New Exhibition Traces History of Gay Bear Community

A new exhibition at the GLBT History Museum will feature the work of cartoonist Fran Frisch as a starting point for exploring the history of the bear community, a subculture that developed in the 1980s to celebrate older, larger, hairier, ruggedly masculine gay men who had been largely excluded from standards of attractiveness in gay popular culture. “Beartoonist of San Francisco: Sketching an Emerging Subculture” opens Jan. 27.

“Fran Frisch’s bears are both cuddly and sexual, playful and laid back, yet radical and subversive; his cartoons epitomize what it means to be a Bear,” says curator Jeremy Prince. “Frisch was a pioneering artist who helped define the Bear community through his designs, and his drawings brought humor into the mix as one of the vital aspects of bear masculinity.”

Covering the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, the exhibition will focus on San Francisco, one of the key places where the bear community first emerged before becoming an international phenomenon. The bear identity created positive self-images and an affirming subculture beyond the narrow concepts of gay masculinity and eroticism that prevailed at the time. On display will be archival materials from a number of Bay Area organizations and events for which Frisch produced promotional illustrations:
  • The Lone Star Saloon, widely considered the first bar dedicated to the bear community, opened in 1989.
  • BEAR magazine, published in San Francisco from 1987 to 2002 (and revived in 2008).
  • Bears of San Francisco, a charitable organization of bears and admirers, established in 1994.
  • International Bear Rendezvous, an annual bear weekend that ran from 1995 to 2011.
  • Lazy Bear Weekend, an annual weekend getaway for bears, produced by Harry Lit and Allan Eggman, starting in 1995 and continuing to this day.
Frisch’s distinctive bear-centric cartoons offer a thread through which curator Prince traces the development of the bear community over the past three decades. The exhibition will include original art by Frisch, along with photographs, objects and ephemera from the collection of the curator and from the archives of the GLBT Historical Society.
“Beartoonist of San Francisco” opens on Friday, January 27, with a public reception set for 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the GLBT History Museum at 4127 18th St. in San Francisco. The curator will make brief remarks to inaugurate the show. Wine, sparkling water and light refreshments will be served. Admission is $5.00; free for members. The exhibition will be on display in the museum’s Community Gallery through May 2017.
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"Bear San Francisco" by Fran Frisch (1989); hand-colored print.  Collection of Jeremy Prince; courtesy GLBT Historical Society.