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  • Writer's pictureConnor O'Donoghue

Bear Carnival

(First published on Medium on 10 April 2023)

I thought Gran Canaria Bear Carnival would be a great way to mark the beginning of my new life. In the same week, I had finished up my job at the school where I’d been working more or less all of the last six and a half years and I had moved out of my flat. The plan was that I would spend four days letting my hair down with gays in Gran Canaria, and then come back to my new life where I was planning to be a writer and also set up a business and also live in hostels and airbnbs and survive on my wits until I made my fortune. It was a very big change after a very stressful few years and I liked the idea of marking it with a big foreign hoopla, and maybe some romance thrown in as well.

Bear Carnival is an annual two-week series of events and parties in Maspalomas, Gran Canaria’s gayest town, aimed at “bears”. Broadly speaking, a bear is a large hairy man. It’s a contested term with some different definitions, but we’ll stick with big and hairy for now.

I booked flights and accommodation for the last weekend of the carnival, arriving on Thursday evening and leaving on the Sunday morning. I also looked at the programme of events for the weekend and booked myself a ticket for the “Bear Pool Party” on the Friday afternoon and the “Bear Spa Experience” on the Saturday evening.

I was fully prepared for this to be a solo holiday but life had other plans. In January, I performed a one-man show, called Homobesity, in an actual London theatre, where I told stories all about my life as a fat gay man. One of the places that I advertised this show was on Growlr — a hookup app for bears and for bear chasers. After the first night of the show, I got a message from a man on Growlr, telling me how much my story had meant to him and how he related to so much of what I’d said and how he would love to be my friend.

The week after the show I met this man, let’s call him Mahmud, for drinks. It was intoxicating, he was a true fan. He quoted bits of my show back at me. He told me in detail how much it had meant to him. I felt like a superstar. He also told me lots of depressing stories about his own life and how men don’t date him because of his size. I was delighted to have a new gay friend, because I always struggle to make gay friends. I was initially devastated that he had absolutely no sexual or romantic interest in me, but I got over that quickly and we met up twice more, and he even started introducing me to his friends.

I told Mahmud about Bear Carnival and he eagerly booked tickets and accommodation almost as soon as he heard about it. I was excited about this. In my teenage years, I read the Tales of the City books, and that was the first time I came across the idea of a “chosen family”, the idea that gay people might not have typical families, might not have wives and children, might not have good relationships with their parents etc, but that they would instead gather a group of gay people around them, a chosen family, a logical family in place of a biological one. I’d spent over twenty years dreaming of having a group of gay friends, and in that time, I’d certainly had individual gay friends, but I still pined after that idea of being part of a gay gang, part of a new family, and I knew Mahmud wanted something similar. Maybe this was the beginning of that? And if not, at least having a friend at Bear Carnival meant that I’d have someone to force me to be social and not spend all my time watching TikToks in my bedroom.

Mahmud’s flights arrived earlier than mine, so he booked some event tickets for the Thursday. He was going to “Bear Bowling” and “Bear Paella on the Beach” that day. I arrived in Gran Canaria, feeling relatively stressed. I’d just packed up my entire life and everything I owned was in a storage locker in South London and I had no job and no income and I was in a full meltdown about my life choices and what on earth was I doing flying to the Canaries?

I caught a bus from the airport to Maspalomas. From the bus stop, it was another 45-minute walk along a dual carriageway to my accommodation. I was staying in an apartment in the middle of nowhere. I got to the door and met a 10 or 11-year old girl who was sitting in the kitchen in the dark on her phone. She gave me a key to my room and a towel and she scampered away into the darkness. My room was quite big, but it didn’t have a bed. There was a mattress on the floor. I was hot and sweaty after my walk from the bus and I had by now had about ten messages from Mahmud wanting to know where I was. I phoned him and said I was going to have a shower before walking back into Maspalomas and I wouldn’t see him for another hour. He seemed completely mystified and he told me to just get a taxi. Mahmud is a doctor and I don’t think he had any idea what life with Connor’s chaotic personal finances was like. He’d booked accommodation in the town centre and he’d got a taxi from the airport and it was like I was speaking a different language with my suburban mattress on the floor and my buses and my 45-minute walks.

I had a shower and made my way back out to the streets to find Mahmud.

Maspalomas is an extraordinarily ugly town. It’s full of boxy concrete buildings with neon signs everywhere. Everything looks like it was built around 1984. Nothing looks old but also nothing looks new. The centre of gay life in Maspalomas is the Yumbo Centre, which is like nowhere I’ve ever been before. The Yumbo Centre is a 1980s shopping centre. It’s very big and has four levels and lots of open air terraces and one very big open square courtyard in the middle. On one side, there are lots of clothes shops, supermarkets, electronics shops and souvenir shops. Then there’s the main square and that’s about half filled with restaurants and half filled with gay bars and gay clubs. When I arrived, the straights were all still out, doing clothes shopping and having dinner with their families, but the gays were also beginning to gather and by about 11:00 pm, most of the straights and the children are gone and things get a whole lot gayer, though a few straight couples will hang on like tourists at a safari to see what ridiculous things my people are getting up to.

Mahmud was in an Italian restaurant on the main square, having dinner with two other people when I met him. I sat down with them. There was a slim, neat Italian man and his husband, an older, fatter Argentinian with a belly and a white beard. They were very much a classic bear/chaser couple. I introduced myself twice and they didn’t tell me what their names were. I was getting strong signals from Mahmud’s body language that I wasn’t meant to ask many questions, so we moved on without me learning their names. I later learned that Mahmud had slept with the Italian chaser back in London and that’s how he knew him, and he didn’t know what the husband’s name was either.

Mahmud had told them all about my show and once again he quoted parts of it for the others at the table and he treated me like a celebrity and I loved it. I was feeling social and feeling curious and after dinner, we went for a walk around the square. There were so many gays and so many gay bars. It really was like someone had taken Soho and put it in an 80s shopping centre and added some palm trees. We passed a kiosk selling leather harnesses and stopped in a bear bar, which had massive sweaty, hairy men, almost all of whom were British, spilling out onto the square. Then we continued exploring — there were two sex clubs with darkened entrances, there were places that catered to older men, places with drag shows, places that had Bear Carnival signs up everywhere and places with younger clientele that didn’t acknowledge that it was Bear Carnival at all.

We stopped in a second bar for another drink. At this stage it was midnight. A good-looking man, young, slim and muscular, with big eyes came up to us and greeted Mahmud enthusiastically. This was Dean from Ipswich, whom Mahmud had met at the Bear Bowling earlier that day. Dean from Ipswich might be the stupidest person I’ve ever spoken to, but he had such lovely arms. Mahmud spoke to his Italian friend while I attempted to make conversation with Dean from Ipswich. His eyes were bulging out of his face and I’m fairly sure he had taken something other than beer. It was a real struggle at first to talk to him — a bit like trying to engage with a toddler who’s trying to explain why he likes a particular blade of grass or pebble, but eventually we managed to get a real conversation going when he told me about how much he loved bears and how he wasn’t sure whether or not he should go to one of the sex clubs that night. I genuinely couldn’t tell if he was flirting with me or just sharing his thoughts, but suddenly Mahmud and his Italian friend decided it was time to go home and Dean from Ipswich left.

Although a part of my brain had considered having gloriously stupid sex with Dean from Ipswich, another part of my brain was very unclear as to whether or not that was even an option and a third part of my brain was relieved that I could finally go home. I’d been up really early that morning, scrubbing my flat in the vain hope that I might actually get my full deposit back from my evil landlord, and I was exhausted. I walked home through the suburbs and along the motorway and collapsed onto my mattress on the floor.

The next day was Friday and both Mahmud and I had tickets to the Bear Pool Party. He texted me from the party, once again peeved that I wasn’t just going to hop into a taxi and was going to walk there. The pool party was outside a hotel that describes itself as “heterofriendly”. You would need to be a very tolerant heterosexual to stay at that hotel.

I arrived at the party. There were so, so many people there. I’d never been to a pool party before, but it was exactly how I imagined it would be — loud music, a pool, another pool, a bar, a jacuzzi and lots and lots of men in swimming trunks. There were so so many very big men and so many very tiny speedos fighting unsuccessfully to contain miles and miles of arsecrack. I was wearing my own little blue and pink speedos, which I thought were quite risqué but were nothing in comparison to some of the tiny shorts I saw on other guys. I didn’t know you could get a speedo with the bum cut out of them, like some kind of swimmer’s jockstrap, but you can.

Mahmud’s was lying on a towel with the same Italian/Argentinian couple we’d been hanging out with the night before. He didn’t seem to be in a very good mood. We chatted and drank and then the foam cannons started. I’d never been to a foam party before. I remember when I’d been in university and people had described them, they sounded insane. I had heard stories of nightclubs entirely filled with foam, stories of no one being able to see anything, stories of people losing their clothes and having to go home naked, stories of people picking up objects and realising they were human turds, stories of people being assaulted in a criminal free-for-all. Foam parties sounded terrifying. This foam party had none of that craziness. In one area of the courtyard outside the hotel, one foam cannon shot out foam and a group of men danced while the foam shot all over them. The space was far too big and the foam cannon far too small for the dance floor to fill with foam. I joined in and the foam only went up to below my knees. I had to physically grab foam from the floor and put it on my chest in an attempt to get the foam party vibe. Most men went over, danced in the foam for about a minute and half and then went back to their lounger or to the bar.

The foam was sticky and Mahmud and I went to the showers. The showers were behind the jacuzzi, between a steam room and a sauna. Mahmud was also eager to check out the cruising area behind the sauna. I went with him. There was a group of about 15 men standing in a circle. Most of them had their dicks out and were wanking. There were a few men wanking each other and there were 2 pairs of men giving each other blowjobs. It didn’t feel all that sexy (it didn’t feel unsexy either) and we decided to leave and go back to our towels.

While Mahmud was swimming, I chatted with the Italian/Argentinian couple. At one stage, the slim Italian, who was consistently flirtatious, lowered himself between his husband and me. He was facing his husband and lightly stroking his belly, but his naked back was rubbing up against my naked belly. There were enough skin-to-skin points of contact between our bodies that it would have been silly to deny that there was a sexual element to this, but after a while, his husband decided it was time for them to go home and that was the end of that little frisson.

Mahmud and I moved to some loungers beside the jacuzzi. He’d been getting grumpier as the day went on. Since I’d first met him. Mahmud had been very forthright in talking about how he felt it was unfair how difficult it was for him to find love as a fat man. It was definitely something I could identify with, but I didn’t talk about it anything as much as he did. He had a lot of issues with the bear scene. He didn’t like the Daddy/Son dynamic at all and was determined to find someone his own age. He also didn’t like the way the bear scene conflates the two concepts of hairiness and bigness. A tall muscular man without any fat at all is considered a bear, just so long as he has body hair. This made Mahmud angry — he was neither hairy, not muscular, but he considered himself a bear because of his fatness and he felt that men with muscles and hair were invading his space and snapping up the available men.

I’m not any better than Mahmud. I’m not a massive fan of bear culture. I think it’s a good thing that there are spaces that are so welcoming of older gay men and fat gay men. Both older and fatter men are often unwelcome in gay spaces, so it’s lovely that the bear scene caters to both, but I feel very uncomfortable in bear-oriented spaces for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’m really not attracted to either beards or to older men. My ideal man is smooth, short and muscular — like a Korean soldier. I’m not particularly turned on by lumberjacks and Santa Clauses. That said, I’ve worked on that and I now find fat men attractive which I never used to when I was younger, and I’m sure I’ll get over my anti-grey beard prejudice before I’m 50. I also dislike the overly masculine side of bear culture. I’m the kind of gay who wants to twirl around in a pretty sparkly frock and bear culture is all about leather and harnesses and grunting and sweating and I can enjoy those things in small doses, but here I was surrounded by gays and pining for glitter and nail varnish. Finally, I bitterly resent the fact that I have the body I have, and that I’m not a tiny little twink.

I kept my complaints to myself though and let Mahmud have his rant. After a while, I went to check out the steam room. It was very pleasant and I started having a nice chat with a man from Newcastle and another from Kent (seriously, everyone in Maspalomas was British, with the very occasional German thrown in for variety). I was really relaxing when two men came into the very small steam room, jammed up against me and one of them started giving another a blow job. I think they intended for it to be a sexual free-for-all, but I didn’t want that. I wanted to learn more about the nice man from Newcastle’s job in a gym. I left the steam room.

Mahmud took another trip to the cruising area to see if there was anyone he wanted to have sex with. There wasn’t and he went back to his hotel, disappointed. I finally felt able to relax — he was so disappointed at not finding a man yet, that it made him difficult company. I hung out in the jacuzzi for a while, had another drink, and then walked home.

When I got back to my apartment, I realised that my back was sunburnt. I felt dizzy and nauseous and dehydrated. I started feeling that apocalyptic feeling that’s getting more and more familiar to me. Maybe I’ll always be alone. I’m 42 now and I don’t think I’ve had anyone to put sunscreen on the parts of my back I can’t reach since my mother last did it when I was around 14. Maybe I should just give up going on holidays in sunny countries and keep covered up and stop exposing this ugly body to people who clearly wouldn’t want to touch it long enough to put sunscreen on it. If I still haven’t managed to land a boyfriend now when I’m so far into middle age, I’ll probably die alone and I should stop pretending that I can do the things that people in couples can.

I’m not saying that these thoughts were logical, but those were the thoughts I had. I had spent the whole day talking to someone who believed that the world is unfair and he’ll always be single, which had aroused all of my own worst insecurities and so that’s where my mind went.

Later on, after lots of liquids and lots of moisturiser, I walked back into the Yumbo Centre. I went for dinner. I texted Mahmud. He had been on Grindr and Growlr since arriving in Maspalomas and was waiting to meet a man in a bar, so I had dinner alone. Unfortunately, Mahmud’s man didn’t show up, so when we did meet up after I’d finished eating, he really wasn’t in a good mood. We watched some shirtless men do acrobatics for the entertainment of the gays, and I went home early, nauseous and dizzy from sunstroke.

Before we’d come, Mahmud had told me that he’d booked a ticket for the “Bear Boat Party” on the Saturday, so I booked a ticket too. It sounded terrifying. The boat wasn’t moored, so it was a party at sea and you wouldn’t be able to leave for four and a half hours. How would I get through it?

But on Saturday morning, Mahmud texted me. He said he found the idea of the boat party too stressful so he was going to the beach instead. I was very relieved, I had to admit. I walked to the hotel where the buses for the boat party was due to leave from. I was running late, and then I slowed down. I didn’t have to do this. I didn’t have to get on a boat with a load of hairy strangers for five hours if I didn’t want to. I went for a meal instead.

I ate far too much and was quite sick.

That evening, after sending a text to Mahmud to admit I hadn’t gone to the boat party either, I made my way to the final event I had booked, the “Bear Spa Experience”. This was so nice. This was what I needed in the middle of this enormous life change.

We were in a beautiful spa, about 20 of us. We were all naked. There was a massive pool, with waterfalls and warm and cool jets and lots of little pools within the bigger pool. There were two saunas, a steam room, a cold plunge pool, aromatherapy showers. It was my dream world.

Because it was such a small group, it was easy to have conversations. I talked to a nice older man from Norway, to a nice younger man from Birmingham, to a nice middle-aged man from South London. I went from pool to tub to sauna to steam and back again so many times. I was thrilled that my holiday was finally what I had wanted it to be all along.

At one stage, the most attractive man there starting chatting to me, asking me about my tattoos. I was delighted (and quite turned on) and I started telling him a joke about one of my tattoos. He immediately apologised. “I’m so sorry. I’m Spanish. We talk a lot. I know you British don’t like to talk.” And with that, he left. I don’t know what I said wrong, but right now I’m imagining an alternative reality where that man realised I wanted him to talk to me and now we’re married.

Anyway, I was feeling super relaxed when the spa evening was over and I made my way back to the Yumbo Centre, where I met Mahmud for dinner. He was still quite cross. He’d gone to one of the sex clubs the previous night and hadn’t had any luck and he’d spent all day working Grindr and Growlr and hadn’t got anywhere.

We went to some of the bars on the square and I got quite tipsy. I swore to myself that if I came again, I’d do everything differently. There were some men there in the most ridiculous outfits and I had such envy. Next time, I’ll bring a suitcase full of mesh and lycra and chains and leather. One of the last things I’d packed into the storage locker when I was leaving my apartment was a very tight leopard print crop top that I’ve never been brave enough to wear. I could have worn it at Bear Carnival and been a star.

We ambled around. I was drunk and relaxed. Mahmud doesn’t drink and I don’t think he felt very relaxed. We bumped into the Italian/Argentinian

couple and went for another drink with them. It was the last weekend of March and so the clocks went forward and suddenly it was 2:00 am and I had to get up for my flight and my new unemployed, itinerant life at 6:00 am.

I went home to bed, full of satisfaction and full of regret.


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