Chris Wilkins didn’t really plan on becoming a bear — much less the president of the D.C. Bear Club.
”’Accidentally’ is the word for it,” he says, describing the series of events that took place nearly two decades ago that drew him to the gay subculture that celebrates older, larger, hairier men — a culture that breaks the stereotype of young, hairless gay men.
”I just decided that I didn’t fit in with the normal gay scene… I finally discovered bears, and then that was my niche. It’s how I ended up being in it, and I’ve identified with it for about 15 years now.”
The D.C. Bear Club (DCBC), a group that promotes social events for the bear and leather/Levi community in Washington, currently includes about 30 members. Next weekend, DCBC launches Bear Invasion, the group’s 11th annual fundraiser, which operates as a three-day social event that garners celebrants from across the country.
”It’s our chance to host an event for other people… to meet other bears, admirers and like-minded people by providing a social setting for them to be able to talk to one another,” Wilkins says.
The opening reception kicks off at 6 p.m., on Friday, Aug. 10, at the Federal Ballroom of the Holiday Inn on the Hill, in Northwest, followed by bar events at Titan’s Ramrod, Green Lantern and the D.C. Eagle, among others.
Organizers expect about 250 bears, cubs and other members of the community to invade this year’s event, which in addition to the bar nights, includes a farewell brunch featuring Los Angeles comic Bobaloo, described by organizers as a ”bear comic extraordinaire.”
But the main event is on Saturday night when contestants take the stage to compete for the title of Mr. D.C. Bear and Mr. D.C. Bear Cub.
The contest consists of three rounds. One round is the ”Bear Wear” and ”Bare Wear” segment, where the contestants are judged on wardrobe and their ”bearishness in all its furry beauty.” A second round judges the contestants ability to collect charitable donations from the crowd — in the space of just 20 minutes. Finally, the question round gives competitors a chance to speak their minds in public.
D.C.’s own Tim Woody — the current Mr. D.C. Bear and one of the judges at this year’s contest — recalls his experience in the final round:
”The question that I had was, ‘What do you say to those who are a little more judgmental towards the bears?”’
”My response was, ‘Don’t be so quick to judge, because these bears are the ones that can keep you warm during the winter, and cut down on that electrical bill,”’ he laughs.
Woody dismisses the ”bad rap” that some people peg on bears, thinking it’s simply a matter of ”being a bear because you’re fat.”
”There are different elements to the bear community,” says Woody, pointing to the wide variety of body types and personalities that comprise the community. ”There aren’t just bears and cubs, there are wolves and otters. [There are a lot of] different nicknames that you give yourself.”
This year, organizers will pay tribute to Bill Knicely, a DCBC member and chairman who died of a bacterial infection on June 10. According to Wilkins, Knicely, a resident of Manassas Park, was the ”driving force” behind the group’s charity functions in recent years, including Bear Invasion.
”He took over organizing it, and putting things together so that it would make an easier time doing Bear Invasion, and things were going quit well until he got sick.”
Woody, who is not a member of DCBC, says Knicely’s passing has taken a toll on the group, which he has stepped in to help.
”It really gets you to…take inventory on your life,” he says, adding that Knicely’s contributions to the group will not be forgotten during Bear Invasion.
”Bill’s still around,” says Woody. ”His spirit is still around.”
The Bear Essentials
To understand the bear community, Wilkins says, there are some basic terms you need to know.
”Generally the basics are, ‘bears,’ which would be the larger guys, middle-aged or so. The younger, smaller, mischievous members of the community are generally called ‘cubs.’ The older more mature bears, usually with white-hair or beards are usually referred to as ‘daddy bears.”’
Any one of them can be referred to as a ”grizzly,” Wilkins adds.
”Grizzlies are people who are really big, not fat, like a line-backer type build, and generally really hairy with a really thick beard, that’s generally what people refer to as a grizzly. That can be any age.”
There are also ”otters,” the term Wilkins says you will find most often associated with people who are really thin, yet identity with the bear community.
”If you go beyond that, with ‘wolves’ or whatever, that’s just where it borders on the ridiculous. There are as many definitions as there are people. It really just depends on who you are talking to.”
The bear movement was originally initiated as a rebellion against the perfectly chiseled, gym-body stereotype that proliferated as mainstream society’s idea of what a gay person was in the ’80s and ’90s, Wilkins says.
”You go to any of the dance clubs, any of the bars, and that’s what the standard was. The perfect example would be in any Tom of Finland drawing. That’s pretty much what everyone was looking at.”
Bears, on the other hand, were the average people.
”It has evolved into a physical characteristic, which generally they were larger people, bigger in stature. Beards, mustaches or facial hair somehow became a part of it, as well as body hair and what we call ‘fur,”’ he adds.
Things have changed over the years. With bears becoming more accepted in the mainstream and gay community, with events like Blowoff, a monthly party at D.C.’s 9:30 Club, Wilkins says clubs and groups for bears are becoming unnecessary.
”It used to be that a club was a place where people could meet with like-minded people and feel like they belong, because in general society you didn’t feel like you belonged, especially around D.C., where its actually becoming pretty homogenized,” he says. ”Now you [don't have to join a club]. There are so many resources online, so many different outlets that you don’t even have to leave your house anymore.
”At one point, the only place you would meet people would be if you went to a gay bar — now, with a click of a button, you’re there.”
The D.C. Bear Club’s 11th annual Bear Invasion begins Friday, Aug. 10 and runs through Sunday, Aug. 12. The Mr. D.C. Bear and Mr. D.C. Cub 2007 Contest will be held at 8 p.m., on Saturday, Aug. 11, in the Federal Ballroom of the Holiday Inn on the Hill, 415 New Jersey Ave. NW. For ticket information and a full schedule of events visit www.dcbearclub.org.