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Public Eye: A field guide to bears with Robert Valin

The founder of the Urban Bear schools us on the finer points of cubs, otters, husbears and hamsters

Photograph: Jocelyn Baun
Robert Valin

How would you explain bears to a person who is unfamiliar with the concept?
The term has gotten very broad—pun intended. I think it started in San Francisco with heavier, hairier guys that didn’t fall into the whole stereotypical gay guy thing—impeccably dressed, perfectly manicured, hairless, washboard abs.

An alternative for the hairier? 
I don’t know if it was to rebel against that, but we embrace our natural physicality, our natural hairiness. Today, bear is much more encompassing than that. I have a hard time defining exactly what a bear is, because I think it’s more about your heart than your physical appearance.

If you have the heart of a bear, you can be a bear?
Well, I can’t say you could be a bear—it definitely has a physical connotation. But you could certainly be part of the community. There’s all this different lingo: There’s the bear—a guy who is a little older, with maybe a beer gut, maybe a hairy chest or back. Then you have muscle bears, who are bigger, football-player types. Then there are cubs, who are younger guys.

So there’s a whole taxonomy? 
It’s like Wild Kingdom. There are otters, who are skinny guys that are hairy. Then there are polar bears, who are older guys. There’s one I hate: husbear—he’s my husband, and he’s a bear. I hate that. There are also a lot of hipsters now, with flannel, jeans and work boots. I call them hamsters.

What’s the idea behind the Urban Bear?
I wanted to help revive gay bars and businesses in NYC. With the advent of all these hookup sites, people started going out less. Growing up, I would meet guys I would date, or friends, at bars. That’s how I would socialize. And that doesn’t really happen anymore.

Yeah, face-to-face meet-ups are a bit of a lost art.
I wanted to bring the people within the bear community together. We do an annual barbecue and beer blast. And at the street fair every year, we have a pie-eating contest and best-beer-belly contest.

Putting the beer belly to good use! 
People are just embracing their natural masculinity. Still taking care of themselves, but accepting the fact that it’s okay to have a couple extra pounds on you. It’s amazing how many guys get off on it—they love it.

Find out more at theurbanbear.com.

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