Eric was a big guy. All throughout childhood he was referred to as "husky" and described as "thick" or "hefty." Even in his youth he knew these were polite terms to allude to him as fat. He was never obese or unhealthy. He came from a long line of large men and plus-sized women. There wasn't much he could do about his big bones and sturdy frame. He was just naturally gifted with an abundant amount of what his grandmother called "table muscle." Even though this was due to no fault of his own, he understood it wasn't a good thing. Luckily for him, he was cute and smart and nice and therefore looked upon with only a modicum of pity that went mostly unnoticed.
When he got to middle school, puberty began to rear its ugly head. This was happening to everyone, but in Eric's case it was especially unkind. Parts of him began to grow and swell in disproportionate ways. Heavy thighs were supported by thin calves. His neck decided that one chin was not enough. His chest developed well ahead of most of the girls in his class. Because of his size though, he was recruited by the football coach to play the offensive line. His girth and ability to throw his mass around made him an asset to his team and therefore spared him from the torture bestowed upon the many others of his stature.
High school wasn't so bad for Eric. He wasn't interested in girls or dating so the rejection factor was low. He continued playing sports that required extra-large men. His varsity status, sharp wit and handsome face kept him in the high ranks of what was the proverbial B-crowd. College continued much in the same way. It was not until he graduated, twice, and moved to the city that he experienced his first taste of not fitting in. That's when he came out of the closet. And the gay community was not especially kind. Even though he was not like them, with straight guys, he had always been friends with the beautiful guys and the jocks. This wasn't the case any longer. When he approached gay men like them at a bar and attempted at conversation he was faced with harsh denial and worse, absolute ridicule. After a few month of this he fell into a slight depression and began to run to the kitchen cabinets and eat his frustration away.
Despite his failed attempts at making friends or finding dates, Eric was a social creature. Since he was getting a late start, his hormones were also raging and long overdue for companionship. He needed to get laid and that is what finally got him up and off of the couch. One Saturday, while waiting in line to get into the "it" gay bar, a couple of slim gym bunnies pushed past him and one barked: "Step aside beast, the bear bar is down the block." This puzzled Eric. He thought Did that guy just call me a bear? And if so, I have my own bar? When he got to the front of the line he asked the large security guy where the bear bar was. The doorman smiled and said, "It's down the block, turn the corner and on the right. You'll like it there better than in here." Without being told twice, Eric sped off, trying his hardest not to skip.
Upon entry into his first bear bar, Eric immediately felt a rush of excitement and relief. His six-foot-two height and 240-pound frame did not stick out. In fact, he was one of many. And like him, they all seemed proud of themselves and their size. And best of all, they found each other attractive. He was being checked out by most of the men lined up at the bar and seated around highboys. For the first time in his 25 years, he felt wanted, sexy even. If this was what it meant to be a bear, then sign him up. In the few hours that he was there, he was recruited for a gay football team, invited to two birthday parties and asked out on three dates. Everyone seemed really friendly and genuine. He had finally found what it was that he was looking for.
Eric quickly found himself in a circle of friends that was unlike any other that he had before. They could date each other, be as gay as they wanted and they seemed to share similar interests. With his newfound bear identity came a feeling of sexiness and self-confidence that Eric had never had before. He had a new sense of motivation. He had been meaning to start taking better care of himself; his doctor had been warning him for years about the risks that someone of his size naturally faced, and this was his chance to start fresh. Not only would he dodge the perils of high blood pressure, but he would perform better on the football and dating fields. Eight years of playing had taken their toll on his abilities. A side effect of this new self improvement was that his body became leaner, stronger and more muscular. And that too, it turned out, had its own side effects.
When at the bear bar one Sunday afternoon Eric bumped into another bear. Before he had a chance to excuse himself the bitter bear behind him barked, "Just because you are a muscle bear now doesn't mean you own the place." Confused, Eric asked a friend what that was all about. Turns out there is a division in the bear community. It was explained to him that there are men who are bears because they are built bear-like and there are men who classify themselves as bears, but are really just fat guys. With no way of knowing who is wrong or right, a fault line is created within the community. Eric himself would be the first to admit that he was after a Smokey and not a Yogi, but didn't feel that backlash over beauty was necessary or fair and he caught himself when judgmental thoughts crossed his mind. Realizing that this may be the way of the forest, he refused to be that way and decided to just keep being nice to everybody. They were all in this together, right? This attitude worked fine until about six months later when his own friends began to turn on him.
Eric's hard work and dedication to his training were paying off in his health and appearance. He was a solid 210 pounds and could run faster than he ever could. He was often the center of attention, and though he remained humble and sweet, he often heard comments like "You aren't really a bear anymore, just another muscle queen" and "Keep it up and you'll turn into a wolf or an otter." Eric was still the same person, but in this community, self improvement was often greeted with resentment. Did the bears think he was deserting them or something? Did they think he was deliberately trying to swap species? Some reacted like he was affronting their personal lifestyle and he felt helpless. He tried not to let it bother him. Until he met someone.
Jeff was a slim, short, mostly-Lebanese guy who had huge brown eyes and was covered in hair. He had an awkward shyness about him with a killer sense of humor and Eric thought he was the cutest thing ever. They were an odd looking pair, but they took to each other right away. When Eric started bringing Jeff around the bear den, he was shocked by the way Jeff was treated, by both his friends and the belly bears. Without making any effort to know him at all, Jeff was mocked openly about his size and shape incessantly. He tried to smile it off for Jeff's sake, but after another evening of being constantly called a squirrel, a rat and a weasel, Jeff had had enough. He told the group that they were just as petty as popular high school girls with their constant labeling and selective self-identification. He finished an entire glass of whiskey with a gulp, slammed down the glass and said, "Fuck you and the whole zoo of you!" As Jeff stormed away, Eric went after him. Not to stop him, but to hold the door open for him as he left.
In the following weeks, some of Eric's teammates and friends called or approached them to apologize. The good ones usually make themselves known. As with any group, there are the good and the bad: Those that are just part of a gang and those that follow gang mentality. Eric learned that in the pursuit of acceptance, some people need the definitions of others to identify themselves and then begin their own cycle of exclusion. From then on, Eric would define himself and others by how decent they were as men, not as animals and never again fall into a bear trap.