Every June, the Twin Cities area flies its rainbow flags proudly in celebration of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Pride. You know what that means: a parade on Hennepin Avenue featuring drag stars in their finery, a massive party in Loring Park, cheap(er) drinks at the Gay 90's and endless, relentless corporate sponsorship. Ah, yes, it's Pride weekend again. But Twin Cities gay culture isn't limited solely to gorgeous troupes of queens or the toned, tanned and Abercrombie'd sweet young things who frequent the Saloon and its legendary showers. As a metro area with one of the nation's largest gay/lesbian/bisexual populations, Minneapolis and St. Paul boast dozens of organizations that celebrate during Pride -- and continue all year long.

The North Country Bears

These brawny, hairy guys don't live in the woods.

Bears are everywhere. They're in your book clubs, your salons and your theaters. But fear not -- these bears aren't the massive, lumbering creatures that lurk in forests and occasionally on the highway. This version of ursa major is a particular genre of gay gentlemen who call their husky, hairy selves "bears" after said majestic creatures.

A bear is a hulk of masculinity, projecting a manly aura with a rough-and-tumble, lumberjack-esque appeal -- a real "man's man." Manscaping is frowned upon in bear culture -- love what you've got, because the bear community not only accepts, but relishes that beard and forest of chest and back hair. Bears generally don't dress up to go to bars, though word has it that they do enjoy an episode or two of "Project Runway."

Bear culture originated in San Francisco in the 1980s as a reaction to the stereotypical image of the effeminate, flamboyant gay man. It grew within the leather and biker scene but soon stemmed off on its own. Today, many local bear events intertwine with those of the leather community.

Minnesota has its own fraternity of these studly, statuesque gents, the North Country Bears, founded in 1993. These bears might meet and mingle over coffee, discuss the latest bestsellers (they're currently reading "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), play softball or sing karaoke. Oh, and they have epic pool parties, often camping out in their natural outdoorsy habitat. If a swimming pool full of husky, hairy dudes is your fantasy, the North Country Bears' big annual Fun Fur All Weekend is coming July 23-25.

For massage therapist Lee Pepper, 32, the bears provide a welcome change from the groomed, image-centric world of gay bars like the Saloon. "I never felt like I fit in because I'm a bigger guy," he says. "I was always looked down upon because I was heavier." Pepper stumbled upon the bear scene about five years ago and became an active member. "I felt connected to them. Everyone was friendly and open."

"There's a certain stereotype of the gay male, that skinny hairless guy who is into fashion," said North Country president Kevin Beam. "In reality, the gay community is just as diverse as the 'straight' community, if I can put it that way."

"It doesn't matter what you look like," says 30-year-old bear Chuck St. Mane. "We don't care if you're smooth or muscled; just come as you are and be comfortable with who you are.

"For a lot of us, the bear group is family," he adds. "Even if it's little stuff, like helping move or getting your car fixed, you have a friend who can help you. A lot of our guys are out of jobs due to the economy, and we help each other out."

Bears are active fundraisers. Their biggest fundraiser is the Octo-bear Dance, which raised $4,000 last year for District 202, the nonprofit organization dedicated to helping youths who are having issues with coming out. The local bears also do work for PFLAG (Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and a teddy bear drive for the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department. "We have a lot of fun, but we invest back in the community, too," says St. Mane.

Fancy yourself a bear, or perhaps a bear-in-training, also known as a cub? Maybe you consider yourself just an admirer, eager to hang out with the big boys? Locally, bears can be spotted at bars like St. Paul's Innuendo or the Minneapolis Eagle. If the bar scene isn't your scene, check out www.ncbears.com for information on upcoming events.

And fear not, most Twin Cities bears are of the sweet and cuddly variety.

The Transgender Commission

Working for a world beyond 'boy' and 'girl'.

The U of M's Transgender Commission works to give a voice to those who may feel underrepresented in the vast GLBT landscape. The coalition, which was born in March 2006, is devoted to raising awareness about gender diversity and working for equal rights for trans-identified people.

"Transgender" is a complicated word, meaning different things to different folks. "It's a broad term to describe people whose perception of themselves as gendered beings does not conform with the mandatory binary gender scheme that is forced upon people at birth," says outgoing commission co-chair MJ Gilbert. Gilbert personally identifies as female, though she was considered male at birth. "It's an evolving term. [I think] it covers all people who think of themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. That includes drag queens, who highlight the artificiality of the [gender] system by performing it."

According to Gilbert, the commission exists to "address issues of gender nonconformity as they intersect with the University of Minnesota." To do that, its members work to improve the social climate for trans people, host discussions about gender, sexuality and ideas of class and race, and advocate for those who identify as trans and who may have encountered discrimination.

"One of our big policy initiatives of our first four years has been to change the U's nondiscrimination statement so it covered gender identity and expression," Gilbert says. "We are now working to establish the presence of gender-neutral restrooms in buildings around campus."

While certain members of the Transgender Commission identify as one gender and use its associated pronouns ("he," "she"), others prefer gender-neutral pronouns such as "they" and "them." There are dozens of terms that trans-identified people use to describe themselves, which can be confusing.

"There's a deep discomfort that people have with gender nonconformativity," says Gilbert. "It has created a gay and lesbian movement that has worked as hard as possible to disassociate itself from gender equality. It's presented the point of view that sex preference has nothing to do with gender identity."

"One common challenge many people face in regard to transgendered people is language," says Trans Comm's Tara Slaton, a U undergrad. "Understanding the meaning of labels like 'genderqueer' and 'two-spirit' and knowing which pronouns to use can be challenging, and it can be tempting to draw assumptions about what words to use. I suggest respectfully asking over assuming."

The commission has big plans for the future, said Gilbert. "For me, it's a part of my larger social justice mission as a human being, to make the U of M a place where people can be fully themselves."

Minneapolis Mayhem

Gay rugby quenches their thirst for competition.

If we haven't already shown that not all gay men are screaming queens like Jack on "Will & Grace," may we present the Minneapolis Mayhem, a rugby squad dedicated to giving gay men a place to play. The squad isn't necessarily gay-only; members say they want to spread the word of teamwork and rugby love to everyone. Last week the club hosted the Bingham Cup, the gay rugby world championship tournament named for gay-rugby pioneer Mark Bingham, who died on Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.

"When I started playing for Mayhem, I was looking for a hobby," said teammate Joe Vollmar. "It quickly became far more than that. Mayhem has become a band of brothers. I can say I love them and hate them at the same time, just as I do for my biological brothers."

For many of Mayhem's players, rugby itself was what attracted them to the team. "Baseball was too slow, soccer didn't have any contact and hockey required skating," Vollmar said. "Rugby is similar to football but combines the endurance of soccer and the violence of hockey."

"I play rugby because it's the ultimate team sport," says team president and founding member Ryan Davis. "Most of us had never played rugby before joining the team, which makes us a bit different."

"We approach the social aspects [of rugby] from a 'gay' point of view," David adds. "Our rugby songs are 'gay versions' of 'straight' rugby songs."

Mayhem has given its players not only a brotherhood, but a chance to do what might have been difficult for them in the past -- play sports. "It's a team of guys looking to fulfill the need to compete who didn't feel comfortable doing it in high school, since we had so many other things to sort out," says Vollmar. "Even though we've come to it late, the bonds forged by fighting and bleeding on the pitch for your teammate still go just as deep."

Mayhem social chair Blair Dempster sums it up this way, borrowing a bit from the late Bingham. "Mark said, 'Gay men weren't always wallflowers waiting on the sideline. We have the opportunity to let these other athletes know that gay men were around all along -- on their Little League teams, in their classes, as their friends.' And that isn't something that's going to change anytime soon."

Twin Cities Pride

  • What: Festival in Loring Park (Sat.-Sun.), parade in downtown Minneapolis (11 a.m. Sun.) and dozens of related events in celebration of the Twin Cities' GLBT community
  • When: Through Sunday
  • Web: www.tcpride.org
  • View a full listing of events »