They’re furry, friendly and don’t fit any specific stereotype — yet the Harbour City Bears (HCB) is the second-largest gay and lesbian membership-based organisation in Sydney, after New Mardi Gras.

Formed 15 years ago, the club’s Den Night every Friday at the Oxford Hotel is by far the most popular weekly event on the social calendar. In fact the Oxford Hotel is so jammed the group was forced to add a Sunday afternoon get-together at the Lord Roberts Hotel to its schedule to cope with demand.

HCB president Jonny Bastin thinks the popularity of the group is based on its openness and acceptance of people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and persuasions.

“One of the reasons the club is so popular is because we’re a friendly bunch and we love having a good time. It’s kind of old-fashioned, I know, to go out and have a fun time — but we try to make a habit of it,” Bastin said.

“We work with venues that are part of the community so our events are held at places where our members and guests will be treated with respect and not ripped off or treated badly.

“Our committee works hard to ensure membership of HCB is also great value for money. As a member you get lots of discounts and subsidised events. Our committee also works hard to connect our members to the community. One example is our weekly newsletter — you get this whether you live in Darlinghurst, Castle Hill or Newcastle.”

And what about claims the organisation is misogynistic and cliquey?

“It’s not true,” Bastin said. “HCB is a gay men’s community group and we’re proud of that, but we’re an inclusive organisation with membership open to men and women, transmen — people of any sexuality or gender. Everyone is welcome to attend our events and they do.

“The only people not welcomed are people with a bad attitude — racist, sexist, homophobic.”

HCB was formed 15 years ago following the collapse of its predecessor, OzBears, in 1995.

“The worldwide Bear phenomenon was still in its early stages and it was felt a club was needed here in Sydney to cater for men who felt they did not fit into mainstream gay culture at the time — which idealised the young and hairless body type,” Bastin said of HCB’s formative years.
“After the death of OzBears, Harbour City Bears was formed in 1995 so 2010 marks our 15th anniversary.”

And 2010 will mark the 14th annual Bear Essentials program put together by the club for the Mardi Gras festival.

BE14: Between the Flags promises an array of activities from dance parties and recovery events to Sydney tourist activities and fundraisers.
“My highlight is the work we’ll be doing to raise money for the Inspire Foundation. Inspire works with young people to improve their mental health and prevent suicide — they’re a fantastic organisation and I hope we raise lots of money for them,” Bastin said.

“Furball is visiting Bear Essentials from Amsterdam with a full-line up of its regular DJs: Bramsterdam, Big General and Mike Kelly plus Jayson Leahy from Melbourne and local Bear Gavyn Vincze. This is the first time we’ve enticed an overseas party to visit and it’s going to be a great night.

“Underbear has a swimwear theme this year to fit in with the ‘Between the Flags’ concept and we have a fantastic line-up of DJs including Rob Gilbert from Melbourne and Rotten Robbie from the US. Robbie is well known in the Bear community over there, having played at many Bear parties including at the Lazy Bear festival for many years.

“I also think our Bears of Australia parade entry will be a highlight — our entry will be celebrating Sydney’s beach culture but also the 15th anniversary of HCB and the 15th anniversary of the Bear flag. It’s designed by Rick McGill, so it will be spectacular.”

This year HCB is expecting an influx of interstate and overseas visitors, attracted by the broad array of events and activities on the BE14 program.

“We gets lots of guys from Melbourne and Brisbane, but a large number from the US and UK of course. There’s a whole group coming out from Manchester in England this year and we’ve also had a lot of enquiries from Italy,” Bastin said.

“It’s popular because Sydney is a fantastic destination and Bear Essentials runs alongside Mardi Gras, plus our events have a good reputation as being well run and fun.

“Bear Essentials is one of the ‘must do’ events on the international Bear party scene — all the hot Bears and Cubs will be in town.”

Of course those attending a BE14 event are likely to hear all manner of terms — Bears, Cubs, Otters, to name a few. So what do all these mean? And how are they defined?

“There are so many sub-categories you couldn’t list them all here,” Bastin said with a chuckle. “There are Polar Bears — they’re generally older guys with grey or white hair; and Panda Bears refers to our cute Asian Bears; Red Bears are guys with red hair or red beards; Otters are slim hairy guys. And of course there are Cubs, Chubs and Admirers.

“There’s a whole ark of creatures in the Bear community — I was horrified the other day to find out I’m a Pocket Bear.

“But it’s all just a bit of fun. In reality there’s no one rigid definition of what makes a Bear.”

That broad array of sub-categories was an important influencing factor in this year’s cute BE14 artwork which features an array of cartoon Bear varieties.

“Grant Cook at Afrenasia is our designer. He’s very talented … and cute too,” Bastin said of this year’s artwork design.

“We wanted artwork that reflected Sydney and its Bear community — fun, happy, colourful and nothing too serious.

“The little men are a tongue-in-cheek representation of the men you’ll find in town for Bear Essentials — some old, some young, some white, some Asian, some fit with six-packs and some with big bellies — but all Bears.”

info: To find out more about Bear Essentials 14: Between the Flags visit www.bearessentials.com.au

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