Gaydar[]:Using Skilled Vision to Spot Gay "Bears" in Taipei
The meanings and effects of the gaze vary cross-culturally. Popular US gay discourses endow gay men and lesbians with an ability to determine the queerness of another person （or lack thereof） by just a mere glance. Certainly, many a straight friend back home in Singapore and elsewhere had asked me how I knew who was gay. I would then look at the passersby and, usually after a few moments of searching, intuitively point at someone who seemed too muscular, wearing clothes that seemed too bright and too form-fitting, whose overall appearance seemed too put-together, to be straight. Playing off the idea that gay men and lesbians give off a kind of queer aura that others can read, I define this gay detector, this so-called "gaydar," in the opening tongue-in-cheek definition.
While gaydar is supposedly an inborn talent in popular US queer discourses, I argue that it is, in fact, a form of "skilled vision." Here, "skilled visions" refer to educated and trained ways of seeing the world attained via a relationship of apprenticeship and an ecology of practice[]. Gaydar is used intuitively, but its nature as an obtainable skill means that even straight people can acquire and hone their gaydars with sufficient gay socialization. Multiple gaydars exist across space and time, as what counts as "gay" in one space-time location may not do so in another. Even within the same space-time coordinates, multiple forms exist because of such vectors of difference as class, cis status, and especially gender: gay men's gaydars differ from those of lesbians. Where I see only tomboyish women, for instance, my lesbian friend Sylvia can not only tell if they are lesbians, but also distinguish the androgynous from the butch ones. Presumably, if I socialize enough with lesbians, I too will be able to see the gradations as Sylvia does. Although it produces knowledge, the gaydar can also be deployed as an epistemology of ignorance. Knowing what marks them as queer, gay men and lesbians can deliberately remove these telltale signs to obfuscate their sexualities. People use their gaydars to locate potential friends, and sex and love partners, so persons of the wrong gender must stand out somehow to get noticed. During a July 2013 conference in Singapore, the editor of a book I contributed to walked past where I sat, but did not seem to recognize me. We met previously to discuss our individual chapters, so I asked our mutual friend Sylvia what happened. "Of course she didn't see you," she replied, "she's lesbian, and you're a guy." Lastly, one's gaydar can fail, with the results ranging from mild embarrassment on the part of either/both parties, to violent homophobic reactions from the side that one thought is gay.
Grassenifirst expounds on the idea of "skilled vision" extensively in terms of the standardized evaluative methods in cattle husbandry. [] However, I find it very productive in my own research on Taipei's Bear culture centered on nominally bulky, hairy, and masculine men[]. Specifically, I insist that "skilled visions" are not just about knowing how to look, but also how to be looked at according to a pre-defined standard. To socially function as a Bear, one must not only know to look for other Bears, but also move, dress, and embody Bearness in such a way that others can visually recognize. Looking and being looked at are two sides of the same gaydar coin.
Looking at Bears in Taipei
Before I discuss gaydar further, I shall first situate Bearness in its cultural context. In Euro-America, the sexual identity label “Bear” nominally refers to a gay man with a heavy-set body and prominent facial and/or body hair[]. Characterized by their sociability, Bears project a working class, supposedly more “authentic,” （hyper-）masculinity that gets reflected in their corporeal presentations: possessing the husky build of a former American footballer, the Bear first appeared in the States in the 1980s as a rebellion against the overly monotonous look of the Castro Clone of the previous decade. The Bear converts the Clone's moustache into a beard, and wears clothing more for personal comfort than for fashion[]. Age, body size, and levels of hirsuteness further sub-categorize Bears. For example, the label "Cub" refers to younger-looking men and implies passivity in sex. "Wolves" refer to slimmer or less hairy Bears regardless of age, with suggestions of sexual aggression, while "Chasers" are those who are attracted to Bears but may not be bulky themselves. Considerable slippage exists between these porous sub-categories, and even Bears themselves cannot agree definitively on who is what. In a roughly hierarchical order, however, categorization occurs according to facial hair, body hair, manly demeanor, and a confidence in one's physical appearance[].
I stress here that I only gave a nominal description of Bears above. Despite its conceptual links between nature and working-class authenticity, many Euro-American Bears actually hold middle-class jobs. By idealizing （hyper-）masculinity, Euro-American Bearness reinforces heteronormativity by anathemizing femininity. It also presents an implicit ethnic Whiteness[]. For instance, ethnic Chinese generally lack the body hair that predicates Euro-American Bearness. While this Bearness can incorporate these men into its schema of sub-categories, it does so using the uncomfortably orientalizing label of "Panda." Thankfully, the self-identifying Bears whom I currently conduct fieldwork with in Taipei do not use such a term. They call themselves xiong （"Bear" in Mandarin）. How then do they construct their identities？
From what I could gather about Taipei's Bear culture, shortly after the Bear emerged in the US, the idea of Bearness first travelled to Japan where the still-vibrant G-men magazine was founded in 1994 （"G" here abbreviates gatchiri, or "solidly built" in Japanese）. This magazine favors such "hard" men as muscular Bears and blue-collared workers. Of the numerous artists whose works the magazine features, Gengoroh Tagame and Jiraiya enjoy particular popularity. Jiraiya’s drawings represent the archetypical G-man to many Bears. Indeed, when the magazine started using photos of real men for its covers in August 2006, a friend lamented disappointedly: "I don't like the new covers. The models aren't as beefy and yummy at all."
From Japan, the idea of the Bear was transmitted to the rest of Northeast Asia, where it germinated and flowered in Taiwan. Known colloquially as Xiaoxiong Cun （Cub Village）, the area behind Taipei's landmark Red House Theatre now hosts a cluster of gay-oriented clothing shops and café bars. It is named after the café bar of the same name that opened for business in 2006[]. But why Taipei？ Firstly, Taiwan has a cultural affinity to Japan because of Japanese colonialism. The Japanese G-man's kouha "hard" masculinity - itself epitomized in the figure of the samurai[] - commensurates easily with its Chinese wu "martial" cognate[], as Confucianism informs both ideas of manliness. Secondly, the ideological battle between Taiwan and mainland China over who better represents Chinese civilization led Taiwan to construct itself as China's antithesis: it counters China's perceived conservatism and failure to protect sexual minorities with its own liberalism and forward-thinking, at least discursively[]. Indeed, the Chinese state adheres to a US-style "don't ask don't tell" policy of "three no's": homosexuality receives no approval, no disapproval, and no promotion. Taiwan, on the other hand, stands poised to legalize gay marriage.
The G-man figure critically shapes Taipei's Bear culture. G-man illustrations promise a better future of greater popularity and sexual pleasure if gay men become G-men themselves. However, building muscles is arduous. Becoming a G-man requires not only considerable wealth to purchase gym memberships, nutritious food and supplements, and hire trainers, but also countless hours working out at the gym. Hence, some Bears resort to pharmaceutical help to hasten the bulking up process, even to the detriment of their health. Yet, improper use of anabolic steroids weakens one's liver and heart. Here then lies an irony of the G-man: he does not need to be actually vibrant and healthy to be a G-man; he just needs to look so.
By itself, however, a muscular build does not make one a Bear. By definition, a Bear should have sufficiently body fat to have at least a little tummy. Bears find fat bodies sexy and "huggable" because they have "something to hold on to." Bears, in fact, are known to reject men with the trimmed waistlines and visible abdominal muscles deemed sexy in mainstream culture, complaining that such men look "unhuggable," "too dry," and unappealing. Indeed, a muscular body is not even required. To the Bear, bulk has always mattered more than muscle mass or definition. In fact, I met many self-identified Bears in Taipei who hardly qualify as muscular by any stretch of that word. In theory at least, Bears embody a political challenge to the fat-phobic "body fascism"[] that glorifies trimmed bodies in contemporary culture.
That muscularity matters now, however, affirms Connell's assertion that masculine ideals shift with time, compelled by competition for popularity to differentiate oneself from the rest of the pack[]. The same desire, I suspect, also drives fat gay men to self-identify as Bears. Taiwanese gay men segregate themselves into different somatic categories. In ascending order of body mass and （to a lesser degree） muscularity, the Taiwanese "types" are Monkey （hou）, Wolf （lang）, Bear （xiong）, and Pig （zhu）. Yet, "pig" in the Chinese languages carries the same pejorative connotations as it does in English, so gay men use it only as an insult or in self-parody. By self-identifying as still-fat Bears, a fat gay man alludes to the Bear's masculinity rather than the Pig's physical laziness and moral laxity.
The wide range of body types encompassed in the Bear identity makes it a tricky business to use one's gaydar to identify a Bear. One man's desirable hot Bear may be another man's detestable fat Pig. Donnie, a Singaporean informant, gives a detailed description. Having resided in Taipei for more than seven years, he now operates a Bear bar in Xiaoxiong Cun where he keenly observes Taiwanese social life. He opines:
If you want to be a Bear, then you must have the look. What's the look？ First, your hair must be crew-cut. Long hair just doesn't look good on Bears. Second, you must have facial hair. The best is a full beard [i.e. the "short boxed beard" style where one's sideburns and moustache extend down to join one's goatee to form a box around one's mouth]. I know that not everyone can do that, but you must at least have a moustache. Then you must have a big body, so you must eat, and go to the gym. You must always walk, not run, and when you walk, you must shuffle your feet. This way, you look like you have weight.
Donnie also describes the sartorial choices a Bear should make, seemingly unaware of his blatant classism:
You should wear tank tops, or something tight that will show off your arms and chest. You know Abercrombie & Fitch？ That brand, can. As long as it's tight. But for heaven's sake, don't wear Bossini or Giordano！ Those are cheap！ Only married straight men and coolies [i.e. migrant manual workers who, in Taiwan's case, usually hail from the Philippines and Indonesia] wear those. You should also wear bermudas （shorts） to show off your thick calves. They should hang low on your waist, to better show off your butt. Your shoes, they should be skater shoes. [pointing to a friend] Those are sneakers. That's not what we wear.
Donnie's description of Bear dress does not mean that all Bears dress this way, or that only Bears dress in this manner. Gay dress does not strictly exist, as straight men can also incorporate gay elements into their sartorial repertoire[]. Ultimately, the conceptual boundaries of the label "Bear" remains indistinct. Whether one is a Bear is highly subjective. As Roy, a Taipei informant, puts it, "if he's your type, then he's a Bear. If not, then he's a Pig！ （Shi ni de cai jiu shi xiong. Bu shi ni de cai bian shi zhu！）"
Nonetheless, Donnie's spot-on description of the typical Taipei Bear "look" remains analytically useful because of its double ironies. Firstly, both Abercrombie & Fitch, and the Super Dry line of clothing that the Bears also favor, are costly brands. As conspicuous consumption, this taste for expensive threads contradicts the image of the masculine working-class Bear. The tank tops and other tight pieces of clothing that Donnie mentioned are not easily affordable either. Often featuring bright and contrasting colors, with bear/bear paw motifs and/or the word "bear" in their designs （Fig. 1）, these clothing constitute "conspicuous concealment"[]. Even as they cover up one's chest and arms, they also draw attention to one's muscular upper torso with their loud colors and wording （loud enough, I often jest, to signal to gayliens in outer space）. While they may not be any cheaper than the brands mentioned above - the purple tank top cost over US$40 - they help to solidify the otherwise-fuzzy perimeters of the category "Bear." These clothing crystallize the identity by stamping it onto the wearer's body. More importantly, Bears lacked these sartorial choices with which to express their identities back in 2006 when Bear culture first became popular. That a Bear style exists now points to the gradual codification of once-amorphous dress codes over the past decade.
The second irony lies in how Donnie's observations inevitably highlight the limits of "friendly" Bear culture. He can state with certainty what Bears should look like, because so many of Taipei's Bears share these features. Invariably, they have crew cuts, round faces, slit-like eyes, some form of neatly maintained facial hair, rotund bodies, and the same taste in horizontally striped rugby jerseys and the fashion brands mentioned above. In other words, Taipei's Bears have become that which the US original rejected in the first place: they are now Clones. Bears are aware of their striking similarities, and this homogeneity is subtly but wryly criticized. In this comic strip entitled "So what are you？" （Fig. 2）, someone （presumably a straight person with no gaydar） surprises two Bears by asking them: "You two look alike. Are you brothers？" She asks again: "You guys have such short haircuts. Are you soldiers？" Smiling nervously, the Bears answer "Not really." She asks yet again: "You have such big （fat） builds, so you major in physical education？" By this time, she has annoyed the Bears sufficiently for one to roll his eyes, as both answer "No！" Dumbfounded, she finally asks: "So what are you then？" "Sisters！"
On the other hand, what does this homogeneity say about a sub-culture borne from a desire to recognize and celebrate somatic diversity？ Bears, as gay men, understand implicitly that muscles attract other Bears. Many Bears work out regularly to maximize this attention, making the gym a central component of Taipei's Bear culture, and sidelining those with insufficiently honed bodies. A Singaporean friend, Otto, recalls his skinny Monkey friend in Taipei lamenting about the situation: "My friend said he must either force himself to become a Bear, or change his sex to become a woman. He has no market otherwise." While it sounds extreme, this comment reflects how non-Muscle Bears are regularly excluded. It becomes the most obvious during such peak periods as the pride parade in October, when Bears from all over East and Southeast Asia descend into Taipei for a weekend of dance/sex parties and maybe social activism. Competition heats up with the appearance of so many muscular and beautiful men in one's gay social apps, as Bears vie for the attention of the best-looking ones that they can get. A thin body, combined with effeminacy, worsens the situation. An Indonesian-Chinese friend, Icad, observes as such a gay man: "I may as well be a ghost. I am trans-dimensional to the Bears." In a social milieu where body mass matters, thin is sin. Being fat is better than being thin.
Lastly, despite the importance in gay Bear sociality of adhering to the existing aesthetics that I discussed above, those who actively do so appears to be a minority. One of my key Taipei informants, Leo, opined that only the socially active ten to twenty percent of all Taiwanese queers dress conspicuously. His low estimate resonates with the argument that Engebretsen （2013）[], Tan （2012）[], and others have made about how many ethnic Chinese queers would much rather blend in with the crowd, to appear "as normal as possible"[]. If dress and behavior make such unreliable indicators of sexuality for one's gaydar to pick up on, do gaydars still function in Taiwan？
Yes, they do. When I asked my informants how they could tell differentiate queers from straight Taiwanese, the first answer they gave was invariably yanshen, "the look in the eyes":
Leo: That yanshen can reveal many things. For example, from the way he looks at you, you can tell whether he's （sexually） interested in you, or he just finds you good or interesting to look at, or even not interested at all. Actually, the eyes can reveal a lot of information.
Chris: And if he's （sexually） interested in you, what would his yanshen be like？
Leo: Hmmm, how should I say this？ You asked a very interesting question. When the eyes meet, if he's interested, you can see his face getting slightly wrinkled, his eyes taking on a certain tender, charming look. This should be easy to recognize. I think this logic doesn't just apply to gay men. I think in the straight society, it should also be the same ... But it's also possible for him to not like you enough, that he just thinks you're good-looking. Then he'll just stare at you for a moment, and that's it. In Taiwan, the island is small and the （population） density is high, and most gay men congregate in Taipei. So it's very easy to meet someone on the streets who makes you wonder whether he's gay. Furthermore, when you want to make friends, you usually greet each other with your eyes. If he wants to befriend you, or thinks you're his type, but not to the extent that you should start dating, then using your eyes to say "Hello" is one way to go.
In the end, the discussion so far on the gaydar comes full circle back to the concept of skilled vision that frames this essay.
In conclusion, the gaydar exists, but I offer a more banal explanation of its nature as "skilled vision." The remarkable point about Taipei's Bears lies not in their cliquishness. By definition, all social groups have limited membership, and membership bestows benefits. Anderson's[] seminal work on nations as "imagined communities" highlights this fact clearly. Rather, just as things have social lives, ideas also develop lives of their own as they traverse the global circuit. The current scholarship on globalization has innumerable examples of how foreign ideas and objects get re-semanticized in each new location they arrive in. While never a completely empty signifier as he always carries vestiges of old meanings with him wherever he goes, the Bear figure has nonetheless become quite a different creature by the time he gets re-imported back to the US as a Japanese G-man. Intimately linked to these changing ways of being looked at, the gaydar evolves too.
[] Lo, Yuchia 罗毓嘉.2010.男柯一梦梦红楼:西门红楼南广场的”同志市民空间”(Living Dreams on Ximen Red House Square: Toward a Civic Space of the Gay Community in Taipei).台北:国立台湾大学新闻研究所未出版硕士论文 (Unpublished Master's Thesis, Graduate Institute of Journalism, National Taiwan University).
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