Reykjavík Bear. Photo / Pilu Ottosen

It’s Time to Come out of the Cave for Reykjavík Bear

The city of Reykjavík is a hub for many different festivals throughout the year and when it comes to queer celebrations, the city still does a pretty good job of keeping up with its international counterparts. The Reykjavík Pride Festival is the largest LGBT event held in Iceland and happens over a week in August. It includes several events such as the Opening Ceremony, Queer Parade, and Closing Party. It has been running for over 20 years and brings in many visitors from all around Europe to join the city’s festivities but it’s not the only kind of queer festival the city has to offer.

If you happen to be, or appreciate hairier, larger men, then the Reykjavík Bear Festival might be something you want to check out. The festival kicks off this week, and GayIceland was lucky enough to share a picnic blanket with some of the organisers; Sigurður (Siggi) Júlíus Guðmundsson, Harald Schaller, Danilo Nava and Sylvain Dutilh to see what’s in store for this year’s participants and find out all things bear.

GayIceland: Let’s start at the very beginning. What exactly is a ‘Bear’?

Sylvain: “Basically anyone who does not identify as, or adhere to, the ‘twink’ norm. The word started appearing I think in the early 90s in the US, when the ‘normal’ aesthetics for gay men were fit, hairless men, straight from the aerobic videos of that time.

People who did not want to shave or had a few extra kilos felt a bit pushed aside, and started calling themselves bears as a form of rallying name (named after the hairy, beefy creature of the same name). It overlapped with the Leather community as well, and on a lot of occasions, still does.”

Siggi: “Just to add to this, the first known use of the word bear in this context comes from an Advocate article named ‘Who’s who at the zoo?’ written in 1979 by George Mazzei. But the term did not get popularised until 10-15 years later as Sylvain points out.”

GayIceland: What is the Reykjavík Bear Festival?

Siggi: “Reykjavík Bear is a four-day festival hosted by Bangsafélagið, a local organisation created by the bears of Iceland. It is based on a festival called Bears on Ice (BOI) that was held for 15 years before the organisers of BOI decided to retire that festival.

This weekend is always filled with the best of vibes because what matters is to have a good time in a place where we all feel comfortable in our own skin. Bears, non-bears, everyone is welcome!

We have about 100 foreign visitors coming this year which is more than double the number from last year. We start on Thursday, August 31st with a welcome party at Petersen Svítan. On Friday we take the bears on a tour of the Golden Circle and in the evening we have our famous Top-off party where we encourage the guys to let themselves experience the freedom of being topless in a space that celebrates that. If people don’t want that, that is also perfectly okay as well.

On Saturday we take them to the Blue Lagoon for a relaxing soak and then we have our main party in the evening at Sunset Bar in The Reykjavík EDITION Hotel. On Sunday we say our goodbyes to our new friends with a brunch at Jómfrúin and for those who are staying a bit longer, for the first time we have an optional trip to the Sky Lagoon as well.”

Sylvain Dutilh. Photo / A&R Photo

GayIceland: How did Reykjavík Bear begin?

Siggi: “Well, as I said before, Reykjavík Bear took over from Bears on Ice by a group of former volunteers of that festival. We didn’t want this amazing event to just end so we got together and formed Bangsafélagið and set out to do the festival in the same way Bears on Ice did. This was in late 2019 and our first festival was set to happen in 2020 but that was obviously cancelled.

In 2021 we had our first event and we were lucky to have it because there were not too many restrictions happening at the time. About 25 guests came from abroad and lots of locals came as well. About a week later we had another tightening of the rules which would have made it impossible. So this year we are doing our third festival and we have roughly doubled the guest numbers each year. This year we are making our first attempt to make some changes to the plan by adding the optional Sky Lagoon trip on the last day for those who don’t have a flight back home right away.”

I think festivals like these are needed because there is a need for people within the queer community that don’t look a certain “accepted” way and that even during pride are being left on the sidelines to celebrate who they are and be comfortable in the body they have.

GayIceland: Why are festivals like this needed?

Sylvain: “It’s not necessarily a straightforward answer; in fact there are hundreds of academic publications covering this question already. When you check the history of most of these events, like PTown bear week in the US and Sitges Bear Week in Spain (to name the biggest ones), they started as an alternative to the mainstream gay culture that some members of the community felt excluded them. Bear festivals are still relatively recent in history. The two largest only appeared in the last 20 years as a countermovement inside the queer community to assemble some of the guys who were pushed away for not being the traditional poster boy. What attracted people to these festivals was creating a sense of togetherness and community for people who are attracted to, or identify as, members of a subgroup of the bear culture.”

Danilo: “I think festivals like these are needed because there is a need for people within the queer community that don’t look a certain “accepted” way and that even during pride are being left on the sidelines to celebrate who they are and be comfortable in the body they have. I have been helping out for a few years now and beyond all the partying and exploring of the country you also get to make friends from all around the world and build a community of people who relate to you because of shared experiences.”

Sigurður (Siggi) Júlíus Guðmundsson. Photo / Andres Pelaez

GayIceland: During Reykjavík Pride, some members of the bear community spoke at a community panel about some of the issues and struggles bears deal with. Can you tell us a bit about that.

Danilo: “We talked about some of the challenges guys who identify as bears face, mostly from our own experiences. When you are growing up and as you start realising that you are into other men, you get more aware of the types of bodies that are considered “hot” and “acceptable” in the gay/mlm community (tall, muscly, smooth, masculine) and you try consciously or not to fit in that mould. In my case it was also about accepting my body the way it is and that these stereotypes are total BS. It’s about being in the mindset of “look at me, chubby, hairy and all but still taking place and unapologetically existing.”

Siggi: “I feel like the whole issue with body image is so rigid and unquestioned that even starting a conversation about it can be challenging. Many people also feel quite offended that people dare to talk about it in a way that isn’t about the health aspects of it. This whole attitude about the subject matter creates a blanket of shame around the entire existence of people who are not the typical accepted body type. This also extends beyond the usual discussion about people feeling pride in their own skin regardless. This also means people who are attracted to bears and other unconventionally beautiful people may feel shame for being attracted to body types they have been told are ugly and undesirable. This was my experience when I was a young, twinkier guy who just loved all the big bears and chubs out there. Finding Bears on Ice and feeling welcomed there was a game changer for me. It goes to show how important communities are so that you can feel a part of something and learn that you are not alone with those specific feelings.”

I feel like the whole issue with body image is so rigid and unquestioned that even starting a conversation about it can be challenging. Many people also feel quite offended that people dare to talk about it in a way that isn’t about the health aspects of it.

Sylvain: “The main issue is fitting in. It’s a human instinct; we all want to fit in, and that panel was also about helping people to know that there is a space where bigger guys will fit in in Iceland; and that you don’t even need to be a bigger guy to fit in with us.

Representation matters; like Siggi says, if Bears on Ice didn’t exist all these years ago, we wouldn’t be here today talking about it for GayIceland. It created a space where a bunch of bears were able to fit in, share their experience, talk about sex, spill the tea on the latest drama, anything a group of friends should be able to do without the fear of stigma for being bigger.”

Danilo Nava.

Harald: “For some of us to come out being interested in guys and also to be in peace with their body type is still one of the largest impacting realisations. It can be a struggle, and I believe that it is also not easy to realise a lifestyle that differs from what is staged around us.

Society and marketing performs in a straight and “LOHAS” (Lifestyles Of Health and Sustainability) environment, and for me growing up I needed to come to terms with the fact that most of this lifestyle and performance will not be my life. I still come to accept my body and shape my view of it. I am not slim. I am not muscular. I am also not big or hairy. Still, as a CIS white gay man this would be shown being the norm.

With regards to what Sylvain mentioned, belonging is a basic need of humans and finding your tribe to belong is a very important part of growing up. I think the bear community was able to attract me, as I participated in their parties and realised the concept of body positivity. It made me feel welcome as I was. As I mentioned during the panel, we might be born into a family, however we might choose to form a family, sometimes it is the most important thing to belong to a family/tribe. The bears are a diverse bunch of guys that made me feel like I belonged.”

We might be born into a family, however we might choose to form a family, sometimes it is the most important thing to belong to a family/tribe. The bears are a diverse bunch of guys that made me feel like I belonged.

GayIceland: Do you think there is a division in the community between the big guys and the muscly guys? If so, where does that come from?

Sylvain: “… And here come the Muscle Bears! Ironically, some of the most muscular guys feel at ease in bear communities, because they share one of the characteristics with the bear stereotype: the hairy bodies! They can feel excluded or out of place around the average muscular man, not necessarily because of their size (although it is sometimes the case) but also because of their body hair. Sure they could shave, but they prefer being themselves, and they tend to feel more welcome around fellow bears for that reason.”

Danilo: “I think this division comes from societal views on how queer men are supposed to look like: muscly guys would feel more accepted because commonly muscle = masculine and also muscle = healthy and that leaves more chubby guys in the background and even get rejected for examples in dating apps or when out partying. This is the gap that Bangsafélagið and Reykjavík Bear try to bridge.”

Harald Schaller. Photo / Andres Pelaez

GayIceland: What can visitors to the festival expect?

Danilo: “If it’s their first time in the country and the festival, expect to experience the best parts of the country, get soaked and relaxed in the Blue lagoon, and also to make new friends. Some of our recurrent visitors met up in Bears on Ice back in the day and keep coming now that Bangsafélagið took over, which is proof of how nice of a time people have it when they attend this festival.”

GayIceland: Are non-bears welcome to check out some of the festivities?

Danilo: “Of course! I think what’s nice about this bear weekend is the chance people get to build community: This weekend is always filled with the best of vibes because what matters is to have a good time in a place where we all feel comfortable in our own skin. Bears, non-bears, everyone is welcome!”

GayIceland: What makes the Icelandic Bear community different from bear communities in other countries like the USA or UK?

When I arrived in Iceland, I got hooked into bear parties by some random guy I was chatting on the apps, and just like that I became involved in a bear community for the first time.

Sylvain: “Same thing yet again: the size! It’s a pretty small group of people who already all know each other, but are always welcoming of new blood! When I arrived in Iceland, I got hooked into bear parties by some random guy I was chatting on the apps, and just like that I became involved in a bear community for the first time.

I also feel like a lot of people feel a bit ashamed to belong to this community here, although they participate in bear events abroad. I think there is a bit of fear of stigma, because Iceland is so small, my feeling is that people are more scared of labels and are more interested in fitting into the mainstream.”

Adam Zimmer, secretary of Bangsafélagið, is also a vital member of the team.

GayIceland: How can local bears get involved outside of the festival?

Harald: “The Icelandic scene of bears and their friends is small and still vibrant. Even though RVKBear is the main event during the year, other events and activities are organised by the bear association. We have held some private parties, some gatherings for Christmas and such.

The best way to get involved is to be visual. Show up for the events that are coordinated through our Facebook group and offer help. We always welcome people who want to get to know us and become a part of our community. Most frequently organised is also the “Hump Day Social,” a (nearly) monthly event organised to give a space to queer guys to meet and mingle.”

Siggi: “If you want to join us then the best thing would be to check out our website, We have information there on how to join the organisation as well as information on events and online resources.”

GayIceland: Is there anything else you want readers to know?

Sylvain: “To everyone curious, scared, or insecure about joining a bear party, a bear event, or anything bear related, I would only say one thing: give it a try! If you hate it then it’s OK, at least you will know it’s not for you; and if you like it, then you’ll make friends! There are always positives!”

“If it’s their first time in the country and the festival, expect to experience the best parts of the country, get soaked and relaxed in the Blue lagoon, and also to make new friends,” says Danilo, when asked what first timers can expect. Photo / Pilu Ottosen

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