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The Experience of Being a Bear: A Phenomenological Study of an American Gay Subculture

by Douglas Allan Graves

The study attempted to understand the phenomenon of a gay subculture of men who call themselves bears. A review of literature described a bear as a man with a hairy body, facial hair, and a husky, burly body type. Bears are defined by particular values, norms, and sanctions, establishing them as a distinct subculture. The bear subculture reportedly started in the mid-1980s, due to exclusionary practices by other gay males. Ideals for body image, disposition, and behavior disqualified many average men from being considered attractive, resulting in exclusion from many social arenas. This study attempted to provide a foundation for understanding one group within the gay community in order to provide the groundwork and justification for research, free of presuppositions and bias towards outdated research, for other subcultures in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. Phenomenological methodology was determined to be the best way to study the bears, focusing solely on the actual experience of being bear. Following traditions in phenomenological research, several methods were maintained in order to reduce and remove suppositional contamination, including writing an epoche', utilizing a process to clear suppositional thought, engaging in a reduction phase creating meaning units, allowing thematic groups to naturally emerge within a reconstruction phase, and developing a final essential statement of the bear experience. The results of this study confirm much of the historical and contextual data found in the review of literature. However, the results found that although a bear experienced himself as inclusive of others, the bear community establishes norms, values, and sanctions that exclude many men from being identified as bears. The results indicate that bears who experience rejection from the gay male majority recreate the rejecting attitudes within their own subculture. The gay male community recreates the exclusionary practice experienced in the American mainstream. As it expands, the phenomenon of becoming the rejecter rather than remaining the rejected appears to be a universal human phenomenon. A discussion about this phenomenon, other findings, and a call for further research can be found in Chapter 5.

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