The Secret Life of Bears at Coachella

The Secret Life of Bears at Coachella
Nate Jackson

Under the shimmering light of a disco ball, a scene of erotic Coachella lust is on full display for Carlos Salazar and Kevin Culhane inside the Yuma Tent. Just after 5 p.m., the two middle-aged, husky dudes in yellow t-shirts stared at a group of writhing, half-naked bodies on the dance floor. Their eyes absorbed the smorgasbord of same-sex flesh; asses grinding against thrusting pelvises in short shorts. The two men ventured closer, ignoring the Yuma’s new stylish white couches crowded with 110-pound college girls in underbutt cutoffs and pasty bikinis. Because when it comes to the object of a Coachella bear’s desire, man boobs and hairy pecs are a thousand times more titillating.

“We didn’t plan this,” Culhane says with a laugh, as he and Salazar stop to survey the afternoon exhibition of burly man love during Nic Fanciulli’s DJ set. “It just kinda happened.”

Like any hot-blooded human wandering the Coachella grounds, casual bear hookups are a normal part of the experience. Sorry straight people, when it comes to this festival, bears are absolutely having more fun than you are. Take it from a straight person who recently witnessed how the other half lives. They, along with the hundreds (actually, probably thousands) of burly gay men known as bears, use the festival as a meeting ground to throw pool parties sure to be unabashedly wild in every way, ensuring you will get laid just for showing up. They do everything you’d ever want to do at Coachella times 10—eat, dance, fuck, eat again, and enjoy each other’s company (and their big, beautiful hairy bodies) all weekend long. And maybe eat again.

Scott Ciliberti
Scott Ciliberti
Nate Jackson

One group, dubbed the Coachella Festival Bears, started as a closed Facebook group created by San Francisco bear Scott Ciliberti in 2006. It started with 60 core members. Ten years later, the group is over 700 strong. During the group’s annual Coachella Festival Bear meetup day on Friday, everyone in their group wears a yellow shirt to identify themselves.

“I never thought it would take off like it did when I started it,” Ciliberti says. “I really just want it to continue. It’s grown organically, I’ve never really tried to promote it.” As an IT expert in San Francisco, he was an early adopter to Facebook and knew the social media site was going to be the best forum for bears to find out about the group.

Yellow is the official color of the Coachella Festival Bears, a nod to the bear-centric hookup app Growlr (think Grindr but for bears). As social media continues to embed itself into festival culture, it's opened the door for all types of social groups to stay connected between Coachellas. That goes double for the Festival Bears, who help each other by putting an end to the pitiful task of wandering through the windswept, plastic bottle-covered plains hopelessly searching for a familiar furry face.

Carlos Salazar and Kevin Culhane
Carlos Salazar and Kevin Culhane
Courtesy Carlos Salazr

“I used to come to Coachella with actually mostly straight friends,” says Culhane, a member of the group since it started. “Back then, when I ran into someone I knew [who was gay], I’d be just like bumping into them and saying ‘Hey.’ I started hanging out with more gay dudes through these meetups and then I just kept meeting more dudes and it’s been cool.”

Though their are similar groups with bigger, less label-oriented followings, CFB is proud to distinguish themselves as bears and bear lovers.

When they step onto the lush green Empire Polo Field, they greet each other, often shirtless, rubbing nipples and wooly chest hair like best brosies—even if they’ve only met for the first time. Bears, as you can imagine, are big huggers. By the end of the day, they’re sure to walk away with at least a dozen new friends, and probably, nay, definitely, a few new fuck buddies.

Beardom has always had its niche in Coachella culture since the festival started in 1999. But chances are you haven’t seen a Coachella billboard, promo video, or corny ass H&M ad directed towards their segment of the gay community. That might be easy for most average Coachella goers to understand. These guys don’t exactly fit the stereotype of bohemian, carb-deficient Echo Park hipsters. They’re big, bulky types that come in all shapes and sizes, from muscular gym rats to hefty big boys carrying lots of jiggle weight.

Most Bears—and most Coachella gays in general—tend to have a lot more money, style and a better taste in drugs and music than their straight counterparts. Not to mention influence. That alone ought to make them one of the festival’s key demographics, despite skewing a bit older than the millennials Coachella fawns over.

Sitting on the lawn near the main stage before LCD Soundsystem, draped in an unzipped Pikachu costume (which is his indeed his spirit animal), Aaron Jilg might look like another husky, bearded festival jester. But this Sacramento-based member of the Bears, along with his husband Peter and their friends, party hard and spend like kings when they come to Coachella.

“We rent fantastic houses every year we’re down here,” Jilg says. “Most of us don’t have kids, we have dual income, single family homes and we don’t have many responsibilities so we have a lot of fucking money just to throw.” This year, the Jilgs and five other bears rented a giant party house for four days to the tune of $6,000. The houses can typically turn into giant gay frat parties where getting sex is literally as easy going to the fridge to get a beer.

“It’s like a cornucopia of dick,” Aaron says. “Every shape, size, color that you could want—it’s available.”

Life wasn’t always this sweet for the bear population. Aaron’s husband Peter, who’s in his 50s, remembers a time when bears often bore the brunt of the gay community’s need to self segregate based on looks. “In the ‘80s if you were gay, you had to have a 29 inch waist and be chiseled and no body hair,” Peter says. “Because [bears] were ostracized, they formed a community and then a weird thing happened. That ‘weird thing,’ would be the outbreak of the AIDS virus in gay communities across the U.S. and the world. Suddenly guys who are meatier are the picture of health.

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“For a lot of gay people, me included, subconsciously I’d see a guy who was stockier, or hefty and think ‘Oh that guy’s healthy, he doesn’t have AIDS.”

If there’s one group of gays who come from sturdy, festival-going stock, it’s the bears. According to most of the gays we spoke to, bears tend to be good organizers, they come prepared and they’re mostly a rough and tumble bunch that don’t fuss over stupid shit like midday dust storms or being in the middle of packed crowds of people for hours on end.

Keith Bacon and Donovan Jones
Keith Bacon and Donovan Jones
Nate Jackson

They’ll still throwdown though when it’s time to share space in their lockers to stash multiple outfits and accessories. “Sometimes we really are like girls,” silver bearded Coachella Bear Keith Bacon admits, as he fights for space for his tan fedora in a locker he split with friend and fellow Bear Donovan Jones.

About an hour before legendary UK progressive house duo Underworld played the Sahara tent, Jones—a tall, tattooed bear from San Francisco, is in the middle of a wardrobe change from beach wear into a bright yellow fireman’s jumper, shimmering lamé tank top and bug eyed goggles. Throughout the day, bears will split  off to pursue various shows and hookups but will always regroup for certain bands. To this day, Scissor Sisters’ performance in 2011 is widely regarded as the single gayest gathering to ever happen at Coachella. This year, Underworld, with their pulsating beats and singer Karl Hyde’s crotch-thrusting dance moves is definitely one of those bands.

The bear’s group grew steadily in front of the soundbooth throughout the set. Glow sticks and beach balls rained on them and bounced off their heads as they jumped around with thick, rustic hands shooting up into the air. Though it took everyone a while to join the rest of the group, it’s always worth it.

“Sometimes it just adds another layer of conflict,” Jones says. “I have to be in two places with these friends or those friends, but mostly it makes life easy you can go up and find someone with a yellow shirt and give them a hug.”

Bacon reminisces about the times where he’d start out dancing next to some random guys at a show, and next thing he knew he was making out with them. “That’s just part of being gay,” he says with a laugh.

“That’s true,” Jones chimes in as he finishes heaving on the yellow suspenders of his glorious new outfit. “That’s how we met.” He’s referring to their first hookup at Pet Shop Boys at Coachella at the Gobi tent two years ago.

Peter and Aaron Jilg's Coachella wedding
Peter and Aaron Jilg's Coachella wedding
Courtesy of Aaron Jilg

For some of the festival bears, the Coachella meetups aren’t just a chance to relive history or an excuse to fly into town to see old friends once a year. Peter and Aaron’s Jilg’s love for Coachella started after Aaron took Peter with him for the first time a few years ago. To this day, Peter says it totally blew his mind. It also gave him an idea to propose to his future husband on the polo field in the locker area, which he did. The couple would also go on to have a Coachella themed “rave wedding” replete with flashing disco lights, high-flying balloon streamers like the ones iconically ascribed to Indio. They also asked that friends and family dressed in crazy costumes as if they were going to the festival to say their “I do’s.”

“We wanted people to experience Coachella who would never in their life come down here,” Aaron says. “And we tried to bring as much of that to them as we could. We love this environment so much.”

Bears may never be the spokesmodels for Coachella. Maybe they’ll always be too big, too hairy or too whatever for the mainstream Coachella crowd. But they fucking deserve to be festival poster boys. Because, aside from having the means and the will to have the kind of fun all of us straight people dream of, they do it in the true spirit of Coachella—come as you are, forget your fears and rage against the dying of the light.

“As a bigger guy to come out and do this kind of thing you have to be comfortable in your skin,” Pikachu bear Aaron says. “Once you’re comfortable in your skin it becomes easier to mingle. We don’t feel like we have to have a six pack and be all tanned and perfect. There’s some women I see here, and I’m not even attracted to women, but I’ll see a woman and go ‘She is fucking stunning. How much work does that take though?’ That’s gotta be exhausting."

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