Bears on Bears

Bears on Bears

by Ron Jackson Suresha

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Bears, for the uninitiated, are gay men who defiantly challenge society's ideal of physical appearance, who celebrate the fact that they are often large, hairy, and don't give a hoot about what fashions are parading down the runway. Ron Suresha's thought-provoking, humorous long-form interviews with men, including editor David Bergman, cartoonist Tim Barela, and

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Bears, for the uninitiated, are gay men who defiantly challenge society's ideal of physical appearance, who celebrate the fact that they are often large, hairy, and don't give a hoot about what fashions are parading down the runway. Ron Suresha's thought-provoking, humorous long-form interviews with men, including editor David Bergman, cartoonist Tim Barela, and comedian and writer Bruce Vilanch examine questions of gay male stereotyping, commodification of the human body, the oppressiveness of the "physical ideal," and how body image affects personal growth.

Ron Suresha's work has appeared in American Bear, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, In Newsweekly, Gay Community News, White Crane Journal , Art & Understanding , The Bear Book, and The Bear Book II. He lives in Boston.

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Alyson Publications
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6.10(w) x 8.98(h) x 0.84(d)

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Surviving as a Fat Naked Fag:

An Interview with Rich Hatch

RICH HATCH is the celebrated million-dollar winner of summer 2000's smash TV hit Survivor, the Robinson Crusoe reality game show in which he successfully managed to "outwit, outplay, and outlast" his 15 island competitors. Since then the single, 39-year-old corporate trainer and father (he has an adopted 10-year-old son, Chris) has made numerous TV and radio appearances and was featured on the cover of The Advocate. He has also authored a book, 101 Survival Secrets: How To Make $1,000,000, Lose 100 Pounds, and Just Plain Live Happy, in which he writes candidly about growing up being big and gay, discusses the evolution of his life philosophy, and offers advice and "rules for a better life."

Although Rich does not particularly identify as a Bear, the body issues that he has dealt with successfully are common to many gay men with Bear bodies. Rich has risen above his early experiences of sexual abuse, shame and guilt for being gay, and poor self-esteem for being fat, to become a successful, happy, very self-assured man.

I interviewed Rich at his lovely home near Newport, Rhode Island, where we talked about nudity and body image, Bears and sexuality, self-esteem and surviving life on and off the island, among other topics.

RON: Rich, when did you actually realize you were gay?

RICH: I was always attracted to boys, and then men but when did I know for sure? I'm not certain. I thought that I was just like everybody else, that I'd grow up and get married and have kids, but that everybody else must havethese feelings too. I thought that other boys must find that guy cute, and that guy hot, and they must all think that way but just date women and then maybe get turned on by them later. This idea was going on in my head and I believed it, and so all through high school I dated girls. I certainly wasn't sexual with them. I had absolutely no sexual attraction to women.

RON: But you played the game.

RICH: I played the game. Yet there were all kinds of interactions from as early as I can remember with boys, such as masturbating in the woods with this one neighborhood guy. These other neighborhood kids and I had this club where you had to take your pants off to come in, and silly things like that, which were very...

RON: Homoerotic, but not necessarily with homo sex.

RICH: Yes.

RON: It sounds as if you assumed that being gay was a normal affectional situation for yourself rather than looking at yourself as being a pervert or degenerate.

RICH: I never thought of myself as perverted. I thought that I couldn't be what they were talking about. Queer? Fag? With those negative connotations, that hateful demeanor that they used when they said it? That couldn't be me. So gosh, everybody must have these feelings, to a certain extent. When I somehow realized that what they were referring to was me, just because I was attracted to men, it must have been hurtful on some level. But it certainly was relatively fast that I came to see their ignorance. How stupid they are to be so hateful and disparaging of something they know nothing about! And so what? Who are they, to anybody who is anyone, to decide who anyone else should be attracted to—and why would it matter? It's not as if my attraction to somebody else affects other people in any hurtful way.

Religion didn't play a huge role in my life, ever, either. Certainly, I was raised Catholic and explored all kinds of religion—Mormon, Methodist, Judaism, and so on—but none of it made any kind of logical sense. It seemed to be the blanket, if you will, covering up an excuse for hate and conflict and war, so it never made sense to me.

It didn't take me long to conclude that people are simply stupid. Most people aren't open-minded enough, introspective enough, self-aware enough, bright enough, to examine reality. They get too caught up, I found, in a particular paradigm and stay with it to keep from feeling unsettled.

RON: That attitude displays remarkable self-esteem. Is this something that you feel you had innately, or something you developed over time?

RICH: It grew; it certainly wasn't innate. I remember being the kind of bright kid, somewhat ostracized, an outsider, feeling fat and ugly, and just feeling bad for many, many years. It's hard for me to get back in touch with that right now because it seems so foreign to me. I really have somehow lost that, thankfully, mostly due to a good friend of mine, an amazing man who has just challenged the living hell out of me for the past 17 or so years. But I still can remember those incredibly negative, confused feelings.

RON: You've written about your early experiences of sexual abuse, instances where it would have been easy for you to take onto yourself a sense of guilt or wrongfulness or shame.

RICH: I never got the guilt, but I did feel shame at some point, probably even somewhat for being gay.

RON: How did you begin to heal those experiences?

RICH: It was a long process of self-analysis and introspection, constantly asking myself, What's real? What's honest? Okay, here's what I'm feeling, and here's what I'm hearing, here's what someone is saying to me. Now, what's the reality of this situation? Through one example after another, I came to a place of self-confidence, a place of understanding that my perspective, because I was focused on it more than most people were, was accurate more often.

A big part was an outdoor adventure I did when I was a kid—Horizon Bound—that was a very powerful experience. It went defunct about 14 years ago, and I've now incorporated under the same name. We're going to take two groups of kids in the woods by this summer.

At that age—14 to 19, which is the age group we'll be taking out—you think you know so much more than adults can recognize, and so you're often battling against everyone and expressing yourself in all sorts of negative ways. It's a great time to just get real, get in the woods, and not worry about any of the social crap. You find out if you can lean over the back of a cliff and rapel, how long you can hike, and how much you can carry. Are you helping somebody out, or are you a hindrance? Those kinds of things are just incredibly meaningful.

RON: I wish you all the best with that. It's a great project.

In your book, you said very candidly that as a kid you worried about the size of your dick. How did you go from that inhibited state of mind to being an avid nudist appearing naked on national TV?

RICH: Again, getting a perspective on what reality is, what dick sizes are, and why does it matter? I was always kind of embarrassed about my body and about nudity in general. I don't know why I felt so ashamed of my body or of my dick in particular. My parents would never be undressed around me, so that's probably where it started.

RON: But that's true of most Americans.

RICH: Well, the New England kind of cover-up: nudity equals sexuality.

RON: Ah, the neo-Puritan ethic. But virtually everybody has some body issues. If you have a body, generally, you have body issues.

RICH: Yes, and when I came to realize that everybody has some kind of a body issue, I explored the reasons why, and it just seemed asinine that we have these issues. It's not anything that anybody has any control over: We're all born nude, and we all put clothes on and take them off. Whoopee. At some point I just realized it's stupid to stress out about being naked just because I had a roll of fat, or because I hadn't lost enough weight, or because I might not know whether my dick's too big or too small or whatever. It was just asinine, and somehow I just stopped, luckily, caring. For many years it has been a meaningless issue to me; so meaningless that it just didn't matter on the island.

RON: So on the island it was totally natural for you to be naked, besides the fact it was so hot.

RICH: 110 degrees, humid as hell, on a deserted island in the middle of the South China Sea. Where else would it be more appropriate?

RON: Yes, but with cameras, though.

RICH: True, the cameras were there, but they just weren't a consideration. I wasn't naked because they were there, and I wouldn't have not been naked if they hadn't been there. It wasn't a consideration. Certainly, I knew they were filming all the time, but I figured, Well, how much of that are they going to use? Oh, well, whatever they want to use they can. I don't really care who sees me naked. It just doesn't matter to me: "Oh, damn—you saw me naked! Oh, my God! Now what am I going to do?" I just don't get it.

RON: An acquaintance that you and I have in common told me that when he asked you if you consider yourself a Bear, you replied, "Of course I'm a Bear." Now, what makes you feel you're a Bear, and why?

RICH: My understanding of "Bear" is a kind of big, hirsute or hairy guy, usually with a beard or some facial hair being a big plus. I don't know if there is more to it. I've heard the term "cub," but then I've seen guys who are considered Bears—one was the papa and one was the cub, and the cub was just as burly and bearded as the papa Bear. So "cub" originally in my mind was a smoother, smaller guy. I have no idea what's accurate about those definitions, so I'm not sure I would have said something like, "Of course I'm a Bear." But I think I'm probably Bearish. I'm hairy-chested—not hairy-backed—I'm not that hairy, but hairy enough, sure. I play with my beard whenever I feel like it. At any given time, I might have a beard or a goatee or a moustache or whatever. I've never lived in one permanent facial-hair routine for any period of years. I've always flopped around.

RON: Also, self-identified Bears are gay or bisexual men.

RICH: Yes, I forgot the gay part! [Both laugh]

RON: Up until the time when you left the island, how long had you worn your beard?

RICH: I might have had it six or eight months or so. I was in a beard phase. I might have had a goatee before that, and I might have been smooth-shaven for eight months before that, and I might have had a beard for a year and a half before that. I've never been attached to any particular look. Particularly when I was huge, 360 pounds, for many years, and had a beard, I looked a lot older than I wanted to look.

RON: The "fat naked fag" moniker that [Survivor competitor] Sean invented on the island—and which you audaciously used as a chapter title in your book—is a term of identification that many Bears would probably feel is derisive.

RICH: Sean didn't coin that phrase. Actually, my friend Tom made it up. I told Sean the story behind that expression and he picked it up from there. My friends Tom and Valerie and I went camping in Maine and Canada two summers ago. We drove up there, and I was naked within five minutes after we arrived, and stayed that way. They weren't... They're not comfortable that way. So, there we were hiking for miles, and I was naked the whole time. We got to a beach, and they climbed down to the beach. I climbed down after them and Tom turned around and looked up and got a perspective that he'd rather not have had. So Tom started laughing and pointing, "Oh, God, look at this fat naked fag!" We just about pissed in our pants, so to speak, just because it sounded so funny. And then we thought of a business concept—a calendar called "Fat Naked Fag Goes Rock Climbing" or "Fat Naked Fag Barbecues" or "Fat Naked Fag Goes Spear Fishing."

RON: Like the Naked Coed or Bear Whizz merchandise you find at truck stops.

RICH: Right. So, for the rest of our camping trip, we were coming up with various shots for the calendar, and then the T-shirts—we just went with the concept.

RON: Followed by a whole line of clothing? For Fat Naked Fag fans.

RICH: Absolutely. I still think it would be a great, humorous idea. And at the time I would have been a perfect model: 300-plus pounds (not that I cared), always naked, and kind of goofy looking.

RON: So rather than being a term of derision, it was a concept or image that you embraced.

RICH: I was a fat naked fag. I'm still a big naked fag, most of the time. I'm not fat per se, but I'm nowhere near skinny.

RON: In any case, now that you've lost 100 pounds—

RICH: 130-something pounds.

RON: Yes. Now that you've lost all that weight and shaved and are dressing nicely, do you feel you're accepted more by mainstream America?

RICH: Oh, I don't know. Was I accepted before, when I was fat and hairy and naked? Am I accepted now? I'm still a big hairy gay man. I have no idea of the level of acceptance or if any of this plays into it. Maybe the weight coming off makes me more appealing to more people. Certainly, nowadays I have a more "marketable" image to mainstream America than I would as a fat man. That's just the way it is.

RON: My understanding is that you're not currently partnered.

RICH: I am not! And I'm on the prowl. It's my most important goal.

RON: What attributes do you look for in a companion?

RICH: Intelligence, first. With that come all kinds of things, such as wit and self-awareness. A kind of introspective journey will have to be a big part of the life of whoever will be my partner. A clear, comfortable, confident sense of who they are—I find that extraordinarily sexy. I believe that I'm about to be featured in Hero magazine as their bachelor of the month.

RON: Do you have a particular type, such as Bearish men?

RICH: Yeah.

RON: Yeah?

RICH: Gotta have a penis. I just love men with penises!

RON: A minimum requirement. Well, are there any other attributes that attract you?

RICH: I wish there were. It might be easier to narrow things down, but I don't have any other prerequisites. He's got to be attractive. What does that mean? I don't know. I can go through lists of people in my head that I find attractive, and they could be 6-foot-4 to 5-foots-9, dark-haired and hairy-chested to blond and smooth swimmer type—they're across the board. I have a vivid imagination and a wildly wide spectrum. I just really, really love men. Men who are men. I'm not particularly attracted to men in women's clothing or men who are seriously effeminate. That's not to say I don't enjoy being with men who camp it up. That's fun, and certainly a part of my life. But if I were attracted to femininity, I'd be with a woman. So I'm not attracted to femininity itself, particularly sexually.

RON: What are you doing to pursue this foremost goal of yours?

RICH: Talking about it with everybody I can.

RON: Do you get many love letters from fans?

RICH: Yes, most of which are very sad. Naked guys in bizarre scenarios and positions, or desperate-sounding pleas from uneducated guys who live with their moms, saying, "You're the man for me. I know we could be friends. Can't we be friends? Why haven't you written?" It's a really, really, really odd place to be in, as I am, to see firsthand the mental state of America. I think people are far less mentally healthy than we as a society pretend we are.

RON: I suspect you're correct. But do you not get any diamonds among the coal?

RICH: I have yet to meet that gem. I have yet to figure out who it is will click. I got an interesting call from a guy in New Jersey, and we were chatting, and I said, "Well, why don't you hang up, drive up here, and find out if we've got something going?" Then he became so nervous, saying he wished he could, but, uh, he was going to be in Rhode Island for business sometime later, and maybe the two of us could connect then. I tried to explain to him that one characteristic of a guy that would interest me and would make me respect him and draw me to him is risk-taking. I'm not particularly attracted to this kind of overcautious person.

That's a good example of why I'm single. I'm very challenging, very honest, and very direct. I'm also very open-minded and willing to listen, but I want to get at what's real, so if I think that something's going on under the surface, I'm going to challenge you and talk with you about it. And if you haven't done that work already, it's going to cause you to be defensive.

RON: You're looking for someone with a comparable level of self-awareness, someone who's also on a path of self-discovery.

RICH: This is a time in my life that I'd much rather be sharing with somebody. I'm travelling all over the world, staying in gorgeous places—not that that means everything in a relationship—but I really want to share that with someone, as well as to cuddle and have sex and massage and play with somebody special. That's not part of it quite yet.

RON: What other desires and ambitions do you have in your life? What do you see ahead of you?

RICH: What don't I have ahead of me? There are some very exciting things on the horizon that I can't talk about for various reasons. Until contracts are signed and papers are passed, I can't even talk about the negotiations. Fun things that will keep on surprising people. Talk about the 15 minutes of fame that should have been over a long time ago—even if 10 percent of what's on the table comes to fruition, I will be doing something in this business for quite a while.

RON: As well as continuing your regular consulting?

RICH: Right. My career as a speaker and corporate trainer just keeps growing as well.

RON: What was the greatest lesson that you learned on the island?

RICH: A lot of people have asked that. It wasn't for me a particular learning experience. By that I mean that my whole life is a learning experience. I'm constantly introspective. I didn't so much learn anything new on the island as I learned more about how and why I should trust my own perceptions, which is an ongoing lesson that I've kept learning.

RON: So the island experience reinforced what you already knew?

RICH: It was a physically challenging environment, more so than you could ever tell by just watching the television show. It was difficult, but it was much more of a social game, much more a mental challenge, how to interact, how to live to be the last one standing. But all the skills that I used are ones that I've always applied in my life. So there wasn't any major lesson from winning "Survivor."

RON: Would that also apply to your life since the last episode aired? Have you learned anything new since the world first learned of your victory?

RICH: Truly, I haven't. I think this would be a most amazing time for most people, an explosive learning environment, but for me, it's been a lot of superficial crap. And that has been nice, that's the best possible way, that all of this whatever-it-is is external; it's all crap.

RON: So you feel detached from your celebrity?

RICH: Oh yeah, quite a bit. I was really well grounded, thankfully, before I left for the island. It took a long time and a lot of work to get to the place where I really love me, and I'm very, very comfortable with who I am. Celebrity status is very, very superficial and utterly meaningless and inconsequential to me, unlike some of the other contestants, who have talked about when they walked out the door and found the Enquirer going through their garbage as being the best day in their lives. I don't get it. I've never had that desire or interest.

RON: You don't feel that your celebrity is a mark of your success?

RICH: In my book, I talk about how happiness is success, and success is happiness. They're the same thing. It took me a long time to get to that understanding, and I don't think that many people recognize that when they're happy, that is success. When they're successful, that means by definition that they're happy.

I was happy and successful long before the island, and so, coming back and being in the public eye, facing myriad opportunities that probably would be overwhelming to many people, they're just questions for me to evaluate: Will this make me happy? Will I continue to be happy doing this? Would doing that be something I would enjoy? And I like having the opportunity to do that but I feel as if I've created it. Otherwise I'd be involved in evaluating other options based on other risks that I'd be taking, to see what else I could learn and explore. That's what my life is about, and that's what makes me happy. So, although it doesn't look like it to everybody else, it's par for the course for me. It's just how I live.

RON: Last question: If you were to be stranded on a real deserted island with one other person, whom would it be?

RICH: It would be my partner. And we would be buck naked!

RON: [Laughs] Well, that's a good abstract answer, but can you think of any specific person?

RICH: Well, there are a number of different guys, for different reasons. I find Ed Norton incredibly sexy. Or Kevin Spacey—he works for me. [Long pause] I could walk down the street and pick someone out. I could even picture you there. I have a vivid imagination, but my true fantasy would be the guy with who I am intensely, sexually attracted to as my compatible mate. I don't know who that is, but that's who I'd want to be stranded on the deserted island with.

Excerpted from Bears on Bears by Ron Jackson Suresha. Copyright © 2002 by Ron Jackson Suresha. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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