Lesbears and Transbears: Dykes and FTMs as Bears. 
A Discussion with Sharon Bergman, Drew Campbell, Michael Mike 
Hernandez, and Matt Rice. by Ron Suresha

About the participants

Sharon Jill Bear Bergman is a wild-hearted, genderfucking butchgrrl from Northampton, MA, where she was expensively overeducated and now lives with her wife, a woman of extraordinary talents and surpassing beauty. Bear (as she's called) is a contributing writer to lesbianation.com and music.com, the owner of doesitquack.com (a queer jaunt in the world of words), and a poet. Also employed as a writer and editor, she revels in taking breaks from wordsmithing at the ocean and being with her wonderful friends. Bergman's uncle is the bearish gay poet David Bergman, and this is causing her to rethink some of her positions on the influence of genetics.

Drew Campbell was born in New York and educated at Bennington College, the University of Hamburg, and Washington University, St. Louis. He began gender transition from female to male in December 1995, and has since spoken about gender at colleges and social groups across the country. Drew is the pseudonymous author of several bestselling books on erotic dominance and submission, and has published a book on alternative sexual etiquette, The Bride Wore Black Leather...and He Looked Fabulous: An Etiquette Guide for the Rest of Us. He is the co-editor, with Pat Califia, of the anthology Bitch Goddess: The Spiritual Path of the Dominant Woman. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Anne, and is currently studying for ordination as a pagan priest.

Michael "Mike" Hernandez is a rather twisted, gender-variant imp who, at age three, emigrated from Cuba to the United States with his family. Mike is a public speaker on gender, sex, and sexuality. Writing credits include a sex column in the FTM Newsletter and at granite.koan.com/~lbear/, "The Art of Cruising Men" in Forge (May 2000), and contributions in The Academy: Tales of the Marketplace, Transliberation: Beyond Pink And Blue, Looking Queer, Dagger: On Butch Women, and The Second Coming. He also appears in Transmen & FTMs; Identities, Bodies, Genders & Sexualities. Mike has a penchant for bears (particularly polar bears) and fishnet stockings, but definitely prefers to keep these separate. He currently resides in the high desert of Southern California with his partner of eight years, Sky Renfro.

Matt Rice is an activist and educator for queer health and transgender issues. Born and raised a girl in rural Ohio, he went to college in West Virginia and lived in Chicago before ending up in San Francisco and transitioning to the guy he is now. He worked on an HIV-prevalence study of trans communities for the SF Transgender Community Health Project. He has worked to increase visibility of FTMs from behind the bar at the Lone Star Saloon for five years, and by teaching at Harvey Milk Institute. He has conducted numerous magazine, newspaper, film, and video interviews, including two pieces by the BBC and two by Annette Kennerly shown in queer film festivals. His photograph is in Loren Cameron's book, Body Alchemy. His boyfriend is the author, therapist, and activist Pat Califia. Matt created a huge scandal by getting pregnant, and then giving birth to Blake in October, 1999. Currently Matt lives in San Francisco with Patrick and Blake, and their pets, and works as a computer geek by trade. He's pagan, and a great flirt.

Introduction

It is said that one can tell everything about a society by examining the persons at its margins. Perhaps the persons most marginalized in the Bear community are queer Bears who are not born male, that is, FTMs (female to male transpersons, or transmen), and lesbians (or "les-bruins," as Ray Kampf puts it).

Where Bears gather, whether informally or organizationally, whether online or in the flesh and fur, the conspicuous absence of women creates an idyllic, naughtily clandestine boys' treehouse club - not unlike the cartoon characters Calvin and Hobbes's strictly-for-two GROSS (Get Rid Of Slimy girlS). In a discussion with Michael Bronski and David Bergman for my book Bears on Bears, Bronski characterized the history of this urge for a separate Bear space as "troubled."

While considering the idea of women Bears as a topic for my book - although I knew there had to be some out there somewhere - David Bergman suggested I contact his niece Sharon, to whom David had earlier introduced me briefly at an OutWrite conference. Sharon had further suggestions as to another woman and several transmen who considered themselves Bears. Although the other female Bear never materialized, from there the rest of the panel tumbled into place.

The month after this online panel discussion was conducted, I was asked to judge the Transgender category for the 1999 Lambda Literary Awards. That same month, at a discussion on "Bear Self-Esteem" conducted by Craig Byrnes held at IBR [International Bear Rendezvous] 2000, I found myself sitting next to panelist Mike Hernandez! It was amazing to watch the faces of the men in the group when Mike disclosed his "transness" - eyes agog, jaws agape, one could almost see an invisible line being drawn around Mike as "not one of us." In that moment, I knew this discussion was vital to the book.

Interview conducted online January 30, 2000.

Ron: Because we have on this panel a whole spectrum of gender identities and body types, it would be helpful to our readers to understand where each of you is coming from. Please state in your own terms just a bit about your gender, body, and sexual status, past and present. Sharon, let's start with you, if you don't mind.

Sharon: Okay. Gender: well, I mostly identify as a butch, lots of boy streaks. Body: All the original girl parts, no hormones, a few tattoos. I'm about 5'9", 265, fairly furry. Sexual status? Can I get a skish of clarification on what that means?

Ron: Affectional preference? Whatever you'd like to say about where you like to put your body.

Sharon: <laughing> Okay - I'm married to a wild-hearted, genius, pervert femme; when I mess around otherwise, I generally am attracted to boy-dykes, butches, and transguys who are bottoms or interested in bottoming.

Drew: Gender: FTM/transman. Body: Large (three hundred pounds) and furry, tattooed, used to have several piercings. No surgeries at this point. I lived for about twelve years in the dyke world, have had partners of many genders and orientations, now usually refer to myself as "pansexual," for lack of a better term. Gender isn't the first thing I use to determine attraction (or falling in love, for that matter). I'm married to a queer femme GG (genetic girl, though we haven't had her chromosomes checked lately! <G>). We're monogamous at present.

Ron: GG - what a great term!


Michael Hernandez (photo: James Loewen)

Mike: Gender: transman. Sex: both/neither. Body: 5'3", 155, very very very furry, tattooed, pierced ears and septum. I have had chest surgery. Sexual orientation: queer. I have small but talented hands that help cross the gender divide. I'm in an open relationship and I guess that eight years counts as long-term these days. That's about it.

Matt: Gender: FTM. Started hormones in 1993, had a bilateral mastectomy in 1996, transitioned while working at the Lone Star. I have always been attracted to men who are now considered Bears, starting when I was about fifteen. When I was living as a dyke, before transition, I dated women you could consider Bears. Well, they were certainly more butch than many of the boys at the Lone Star. But yeah, I'm a fag who likes Bears, though I'm not skinny and I'm furry, and I look too "young" to be a bear, or so I'm told. I don't identify as a "cub," but think guys who do are usually pretty cute in their own right. I do lots of things I'm not supposed to do, like sleep with girls, and date other younger looking guys, as well as Bears, and I'm not deeply in the closet about being an FTM, so that makes getting dates tougher.

Ron: Thanks for those great descriptions. Sharon, to what extent do you now consider, or have considered yourself, a Bear?

Sharon: I identify with the Bear community pretty strongly, in terms of its physicality and also its ethic. I picked up the nickname "Bear" long before I knew about the Bear community, picked it up repeatedly, in fact, during a very happy sort of confluence sometime around 1992 or '93. I don't really go to Bear events, because none of the Bear communities near me have any interest in your less traditional Bears - but I wish that I could attend them.

Ron: Drew, do you also used to identify as a Bear?

Drew: It's a label I do use pretty frequently within the queer community, mostly as a shorthand way to refer to my body type and take on masculinity. I did use the term before my transition. Actually, it was more applied to me by other leatherdykes, before I even really knew about the male Bear community. I liked the image of being both strong and playful. The other female bears I knew were also freer with their physical affections in the sense that they would rough-house and give back rubs, and generally touch more than other women. That's something I've found I have in common with guys, too, and I like that aspect of Beardom.

Ron: That's considered unusual for leatherdykes?

Drew: It definitely was in the crowd I was hanging with at the time. They have a very "untouchable" style - lots of big boots and studs, that sort of thing.

Mike: The touching aspect brings up a significant difference between the men's community and the women's community (for lack of better terms). Women have space boundaries.

Matt: Yes, I really noticed that when I transitioned, too.

Mike: You can't just go up and grab a woman's ass. Men are far freer with touching, particularly in the still-cruising phase.

Ron: The male Bear set isn't known for its restraint. In fact, there's a "grope factor" thing as part of the "Bear code" that some guys use as shorthand to identify themselves.

Matt: Yeah, my experience was that the more I passed while working at the LS (Lone Star), the more I got groped, and often in ways that made me uncomfortable - especially before my chest surgery. I had lots of funny experiences with guys grabbing here or there and not getting what they expected.

Ron: What was that like?

Matt: It was exceptionally difficult until I had chest surgery. Guys were always saying, "Hey, he's got tits," to which I once responded, "Can you tell I'm white, too?"

Drew: <snap snap> [Cyber for "you go, guy!"]

Matt: So I ended up putting more physical distance around myself until after my chest surgery and that was often read as my being unfriendly.

Mike: My experience was different from Matt's. I got my chest touched before surgery, and based on the amount of facial hair that I had (full beard), the equation did not compute. Once guys could lay a hand on my chest and not have me flinch, back away, or run off, I was able to socially gain a level of intimacy with the other guys that I hadn't had before. At that point, no one said a word about tits.

Drew: See, there's the difference: I sometimes get appreciative comments on the street about mine. They're not very large to start with, and since I'm so heavy, they "fit."

Matt: Guys often reminded me I was FTM while working at the Lone Star. The only time I was ever seriously physically assaulted there (by a patron and not in a nice way) was amid a flurry of "I don't have to listen to you because you're just a woman and no g-ddamned woman is going to tell me what to do. No amount of testosterone will ever make you a real man..." - that kind of crap.

Mike: Sharon - what has been your experience?

Sharon: Well - I have a different experience partly because of where I live. I don't really present as a guy to fags, or Bearmen, so any who are close enough to touch my chest know what they're going to get. The most attention my chest gets is because of the tattoo I have on it - a Zuni-style bear.

Continue to Part 2


Excerpted from the complete interview in Bears on Bears by Ron Suresha, forthcoming from Alyson Publications. Text copyright © 2000 Ron Suresha. All rights reserved. More info at: www.ronsuresha.com.

 


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