Friday, September 6, 2002

Bears Come Out of Hibernation at Trikkx

(Article published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #190, September 6, 2002)

It’s the Fourth Friday of the month, and that means it’s time for the North Country Bears’ monthly Bar Night at Trikkx in St. Paul. Officially things start at 7 PM, but by then the place is already reasonably full. People keep filtering in all evening, and by 8:30 the place is packed with both bears (masculine men with facial and/or body hair) and guys who aren’t bears themselves but who like their men masculine and furry. Average monthly attendance is 150.

The atmosphere is laid-back and mellow rather than boisterous. The noise level is low enough that conversation is actually possible, and the banter among the men is easy-going, friendly and familiar. There’s a pleasant lack of competitiveness and attitude. The pool table is busy all evening. There’s surprisingly little smoke in the air. For five dollars you get all the beer or soda you can drink, but the evening will end without anyone getting loud or obnoxious. The Trikkx kitchen is open and food is available; I order a burger and settle down to watch the action.

Trikkx owner Molly Kauffman is on hand looking relaxed and happy, glad to see that her guests are having a good time. She says of the Bears, “They’re just the nicest group we’ve ever hosted on a long-term basis. How could you not love such a cuddly bunch of guys?” Lars, president of the North Country Bears, returns the affection for Molly and the staff at Trikkx: “We just love ’em—they take very good care of us.” Lars especially compliments the Trikkx kitchen and says that the food at the North Country Bears’ upcoming holiday dinner is fabulous and not to be missed.

Who are these bears, anyway? According to Richard Bulger, original publisher of Bear Magazine, a bear is “a gay man whose disposition is rooted in contemporary male culture (decidedly not contemporary gay male culture) that emphasizes and celebrates secondary male characteristics such as beard and body hair.” Sure enough, a scan of the crowd reveals that most men have some sort of facial hair, and furry arms, legs, and chests are on display.

Some people might think that part of being a bear is being overweight and sloppy, but the crowd tonight disproves this. An entire range of bear body shapes is present, from short to tall and from reed-thin to portly—and there’s not a sloppy one in the bunch. (There are a lot of sexy ones, however.)

Specialized categories of bears include “cubs” (maybe youngish, maybe older, but definitely cuddly); larger, huskier, more mature men known as “grizzlies”; and striking white- or gray-haired “polar bears.” These categories were explained to me by Buck Bongard, who was wearing a black leather vest emblazoned on the back with “T.B.R.U. Polar Bear 2002.” “T.B.R.U.” stands for Texas Bear Round-Up—like the leather community, bear groups have yearly gatherings that include contests and titleholders. Many bears also participate in other gay male subcultures such as leather, rodeo, and country/western dancing.

What does a bear wear? Comfortable, casual, unremarkable guy stuff: the crowd sports mostly t-shirts (with a few polo or sport shirts) and jeans or jean shorts. Footwear is athletic shoes or hiking boots, and many of the guys wear baseball caps. Everything is clean and neat and no one is mixing stripes with plaids, but as long-time bear Gary Gimmestad points out, “It’s almost anti-fashion, or at least non-fashion.”

It’s also anti-drag, whether drag is construed as swishy and feminine (i.e. Radical Faeries) or hypermasculine and super-macho (i.e. leather), according to Peter Hennen. In his doctoral dissertation (“Gendered Sexuality in the Age of AIDS”), which deals with gay leathermen, Radical Faeries and bears, Hennen says that bear culture is about gay men “reconnecting with their regular-guy status.” Most bears could easily pass as straight guys, good ol’ boys, rednecks—except for the fact that bears generally dress and groom themselves better.

This ties in with another point Hennen makes: being a bear “is also a way for larger and hairier men to eroticize their bodies and to reclaim pride in them.” Bear culture is a reaction against the image of the shaved twink that prevails in so much of gay male culture, a declaration that it’s possible to be sexy even if you’re not young or totally smooth or don’t happen to have a swimmer’s build.

According to Hennen, the earliest account of gay men identifying as bears comes from Los Angeles in 1966, followed by loosely-organized bear groups in Dallas and Miami in the 1970s. But Gimmestad notes that in the 1980s bear culture “really went from 0-60” and became a recognized subculture because of the pre-Web internet and other forms of electronic communication, such as the old Outlines BBS in the Twin Cities. The image of the bear has now spread around the world, with bear groups in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and even Turkey.

Bears are very social animals. In addition to their monthly bar night at Trikkx, the North Country Bears’ calendar is full of many other activities, including a weekly Bears Coffee Night and Bears Dinner, both on Wednesday evenings. Check out the calendar and subscribe to their e-mail newsletter at, or call the North Country Bears Info-Line.

Share a Bear with Kids in Crisis

In October and November the North Country Bears are holding their annual Teddy Bear Roundup. The Bears will be accepting donations of new or slightly used teddy bears (or other stuffed animals of any size). These bears will be delivered in the name of the North Country Bears to the County Sheriff’s Patrol “Crisis Bears” program. As the Sheriff’s Patrol responds to emergency calls, they will have the bears available to be given to children in crisis.

Lars of the North Country Bears recalls being very moved when the teddy bears from last year’s Teddy Bear Roundup were donated to the Sheriff’s Patrol: “The guy who showed up from the Sheriff’s Patrol was just overwhelmed! It was so touching I almost cried. We helped make life better for a lot of kids.”

Teddy bears can be donated at the Bear Bar Nights at Trikkx on October 25 and November 22. Further information is available by contacting Arthur Finnell at

PHOTO: Buck Bongard (left) and Jack Erickson at a recent North Country Bears bar night at Trikkx.

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