Meet 2022 North American Bear and Pet, Heath and Jonathan

This year, the North American Bear Weekend (NAB) was held in Lexington, Kentucky from February 17th to February 20th. During the weekend, the North American Bear Contest was held, where the titles of North American Bear, North American Mama Bear, North American Cub, and North American Pet were awarded.

This year’s winners of the North American Bear and Pet titles are a couple, Heath and Jonathan, from New England. The last time we spoke with Heath and Jonathan was back in 2020, shortly after they won Mr. Bear Providence 2020 and Mr. Cub Providence 2020.

Now, they’ve won two titles in the same contest together again at North American Bear Weekend! I caught up with them recently for a chat.

Photo: Entendre – Chester Beltowski and Dane Breise

Kyle Jackson: So, what have you guys been up to? The last time we spoke, we were supposed to hang out and then COVID happened.

Jonathan: Yea, it’s a whole new world.

KJ: So, what have you guys been up to since?

Heath: So, we did end up moving to Maine for a stint after we won our first titles. And then we ended up moving to Manchester in October of 2020 nd just waited out the COVID pandemic.

And now we’re on the committee for our local Pride – Queen City Pride. We’re the Entertainment Chairs. So we attended the first one in 2020 as new titleholders for Rhode Island. And that was probably one of the biggest events we did for our titles, since everything was shut down for COVID. So, it was really rough. We really didn’t get to do much and didn’t get to fundraise or anything like that. So we’re gonna make up for it this time. So, we got on the on the Pride committee and I’m gonna be DJing and John will be performing.

KJ: So, what kind of entertainment are you guys going to be bringing to your area?

H: So what I think one of the main reasons why we wanted to work for these titles is to bring that sense of community up to the northeast. You know, you have some titles in Boston, very few. Nothing in New Hampshire, nothing in Maine, nothing in Vermont. Maybe smaller, like campgrounds and bars and stuff, but nothing really big. So we wanted to bring that up to New England and really start to expand the bear community, and the pet community in New England.

And using those titles, you know, we’ll definitely travel around the country and make appearances everywhere. But our focus is up here right now to see if we can make change. For different organizations, for example, Queen City Pride, that raises money for a multitude of organizations in our community. So that’s one way for us to raise those funds. I mean, we went from the 2018, there’s probably was probably about 1,000 people. In 2021, we went to 3,000 people. We were the largest Pride in the area.

KJ: How is the bear community in the Northeast? Is that the reason why you want to bring awareness because there isn’t a lot there.

J: So from my perspective, because I mean, I’ve been out in the community a little bit longer than Heath – The bear community in the northern New England states isn’t really existing. Yes, we have Rhode Island, we won our titles in Rhode Island. But when we won our titles, it was with the last bear group in the state and there’s no other one.

Boston has Mass Bears and Cubs, and Connecticut has the Ursamen. Up here, once you get past Boston, there’s nothing. And so that’s part of the issue. And it feels like our communities that are southern are a little more fractured. Like, I don’t see a lot of midway between Mass and Connecticut, with groups in existence.

H: I will say though, that we have our pockets of local groups, such as the Southern Maine Bears, and the New England Bears, but they’re riveted by a social media group. And they’ll go camping, and they’ll do all that stuff. So that’s a start. But I think that we want to help them, like Jonathan said, be like a cohesive unit, instead of all these different fragments and pockets everywhere. I think the smaller groups have their benefits, but I think we need to have cohesion.

And we need a Bear Run up here. I think other bears and pets would love it, especially in the summertime or the fall up in the Northeast. Just to bring us all into an inclusive community ,too. I think the northern New England states need a little bit more diversity in these groups.

KJ: Do you think lack of diversity is a big issue in the Northeast?

J: So, I’ve always said, because I have lived in Massachusetts most of my life, that we have what I would say — because there’s no better way to phrase it – “hidden racism.” Like, no one is gonna call you out and say something to you. But they’ll have certain attitudes or certain behaviors that give that away. I’ve been to several Connecticut events, and I can see the diversity in Connecticut. But the more you walk up to the north, the more whitewashed it becomes.

KJ: So I think what you’re saying is that tackling diversity, and tackling some of the microaggressions that you experience or witness other people experience, is one of your main goals.

J: Yes, and I also think it goes for the Trans community. There’s really not much up here for the Trans community. Again, there’s there’s small pockets of little private group stuff. But there’s nothing overarching.

Along with creating larger groups, including furry groups, I would like to start a calendar, a schedule of events, so that people know what’s going on so people aren’t stepping on each other’s feet. Because that’s the other problem. We have people stepping on other people’s feet in that less than 100 mile radius.

KJ: What types of events do you want to do?

H: Well, I think the first year, we’re gonna have to do a lot of research, or we’re going to research visit those groups very well.

J: We actually went to a furry party last Saturday. We go we didn’t even know there was anything going on because one of our one of our great friends usually runs a furry event at their house what like once a year, and so we didn’t think there was really anything else going on. And then all of a sudden on Saturday, we ended up going to a furry party. It’s like small events like that that matter the most right? And we can only get more information on what we should be doing by going to those parties. I will say we will aim to have our first event here maybe mid fall, we’ll probably have our first event up here. After Pride, we have a break in our travel schedule, and we can actually do something here. And whether it’s just a house party or something bigger, I just want to we want to do something.

KJ: That all sounds great. So you tell me about why you why you chose to enter the North American Bear competition. Did you both decide you were going to run at the same time?

J: So yes, and no. Heath put in his application before me. I was shocked. I was like, “Oh ok, so this is not a joke anymore.” I had a little bit of a dichotomy situation where I was like, “Do I run for Cub or do I run for pet?” And for me, I’ve seen a lot of Black Bears and a lot of Black Cubs become titleholders. I also noticed that there’s not many other animals represented for pet, other than pups. When I went to Northeast Pet back in 2018, it threw everybody off because they were like, “Oh, there’s a lion running for a pet title? I don’t understand.” And so for me, I decided in order to make a difference and make a wave, I would run for Pet. One of my goals is to try and get those other animals, like me – the lion, to come out of their shell.

KJ: Yes, because people don’t really know about the others. There’s kittens, there’s lions, there’s tiger… There’s BEARS! Oh my!

J: Exactly. So I said, this is why I’m running. I’m running because I want people to see that there are not only pups in the pet community. There are other animals represented, and we all deserve to be noticed and appreciated. This is my time to make that known.

KJ: I think last time, when we talked you told me that you were a lion, and I think I made a joke maybe asking you if you were a Leo, or something like that. Can you tell me again about how like the lion persona came to be something that you identified with?

J: Well, so this is the funniest thing and I didn’t realize this until after I had gotten to them. – So in 2018, I ran for North American Bear, and the theme at the time was Circus Circus. The first portion of the contest was basically just going on stage in whatever your theme wear was. 

So everybody was dressed like a ringleader, but  I was dressed as a lion. And at that moment, that’s when that not that persona was created. And it’s funny thinking back to that nd now, two years later, I’m running as a lion. 

KJ: So what was that journey like? What about being a lion did you identify with?

J: Well, much like Heath, I’m a bit of a protector. I’m not aggressive like Heath when he’s protecting someone from being hurt. Oh, he gets MAD. He turns red. But, I’m very aggressive  online, because that’s my realm of knowing what I’m doing. The last thing I like seeing are my friends hurt. So, being a lion is all about, for me, for me is all about protecting the Pride. 

And in my speech I said, whether or not I win this title, you are all a part of my Pride now. And I think that type of unity is what makes me identify with the lion the most. That feeling of wanting everybody to come together and enjoy each other’s space, and to ensure that there’s a safe space for everybody.

KJ: And that basically ties into your goal or your mission for your title year. 

H: I think there’s a flip side to that, though, to that. Jonathan is a fun person. He’s a brat. I mean, he definitely likes to push the buttons. And so that’s what cats do, you know. And that’s what lions do is they push the limits. And I think that that’s part of his personality. 

So he’s in a mosh with 100 puppies. You know, so he’s that one lion, that one cat in there, that’s just really causing chaos and really stirring up the pot a little bit. I don’t mean that in a bad way. He’s making people think every time he’s in that hood, he’s surrounded by puppies. And he’s the one lion hood that’s there. So it’s really standing out and standing up and making a difference. 

And I think that what impressed the judges the most about him was he was true to himself during that whole competition. That’s the one thing all the judges were looking for. We were asked to be our true selves.

KJ: One of the most important things about these titles is that people get to represent the community, but they also get to represent themselves. And they are part of the community. We talked a little bit about your journey coming into the Bear community last time, and you not coming out until a bit later in life. 

H: Yes, at age 45. 

KJ: And so how has that experience been going from someone who was not out to being the winner of not one, but two titles within the LGBTQ community?

H: If I can say this without crying… It was really humbling. Because the first one was very new to me. And, to be honest with you, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I just followed Jonathan’s lead. But at this one, I think I went in with no expectations whatsoever. I went in, and it was just myself. And I was running against myself. That was there was no other candidates for bear. 

So I needed to not only impress them, but I needed to impress myself. And the only way that I could do that was to be truly myself. But that went into everything from what I wore to my themes and my fantasies. And in my interview, I just laid it all out and was honest. And what you saw was what you would see  if you saw me on the street, you know. I didn’t make any flashy costumes. 

I’m a very thrifty person. I pretty much made all my costumes. I wanted to get out there and show the bigger bears that’s okay to show your body off.

KJ: I’m glad you say that, because that has been one of my biggest gripes with the Bear community. Where are all the larger Bears? That’s why, with Bear World, we try to showcase many different body types. 

H: It’s really hard. Bears are, like, like one of the largest animals. So when I see people not catering to the large body types, it just really bothers me. But, for me to go out in a pair of Aussie bombs – that’s pretty much all I wore –  in front of 800 people, I want people to see that. It was years before I took my shirt off to go swimming, even from a family. And why? I never understood why I should be ashamed of that yet. 

Yes, I probably should be a little bit healthier. Everybody could say that we can eat better. But at some point, you have to embrace the body that was given you. Also, bigger guys can be fashionable, too. They can do everything else that everybody else can. Yeah, we may have some limitations. But we adapt and we fix those limitations. And we exceed those limitations. 

You know, my fantasy scene was a striptease – getting up and doing lap dances for people. I had two people on stage and I did lap dances for, and honestly that was my fantasy. Yeah, that’s always been my fantasy – to be a dancer or like a stripper. 

Photo: Entendre – Chester Beltowski and Dane Breise
KJ: Was Jonathan in your fantasy scene, or were you in each other’s? 

H: No, we couldn’t we really couldn’t. They wanted the contestants to be focused on, and you really couldn’t have more than two people in your fantasy.

J: I dodged that. 

H: Yeah, he had like four people in his fantasy, but it worked because it played into the audience. 

KJ: Jonathan, what was your fantasy? 

J: Oh, mine was so fun! Did you see the video?

KJ: No, I haven’t, actually. 

J: Ok, I’ll send it to you. So, part of the difficulty of living up here in New England is that you go to an event that’s in Kentucky is that you don’t have anybody you know with you. So, my first challenge was finding people to be in it. At first, I was going to do some kind of like play thing with the opening theme for The Lion King, but that shattered to pieces the first day we got there. 

So, I did a number that I’ve always done several times – and Heath can attest to this that I do this number very well – I did “Be prepared” from Scar. And my is actually modeled somewhat after scar. And it’s like one of my favorite songs to do, like completely. I love that song. And I had three puppies who helped me that played the hyenas. Like, we did it scene for scene. 

KJ: Wow, that sounds cute!

H: Yeah, and even the tech guy got into it with the lighting and everything. It was truly amazing.

J: And I wore my hood for the whole performance. Every single outfit that I had for the contest, my hood was on. When I was on stage, there was only one moment in my hood on and that was because we were told not to, and that was during the speech. But for bar wear, for fantasy wear, for pet wear, for the fantasy – I wore my hood. I think I ent some of the pictures too. 

KJ: Nice! So, I think my last question is about being in the North American Bear contest and the impact you want to make on the community. This

H: Well, for me, part of it has to do with my boys – my sons. I sent you pictures of them because I did it for them too. Both of them identify in the community. And I, as a dad, I need to pave the way for them to be safe and be who they are. So that was another important part of doing this. 

And especially now the crap is going on in Florida or Texas – we are taking a step back as a country. And that’s just crazy. And we can’t be doing that. We need to move forward, and people need to get over themselves. Our kids need to be who they are, they’re gonna change this. But we still have that group of people who want to hold them back and I am going to let my kids – or any kid – shine, whether they’re straight, gay, nonbinary, transgender, whatever. They just need to be who they are.

All Photos by Entendre Photography – Chester Beltowski and Dane Breise

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Kyle Jackson

Kyle Jackson (He/Him) is Senior Staff Writer at Gray Jones Media, and additionally works as a writer, editor and theatre artist/actor. A native of New Orleans, Louisiana, he studied at Dillard University, received a BA in Theatre from Morgan State University, an MS in Arts Administration from Drexel University, and completed the British American Drama Academy’s Midsummer in Oxford Programme in 2017. Having lived in Baltimore, the Washington, DC area, Philadelphia and New York City, he now resides and works in London, United Kingdom.