You shouldn't point fingers, you shouldn't label people. These adages have been instilled since the first time our mothers lovingly smacked down a pointed hand in public. But pointing at people is practical and convenient, however rude, and although they can be reductionist, labels are useful too, often giving a name or sense of self to those without it.
Within the LGBT community, animal identifiers such as bear culture have served such a purpose. Though the deepest roots of the term are contentious, "bear" resulted at least in part as a way to buck the stereotypes that all gay men behaved in the same effeminate way, said Mike Sullivan, 44, co-owner of The SoFo Tap in Andersonville. "Bears" were usually hairier, heavier gay men who defied the idea of effeminacy being their defining characteristic.
"They felt like outcasts," he said. These terms evolved, and though usually only referred to physical appearance, have become archetypes.
"Nowadays I feel like it's more of a self-identifying label for partly body appearance, but, in some respects, personality as well," Sullivan said. He did acknowledge that these distinctions have received some backlash in recent years, but believed they remained pretty harmless.
"It's as simple as the type of person someone is attracted to or perceived to be like. Now I think they're generally used in a positive way by the people who use them, but I do think some people think it's sort of over-labeling," he said. This is especially true for terms like twink, which he said has built up a negative connotation. Other terms, such as chub, though largely used as a pejorative, can be used negatively as well.
Still, the identifiers are widely used today. Sullivan refers to SoFo Tap as "a neighborhood bear bar that welcomes everyone." There are bear- or otter-related (thinner bear) groups and parties around the city, and physical qualities remain a common sort of category in that regard.
Here are some of the terms Sullivan said he hears regularly:
Bear: "A group that's pretty broad, not very rigid, but one of the most established groups. Heavier, hairier gay men."
Cub: "Definitely one that's used a lot. Bears tend to be in their 30s or 40s or older, so a cub is just a younger version of a bear."
Otter: "A guy who has the facial hair of the bear, but is slighter in build."
Chaser: "Someone who is attracted to bears but isn't a part of the culture."
Chub: "Term for a larger bear. Sometimes used as a pejorative, sometimes as a self-identifier, but it can also sometimes be used negatively."
Musclebear: "Bigger guys who have more muscle that just a regular heavier guy."
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