OPINION: Being A Non-Binary Bear In A Toxic Masculine Space

We talk a lot about the issue of toxic masculinity in the bear community, about how the expectations of that word — “bear” — can both liberate us, and expose the tender scars of our own self image. 

We associate it with hairy bellied, muscled bodies moving toplessly on the dancefloor as RuPaul deafens us. We expect male, we expect confidence, we expect masculinity. But what about those of us who don’t exhibit many, or any, of those attributes? What if masculine isn’t who we are, and what if our gender markers set us apart from “men only” spaces like bear nights and “MASC4MASC” pressures?

We’ve all been there — standing in the bar on bear night whenever a femme twink walks in. You’ve seen the looks from the usual patrons, in their baseball caps and Captain America t-shirts, chugging their manly beers. No cocktails or wines to be seen. 

You’ve seen the rolled eyes, the unimpressed looks on the faces of the bearded dad bods as though something alien and intrusive has invaded their space. The same looks that they themselves get whenever they may walk into a sports bar or ‘straight’ club — that they don’t belong there and must be dealt with. 

The air of negativity, of hostility and the contempt between the otherwise joyous revellers as they are faced with the reminder of what the rest of the world might think of them, too. That pervading masculinity washes through the air like a stink bomb, turning noses up and making lips curl. I know you’ve seen it, I know you’ve done it — I have, too. 

I’m a non-binary person and I use they/them pronouns. But I very much consider myself to be a bear, in the most traditional and basic sense. I am attracted to heavier men, or those who present as male. 

My husband is the typical representation of a bear — hairy chested, full bellied, bearded, tall, etc. He has no problem fitting into the spaces that our community occupies and carves out for itself. But I have seen first hand how “men only” nights are exclusionary for all the wrong reasons, and the damage that it can do. 

I present as quite femme, despite having a beard, and a belly, and hair. I love wearing earrings, I love wearing flamboyant clothes with radical queer slogans on them. I love wearing highlighter on my cheeks and letting my wrist hang limp as I swish about the dancefloor like a fairy. 

I’ve been told before that I’m too femme, that I’m not a “man’s man”. Well fellas, that’s because I don’t consider myself a man at all. My gender identity is a rejection of the toxicity of masculinity within the queer community, and a useful marker for me to identify with. My gender exists in the space between male and female, both outside of those two definitions and yet entwined within both somehow. 

When I tell guys that I’m non-binary they can look at me like a dog that’s heard an unfamiliar noise. “But you dress like a man / But you have a beard”, etc. Non-binary people don’t owe you androgyny, and there is no definition of what a non-binary bear should look like, yet here I am.

Yet, I still find it difficult to have those conversations within predominantly male spaces, because within that masculinity there is the notion that something slightly different could upset the balance and allow an undercurrent of queerness into those spaces. Queerness is nothing to be confronted or avoided within the bear community.

Recognising my gender identity has helped me to be more comfortable and accepting of the body I inhabit and I have learned to love it. The toxic masculinity that was instilled in me was a corrosive element that only furthered my own self-doubt and the hatred of my own skin and bones. 

Allowing myself to live unapologetically as a non-binary person, within the bear community, has helped me to understand that we as a community are far too constrained by society’s definition of what is an acceptable body type.

Us bears are guilty of that shame, too. We don’t make enough time for trans and non-binary members within our spaces and venues. I have had to argue on behalf of trans men who have been knocked back at the door of ‘Bear night’ because they didn’t fit the profile. 

There’s no Goldilocks template for bears, none of us are ‘just right’ — all of us are. I have tried my best to break down the self-defeatist attitude of my friends who don’t think they are hairy enough, muscled enough, etc. to be considered attractive by the standards set by Instabears wearing Nasty Pig jocks or rocking a new OnlyFans account. There is nothing wrong with those things, but we cannot let our community become subsumed into the idea that there is an acceptable level of masculinity, and an unacceptable level of femininity that must be either nurtured or rejected. 

That’s what society has done to us, and we simply need to do better than to inherit the closeted, internalised homophobia that has been given to us. It’s beyond time that we, as a community, challenged the notion of how important that masculinity is to us, and if being wedded to the outmoded notion of a gender binary is really worth it. 

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Stephen Donnan-Dalzell

Stephen Donnan-Dalzell is an activist and writer living in Belfast, Northern Ireland

8 thoughts on “OPINION: Being A Non-Binary Bear In A Toxic Masculine Space

  • I’m sorry. I tried to be empathetic as I read this article, but this is not making much sense to me.

    What do you mean when you say you consider yourself to be a bear? What is a bear to you? To me it sounds like you want to belong with a group (you admittedly are attracted to for a set of identifiers) but you don’t feel like you have the same identifiers of that group so now you want the group to change to make yourself feel included. That’s nonsensical. I am someone who grew up in a society where the term “bear” doesn’t even exist and being gay is illegal. There’s no gay culture or norms, and yet I knew what a “bear” type was and that I liked it way before I came across the term bear. It’s universal. People from all over the world identify with and are attracted to that combination of body features and behaviors embodied in being a “bear”. It’s not a product of social conditioning or stereotypes. You don’t get to change what people identify with or find attractive, just because you want to be that thing you find attractive.

    Also, I present femme too! And I’ve been plenty of bear bars in multiple cities around the world with painted nails, accessories and even heels, and I’m yet to experience what you just described as a toxic norm. It sounds to me that you had a couple of bad experiences (if we are to take your word for it) and you’re trying to generalize those experiences to every bear space. This isn’t to say that toxic masculinity doesn’t present itself in the bear community, but is it the norm? No.

    You say that you’ve felt more comfortable in your skin after coming out as non-binary. Great for you! But by the sound of it seems like the more you’ve grown comfortable with your own skin and the less comfortable to you became with your surroundings…If you truly accept yourself, then it doesn’t matter if someone gave you a disinterested look…you’re not there for them, so why are you wanting their validation and interest? Are they verbally or physically assaulting you? Are they telling you that you should leave? You’re not entitled to be liked or appreciated by everyone, you know.

  • “i’m not like the other girls”

  • I tried to keep an open mind when reading this story. TBH I think you might be projecting this about yourself on the Bear Community that is not really there.

    When I first dipped my toes into the Bear Community it was at the Lone Star in San Francisco.

    It was a sunny Saturday. When I entered the bar they were playing “Fancy” by Reba McEntire, there were a group of men singing along at the top of their lungs by the pool table. Then in the bar varied in age and there were a few twinks in there one wearing a pink shirt that had “Bitch” written in rhinestones… I would see him in it a few times so that is how I remember it. I got my beverage a Sioux City Sarsaparilla and made my way to the patio area.
    in the back patio there was a trans woman smoking a joint and reading tarot cards. There was a group of old bears passing around a marijuana pipe and a woman was there. They laughing and asking her how her husband was doing. Her husband I later learned is a bisexual bear and a part of the community.
    There hare camp bears, bears who wear nail polish. The bear community has a variety of body types and levels of body hair. We come in all races and religions, sexual orientations and gender identities. Trans men are welcomed and there are a ton of trans bears and cubs. You are not the only NB in the Bear community I know a few… what happened is probably did not get the desired reaction… because judging from your pictures you may be NB but you move through the world just like every other man. You present as a man and you probably communicate like a man.

    There are some clicques in the community. I can remeber years ago there were a few guys who started saying A Bears, B Bears, C Bears, and D Bears… the Rise of the Muscle Bears and The Chubbies Strike Back… sometimes it can be kinda silly…. just ignore any Bears with attitude and enjoy yourself. I mostly pay them no mind and enjoy myself.

  • I can be supportive of someone’s identity, and form an empathetic link, and still not owe them my social timeline. If I don’t relate to someone and I’m not attracted to them
    either, that’s not a lot to go off to form a meaningful connection… I’m flattered if someone finds me or my friends attractive but we don’t owe everyone a comradeship. I’m sorry that you are having a hard time finding your support network and that sucks. I hate that for you. I’ve dealt with that situation a lot.

    if I don’t relate to you and I’m not attracted to you… I’m flattered that you’re attracted to me and I’m sorry that you are having a hard time finding your support network… but no one owes you that

    But… also… there’s a lot of assumptive accusations going on here I this opinion too so it makes it really hard to stay connected with this empathetically.

    Additionally there’s a component of the white and biologically male, but gender queer spectrum that fails to give acknowledgment to their own privileges they still have, as if being into fem behaviors and characteristics makes them more exempt from being counted as park of the cis male subsection than other customers males. Which it indeed does not.

    In my experience the gay cis male community as a whole is more supportive of gender fluid identity than other communities and… if you’re basing your opinion about “bears” on the actions of the pretty circuit queens at bear events who know they’re pretty… then I’ve got news for you… no one else gets treated well by the glitterati either so welcome to the club.

  • I suspect, perhaps incorrectly, that he is a transman. Bears, of all the LGBT factions are most accepting of all types, including trans men.

    As a trans man, I have had nothing but positive experiences myself, and I’ve met some flamboyant bears, some are with SPI, too. So, this article does not resonate with me either. He seems to be acting the victim. I get more hate from dykes and the pretty power gays, and I do not bother with anyone but bears, and leatherfolk.

  • As someone who could be said to be among the early founders of what we call the Bear community, having been on the Board of Bears of San Francisco at its founding and Bear Rendezvous I’m saddened to learn that the very space we were trying to create has become once again a place for the “in and out” crowd. The Bear community formed up in part as a reaction to the militant hard, slim, hairless bodies with attitude that was common in the 80s. Many of us liked T-shirts and blue jeans, had a gut and like hair and beards. We liked laid back natural, non performative masculinity. Some of us were into leather, so were not. One of our great founders was named Lurch whose comedy you would definitely have appreciated since it included plenty of camp and boas and a boa constrictor all in his leathers. Many woman and hairless people identified themselves as Bears at that time – and were welcome – it was an attitude of openness and friendliness. That said it was not a very welcoming space for traditional drag. I remember having been gone a few years and coming back having lost a few pounds only to have been told by a clueless bear at the bar that I wasn’t really a bear because I wasn’t heavy enough! I pointed out that I was an OG bear thank you and that the whole point was a bear was an attitude not a costume or body type, we had fought to be accepted for not fitting the clone mold and so you were missing the point by trying to create your own mold One thing that is true and has always been true is that while we can insist that everyone treats each other with respect in our spaces we can not insist that everyone find everyone equally lust after able. What draws our eye and attention is too complicated to be directed by manners, but manners insist that every bear be happy to come up to you, give your belly a rub and give you a hug, because that is what being a “bear” is all about. A BEAR WHO SHAMES SOMEONE IS NOT WORTHY OF THE MOVEMENT WE BUILT FOR YOU.

  • I wish people writing these opinion pieces would stop seeing masculinity as nothing but a problem. To me, inclusivity and acceptance are core masculine traits. Seen from that point of view, we don’t need to erase our masculinity; we need to embrace it.

    It almost sounds like the author thinks that masculinity is toxic by default and is trying to convert everyone into being non-binary. This sort of masculinity shaming reeks of mainstream gay culture to me and is exactly the reason why I much prefer bear spaces. (I don’t think that a “toxic masculine space” can actually exists.)

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