In a recent study conducted by pharmaceutical company Merck and the Prevention Access Campaign, it was revealed that 41 % of Generation Z participants and 28% of Millennial participants would not hug or be in close contact with someone who was living with HIV.
This information was alarming to many because it highlighted the fact that, despite recent advances in the HIV field, and the large number of people who are informed about HIV and using prevention methods, such as PrEP, there remains a significant amount of HIV stigma throughout the world.
There also remains a significant amount of mental health stigma throughout the world, despite the fact that more than half of millennials and 75% of Gen Zers have reportedly left their jobs because of mental health reasons.
For all of these reasons, it important that we continue to have discussions and promote awareness about these topics that helps to reduce stigma. I recently had a chance to speak with the current Mr. Bear Germany, Bryson Kelpe, about his the work he does to reduce stigma in the community.
KJ: Hello, Bryson! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
BK: Hello! Professionally, I have worked as a nurse and a nurse and mental health counselor in a variety of mental health settings. My most recent full time position was starting an evidence based recovery program for people living with HIV.
I have also done academic research on stigma in people living with HIV, members of the transgender community, and the intersection of the two groups. Here is some of that research.
I will finish my Master’s degree in Mental Health Recovery next semester. My current research projects are a study on the mental health of Queer Refugees living in Germany and another project on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Because of my love of rugby and Queer inclusion, I am interested in further training here in Germany at the docorate level in sport and health psychology. I would like to work as an openly queer sport psychologist. I am also working on a book on MBSR that should be out next year.
It is no secret that I immigrated to Germany from a rural area of East Tennessee, but I have been supported in integrating by the Cologne Crushers inclusive rugby team (and the entire Köln Rugby Club).
My family was originally from Germany, but left because of the war. That displaced German background is one reason I am researching people that identify as Queer Refugees in Germany about their mental health. I am surveying them and people that work in NGOs that provide them services.
I am happily married to my Mr. Sweetie for almost 4 years. We have been together as a couple for 7. I could not do it without him; he travels and works crazy hours for us to have a good life. For our first date, I had a buy one get one lunch special coupon at an Italian restaurant. After our $5 Italian lunch special we fell in love.
His work gave us the opportunity to come to Germany which was like a homecoming to me. His coworkers in Germany are a wonderful and supportive group too. They voted for me during the online portion of Mr. Bear Germany, and then gave me a beard care kit after winning the title!
KJ: When did you begin identifying as a Bear? Can you tell us a little bit about your journey as a Bear?
BK: I am small, hairy, and feisty like a honey badger. But also, hairy and sweet. Maybe I am the elusive talking German honeybear from fairy tales? The bears here call me a Bärchen, or “Pocket Bear” because of my height. I have had to shave daily since I was 11, until I smartly decided to keep a beard.
I was never smooth enough to be a twink, and not tall enough to be an otter. The bear community is welcoming enough for all kinds of men. I always feel welcome in bear bars, like Gentle Bears in Cologne. In the USA, I always enjoyed the bear communities. However, because I lived in a rural area, there were no bars like Gentle Bears.
KJ: What made you enter the competition?
BK: I wanted an opportunity to promote diversity in sport, and stigma reduction for mental health and HIV. Being out in the community is more important than me writing another paper for research conferences that only academics attend.
Playing rugby with the Cologne Crushers gave me the confidence to compete. I am still learning rugby, but love it and the support of the team helped me apply. The support of my Mr. Sweetie also made me enter the competition with confidence; he is also part of our Cologne Crushers rugby team.
KJ: What was your favorite part about taking part in the competition?
BK: I was able to make friends with delightful bears from all over the world. The other candidates and everyone involved with the Mr. Bear Germany were quite wonderful. I will always treasure the friendships I made with the other candidates.
At the Mr. Bear Germany election party, I had my rugby team there supporting me. For me as a Queer man and an immigrant, it’s still an overwhelming feeling of joy and happiness to have that level of support. It was also a great experience to meet the out of town bears that came to Cologne Bear Pride and show them our wonderful city. Cologne has 17 official Christmas Markets, plus a half a dozen unofficial ones that I love to show off to visitors.
KJ: What is your platform?
BK: Diversity and inclusion in sport. Stigma reduction for HIV and mental health recovery.
I love sports, and I think it helps build confidence. Rugby is a sport for everyone of shapes and sizes. I have been involved in other sports in the past too.
For many years, I volunteered before working in the HIV field. First as a Ryan White HIV Medical Care volunteer, and then as a nurse and counselor. I have volunteered as a HIV counselor/tester, community advisory board member, conducted needs assessments of people living with HIV, and volunteered in HIV prevention on the state level.
KJ: In what ways do you think you can help to promote growth or change in the leather and bear/cub communities?
BK: Being welcoming and kind is the right thing to do. “Don’t yuck on someone else’s yum” is what I tell people. As Mr Bear Germany 2020, I want everyone to be kind and welcoming to bears, Leatherman, fetish, rubber, pups, and admirers.
I think all the communities should continue to work together. I am impressed by the co-events of Rhein Fetish and Bartmänner–that spirit of cooperation is important.
KJ: What is the most important thing about the bear/cub community for you?
BK: The sense of community and being welcoming are most important to me. I plan on working with Mr. Bear of Honor, Tom Siara, in the areas of HIV stigma reduction and U=U, because of that sense of community.
I love the bear communities and bars in Germany. Gentle Bears in Cologne and WOOF in Berlin serve as physical manifestations of that wonderful community of Bears/Cubs, otters, admirers, & friends.
KJ: What are your plans for your title year?
BK: I want to promote the work of Mr Bear of Honor, Tom Siara, in the areas of HIV stigma reduction, PrEP, and U=U. He is in Poland, but we have planned to collaborate on cross country bear projects for stigma reduction.
I also want to promote the work of AIDS Hilfe in Germany. Cologne Bear Pride next November is next on my list. Then CSD (Christopher Street Day/Pride) in Cologne, CSD in Berlin, and of course CSD events in beautiful Baden-Württemberg the former home of my family.
I also plan on attending CSD and other events with Mr. VICE Bear Germany Jens Nitsche. I will represent Mr. Bear Germany at the CSD/ Pride events in Germany this next year and support the other German title holders as much as possible. I have plans to represent Germany at Mr. Bear elections in other countries too.
My book on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction should be out during my title year. It will be a fun book with cute cartoon bears teaching about stress reduction.
KJ: That sounds great! I would love to read your book when it comes out! Will you go on to enter other competitions once your title year is done?
BK: Thank you! I go to Lyon in May, and I am honored to represent Germany in Mr. Bear Europe.
KJ: Finally, what’s your advice for anyone entering the competition next year?
BK: Be kind and have fun. Support the other candidates and the parts of the community they represent. There is no cookie cutter bear. Jens, Jan, Raik, Dino, and Daniel from the Mr. Bear Germany election will always be my friends. We are all different, but that makes the bear community unique and special.