Growing up in Tennessee, Bryson Kelpe would often have to hide his identity as a gay man. But everything changed when he moved to Cologne, Germany, in July with his husband and let his bear beard grow.
It was a late November night at Cologne's Essigfabrik, a nightclub inside an old factory, and Bryson Kelpe stood on the stage with a prize cuddly teddy toy tucked under his left arm. He was beaming as he looked out on the crowd of men, many with bushy beards and round bellies. Kelpe, who describes himself as "short and hairy," had just been elected Germany's Mr. Bear 2020.
There are various subcultures and aesthetics in gay male communities. Twinks are often boyish, clean-shaved and slender. Otters tend to be similarly slim, but they allow their body hair to grow in many places as an expression of masculinity. Bears are usually hairier, larger and older than twinks and otters, but there are also subgroups within bear communities, such as cubs, the younger bears.
Publicly celebrating his bear identity has not always been easy for Kelpe, who grew up in the southern US state of Tennessee and moved to Germany in July when his husband began a job here. "It's night and day," Kelpe said.
Right after Kelpe and his husband left Tennessee, The New York Times reported on a Tennessee pastor and police detective who had called LGBTQ+ people "freaks" and "worthy of death." And, just last week, USA Today reported that the Tennessee town of Troy had canceled its Christmas parade after people threatened violence because a "Love Everybody" float flew the rainbow flag that celebrates LGBTQ+ diversity.
Kelpe grew up in an unincorporated area of southern Tennessee, near Dollywood, a theme park owned by the country singer Dolly Parton. He worked two jobs, as a nurse and part-time CPR instructor and volunteered with the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, named after a boy who was diagnosed with HIV in his early teens after a blood transfusion and battled discrimination until his death at age 18 in 1990.
Tennessee was not a supportive environment for a young gay man. "People would throw things at me, like trash," Kelpe said. As a teenager, he was sent to "conversion therapy."
Kelpe began to police his behavior and appearance. "I would code switch, using a deep voice to sound more heteronormative," he said. "I would dress more conservative: a colored polo shirt and jeans — not the T-shirts I wear now," he added.
On the day we met, Kelpe was sporting a red tee with a goofy bearded gingerbread man waving a candy cane and carrying a blue bag with "Beary fabulous" written on it. For Halloween, Kelpe wore a shirt that was "a bit risque": It featured a half naked fetish bear wearing a leather harness and eating candy from a pumpkin.
A supportive city
Kelpe said Cologne offered "greater opportunities for social engagement and interaction." He spoke passionately about the small things he is able to enjoy here, such as holding hands with his husband — even when visiting the smaller and less cosmopolitan towns around Germany — and wearing "li'l gay T-shirts all the time."
"There's a lot more to do here," Kelpe said. He joined the Cologne Crushers, a local rugby club for multinationals that describes itself as "gay- and hetero-friendly," and began going to the Gentle Bear bar, which provides a physical, visible space for Cologne's bear community to meet up and hang out.
Kelpe said the gay-friendly environment had helped give him the confidence to enter Mr. Bear Germany, adding that it was at the Gentle Bears Bar where someone had first suggested that he compete, and his fellow Crushers were his supporters from the start. The entire team was at the ceremony when Kelpe was crowned Mr. Bear.
"I've never done a bear competition before, and I didn't have the opportunity to be in an inclusive sports team," Kelpe said. "In the US you would have to live in a super big city to have these opportunities," he said, adding that that is not possible for him or many other people because of the cost of living in cities known for their vibrant LGBTQ+ communities, such as New York and San Francisco.
The visibility of Cologne's queer communities also helped Kelpe quickly orient himself as a gay migrant. He found an LGBTQ+-friendly pharmacy and learned where to shop for clothes to fit a man with a bear's physique.
Kelpe said the bear community was very welcoming to migrants and inclusive, with published information available in both German and English. He said he'd met Turkish, Syrian, Kurdish and Saudi bears in Cologne.
Despite his positive experiences, Kelpe is careful to check his privilege. He mentioned several times that, even as a gay man, his experiences here are different because his skin and hair color allow him to pass as German, and he is planning to use his platform as Mr. Bear to advocate for diversity in sport and to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.
And Kelpe can do that in Cologne, where the conditions for LGBTQ+ people are "much better than rural Tennessee," he said, smiling his best bear smile.