North American Bear Titleholders speak about their plans for extended title year

North American Bear Weekend (NAB) was started as an idea shared between a few members of the Kentucky Bourbon Bear Club. After International Bear Rendezvous (IBR) ended, one question lingered in the community: Who will carry on the tradition of recognizing talented Bears in the community?

There were so many men in the community who had previously won state, regional, bear, leather and bar titles — Who would help recognize them all? And that’s when NAB was born, granting an opportunity for those title holders to gain international recognition and praise within the community.

For a decade, NAB has been an event that many have come to look forward to. It’s a time to see familiar faces an reunite with Leather and Bear family from all over. But this year, NAB, as well as many other popular Bear events around the world, have had to hit the pause button until next year because of the current COVID-19 pandemic. 2020 has been a year that many of us couldn’t have predicted, and all of us are looking forward to the days where we can safely congregate with our friends and family again.

So, what happens with the titleholders? Well, many of them will be able to hold their titles for another year. This is great, considering that many of their events had to be cancelled, and there weren’t lots of opportunities to meet and greet with the community, or travel to other events.

I spoke with with NAB’s 2020 titleholders — De’von Ess Lee – North American Mama Bear 2020, Odyssey Onyx – North American Cub 2020, and Jack Hinkle – North American Bear 2020 — about their goals and plans for their title years, which have now been extended through February of 2022!

North American Mama Bear 2020 — Dev’on Ess Lee (AKA Liz Stormbringer)
Kyle Jackson: Hi, Dev’on! So, when did you begin identifying as a Mama Bear? Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey as a Mama Bear?  

Dev’on Ess Lee: Hi y’all! This is your one and only Dev’on Ess Lee, (AKA Liz Stormbringer), your National American Mama bear 2020…. and now your extended Mama Bear 2021! A little tidbit on how I got myself here and how I intend to make the rest of my reign the best it can be:

I am the first of my family to be born and raised in Southern California. I currently reside in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, and I am happily married to my wife of two years now. I have never been so happy!

I started identifying as a Mama Bear when I became part of the Kentucky Bourbon Bears. When I joined this wonderful organization, I knew this was what I wanted to do and to become.

KJ: What does being a Mama Bear mean to you?

DEL: Being part of a bear community was something I thought would help other women be feel comfortable being a part of — being a loyal, caring mother figure to all Bears, Cubs and other Mama Bears. Love and support for all. We are all equal!

In 2018, my journey began with Kentucky Bourbon Bears, and I wanted to continue this journey by helping to incorporate woman and transgender people as part of the Bear community. My goal is to continue to do this and more for the Bear community.

Being a Mama Bear, to me, is being myself and staying true to who I am, helping to raise funds for all charities one dollar at a time, and staying involved and reaching out to others. My platform is to show that those who are female and Drag Kings can also be part of the Bear community.

KJ: What made you enter the competition? 

DEL: I entered the competition to challenge myself and to step out of my comfort zone. Being a Drag King, I don’t think that we get enough recognition. So, I did it as a female-identifying Bear and Drag King, which has never been done in most competitions.

This was by far the most intense and the best competition I have ever been in! I am actually very proud of what I have done and was able to represent both Mama Bears and Drag Kings at the same time.

KJ: What are some of your goals for your title year, or some goals you’ve already achieved?

DEL: This pandemic has not been easy on anyone, and it has taken a toll on other communities. I am delighted to say that we as a Bear community have already raised over $750 for one charity, The Arbor Youth Services, a 501C3 non-profit that is really close to my heart.

Has the current climate changed or impacted your platform or goals in any way?

These past six months have been hard for me with the pandemic, and now fighting for others like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in our community. These fundraisers are to help our community and others to fight and let our voices be heard. We will stand by all, make our voices heard for justice and keep peace.

We are being divided and not being heard is not an option for us or any of the communities. I am part of 4 non-profit organizations — Kentucky Fried Sisters, Kentucky Bourbon Bears, Imperial Court of Kentucky and the Pride Community Services Organization. I divide my time to between each of them in support because all of these organizations are part of who I am. I stand for what is right and I stand for Unity for all.

KJ: How do you plan to work social distancing into your platform if things don’t go back to “normal” soon?

The funny thing about social distancing is that I have already been distancing myself by doing certain fundraising events online, and it has not stopped me from being who I am and doing what I do. I thrive through these times, and I keep everyone up to date on events.

Here in Kentucky, it is required to wear your face mask and keep 6 feet of distance between you and others. Events like the Imperial Court of Kentucky have gone online. In fact, we just did our Lexington Pride live online on October 3. It was very interesting and very out of the norm for us.

Lexington Pride meant a lot to our community, and we could not have it in June. It’s very important to have it, no matter what the pandemic has us to endure. I hope we can soon get things back to normal, but till then I will keep on truckin’ and keep on being who I am and what I stand for. 

I am your National American Mama Bear 2020… and extended 2021 Mama Bear — courageous, loving, caring, and, most of all, ME! Be who you are don’t let others tell you any different. Love yourself, stay true to yourself and BE YOU!I Love you all!

Follow Dev’on Ess Lee on Facebook

North American Cub 2020 — Odyssey Onyx
Kyle Jackson: Hey, fellow ONYX bro! When did you join ONYX, and what chapter are you a part of? 

Odyssey Onyx: Hey bro! My journey with becoming a member of the Great Lakes Chapter of ONYX started in September of 2018. It was the most challenging and invigorating experience, and one that me and my line brothers (the Full Throttle line) will always cherish.

KJ: When did you begin identifying as a Bear Cub? Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a Bear Cub?  

OO: My journey with discovering my Cub love, started out way before I entered the Bear/Cub or Leather community. Back when I was younger in the ball room scene walking the category of Jr. Sex Siren, I always had this concept of what made me sexy. That started to change as I got a little older and my body started filling out.

KJ: What made you enter the competition?

I had to rediscover my confidence and start to find the beauty in the sexy thickness I acquired. I don’t think I started officially using the term “Cub” until 2019, when my cuddly charm and big booty became the desire of every guy and I felt most confident!

My first time attending the competition was so much fun, but also eye opening. I was able to meet so many incredible people from all over, and I got to learn so much. Witnessing the competition, I had an epiphany. No one on the stage looked like me! I knew that I wanted to change that because representation matters!

KJ: What are your goals for your extended title year?

OO: One of my main goals has always been centered around advocating and bringing awareness to mental health. Due to this current pandemic, we have seen the great need for mental health services.

I just finished getting certified in mental health first aid training with the BBB (Black Bear Brotherhood) founding chapter in Detroit. I plan on using this knowledge in educating the community on the different types of mental illnesses and helping in BBB’s Care Bear Program. 

KJ: Has the current climate changed your platform and goals for your title?

OO: With everything that is going on in the world right now, we have seen a huge need for mental health services. This goes back to the statement I made at the competition — we need to start checking in with each other! During this crisis, I think that we can be a ray of light, even by simply just asking “Are you ok?”

KJ: How do you plan to work social distancing into your platform if things don’t go back to “normal” soon?  

OO: Serving as Vice President of the Onyx Great Lakes chapter, I had the privilege of working with some of our new crossing line brothers this year. We had no clue that our “new normal” was going to take place, so to make sure that we kept everyone safe, we had to create new ways to keep our brothers engaged.

Whether it was educational classes or social gatherings, we came together and created new ways, such as zoom classes and my virtual bar nights, to keep everyone engaged. These are some of the ways that I intend to continue the loving interaction within our very own Bear community.

Follow Odyssey Onyx on Facebook

North American Bear 2020 – Jack Hinkle
Kyle Jackson: Hi Jack! When did you begin identifying as a Bear? Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a Bear?  

Jack Hinkle: Hi Kyle! Well, I have always been attracted to bigger, beefier, and furry guys. Even before I knew I was gay. When I was little, I was drawn to characters like He-Man or Price Vultan from the 1978 Flash Gordon movie.

I really didn’t discover the Bear Community till I was in my 30s. I went with some friends to Bear Camp — a Bear run in Columbus, Ohio that unfortunately no longer exists. I met all these attractive, big, furry men. Some of whom thought I was attractive too.

For me, having always been a big fluffy guy who never got much attention, it felt great. I felt like I belonged. 

KJ: What made you enter the North American Bear competition?  

JH: Having now been in the Bear Community for most of decade, I have seen lots of Bear Competitions and I was always impressed that someone could have the confidence to put themselves out there like that.  I never gave much thought about entering a contest myself, but the more responsibility I took on in our Bear Club, The Kentucky Bourbon Bears, the more confident I got.

When we announced the theme of NAB 2020, Angels and Demons, I immediately had lots of ideas floating around in my head about costumes and such. And I got to thinking, why not me?

If I go for a title and I don’t win, at least I can say that I did it; that I was finally confident enough to do something like that. In September 2019, I went for the title of Kentucky Bourbon Bear and won. A few months after that I was competing at NAB. 

KJ: What are your goals for your extended title year?

My main goal is to promote diversity and inclusion in the Bear Community. I want to see more Bears of Color, more Trans Bears, more Gender Non-conforming Bears, and I want our Lady Bears to feel loved and welcomed.

I plan to continue to raising money for worthy charities. And I want to serve as an example that things do get better. 

KJ: Has the current climate changed your platform and goals for your title year?

No. My platform and goals are still relevant. Maybe even more so given the continuing protests around the country. I and a lot of other title holders are having to find new ways of doing things.

KJ: How do you plan to work social distancing into your platform if things don’t go back to “normal” soon?

JH: I suspect that before next fall, things will start to get back to normal. But until then, we will have to keep doing virtual events.

Follow Jack Hinkle on Facebook 

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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.