Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Iron Bear: A Refulgent Magnet for the Central Texas Gay Bear Subculture by Alekcander “Sasha” Zhdanov

A landscape is described by Paul Groth, a University of California-Berkeley professor of geography and architecture, as “the interaction of people and place:  a social group and its spaces, particularly the spaces to which the group belongs and from which its members derive some part of their shared identity and meaning.”[1]  This definition clearly illustrates the dynamic cultural structure of “The Iron Bear, a bar for Bears by Bears,” located at the corner of 8th and Colorado streets in downtown Austin, Texas.
“[The] goal for starting this bar was to provide a place where all Bears can come together in friendship and brotherhood.  If you have drama, please, leave it at the door.”[2]  This sagacious mindset of the owners of the bar has helped to solidify the Bear community as a salient subculture within the greater LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) communities of Austin and Central Texas.  While the definition of the word, “Bear,” in the gay nomenclature has many characteristics and is self-determined, a sizable majority would affirm that it describes hyper-masculine qualities, girth, and hirsuteness, with facial and body hair being quite prevalent.  In the first part of this assignment, I photographed countless numbers of men in the bar with facial hair, without a single refusal!  So obviously, axiomatic descriptors of “friendly and cuddly” should also be included for Bears!   I’ve been told, and fully attest, that facial hair is as natural to the Bear as breathing.  To remove the fur from the animal, it shivers and dies!  I’ve also heard rumors that Bears really like their bellies rubbed!  But use your own judgment and proceed accordingly!  Of paramount importance, though, from the interviews with the locals, I found that with the enmity of intra-community discrimination and societal judgment, the present-day ubiquitous attitude has emerged towards an unwavering acceptance of all who choose to ally with the Bear community, away from a strict, physical definition.    
One of the more genuine stories I have about the Iron Bear was during one of my visits, when I noticed that it didn’t carry my favorite brand of vodka, Русский Стандарт, or “Russian Standard.”  While not a “gay” brand, it affirms my Russian heritage by being potent, strong, and virile without the after bite of so many of the usual brands of vodka.  I “hinted” that it would be more than a good idea for the bar to carry it.  Surprisingly, upon my next visit to the Iron Bear, my Русский Стандарт was waiting for me!  It made my Russian heart soar, and I almost started to belt out the first few lines of my Russian national anthem, “Россия – священная наша держава (Russia – our sacred homeland)!”  I think there just might be some “Russian” Bear in the Iron Bear!
The demographics of the Iron Bear’s patrons are chiefly consubstantial, to the degree that most ascribe to a sexual minority.  But again, not to belabor the point, all non-judgmental, respectful clientele are welcome.   Accordingly, only 25-34% of the LGBT population classify themselves as a “bear” or “muscle bear,” yet classifications of cub, otter, polar bear, panda bear, chaser, cub, wolf, and even ursula (from the Latin, ursa, meaning lady or she-bear), can all find a congenial home atmosphere at the Iron Bear.[3]  Unequivocally, the establishment succeeds in achieving its desired goal of a “drama-free” zone.  However, it still falls prey to the masculinization of the space, as denoted by Angel Kwolek-Follen, in Engendering Business, by the mere placement of the female restrooms in the most remote location of the bar, exemplifying a differentiation in gender status.[4]  But frankly, I’ve seen plenty of women in the bar, and from the ones with which I’ve spoken, lesbian or straight, they have never felt ostracized or objectified by their ursine brethren. 
While the City of Austin has experienced a 6.6% population increase since 2010 to approximately 842,000,[5] the city has also seen a recent substantial 69% rise in the number of same-sex couple households to 1.25% of the population, which is more than twice the statewide average in percentage.[6]  The bar serves as a magnet of “realness” for the entire Central Texas area, and pulls from every socio-economic and racial demographic.  Regardless of the physical location of the Bear’s domestic den in the metro area, the patrons insist on loyal assemblage with the like-minded ursine community, although are simultaneously quite confident to venture out to other hetero-normative spaces when needed or required.  The behemoth barrier of I-35 doesn’t occlude the gathering of the sleuth!  Status concerning income level, employment, education, race, and any other superfluous classification is left at the entrance, along with the drama.  The Bear community prides itself on breaking down the physical and emotional barriers of class, allowing access to all in a community of brotherly spirit, regardless of academic critique to the contrary.
The area immediately surrounding the Iron Bear’s location, to a radius of one mile, is predominantly white (78%), male (60%), and harbors the largest age demographic between 20 and 34.[7]  The neighborhood, with a 4.05% population growth, also adequately reflects the overall growth of the city, with only an 8.86% vacancy rate in rental properties.  In 2012, the neighborhood revealed a per capita income level of $60,358, which is almost double that of the entire city of Austin at $31,200, but even more distant from the State of Texas at $25,600 and the US at $27,900.  This obviously reflects higher education rates of 44.5% with a bachelor’s degree or higher in the immediate neighborhood area, compared to Texas at 26.1% and the US at 28.2%.
Thankfully, the overall LGBT-friendly atmosphere in the city of Austin negates the necessity for establishing the traditional gay enclaves, such as Greenwich Village and Harlem in the early 1900s,[8] and later, the Castro in San Francisco.  Rather than being a haven of escape from the enviable white, heterosexual, rich world,[9] the Iron Bear stands firmly as an independent symbol of strength and total self-acceptance for the Bear subculture and the entire LGBT communities.  Just as so many disaffected youth flocked to the urban gay ghettos of the past to escape conservative pressures to conform,[10] the Iron Bear axiomatically represents a community where all who enter are welcomed and protected, yet simultaneously challenged to conquer the demon of self-doubt and destructive internalized homophobia placed upon them by society. 
Prior to the opening of the Iron Bear, the Amsterdam Café was located on the premises.[11]  While a charming eatery and bar which is so reflective of the flavor of Austin, it is easy to understand the many facets for which a business must choose to permanently close its doors.  While I am not privy to the actual reason(s) for the transfer of ownership, it would be reasonable to assume that the ever increasing property values and taxes assessed accordingly would have a significant impact on any such decisions.  Just in the last three months, the price per square foot for the area has risen 2.1%, to $212, which significantly exceeds the rates of Travis County at $199/ft2, the entire metro area at $175/ft2, and the State of Texas at $120/ft2.[12]
While the City of Austin has successfully, yet hypocritically, marketed itself on the “weird” factor, the LGBT community can find non-judgmental acceptance and gratitude for their patronage throughout a vast plethora of establishments in the city, removing the need for such demographically specific oases.  However, regardless of this phantasmal perception of reality, this centrally located hub of brotherhood, with easily accessible arterial parkways from every part of the city, will continue to be a nexus between fun, family, friendship, and frolic for all who choose to enter its atmosphere of security and salubrious environs.  
So, who is welcome at the Iron Bear?  Answer:  ALL are welcome, physical features, be damned!  But heed my warning:  if you are a Faux News follower and like to spew its venom, this is not the place for you! Thus, it might be wise to consider alternative spaces to assemble!  It would be a tragedy, indeed, if you were mauled by a “mighty” IRON BEAR!

[1] Jessica Sewell, “Gender, Imagination, and Experience in Early-Twentieth Century American Downtown,” in Everyday America:  Cultural Landscape Studies after J. B. Jackson, ed. Paul Groth et al. (University of California Press, 2003), pp. 237-254.
[4] Sewell, pp. 242-243.
[8] George Chauncey, “Building Gay Neighborhood Enclaves:  The Village and Harlem,” in The Blackwell City Reader, ed. Gary Bridge et al. (Malden, MA:  Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010),  pp. 243-249.
[9] Paris is Burning, directed by Jennie Livingston (1990: NYC: Miramax Films: 1991.), Film.
[10] Chauncey, p. 247.