No, I’m not your bear. Why words matter and self-identification must be respected (Goddamnit).

It wasn’t long ago that I was walking on the Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin, on the way to the wedding reception of two good friends with my partner. When we’d almost reached the venue, I noticed a truck had slowed down to a stop and a window was being rolled down.

“Cute bears!” the driver yelled out.

Before I could even think, my instant response was: “I’m not a bear,” to which the driver responded indignantly, “Yes, yes you are!”

“You don’t have the right to put a label on someone or tell them what they do or don’t identify as. That’s not how it works!” I screamed back.

“Well, uh, cute young men with beards, then,” he said timidly, before we continued rushing down the street. I needed that conversation to end immediately.

Ever since the unwanted interaction, I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about my response and questioning why the words struck such a blow. It was intended as a compliment, after all, and it wasn’t exactly said in a threatening way. But, to be real, even as my retrospect dims my bright red anger about the incident, I realize now that I’d been targeted in the sort of street harassment that my female peers are forced to endure on the regular. It’s demoralizing, immature and, in many ways, barbaric. I’m sorry, my friends who regularly face this, that ish is awful.

But beyond that, what dug the most under my skin and has lived there ever since was the message, not the medium.

I have always struggled with accepting my body for what it is — husky from birth — and living a life of health within my own skin.

Between the ages of 18 and 23, I struggled to maintain a consistent weight and, at times, it was an obsession of mine. On the lower end of the spectrum — and at the height of a period of obsessive exercise and disordered eating during my senior year of high school — I weighed about 155 pounds. Less than a year later, I’d gained over 30 pounds when I started drinking the first semester of my freshman year of college. All of it was lost during my second semester of freshman year as I exercised more and ate and drank less, and I remained more or less in a healthy (by Midwestern standards, at least) range until about a year out of college.

That was when the pieces of my adult life started falling into place. I started a dream job working for a company I deeply admired and respected. I fell in love and still have yet to fall back out. And by some combination of factors I’ve yet to fully pinpoint, all the weight and then some returned. I now weigh about 235 pounds.

To say the weight gain has been depressing and, at times, immobilizing is a massive understatement. Clothing that was once among my favorite to wear no longer fit — after spending years in the back of the closet, I’d eventually consign myself to donating it so someone skinnier could wear it. Eating became a guilty activity. Leaving the house was anxiety-inducing at times. I didn’t weigh myself for years for fear of what the scale would read.

Once I finally did weigh myself and I realized (and admitted to myself) I’d reached the point where I weighed more than I ever had in my entire life, I began to feel too far gone for any amount of diet, exercise or other changes in habit to make an impact. That feeling was isolating and all-encompassing and I’ve struggled with it.

A few times over the last year in particular, anonymous Internet commenters who disagreed with my writings called me “fat,” a word that stabbed me in the gut. When I lashed back out at these strangers, others — friends I deeply respect and admire — criticized me for reacting negatively to be called something I did not want to be and was not happy being and, in their opinion, contributing to giving a neutral word negative meaning. Being essentially called out as “body-negative” hurt even more — that was never my intention and it hurt to feel almost bullied by a friend into “owning it.” What if we don’t want to reclaim a word traditionally used as an insult when it’s hurled at us? Does that, indeed, make us — the insulted, the attacked, the wounded — as big a part of the problem as the insulter, the attacker, the assailant?

This brings me back to my being (or not being) a bear. I have a deep admiration for the bear community and always have. The first story I ever wrote for a major print publication was a story on “straight bears” for the 2010 Pride issue of the Village Voice. And I’m a huge fan of the way that sub-communities within the fake monolith of the “LGBT community” can offer safety, pride, happiness, sexual currency, confidence, friendship and a sense of membership to individuals who are often othered by the dominant cultures within our “community.” It is a testament to queers everywhere that we have been able to form and sustain so many sub-communities that allow for us to truly shine as our best queer selves.

But all of that said, I have never felt a part of the bear community, nor have I ever felt welcomed in it for many reasons, but mainly: a) My lack of athletic ability or interest in sports and b) My natural femme vibes and c) Mainly, I don’t need to list my reasons why — you should just respect that. A beard does not a bear make. Being overweight does not a bear make. Blue eyes do not a bear make. To summarize: I love bears, but I am not one.

Like pretty much every other “alternative” queer sub-community that likes to tout how they welcome all types of individuals to the table with open arms, I feel the bear community falls short of that goal. Perfection is not possible, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to strive toward it in the interest of celebrating the surviving and thriving of all our queer brothers and sisters.

And I’m all in on body positivity but not when it is enforced to a degree where any dissent — i.e. acknowledging an unhappiness in one’s own body — is policed and taken as an affront to others. Such enforcement of body positivity can be dangerous, causing some to keep dangerous behaviors secret for fear of a callout. This helps no one.

Instead, we must respect all individuals’ right to self-identify and respect their protest when mis-identified — especially if you don’t necessarily believe what that individual has been labeled is offensive. Even in this era of social media overshares, you can never truly know anyone else, particularly when it comes to the inner demons they are slaying every day, every minute, every second of their lives, just by surviving. This should be celebrated and can be celebrated by giving people the space they deserve to self-identify as they choose without fear of reprisal or correction. This is the kind of community love that helps foster the self-love we all need and desire.

You are not allowed to define anyone else’s reality for them and referee when you feel they’ve incorrectly defined themselves. You are not allowed to fight YOUR battle of language and cultural norms  (as important as it may be/probably is) on the backs of others’ identities — these people are not who you should be spending your energy on.

We will all make mistakes when it comes to these issues. We will all be called out and we will all feel the urge to callout. But most important through it all is the willingness to listen to and respect each other when it comes to the words we ascribe to ourselves and others, particularly when a line is crossed and a mistake is made.

For the past three months — and two months prior to the street harassment — I’ve been going regularly to a gym and being more conscious about my eating and drinking habits and achieved some results — though the progress has been, as it is for many, slower and more frustrating than one would hope. But I feel like I’m finally on the path to happiness — or, at least, happier-ness. Writing this essay — which I’ve been drafting, editing and rewriting in my head for weeks — is a big part of that journey. Thank you for reading.


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