Last month our friends Danny J and Shane Tate produced the ninth Fire Island Bear Weekend to great success. Hundreds of gorgeous bears descended on the infamous gay island paradise off the coast of Long Island in New York for a weekend of sexy fun and camaraderie. And, as is tradition, a new Mr. Fire Island Bear was elected, Daniel Benjamin. Get to know him below.
BWM: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Daniel Benjamin (DB): I’m a queen from Queens! I was born and lived in Queens most of my life, now living in Forest Hills. My background is as crossroads as it gets. I was born into a traditional Jewish Israeli family, with Iraqi Iranian and Polish roots. Hebrew was my first language and for a good portion of my childhood (through my Bar mitzvah) I lived in a coastal city in Israel, called Netanya.
BWM: What drew you to the bear community?
DB: Have you seen me?! I have always been a chubby person, even as a kid, which makes me feel like I was born into being a bear. I have always felt more comfortable with my body and more accepted in bear bars and so realizing there was a community for me, once I was able to legally enjoy bars, was a revolution. In fact, it’s that bear bar context that helped me develop the body positivity I proudly carry today.
BWM: What made you want to compete for the title?
DB: Last year was the first time I attended Fire Island Bear Weekend (and let me say, for anyone reading this who has not yet done Fire Island bear weekend, I shamelessly plug it…It is the best event ever and I love and cherish the memories and friends I made along the way).
It kind of happened by accident because I found out late, after I booked a week’s stay on the island, that the following weekend was bear weekend. My house mate was super kind enough to let me crash by him an extra 2 days. I bought a VIP pass and attended all the events. That Saturday night I found myself at Cherries on the bay, at the competition with my new friend (and soon to be one of my fiercest competitors) Scott B. We sat down at a corner table and witnessed the entire show. It was magnificent! I saw Toney Randel, last year’s winner, slay the competition and something in me said “that’s for me!” I just knew I had to compete, right then and there.
BWM: How was your experience competing? What was the process like and what was your favorite part?
DB: So, I knew going in, this competition was not about me as much as it was about the people there in the crowd, if the title was to be mine. I came in with the strategy of focusing on you, yes you the reader. I asked myself what do “people happily subscribe to?” ENERGY! And I knew I had to raise the roof. I’d say the biggest help I got, in this process, was having one of my best friends, Erick, come along for the ride. He was my “pit crew” for the weekend.
That Thursday night, which marked the beginning of the process, there was a meet and greet and an opportunity to pass along energy in the form of calories. As we distributed lollipops to everyone we met, we asked them to bring nothing but energy and cheer to the competition, set for Saturday. For the pool party, the next day, I had Erick draw on my chest “BEAR LOVE”, to carry the message that we are, in essence, love! Saturday night, at the main event, Erick distributed bear paw stickers to everyone in the crowd. The rest was up to me, How I showed up for the competition requirements.
Learning the lip sync portion was the most challenging for me and we were given 7 songs to memorize because anyone one of them could have been chosen for me. 6 out of the 7 songs I had gotten down pat but “How Many Licks” by Lil Kim was the one I had the most trouble with and that was conveniently the one that was chosen for me. Just my luck I thought, at that moment, but there is something to be said about the breakthrough moments in a person’s life, when put to the test. Something in me said push harder and I slayed it!
My favorite part though was the big twist. I was already riding the high of winning the lip sync battle when I was told “double or nothing!” For a bonus round, if I chose to lip sync against three options: 2017’s Mr. Fire Island bear Danny J (the event’s host and now my bear momma), Ginger Snap (the drag queen host of the night) or a “secret assassin.” I let the crowd choose and they chose wisely…. The “Secret assassin”, which turned out to be a ruse. It was Danny J, all along! He ripped off his clothes to reveal a stunning blue leotard with red fringes and I was shocked but loving every moment of it. Barbie girl came on for us to lip sync but wait! – This was not one of the 7 songs, so that was another twist! And I just pushed and slayed, anything to outdo those fringes, flying in the air! It was as if I was possessed. That was my favorite part.
BWM: What does winning this title mean to you?
DB: It reaffirms that fortune favors the bold…in the moments I vie for something, anything to me that is worthwhile, giving it my all is absolutely essential! It also reminds me that since I come from so many different places in life, I can make room to celebrate myself for all of it through being me.
At different times I celebrate my Judaism, my ethnicity as an Israeli/American, my cultural influences of being both Sephardi and Ashkenazi mix within my Judaism, my Iraqi, Iranian and Polish roots, being openly gay and opening up even more about being HIV positive and undetectable. All of those parts of me get to be celebrated and open up opportunities for leadership and now that I’ve won Mr. Fire Island Bear 2023, I get to celebrate that too.
To all those who question the necessity, health and impact of being a bear and identifying within this community, I am here to let you know that there is a prize, praise, love, community, and celebration on this side of the rainbow.
BWM: What are the responsibilities associated with your title?
DB: As I told the crowd, in my acceptance speech, “I look forward to paying it forward.” I want this title to be an influence for others to come to me and ask me the questions they feel I can support them with. My passion in life is my career in finance and financial education so I also hope to use this title to start conversations, within the community on how to win the money game out there, and how to make the right decisions, when it come for their finances.
BWM: What are your goals for your title this year? Where will you be appearing?
DB: Well, my bear mamma, Danny J knows more than I do. He has some events in mind for me to attend and any opportunity, in my borough and in Manhattan, that’s a bear event that I can attend, I hope to be there. I also don’t want to be a quiet queen! I want to boldly go into bars and parties that twinks and twunks go to and tweak their narrative of what it means to party in that atmosphere. I marched in the pride parade; with a group I support but many of the fit men there had either no clue what a bear was or that a bear weekend is a thing. Appearing in these bars may seem like I am putting myself in an uphill battle, but isn’t claiming visibility exactly that?
BWM: What are some important issues that you feel that need to be addressed in the bear community?
DB: One thing that I can think of is the perception of what is ours…As I alluded to, in the last question, lack of visibility by other gay men tends to put people in a smaller setting than what is possible. After winning, I attended Folsom Street East, carrying my sash proudly and other bears came up to me, confessing that they have never been to Fire Island because they thought it is exclusively a place for twinks and jocks and the “elite.” We need to change that mindset and perspective, because it couldn’t be further from the truth. I have been going to the Pines for years and have been staying there on long stays for 4 years going, and what I have found is that if I am bold, authentic, open and loving, I create a Fire Island that works for me. If we can do that, on a community scale, Fire Island Pines is just as much ours as anyone else’s.
Stay up to date with Daniel Benjamin, Mr. Fire Island Bear 2023 by following him on Instagram.