NEPG: “Fun, Frolic and Brotherhood:” Massachusetts’ Bear Community is Alive, Well

MassBearzMassbearz annually marches in the Boston Pride Parade
Photo: Massbearz
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MassBearz also hold charitable events yearly; published in the New England Pride Guide (NEPG) 2016

By: Mike Givens/TRT Assistant Editor—

Chad Brennan was nervous. In September 2012, for the very first time, he was competing for Mr. Boston Bear and was intimidated by the competition and high expectations for a contest that would require him to publicly answer personal questions, perform a strip tease, and model “casual bear ware.” He didn’t win that competition, but the next year he came back, competed again, and won.

“I had the most fun with the strip tease portion of it,” he said. “I stripped to INXS’ ‘Need you tonight.’ I started with a suit and tie and [the performance] ended with me in a pair of Armani tighty-whities, which I wore under my pink cammo boxer-briefs.

“The [Mr. Boston Bear] contest is somewhat like Miss America on a much smaller, yet bigger and hairier stage.”

The bear community in Massachusetts, and all over, is one that takes great pride in celebrating all body types, not just the ones we see typically portrayed in the media.

“I go into Club Cafe and I feel like I am swimming in a sea of whitened teeth and abs,” Brennan, 32, of Hyde Park, said. “It seems that age isn’t an issue, but whether you are ‘hot’ or ‘not’ and how many hours one spends in the gym.”

For those who seek a “scene” that values personality and comradeship more and looks and appearances less, the bear community embraces everyone with open arms.

“The bear scene in Massachusetts is extremely diverse,” said Marcelo Lopes, 28, of East Boston. “We take care of each other and encourage others to participate just the same.”

Lopes is the social media coordinator for MassBearz, a statewide gay community group welcoming anyone who identifies as a, “ … bear, cub, chub, chaser, or an admirer, or just enjoy the company of like-minded guys … ” according to its website.

MassBearz, at its heart, is a social group that seeks to strip away the pretentiousness of the typical gay scene and provide activities and environments that are more welcoming and diverse. The organization hosts tea dances, trivia nights, marches in the Boston Pride Parade every year, lip sync battles and, of course, the Mr. Boston Bear Competition.

“Massbearz’s mission, while an organization of bears, is to be involved in helping all,” said Thomas “TC” Coon, 49, of Boston, current president of Massbearz, noting that the organization participates in several charitable events, from toy drives to volunteering at soup kitchens.

“I’d like to think that bears judge people less, are more inclusive, and have more fun,” said Brennan. “You can be tall, short, fat, [thin], smooth or hairy and you should find a solid friend base in the bear community.”

Bears have been traditionally described as older gay men, on the heavier side, with moderate to plentiful amounts of body and facial hair. And though the norm in bear circles is to celebrate all body types, there’s no sense of animosity towards those who may fit into the “ideal” gay male stereotype.

“I feel that if someone wants to look that way, and works very hard to achieve it, that is great,” said current Mr. Boston Bear, Sean Nickerson, 44, of Plymouth. “What I don’t believe in is when people hold others to this expectation and ‘model’ of what is ‘ideal.’”

Current Mr. Boston Bear 2015 Sean Nickerson celebrates his win at last September’s Mr. Boston Bear contest Photo: Massbearz

Current Mr. Boston Bear 2015 Sean Nickerson celebrates his win at last September’s Mr. Boston Bear contest
Photo: Massbearz

“I could totally fit that stereotype if I stopped eating,” said Robert “Rob” Claffie, Jr. “It’s possible to look that way but usually involves way more work than most of us are prepared to do.”

Claffie, who identifies more as a “Leather Man” than a bear, says that he’s always found the bear community welcoming to him.

One year, Claffie even participated in the Mr. Boston Bear competition, and though he didn’t come in first place, he did walk away with a sense of accomplishment.

“The Boston Bear contest didn’t help my confidence; it didn’t hurt it. My ego was unaffected either way. It was just something fun to do,” said the 50-year-old Watertown resident. Claffie won the Mr. Boston Leather contest in 2003.

Ron Thibodeau, 44, of Roxbury, a self-professed bear admirer, said that that he finds the body types of bear men to be alluring:

“ … it is also the confidence, the ‘swagger’ if you will,” said Thibodeau. “Seeing a bear throwing off his shirt on the dance floor, or belting it out on the karaoke stage—there is an energy there, and to be around it is amazing.”

“I feel that most of us are raised with hetero-culture’s views on body perfection,” said Greg Ballard, 41, of Providence. “Most of us are told by society how broken we are for being gay that as [a] culture we have focused on the need to excel [at] all things perfect. I believe it stems from the need to belong to the mainstream society. The more ideal we seem the less they will hate us.”

“At its core, it was always about celebrating inclusion of all types, a spirit of fun frolic and brotherhood,” said Nickerson, who will relinquish his current Mr. Boston Bear title in September, when the annual competition is held again.

That sense of brotherhood took a tremendous hit earlier this year when the co-founder of Massbearz, M. Jeff Zirpolo, passed away unexpectedly. Zirpolo was a staple of the Massachusetts bear community and his presence has been deeply missed.

“[Jeff] provided a way for hundreds of people to meet and work together for the common good of the community,” said Lopes of Massbearz. “His passing left a huge gap, but thankfully our group has banded together to stay strong and continue what Jeff started.”

“I’ve always supported and admired the work Jeff and his amazing team has done to foster and enhance the Boston bear scene. His passing has and will continue to affect us all [through] the legacy of brotherhood he helped build,” said Gregory Ballard, who admitted that he wasn’t close to Zirpolo, but had a tremendous amount of respect for him.

It appears that Zirpolo’s memory lives on in the events that are held around the state celebrating bears and the bear culture.

On June 5, Massbearz will be hosting a harbor cruise and in September, plans are still under way to host the Mr. Boston Bear competition. Massbearz also regularly holds tea dances that draw large crowds looking to socialize. The events are open and welcoming of all and provide a laidback atmosphere conducive to networking and making new friends.

And if you’re interested in attending an event, Rob Claffie has just one piece of advice:

“Some bears are fit and some bears are flabby, but as long as you look like a man, you should fit into the bear scene,” he said. “Bears don’t primp, bears don’t moisturize, and bears don’t coiff!”