Hear them growl: The Pinoy bear community raises its voice
MANILA, Philippines – By the time the Bearytones took the stage at Metro Manila Pride on June 30, a good number of the event’s record-breaking 25,000+ attendees had already pooled by the stage to watch the show.
In terms of diversity, the crowd had it all. It was Pride after all, and everyone across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum was represented. There were as many identities as there are colors of the rainbow stripes that was one everyone’s shirts and faces and bodies that afternoon.
But even as the acapella group composed chiefly of bears took the stage, everyone collectively tuned in.
Bears often refer to hairy, heavyset gay men who are all too often overlooked and even shamed. Being plus-size already comes with its own struggles whether you’re LGBT or straight, but this is especially true within the gay community, where the beauty standard is defined by rock-solid abs and bulging biceps.
Of course, Pride was the perfect time for Manila’s Bear tribe to be seen and, more importantly, be heard – and through the Bearytones, they definitely were.
Kiko, Shouri, Kim, Rommel, Tamz and Ian came together in 2015, coinciding with the popularity of Pitch Perfect 2 and acapella group Pentatonix.
“It took a LONG time of auditions, trying out different singers, roster changes, member hiatuses, and basically learning how to sing as a group before finally getting to this point,” Ian told Rappler, explaining that the group’s biggest turning point was when Shouri – who is a member of the Hangad choir – joined the group as a baritone and musical director.
The band soon became a venue where the members could live out their love for music – and also where they could find a safe space for like-minded individuals.
“Music is a passion for all of us and we wanted a space that would be free, fun, and accepting of all our little quirks as musicians,” Kiko shared. “The fact that we are all heavier than usual is something that helps us be more comfortable with each other.”
Performing at Pride
By the time the Bearytones they launched into their first song at Pride – their cover of the Itchyworms’ timeless love anthem, “Akin Ka Na Lang” – the crowd was hooked.
The Bearytones take the stage with a performance of "Akin Ka Nalang" (notice the sign intepreter's smooth moves!) pic.twitter.com/xPbXc8o7vm— Amanda Lago (@AmandaLago9) June 30, 2018
Each song after that went by without a blip and the group knew just how to banter with the crowd, who cheered on for them with the fervor of long-time groupies. They also managed to pick a setlist that appealed to experiences the LGBT community would be familiar with: Cee-Lo Green’s “F*ck You” for scorned exes, Parokya ni Edgar’s “This Guy’s in Love With You Pare” for obvious reasons, and Juan dela Cruz Band’s “Himig Natin,” an anthem for coming together.
Watching them perform, it would be a surprise to learn that that was the group’s first time to perform on the Pride stage. The group described the milestone as fulfilling, and a “surreal” experience, owing much of its success to the supportive and welcoming crowd.
“[Pride was] hands down, the most amazing experience I’ve ever had as a performer to date. When we got onstage, the initial rush of love from the audience was so exciting considering we didn’t really have that high a profile compared to the other acts,” Ian shared.
“Juggling between work and Bearytone practices wasn’t easy, I admit. But when we got to the stage and started singing our hearts out, it was so rewarding and fulfilling. There was never a dull moment with the loveliest crowd. All the tension and nervousness I felt instantly faded away when they started singing along. Pride has never been more filled with love,” Rommell added.
Waving the bear flag
As the Bearytones sang, a flag in shades of brown stood out from the rainbows – the bear flag, carried by members of Pilipinas Chubs and Chasers (PCC), a group created for bears, chubs (chubby men), and chasers (those who are interested in dating them).
Like the Bearytones, 2018 Pride marked a first for PCC. Having only formed in 2017, it was their first time to join the march, providing the representation that the local bear community still sorely lacks.
“Generally, in our case, for plus-sized gay men, hindi lang kami nagfaface ng judgment (we don’t just face judgment) based on our gender preference. Iniisip ng mga tao bakla ka (people think you’re gay), you’re staying in the closet, paano ka nag-kasya sa closet mo (how did you fit in your closet)?” PCC founder Mikko Tamura told Rappler as the Barytones sang onstage.
“We are also persecuted and judged because of our size.”
For Mikko, forming PCC was necessary for the obvious reason that it creates a safe space for bears and chubs to celebrate themselves and their bodies, and also, interestingly enough, to find romance or sex.
“Parang yun yung nangyari sa community namin (that’s what's happened to our community)…plus-size men go there, people who like plus-size men go there,” Mikko shared, explaining that in addition to bear dating app Growlr, their group has become a dating platform of sorts.
He said that being at pride, seeing his fellow PCC members and the Bearytones up on stage made him feel “super empowered.”
“Us bigger sized men, we are really scared of what people think about us. Physical ang atake samin (We’re attacked for our physical appearance). But seeing my brothers here right now, confident, even if some of them are not out of the closet, it’s really empowering para sa kanila (for them) and for me,” Mikko said.
With the bear flag waving freely in the crowd, and the Bearytones receiving resounding applause, it may be safe to say that the bear community can only expect to get stronger – for as long as those who represent it keep doing so proudly.
And as Ian pointed out, advocating for the acceptance of the bear community doesn’t even have to come in the form of a loud protest or a campaign. It can simply about unapologetically living one’s life and making one’s dreams come true.
“Bears are a niche of a niche, so even in the spectrum of gay people, plus-sized folk are invisible and marginalized. I ‘represent’ only in as much as I just live my life to the fullest and don’t apologize for it. I don’t wear a t-shirt when I swim, and I don’t tolerate anyone trying to lecture or 'concern troll' me into feeling bad about myself,” Ian said.
“I think I’m awesome just the way I am and I think big boys are freakin’ sexy. I’ve been on both sides of the closet, coming out late in life at 27 so I know what impact it can have; to be able to see yourself and have that sort of representation out there,” he explained.
“I’m just trying to live the best life I can, but if by doing so I can inspire other people to do the same and take ownership of their own lives, that’s a nice bonus.” – Rappler.com