In the quarantine and isolation of my farmhouse in Northern Serbia, I glance bluntly at a sticker I posted on a wardrobe in my room. On a bear pride flag it reads the following: Tallinn Bearty April 16-19. I was heartbroken for not being able to attend it this year, as I was supposed to venture to Beijing, San Francisco, and Versailles to conduct my museum scholarships and internships.
Around this time last year, I have been invited by Tallinn Bearty to contribute to the festival as its first academic participant. History in the making, right? While the festival usually gathers artists and activists, I was, as a museum curator and fashion historian, invited to deliver my academic research turned into the lecture Between Art, Fashion and Subculture: Visual Identity of Bears.
Being in my mid 20s, 180 centimeters and somewhat about 80 kilograms, with a furry body as one Balkan body can be yet not with the lushest of a beard, I was terrified that my otter self would be discredited by bears for trying to “bearsplain” their culture to them without fully aligning with it. Gods know how many fatherly talks Alvar and I had – I wouldn’t be invited if I wasn’t part of the community, I was reassuring myself.
And so, I ventured back to the country and the city that have been my home during my MA studies there back in 2016/17. Back in the comfort of The Estonian Academy of Arts, there was I, in my flannel shirt (I thought of it as a campy costume as I tend to as a fashion historian dress up in accordance with the research theme) in front of dozens of bears. After numerous questions, and immense interest of the audience, an applause broke, followed by many bear hugs. Gosh, I could use some right now.
I always thought that I have to oblige to (strict) visual codes of being a bear (which I actually have deconstructed in my lecture) to be appreciated by bears. I have, however, realized that I am being appreciated for who and what I am, and not just in terms of my looks. In the best case, I thought I would get some sexual appreciation for being slimmer and younger and thus living up to a boy fantasy of some daddy bear. Not in a million years would I think that I could teach older bears something about our shared, diverse history without being lectured by the common “older – wiser” stereotype. However, right there, in that moment, all of us bonded in mutual appreciation, respect, and understanding – for our personalities, bodies, diversities. I felt empowered. It was intergenerational mentorship, rather than mere sexualization of daddy bear / boy dogmatic.
John Pachankis, PhD, associate professor of Public Health and director of the LGBTQ Mental Health Initiative at Yale University, has stressed out that intergenerational mentorship is pivotal in decreasing the internalized homophobia, stressors, and discrimination based on age, race, looks, and social status within the gay community:
“One thing that's often been underutilized in the gay community is intergenerational mentorship. And that works both ways. We know that LGBTQ+ older adults are more likely to be living alone and that's a risk factor for depression. And we know that LGBTQ+ young people are, in most cases, not born into families that are also LGBTQ+, so they don't inherit a sense of the community, norms, or history from their parents. A perfect way to learn it would be fresh from the elders in our community; at the same time, elders in our community would probably benefit from contact with younger generations. There's historically been a lot of barriers to that, but to the extent that the gay community can lead the way in breaking down those barriers, I think that it would be a tremendous intervention against this type of gay community stress across the full spectrum.”
Some time ago, in one of newly established Facebook groups meant for bears in isolation I come across a person I’d like to connect with. I send out my friendship request and in return I get a message in my inbox: “You’re not a real bear”, followed by insults on the account of primarily my looks. Is it possible that, given these dark and hard times, people are still deliberately mean to someone else? Why? Is it possible that as bears we have strayed so far from acceptance and solidarity our founding fathers have established our culture on? When did the looks and sexual potential become the sole and exclusive requirement for any interaction?
I have spent a lifetime scientifically researching bear culture, and I don’t think I could ever give an answer on what a “real bear” is, nor allow myself to denounce or define someone as such. But, I have found my answer to what a real bear is at Tallinn Bearty. Being a bear, yes, it has, as everything else, its visual identity. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Beards, fur, bellies, flannel, denim, leather – bless that. Muscular and chubby are equally beautiful, also.
But being a bear has other just as important aspects to it, too. Acceptance, brotherhood, solidarity. Community. This is what in times like this we are given the opportunity to learn. Surely, we will gather back at our festivals, bars, sex parties sooner or later. But our community needs each one of us now more than ever. Because we have to rebuild it for generations that have built it for us, for generations enjoying in it now, and for generations to come.