For a small but enthusiastic group of gay punters who visit Sydney every February and March, the Mardi Gras isn’t necessarily the main event.

Harbour City Bears social group has been holding its own festival every year for the past eight Mardi Gras, entitled Bear Essentials. It’s low key, boozy and occasionally raunchy, although last year it was almost cancelled. President Barry Taylor said it was a close thing, as not even the bears were spared the increased cost of public liability insurance.

Certainly that still presents an issue for us. It’s a major cost but we are paying certainly higher fees -¦ Taylor said. We’re a social group, but it’s well over 40 percent of our expenditure. Taylor was recently re-elected president, a position he has held for the last 18 months.

Despite the costs (offset in part by fundraising efforts like raffles), the latest Bear Essentials festival is as strong as last year’s event. Subtitled Eight Is Never Enough, the five-day party features eight events: a welcome party (Circulate); a bus tour (Investigate); a pool party (Saturate); a harbour cruise (Navigate); a beach day (Invigorate); a picnic supper (Congregate); an Underbear Party (Stimulate) and the New Mardi Gras parade entry (Celebrate).

The activities we’re doing are very much on a cost recovery basis or we try and do them very cheaply so that as many members and bears and their admirers can participate, Taylor said. In the spirit of such inclusivity, the launch of the program will be free of charge, held upstairs at the Newtown Hotel this Saturday night.

The upstairs Newtown bar has become a monthly satellite night for the group, who meet weekly at the Bear’s clubhouse, the Oxford Hotel. The move to the Oxford was an historic one, with the bears colonising (weekly at least) a space that was once the domain of the less girthed and hirsute.

It’s been very successful, Taylor said. At times it’s a little cramped, but certainly we’re getting lots of positive feedback and the bears are very happy in their new club. On the opening night of the club, there was a queue outside the Oxford -“ almost unheard of for the hotel in recent years. Regular Friday nights with the bears are almost as packed.

The bears’ conquest of the scene has even stretched as far down the strip as the Midnight Shift. Sunday afternoons downstairs at the Shift have become a regular, informal den, and Taylor reveals that this year’s Underbear Party will be held upstairs at the Midnightshift Club for the first time.

We’re very excited, Taylor said. (Taylor uses the word excited a lot.) The notorious Underbear Party is his favourite event, he admits with very little nudging.

The party may be a favourite of hardcore bears and fans but, for public admirers, it’s the bear entry in the Mardi Gras parade that proves popular year after year. (The entry is not without controversy, especially that year the official telecast neglected to show footage of these atypical gay men in the parade when their entry was the largest -“ in all senses of the word). What can we expect next year? Taylor can’t say.

We’re still working on that. But certainly it will be a large, happy presence in the parade and certainly our fans won’t be disappointed, he laughs.

The launch of Bear Essentials 8 will be held upstairs at the Newtown Hotel this Saturday 8 November from 9pm. Admission is free. Bear Essentials 8 will be held from 2 to 6 March 2004. For more information email be8@hcbears.com, visit www.hcbears.com or ph. (02) 9590 8466.

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