Big, hairy, and often overweight: this is how most gay men would describe their subcultural brethren, the Bears. Oversimplification, to be sure--but when I think of a Bear, the emerging image is that of a burly man with a beard, a forest of chest hair, a short haircut, and jiggly rolls of flesh hanging over his Levis. Bears strive to be masculine. In my experience, gay men mostly refer to Bears as a kind of fetish, or at least some kind of sexual archetype--certainly not a recognized non-profit organization responsible for a full calendar of fundraising events.

The Oregon Bears is just this type of organization. Their story is short, and largely devoid of excitement: What began as a small social group in 1995 has grown to be one of the largest Bear Clubs in the US. There are over 300 registered members, who enjoy attending Bear events to socialize and raise money for select gay charities. Pretty average activities for a gay organization--nothing thrilling, unless just thinking about Bears gives you a hard-on (I know there are a few of you).

Transforming a subculture into an organized non-profit seems to be the norm nowadays, and not without good reason: It gives groups the power to receive money from tax-deductible donations and distribute it in productive ways (in the case of the Oregon Bears, by supporting People With AIDS Northwest). On the other hand, being official has other uses as well: It grants a sense of mainstream legitimacy, of public sanction and recognition.

At least for me, the phenomenon of Bears is far more interesting than the non-profit minutiae of the Oregon Bears. From an aesthetic standpoint, the image of the Bears as part of a larger trend that has been present for ages: a reaction to the reputation of homosexual males as androgynous, flighty, fashion-conscious, and feminine.

The Oregon Bears' press release, quoting the website of a Bear named Jeff Glover, states: "The Bear Movement started when masculine, husky, hairy gay men felt compelled to carve their own niche into society. Many of these gay men (including blue-collar workers, rural folks, and average Joes) didn't socialize or identify with other gay men, because they didn't fit the stereotype. They often knew they preferred men, but didn't think they were gay because of predominant gay stereotypes of what gay men are 'supposed' to be like."

The stereotype in question is what I mentioned earlier: The gay aesthete. Gay men have always shown a vested interest in fashion and beauty--traits traditionally associated with women. The subtle irony is that in their alienation from that particular aesthetic stereotype, they idealize another one--"blue-collar workers, rural folks, and average Joes." This is clearly an association based on aesthetics rather than lifestyle; the probability that a gay man living in the Appalachians or working on a farm would identify with the Bears is, I think, terribly slim. Gay movements have frequently emulated the rugged beauty of "average Joes," but appearing blue-collar and being blue-collar are not the same thing.

Look no further than in your own mirror for further evidence of this aesthetic trend: Widespread consumption of "low-brow" beer like PBR, the revitalization of interest in southern rock and generally twangy, rural folk music, the emphasis on both damaged-looking clothes and working class wear, the popularity of all things white trash, and a curious obsession with the "authenticity" of North Portland. In my view, Bears, with their well-maintained beards and Levis, are to actual blue-collar workers what dumpster-diving, anarchist hipsters with iBooks are to the homeless. To the upper middle class, nothing is more masculine than the working class, and nothing more sexualized; it's not a coincidence that the same aesthetic is wildly popular amongst lesbians, who love to adopt rugged, masculine personae.

The Bears are more than just a non-profit social and service group: They are a cult of the masculine image. The beard, the fat, and the chest hair of the Bear are fetish-objects of low-brow legitimacy, talismans to ward away the feminizing influence of the gay stereotype. The conceptual ideal of the Bear is hairy because he's experienced the hardships of blue-collar life, and fat because he, like the average Joe, cares more about bringing home the bacon and cracking open a cold beer than fussing with his appearance like a woman.

Fashion is a war of identity that takes place daily on the streets of Portland; each of us is mired in the aesthetic battlefield whether we admit to it or not. For me, the image championed by the Bears is just one more fascinating costume in the closet.