Promises, promises 

It was Whoppers all around for the two groups of diners who opted for opposite sides of a nearly deserted Burger King on West Colonial Drive. An animated trio of bearded and burly men, each wearing a T-shirt adorned with smiling bears, took their trays to a table by the west window; the four guys who had followed them in line settled next to the east window. More quiet than the first, the second group -- a pair of dads and their teen-age sons -- also sported virtually matching outfits, wearing purple shirts emblazoned with the words "Promise Keepers 2000" and the slogan, "Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey."

The trio finished eating first. Then they formed a single-file line and began to shuffle across the room, performing a little cha-cha. First one, then two, then all three broke into song, an old disco number with a gospel feel. Between bites of onion rings, the teen-age boys looked up quizzically; their fathers simply bowed their heads to avoid eye contact. Strutting purposefully past the family foursome, the trio loudly repeated their refrain: "It's raining men, Hallelujah! It's raining men, amen ... "

In the parking lot, one of the singers explained: "Heck, we're looking for the same thing they are. We'd all like to find a few good men for hazardous duty."

The singers were in Orlando for the ninth annual Bear Bust, a gathering of more than 1,400 gay men from all over North America. Bears are guys who share a penchant for unaffected masculine physical appearances, often full-figured (or flat-out chunky) and as covered by body hair as nature permits. They came from as far north as Toronto and as far west as South Dakota to gather at the Full Moon Saloon on Orange Blossom Trail and several hotels along nearby West Colonial Drive, all close to the Burger King and the TD Waterhouse Centre. That's where 14,000 men and boys had convened the same October weekend for a two-day conference of the Promise Keepers (PKs), a Christian men's movement with leadership that boasts links to the religious and political far right.

Other than timing and proximity of their gatherings, the groups might not seem to share much, particularly given the PK tenet that the "verbally inspired original manuscript" of the Bible proves homosexual behavior is sinful. But similarities abound. Both trace their origins to around 1990. And leaders of each cite the men's sensitivity movement of the New Age 1980s as inspiration. As PK brochures state, "Everybody else was coming out of the closet. Why not Christians?"

PKs and Bears also both bring together like-minded fellows for mutual support and male bonding, including laying-on of hands, soulful hugs and long physical embraces. The ultimate direction such bonding leads is where Bears and PKs turn to separate paths.

"Unlike Promise Keepers, we truly unite with one another," says Peter Mikel, a Bear from Fort Lauderdale, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. "We even like the smell of our fellow men."

Physical friskiness is a significant part of Bear life, says Ray Kampf, an Orlando graphics and interior designer who recently compiled "The Bear Handbook." His "Preppy Handbook"-inspired, tongue-in-cheek account of what it means to be a Bear was a fast-selling item at this year's Bust, sponsored by a local club, the Bears of Central Florida. "Bears are a tactile species, and as their human counterparts, we have adopted their play," says Kampf. "Being among men who aren't afraid to touch and feel is a wonderful thing."

Kampf, a big guy with a flattop and a thick, brown beard, describes today's Bear phenomenon as "an evolution" from events of the last 40 years. "Civil rights begat women's liberation begat early gay lib," he says. "They all galvanized the men's movement. New Age guys discovered the rewards of getting in touch with their inner selves by sharing experiences with one another."

James Bracewell, director of Orlando's Men's Resource Network, a clearinghouse for social services open to men of all beliefs and sexual orientations, says the art of male bonding goes back much further. "In cultures throughout history men got together to reflect on why they were here and where they were going. The results were some of the great traditional wisdoms of the world," he says, listing philosophies developed by ancient Buddhist monks and the peace-pipe sagacity of Native American tribal leaders as examples.

Like the Bears and PKs two weeks earlier, the Resource Network last weekend hosted its own an all-male retreat, the ninth annual Florida Men's Gathering. About 30 men showed up at a campground in the Ocala National Forest for seminars, canoeing and lots of "beating on drums." "In our industrial age, men lost most of their personal connections," Bracewell says. "They barely knew the names of their next-door neighbors. Since the advent of the women's movement and then the New Age thing, at least some modern men have come to realize how much they need validation from one another. They don't get enough of it from their fancy cars and the paychecks they take home.

"We encourage men to break out of their ruts and take time to discover what's of true importance to them. I just wish more would join with us," says Bracewell. "The narrower focus of those other groups seems to make men of similar interests feel more secure about getting involved. And, believe me, a lot of us men are very insecure."

Indeed, a pride-building, New Age attitude played a large part in helping many Bears overcome their own insecurities, says Kampf. "We were able to come to the conclusion that it's not un-masculine to be emotional, touchy-feely," he says. "It's similar to the binding straight guys get out of a football huddle."

A successful former football coach, Bill McCartney, founded the Promise Keepers 10 years ago. McCartney has long been an adherent of the ultra-strict Catholic charismatic community known as the Word of God, which he discovered while serving as a gridiron assistant in Ann Arbor, Mich. In 1990, the same year he led his University of Colorado team to a national championship, McCartney decided to harness some of the testosterone he saw flowing from the secular men's movement, using it to "the Lord's advantage."

With several fellow conservative Christians, "Coach," as he is still called, organized an all-male support group based on Seven Promises. They include a commitment to "pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that [a man] needs brothers to help him keep his promises." The pledges also include "practicing spiritual, moral, ethical and sexuality purity" and "honoring and praying for his pastor and actively giving his time and resources."

Certainly, the giving of resources has been nothing short of phenomenal, as visitors to a huge tent-city mall set up outside the Waterhouse Centre showed with their wallets. At times, lines more than 60 men in length snaked through the shopping enclave as conferees waited to pay for stacks of books, CDs, videos, golf bags, key chains and apparel with the PK logo. The PK clothing included cargo shorts, polo shirts, vests, sweats, tees and kiddie wear -- even women's dresses for the ladies left back home.

In its raking-in-the-hay days of the mid-'90s, the Denver-based Promise Keepers grossed more than $100 million a year, filling stadiums across the country and organizing a March on Washington that delivered an estimated quarter of a million males to the Mall in 1997. But receipts fell dramatically the following year when the organization dropped entrance fees to its events. That loss of cash flow led to a reduction of staff and the closing of several regional offices.

The fees were back in place for this year's 16-city national tour, which brought the organization to Orlando for the first time as stop No. 15. Spokesman Steve Chavis keeps the justification for those fees close at hand for anyone who might inquire; Chavis points to his Good Book. "The Bible says where a man's treasure is, there his heart is also," he says. "If you follow a man's money, you follow his heart, his attention."

Not that everyone buys into it. "It's way too commercial in my opinion," said Brett Ianuzzi, 25, of Winter Park, who was attending his first PK event. "Look at all the stuff they're trying to sell, plus they're charging $69 just to get in the door. It's too much. I don't know what Jesus would think about it."

Instead of a PK shirt, Ianuzzi wore a T emblazoned with the words "Porn Star." "I just came here to keep my dad happy," he confessed. "I'm getting ready to get married, and I've heard some good advice about being honest with your wife. But I can see where women who don't like PKs are coming from. I don't see why this kind of meeting shouldn't be for everyone -- men, women and children."

Tom Montgomery, a father of three daughters, had a different perspective: "To be with so many other men makes you feel like you're not alone. It's invigorating to be among all these men who worship Jesus." The sales rep from Boynton Beach argued that PKs "don't speak against women; we put them on pedestals. According to the Bible, males are to be the servant leaders. The responsibilities of women are to their husbands first, families second and careers third."

"Women have their time to share. We need ours," said another man, a retired high-school teacher from Savannah. "This is basically our opportunity for some serious man-to-man talk. It's like a pep rally for a big fraternity of Christian men."

Would that include gay Christian men?

"God loves everyone," said Montgomery. "The Bible says homosexuality is wrong, as is stealing. But he loves the sinner as much as he hates the sin."

James Roberts, of Haines City, was attending his fourth PK conference. "I don't see it as being a problem for gay guys to participate," he said. "But they won't come because of the PK rep. Biblically speaking, PKs believe homosexuality is immoral. Personally speaking, I would never discriminate against anyone on a different path. The basic thing is to be like Jesus. He would welcome everybody."

"Give him a great big WOOF!" The MC for the annual Mr. Bear contest encouraged the crowd to welcome one of the contestants in the Saturday afternoon swimsuit competition. The categories of "Bear wear" and "jock strap" would follow an evening banquet. The next day, a Sunday, a panel of judges would reach its conclusions, presenting awards in three divisions: cub, grizzly and daddy bear.

Hundreds of men had packed into the privacy-enclosed courtyard of the Full Moon Saloon to see the Bears promenade. Most had to crane their necks to see the stage, decorated with cardboard flames and rubber hoses to reflect this year's firehouse theme. This was no Chippendale's beefcake review; among the scantily clad contestants, more than a few protruding bellies were proudly displayed. But there was much more going on than the camp display that animated the earliest parades of Bear bodies.

"These are my types of men," boasted David Schmidt, of St. Paul, Minn., a man in his early 20s and among the youngest in attendance. "I'm not like a lot of guys my age. I'm not hung up on stereotypical good looks -- the whole boy-band style. I prefer men who look real and are real."

Time was when Bears were regarded as the nerds of the gay community. "In the '80s, we didn't fit in with the clones, the pretty boys, the twinks who appeared in International Male catalogs," says Ray Kampf. "For one thing, most Bears are older professional men. We also tend to be larger. There were always gay guys who looked like us -- some were hippies who learned to love their hair in the '60s. But for a long time we had nowhere to go to fit in. From our first little clubs, which were like self-help support groups, we have grown into a mass movement."

According to the Bear History Project overseen by Les Wright, a humanities professor at Mount Ida College in Boston, the earliest Bear clubs followed a popular San Francisco series of "Bear Hug" and "Leather Bear" parties, which came on the heels of a fad in which some gay men carried tiny stuffed teddy bears in their pockets. When gay newspapers, magazines and websites began to report on Bear activities, clubs sprang up all over the U.S. and around the world. By 1992 local groups were joining together for such regional festivities as OctoBear Fest in Denver, Southern Decadence in New Orleans and the Orlando event; the printed program for Chicago's Bear Pride Weekend, which draws 1,500 men over the Memorial Day holiday, even includes a greeting from that city's mayor.

Like the PK rally, the Orlando Bear Bust featured its own shopping arcade with three dozen tables offering ursine images on condom wrappers, mugs, candles, clothing, jewelry, videos, even strings of Christmas lights. There was a lot of leather for sale. Many Bears identify with gay bikers and leathermen, partly because leather bars were among the first places to welcome Bears.

Wesley Burdnil, a Gainesville Bear with flowing silver hair and a long goatee, fondly recalls those days. "Being a Bear used to mean gaining acceptance when no one else would accept us," he says. "None of us was pretty, but we were attracted to one another. Today we're seen as a trend -- everyone wants to be a Bear. It has all become too stylized."

Kampf agrees that many of the men who appear on covers of magazines and star in videos geared to the expanding Bear market look like -- well -- like models. "That's a price we're paying for popularity," he says. "But most Bears still share the same values. We are proud to be masculine and we know our show tunes. To me, that's very refreshing."

Jim Burns was the Promise Keepers' main speaker on Saturday. He lectured in the morning about the male role in marriages; after lunch, he offered advice to sons about "honoring your dads" and staying chaste. His emphasis remained warm and encouraging -- no fire and brimstone. He began the afternoon session by telling teen-agers a tale about his own adolescence. At night he would lie awake dreaming of a particular girl who "just wanted to be friends" with him, he said: "I had this stuffed animal of Big Bird, and I would place my lips on Big Bird's beak pretending Big Bird was offering my lips what they really wanted."

A voice rang out from the crowd: "I love you Big Bird!"

The PKs went wild with applause. Burns simply couldn't help himself. "Could we pray for that guy?" he asked, then made a swishing motion with his hand. "His name is BRUCE."

Again the room erupted, this time with laughter. Burns' remark drew upon one of the oldest and most stereotypical jokes in the entire catalog of homophobic humor. In one fell swoop, his swish summed up the official attitude of the Promise Keepers toward gay people: Laugh at them, pray for them, but don't allow them any protections under law.

From the outset, opposition to gay rights has been at the forefront of the PK leadership's agenda. In 1992, "Coach" McCartney served on the advisory board of Colorado for Family Values, encouraging its successful fight for passage of an amendment that repealed all existing anti-bias protections for homosexuals in the state. McCartney was reprimanded by the president of the University of Colorado for using his school affiliation in his endorsements. Until the Supreme Court overturned it, the amendment made mincemeat of human-rights laws in Denver, Boulder and Aspen. With other right-wing politicos, McCartney, who resigned his coaching job in 1994, threatened to have Supreme Court members who voted against the amendment impeached.

The PKs are still going at it, urging followers who visit the official website to link to "Our Ministry Alliances." The list of Alliance members consists almost entirely of groups that purport to be able to convert gay people into happy heterosexuals -- or at least to shove their desires back into closets. Among the long-time supporters of PKs are Bill Bright of the Orlando-based Campus Crusade for Christ; TV evangelist Pat Robertson; and right-wing radio commentator James Dobson, creator of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family organization. A speaker at numerous PK conferences, Dobson has at times provided money to keep the PK ship afloat.

What most frightens PK critics has been the group's ability to put together and hold onto a sizeable coalition of right-wing organizations and, more important, grass-roots Christians. Such a coalition might be mobilized toward a political end, for a campaign like the one waged in Colorado. The language of PK literature is filled with militaristic threats against those who disagree. As McCartney told an Atlanta gathering of church pastors, "Many of you feel that you have been in a war for a long time, yet the fiercest fighting is just ahead. It's wartime."

The battle talk may be simple posturing, an effort to address males in a macho language they understand. But the PKs also have a military approach in their organizational structure. The hierarchy ranges from the church pastors, who are described as "commissioned officers," down to small squads of "disciplined soldiers." "All of our success is contingent upon men taking part in small groups when they return home," says Steve Chavis. The Big Brotherly groups are supposed to review all aspects of a Promise Keeper's life from his finances to his marriage to his sexual behavior.

The PKs drew fire even from some of their own affiliated ministers when they endorsed and promoted a book by Robert Hicks. Hicks' tome, The Masculine Journey, described a "Phallic Jesus" and urged men to worship God as "phallic kinds of guys. ... Possessing a penis places unique requirements upon men before God." Many men of the cloth deemed that kind of talk as "pagan."

The National Organization for Women has been particularly critical of the PK movement, both for its attitude toward homosexuality and for its outright chauvinism toward women. PK writings claim that modern males have become "sissified" and have given up their responsibility to lead their families. The organization's basic manual, Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, includes a section titled "Reclaiming Your Manhood." It urges husbands to "sit down with your wife and say something like this: ‘Honey, I've made a terrible mistake. I've given you my role. I gave up leading this family. ... Now I must reclaim that role.' Don't ask for your role back. Take it back. ... Treat the lady gently and lovingly. But lead!"

; ;

One reason PK leadership wants women to take a backseat is to bring men into decisions on abortion, which McCartney has described as an "abomination, worthy of a second civil war." He also used "abomination" to describe homosexuality when he endorsed Colorado's Amendment 2.

Fortunately, not all who attend PK conferences embrace such agitated rhetoric. As many people do with religious doctrine, rank-and-file PKs tend to make internal edits of the messages.

"The younger guys who come here pick and choose what they want to get out of the talks," said 18-year-old James Roberts. "Most people my age are having a lot of sex, and I don't think that listening to a speaker or two is going to change any of that. My generation doesn't get guilt tripped easily -- not that I think the PKs are trying to guilt trip us. They're just saying, ‘Here's a situation, here's temptation, and here's our solution. If you agree, try it out.'"

Asked to comment about the nearby Bear Bust, those Promise Keepers interviewed were much less strident in tone than the anti-gay stance of their leaders.

"It's all good," said a middle-aged pastor from West Palm Beach. "It doesn't bother me that there are gay people among us -- and I'm a Boy Scout leader. We're all normal as far as I'm concerned."

"We need to follow Christ's example," said Aaron Buster, a recently married man in his 20s from Orlando. "He loved everyone. Jesus was the victim of a hate crime. I don't care what anyone else says, I am deeply opposed to hate crimes."

Like so many younger delegates, James, an 18-year old African-American from Tampa, was attending the conference at the insistence of his dad. "I haven't heard anything I consider hateful, but there's little of use to me here. My father doesn't know it yet, but I will not be marrying a woman. So the big thing about males ruling the roost doesn't apply to me."

;;James said he considers himself a religious person. "I have an agreement with Jesus, an understanding. I will honor Him; I will be a good man," he said. "But I will love as love comes natural to me. I have to be true to myself so I can be honest with the Lord."

Perhaps because PKs hail from so many different religious backgrounds, the group that filled the Waterhouse Centre seemed unable to find a common denominator for demonstrating their unity. The PKs hugged one another and clasped hands -- but only when urged to do so from the stage. They often seemed to be following a script as much as Scripture.

At one point, Jim Burns instructed everyone in the arena to "turn to your neighbor and tell him you love him." As did many others, the gentleman beside a reporter at first ignored the call from the podium. "Come on, tell him," Burns repeated. Gradually, a mumbling spread through the hall, and my neighbor looked in my direction. "I love you," he said in a flat tone. "Thank you," I said, not wanting to lie at a religious meeting.

The timidity of conferees was particularly palpable during Saturday's lunch break. As thousands of men descended the Waterhouse Centre's steps, there was no din from the crowd. Only one voice carried across the plaza. It was that of a PK staff member whose role was to shepherd the flock through lines offering prepaid box lunches. "Take a meal and move toward the lake, men," the staffer ordered in the manner of a drill sergeant. "Toward the lake, men. Keep moving toward the lake!"

At the Full Moon Saloon, however, spontaneity was everywhere -- evidence of men who see themselves as comfortable with each other.

"I've been asked how I could be a Bear because I'm such a lightweight, but that's exactly the point," said Les Schmick, of Chicago; he and a friend from South Dakota both had long, wispy, blond goatees, and both are quite slim. "It isn't just your heft that makes you a Bear anymore than it is how much hair you have or where you have it. It's an attitude toward masculinity; it's a trust and a camaraderie we share. We can be who we truly are without any posing."

Added David Schmidt: "To me, the most important thing about being a Bear is that physical looks come second to a person's inner self. I care much more about a guy's soul than his body."

A companion couldn't resist teasing him. "Are you sure you're in the right place? That sounds like something a Promise Keeper would say."

The two men laughed and tousled each other's hair. Half a dozen other guys surrounded them, forming a giant circle of bear hugging.


More by William A. Sievert


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