A study by University of Brighton researcher Nick McGlynn is spotlighting the often difficult experiences of fatter men in gay spaces across the UK.
Dr McGlynn’s report – entitled Bearspace – is the largest ever study of the UK’s community of ‘Bears’, a term referring to big and hairy gay men who typically present in a more ‘masculine’ way, and who make up one of the UK’s largest gay male subcultures. This groundbreaking research explores the experiences of fat gay, bi and queer (GBQ) men in spaces used and created by Bear communities in the UK, drawing on data from focus groups, interviews and Nick’s own observations.
As well as seeking to address a huge gap in research into the UK Bear community generally, Dr McGlynn’s study was driven by a contrast between his own positive experiences in Bear Spaces and other evidence which reported these as sometimes rejecting or excluding fat men.
Dr McGlynn, Senior Lecturer in University of Brighton’s School of Applied Sciences, as well as its Centre for Transforming Sexuality and Gender, said: “As a Bear myself, I started this project in 2018 because what I was hearing and reading about Bears didn’t always ring true to me. I’d always felt at ease with my body – my saggy lower belly, my skinny arms, my flabby arse – in Bear spaces… So I was surprised to encounter scholarship about Bears which described them as rejecting or excluding fat men.”
The Bearspace report unearthed certain themes around the Bear male experience in the UK. One finding was that ‘mainstream’ (non-Bear) LGBTQ+ spaces were often felt to be uncomfortable by fat GBQ men. Some of this was due to anti-fat abuse or looks from others, but there was also an issue around feeling self-conscious as a plus-size man ‘standing out’ among thinner bodies. But in Bear spaces, these men said they felt comfortable and attractive.
Dr McGlynn also found evidence a ‘hierarchy’ with respect to the bodies of Bear men, which could spark negative attitudes in Bear spaces too. For example, ‘Muscle Bears’ were often felt to have a negative attitude to fat GBQ men who didn’t conform to a fit body shape. But he also discovered evidence of prejudice even around ideas such as having the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ kinds of beard.
Dr McGlynn added: “Fat men face a lot of marginalisation in everyday life and especially in gay, bi and queer men’s cultures and communities. So I wanted to explore some of the few spaces where we might be celebrated. It’s clear that spaces of the Bear community can be really valuable for fat guys, but they’re not completely free from fat stigma. The report also emphasises that to make LGBTQ spaces comfortable for fat men, ‘body positive’ intentions won’t cut it if there’s not enough big guys there!”
Nick also features in a Queer Lit podcast entitled Bears and Fat GBQ Men available from 15 February: