South Africa’s gay bears strike back

bears_strike_back_02Our recent article about a US study that claimed that bears tended to be overweight, often practised riskier sex, and had low self esteem, did not go down well with South African bears.

For those who don’t know, bears are gay men who identify as part of a community that celebrates all body types, including various weight ranges and facial and body hair, as well as a more overtly masculine sensibility.

Members of the community criticised the article as perpetuating myths about bears and their behaviour compared to other gay men. Mambaonline reached out to some of the more visible members of the community to get their views on the research.

Chris Taute, founder of the annual Bearfest event, said he felt “insulted” and believed that the results were “not properly surveyed or done and that they were mostly assumed”. Matthew Van As, organiser of Cape Town Pride, also felt that “there was a lot of tarring with one brush”.

He explained that, “there are a few people that always take things to the extreme but for the most part the bear community is pretty introverted. I can say personally, the majority of things in the US survey do not apply to me.”

Taute and Van As responded to the article with an online survey of the bear community in South Africa. Van As said the informal research, believed to be a first, was launched as “there has never been a survey done to capture the local bear community”. He also hoped it would help to dispel myths about the community.

The survey was completed by 304 bears and the outcomes, in some areas, did not line up with the American research.

One of the stereotypes that Van As personally finds annoying is that bears are all older men. He said that the community actually is more diverse when it comes to age. “My close friendship circles are all bears from 24 to 36,” he said. The local research showed that more than half of the bears surveyed (55.4%) were under the age of 40.

Another myth breaking finding was that 32% of those surveyed were in monogamous relationships or marriages (while 47% are single). Around 21% said they are in relationships that are open or involve more than one person. That may sound high, but a recent Australian survey found that 32% of gay men in Melbourne are in open relationships, compared to 31% in monogamous relationships. This appears to suggest that South African bears are actually MORE monogamous than gay men in general; at least those in Australia.

Another interesting result, said Van As, is “that actually there are a large percentage of bears that haven’t had any sexual partners in the last two years”.

In fact, 17% of the bear participants had 0 sexual partners in the last two years, while on the opposite end, there were just 1.5% that had 50+ partners in the last five years. The largest group of participants (27.6%) had just one partner in the last two years.

Of those that were sexually active, in open relationships or with multiple partners, 50.7% used some form of protection during their sexual encounters. That put paid to the idea that bears are bigger risk takers in their sex life than other gay men; studies show that the rate of condom use among men who have sex with men is around that same figure.

The research also shows that just 12.1% of participants had, in the last two years, taken part in chem sex (the use of drugs during sex).

Despite the community’s celebration of all body types, some concerns about weight do seem to exist within the bear community, with 27.9% of participants identifying as overweight and 40.1% as obese.

Flying the Bear flag at Pretoria Pride

Flying the Bear flag at Pretoria Pride

The majority, 56.3%, said that they would like to be thinner than their present weight, while 27.9% said that they would like to stay the same. However, only 10% of the participants identified as being diagnosed with low self-esteem. It’s difficult to know how these figures compare to self-body image and self-esteem in the wider gay male community.

What both studies agree on are the benefits of identifying as a bear. The vast majority of South African bears (67.7%) stated that they feel more accepted within the bear community than in other LGBT subgroups. Around half, 49.7%, also said their friendship circles had grown since joining the bear community.

“I feel that America seems to be the standard and the rest of the world must just comply,” said Van As. “We, in South Africa, are different culturally and that shows in the survey results.”

Taute says that for him, the local survey reaffirmed his belief “that we can all get along and that it does not matter what body type you have”.

Van As added: “The South African bear community is a lot more reserved compared to American bears and as such we should be recognised separately.”

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