were telling us at the time, you’ve got to be thin. You’ve got to be young; you’ve got to be tan; you’ve got to be this and that. And it was just such a revelation for me to be able to break away from that go, Okay, I could be master of my own world, dive into this world that I’ve suddenly discovered even exists and has made me a happier gay man than I’ve ever been for the 40 years prior to that, because I was able to just be me, and people find me attractive, and I find people attractive there.
So you started Bear World Mag in the UK but you already had your eye on the American market?
Richard Jones: I started it in Northern Ireland, but it was very much focused on the American market because the American bear community, obviously, is bigger. So what I was doing in that April to September period was actually working midday, UK time till three or 4 a.m. UK time, to keep on all the time zones, and to talk to all the different people and be as responsive as possible to where all the bears were in the USA. It was an interesting time and Chris and Travis at Modern Bear took me under their wing and helped me with social media, that was fantastic… And the founder of the bear dating app, Growlr, was really supportive and sharing our stuff across his audience to really build our numbers up in that first year. I’ve been very lucky that the bear community took me as a complete rookie and I’ve learned along the way.
I think the magazine has grown with my understanding of the of the bear community because back in the day I wasn’t aware that there were trans bears, female bears. It wasn’t in my frame of reference then. But in the 10 years since, we put a mama bear, ‘Queen of the Bears’ Nikki Wireman, on the front cover, we put a trans bear, Verity Smith, on the front cover. And I’m just super proud of that journey.
What’s so interesting is in one decade you’ve gone from niche to one of the fastest growing groups in our community because it includes many others, from cisgender, to transgender, to nonbinary.
Richard Jones: I think the world has changed dramatically in the last 10, 20 years as to what those demographics are. You know, we’re not just men and women anymore. We are hundreds of different variants. The Internet has helped us find our tribes, and the people that we feel comfortable being with —be that just as friends or partners or just wanting to belong to a group. That’s very human: the desire to want to belong somewhere.
I like that you pitch Bear World Mag also to friends and admirers of bears. The content mix is interesting and appealing: Style, food, travel, art, drag, grooming, cars…it’s a whole lifestyle range.
Richard Jones: I didn’t come from a journalistic background. I think I came with just an idea of what it is to be a bear — or a human being. Even if we’re a member of any kind of club that has a defined reason, you still eat food, you still travel, you still go shopping, you might have DIY on your home or buy a car… All those things we all do, it’s about kind of putting a bear spin on them. For example, when we test drive cars we promote the trucks and the bigger cars because we’re big guys, typically a bigger framed man. So, there’s that that kind of old fashioned masculinity idea that’s poured into it. But it’s very fluid. Because a bear might like Drag Race. It’s not as defined as it has been in the past. It’s much more broad now.
Anecdotally, I have found bears to be very intersectional, and lesbian-friendly. With the pressure to conform to male beauty standards removed, I have found bears to have a more relaxed relationship to other men and women, too.
Richard Jones: My own take on it is, realizing I was a bear made my own journey as a gay man less traumatic. The interesting thing is, while I was trying to be thin it didn’t work. The minute I decided I was a bear I started to lose weight because I was happy. I was no longer focused on doing something I didn’t want to do for a reason that was imposed on me. I could live my life more authentically now and be whatever I wanted to be.
There’s a lot of pressure on gay men to to look a certain way, to be affluent, to be style mavens, to be Sex and the City gays…
Richard Jones: Well, I think that the reason the bear community is bigger is because it’s all the regular people who live across the whole of the country. They’re not just in the big cities living the kind of the iconic gay life of partying, clubbing and all of that. It is people who work at a bank. It is truckers, people doing regular blue collar jobs. That’s kind of where the bear aesthetic comes from: real men with gay dad bods.
To celebrate a decade of Bear World Mag, will there be national and local events, anything readers can put in their calendars?
Richard Jones: Yes. We’ve approached more than 20 events to find ways we can partner with them and that’s going to be across the whole year from September 2022 to September ’23. We’ll be going to Key West Bear Weekend, World Bear Weekend, Beary Boricua in Puerto Rico…
We are launching three things ourselves: a podcast hosted by Larry Flick, which will look at the history of the bear community, how we got to this point; Larry lived and breathed the kind of the early bear community in the late ’70s, early ’80s. So he has that memory that goes back to the beginning. We’re launching a mini-series of shorts, which will be about bear change-makers in New York. We’re going to talk to people about what they do in the bear community, how they have made changes, how they’ve done something for the community or entertained the community, kept the community alive.
And we’re creating the very first Bear World Magazine Awards, which will be a digital award. We’ll have a host, and all the nominees will be presented very typical awards fashion. And then the winners will send in a video which we will edit into a TV show style. So we’re really proud of that. It’s 10 awards, eight will be reader voted. There will be a Fellowship Award for somebody that we think has done the most for the bear community; and then the Diversity and Inclusion Award will be given to somebody we think is making big strides to make sure the bear community is as diverse as possible.
So, is bear a serious orientation or is it a lifestyle choice — and what is the difference?
Richard Jones: It’s a good question, and I think the real answer is both because it is something people find attractive and it draws them to it. In the early days of Bear World Magazine, people saw it as a fetish. And we don’t display any more nudity than Men’s Health do. We show a bare bum every now and then but in terms of our core photography we don’t show anyone naked. We’ve always been lifestyle oriented. Lumberjacky. Friendly. We’re not a fetish group. We’re just a bunch of regular people who happen to be a niche within the queer community. The bear identity was coined back in the 1970s in an article in The Advocate as men who were bigger, bearded, maybe wearing leather — but being friendly. The beauty of the bear community is that even if you are not a bear but you want to hang out with us — we welcome you in. We’re not exclusionary.
Each week we post Bear of the Week, and that is not a competition. If you want to be Bear of the Week just send us in some pictures and your details from Instagram. Nobody is turned away from that for any reason. I feel it showcases the community in all the different forms of ethnicity, body size, and age.
Do you think advertisers are catching on to the viability of the bear consumer, from cars to clothes, to cooking?
Richard Jones: It’s getting there. It’s changed a lot. I think the difficulty with those early days was that I was approaching big brands and they were just seeing us as porn. So they were keeping us at arm’s length. The idea that a bigger person can be attractive: I take my hat off to our sisters — the plus-size body movement was felt by women and pushed by women, quite rightly. All bodies are beautiful and all bodies are valid. And I think it’s taken the men a little bit longer to catch up, but we’re getting there. You know, there is now famous plus-size male models.
That’s what the core of Bear World is about: Making the community feel validated. And feel that they belong in the world, not even in a in a club or in a niche, but belong right now in the world we live in.
Things to be thankful for and closing thoughts?
Richard Jones: In some of the the tougher times where I could have thrown in the towel, I would get an email from some young bear who’s like, Thank God you exist! Because I didn’t know that’s what I was and now I know and I feel happy. So, I’m glad that we’re doing some good out there with the bear community, especially the younger bears, who are just discovering who they are.
I couldn’t have done this without huge amounts of help over the years from various people. Like my current business partner, Robin Gray, who got involved with Bear World Magazine first. I’m very appreciative to all he brought to the table as well. And as the community changes and the bears get younger, we are currently looking for an editor-in-chief, so if there is anybody out there who has writing and editing experience and a strong connection to the bear community, please let us know. I’d also like to thank Kyle our Deputy Editor who has put a lot of effort into part of the business and helping me keep the magazine where it is.
We’re currently looking for a full-time editor-in-chief to come and take the reins from us. We’re an ever-evolving community and there should be space for every generation but recognizing that the younger crowd might want something different and we’re open to that. We are celebrating 10 years of evolution. Let’s have another 10 years of something really magical!
Visit Bear World Magazine. Follow BWM on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
If you feel like you’ve got what it takes to be bear-in-chief at Bear World Mag, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Queer Forty. It was written by Queer Forty Editor-in-Chief, Merryn Johns.