Interview: Nick McGlynn of the Bearspace project (2019)

There’s something new and very different at Brighton Bear Weekend this year: you’ll have the chance to get involved in a groundbreaking academic research project!

The Bearspace project by Dr Nick McGlynn of the University of Brighton aims to explore the “intersection of geographies of sexualities, and fatness/obesity” with specific regard to the experiences of larger gay and bisexual men. During Brighton Bear Weekend, you can participate in the Bearspace focus group or arrange a private interview with Nick.

We wanted to let Nick explain the project himself, so we sat down with him to find out more …

Dr Nick McGlynn
Dr Nick McGlynn

Hi, Nick! Can you please explain the focus of your Bearspace research project in a few sentences?

Sure! The uncomfortable reality underpinning the project is this: all gay, bi and queer men are getting older, and most of us are getting larger. But mainstream LGBTQ scenes can be pretty alienating for older and bigger guys, and as a fat guy myself I’m interested in how bear scenes might make life a bit more liveable for us. So at its heart Bearspace is about gay/bi/queer men with all different body shapes and sizes, and their experiences in bear bars, pubs, clubs, events, and social groups.

What’s your academic background, and how did that lead to your studying issues related to fatness/obesity and gay/bisexual men?

I’m a geographer specialising in issues of sexuality and LGBTQ equalities. I know folk usually think geography means maps and capital cities – and it often does! – but there are two other aspects of geography I use. First, geographers are interested in the creation of social spaces. There’s a rich history of geographers studying gay bars – they’re sites where identities and communities are formed, and where people can feel comfortable and welcomed. I wanted to extend this to the bear scene, because bigger and older guys often don’t feel particularly comfortable or welcomed in mainstream gay bars.

Second, geographers are also interested in spatial differences within communities. Regarding bears for example, as a geographer I get tired of folk assuming the bear scene is exactly the same the world over. What happens in a big metropolitan bear club isn’t what happens at a casual provincial bear social. And Brighton’s bear scene isn’t identical to the scene in London, or Yorkshire, or Sitges, or Tokyo, or Istanbul (yup, bears are everywhere!).

You’ll be holding a focus group during Brighton Bear Weekend, which we’re encouraging our visitors to attend. What will this focus group be like, and how can our visiting bears help you out?

I’m going to be doing two things visitors can take part in – the focus group, and some private interviews. They’re both super casual. The focus group will be held in the Camelford Arms on Saturday morning from 11:00 – just before the Garden Party! It’ll just be a big table with us all sat around having a chat about bears and our bodies, and folk can have breakfast too if they’d like.

The interviews will run throughout the weekend, at whatever time’s easiest for each interviewee. They’re one on one, and I’ll be asking about people’s personal bear histories. Everything is totally anonymous, so you can say whatever you’d like and I’ll make sure you can’t be identified! To take part in an interview, just send me a message on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and I’ll sort it out.

The Bearspace logo

Have any interesting findings come to light already? Are there personal experiences or attitudes related to fatness that seem particularly common among bears?

All I’d say at this stage is that I’ve definitely seen some real differences between different bear spaces in the UK. And that while I know our communities can have a lot of issues – racism, sexism, transphobia, body shaming – I still think they’re valuable.

One question we always get from potential Brighton Bear Weekend visitors, every year, is “Do I have to be big and hairy to come to your events?” We say no, of course not – all types are welcome. Does this suggest to you that “bear culture” has created its own kind of ghettoisation, where it’s seen as exclusive in its own way, with certain types assumed to be unwelcome? We strive to fight that, but it’s hard – some people are quite insecure about their bodies in terms of “beariness”. What do you think about this?

That’s a really good question, and ultimately it’s something I’d like Bearspace to help tackle. I completely agree with Brighton Bear Weekend’s view, and of course when you go to bear spaces around the country you really do see all types of bodies – from smooth skinny twinks to hairy superchub daddies. I guess I’d say I’m interested in folk identifying with bear communities, rather than whether or not they identify as a bear.

Will you be attending any of the other events at Brighton Bear Weekend? Have you been before?

Yes! I’ll be out for most of the weekend, so please say hi if you see me! I’ve been coming to Brighton Bear Weekend since 2015 – and I’ve got the T-shirts to prove it! Though I love all the dancing and partying, the Garden Party is probably my favourite part of the weekend. It’s just lovely to sit in a sunny park with a bunch of my mates.

You describe bear bars, clubs and events as “safe spaces” for larger gay men. We want everyone to feel completely comfortable at our events, so that – for example – they could take their shirts off and dance without feeling that anyone is looking down on them. How do you think we can promote our events as safe spaces in which bears can feel liberated?

It’s so interesting that you mention taking your top off as liberating – that’s actually something that comes up over and over in bear research. Bear spaces seem to be one of the very few places where bigger and fatter guys feel OK about doing that, and they experience it as a really big deal. And as a fat guy myself, I certainly do too. I don’t want to present myself as an expert on these things, especially before I’ve analysed my data. But personally, I think positively representing more fat guys in bear media and advertising would be a great start.

Where will the findings of your Bearspace project be published?

Initially in academic journals, but I’m also going to put together a short report for all of the bear spaces which have been involved – and this will be available online too. Academic publishing takes sooo long, so the reports will probably be out first!

What’s up next for you after your Bearspace project?

I’m thinking about new projects to work on, which will still be focused on making life better for fat GBQ men in some way. I’d like to be guided by my findings from Bearspace though, so I’ll have to wait to see what jumps out of the data.

Thanks, Nick – this is so interesting, and we’re sure our visitors will be able to contribute a lot to your research!

The Bearspace focus group will take place at the Camelford Arms from 11:00am to 12:30pm on Saturday 15 June. To arrange a private interview at any other time during the weekend, please contact Nick on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

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