For those who never miss a big Bear party, it may be hard to believe that the annual fur-fest known as North American Bear (NAB) Weekend in Lexington, Kentucky will be celebrating it’s ninth year in February 2020. The first NAB Weekend was in April 2012. (If you need some perspective: Somebody That I Used To Know by Gotye and Kimbra was the #1 song on the charts, before being eclipsed by a contagious musical infection known as Call Me Maybe…). In its virgin year, NAB Weekend– created by the Kentucky Bourbon Bears— had just over 100 attendees. The word of mouth (and other body parts) about the event spread quickly, resulting in the hirsute happenin’ becoming one of the biggest and most anticipated Bear runs in the world. NAB Weekend now attracts almost 1000 Bears, Cubs, otters, pups, Leathermen, chubs, musclebears, and everything in between– plus their many admirers. The event now often spills over into a second hotel. Each year has a different theme, and in 2019 the theme was “Bearmanji”, inspired by the 1995 movie about, appropriately enough, furry creatures gone wild. Attendees were welcomed to the jungle with three days and nights of parties, a vendor mart, educational seminars, games, live entertainment and more– and of course, there were late night munchies! NAB Weekend also included the highly anticipated North American Bear Contest. Lisa Smith won the Title of North American Mama Bear 2019, and Cutlar Shell was sahed North American Cub 2019. The Title of Mr. North American Bear 2019 went to 29-year old Kevin Barni, who had been named Mr. Delaware Bear 2019 earlier that year.
The stunningly handsome, self-described “architectural historian, husband, cat dad, and proud bear” (FYI, he is also my great-great-great-great-great sash grandson! Whoa, that was a mouthful!) took the time to speak to me about his Title year so far, his mission, and why you should come to his event Cirque du So Gay on Saturday, November 9th at Oddity Bar in Wilmington!
JR: Hi Kevin. Thank you for speaking with me. So, about halfway through your title year as Mr. NAB 2019, what has been the most rewarding or exciting thing– or, the CRAZIEST thing– so far?
KB: Hey Jed! Thank you for asking me to speak with you. I have done so much this past year. However, the most surprising thing that has happened has been the genuine connections and friendships I have made. I could have never guessed that I would meet so many kind people, including you, my great-great-great-great-great sash grandfather, that wanted to stick around after a quick meeting. I mean, if Grindr hook-ups are any indication, most people are scrambling out the door as soon as they towel off.
KB: One of the most rewarding parts of this year is how suddenly I was forced to find my voice and authenticity. Its been a year of massive growth, and I have been happy to share my triumphs and failures with everyone.
JR: That’s great! So, as we enter 2020, what does the term “Bear” and “Cub” mean to you? Has the community changed over the last few years?
KB: I think the community and term “Bear” have changed dramatically from its inception to now. The community really came about as a way to find people who looked like you, or who wanted to be with people who looked like a stereotypical Bear. We created a community founded on a set of secondary sexual characteristics that ran counter to the thin, youthful, hairless bodies that dominated the scene for so long. With the increase in connectivity, its easier than ever to find people who look like you– and so it seems like there has been a shift, at least with younger Bears, to focus more on common interests. The most amazing part about being a Bear now is that you don’t have to look a specific way, as long as you FEEL you’re a Bear.
If I had to define “Bear” or “Cub” for you right now, I wouldn’t focus on physical aspects. It’s a feeling. Even when I was younger and first entering into the scene, I never FELT like a Cub, so it was never an identity that I was drawn to. Its also not my place to define how people identify themselves, their community, or their chosen family. In fact, as one of the many, many, many, many Bear Titleholders who function as a ceremonial figurehead, it my job to listen to and understand how people navigate and define the community.
JR: Agreed! There are a lot of worthy causes out there in the LGBTQ community. What cause do you feel most strongly about? Why?
KB: There are a TON of issues that deserve our attention, and it is our responsibility to keep ourselves informed and up-to-date. To that point, the most pressing issue we face is violence against our trans family, especially trans people of color. As of this interview there have been at least 22 trans women of color murdered in the United States. That is just the known and reported cases. I am not the first cis, white man to say this, but since I have a voice and a platform it bears repeating: We would not have the rights we have now if it wasn’t for trans women of color fighting and living their truth. They are the vanguards of this community, and deserve all of our respect and protection.
The second biggest issue in the LGBTQ community is the repeated systemic attacks on our rights by the current presidential administration. The fact that we slip further and further into insanity, while many of his actions go unchallenged by the general public, is astounding. If there is a time to speak up, its now. If there is a time to fight, its now.
JR: Truth! So… Many people look at titleholders not only as role models but also as sex symbols. But what do you find personally sexy in a guy?
KB: I want to reword the question if I may, because when I am attracted to a person it is their personality and not their gender that draws me in. Physically, I love lips and have always been interested in someone with nice teeth. I feel really shallow discussing physical attributes, and because of that I am just now realizing that I apparently have an oral fixation. I am also drawn to someone who is quick to laugh and be silly, but who can also hold a deep conversation. Finally, as we have learned in this interview, I have a habit of taking things VERY seriously, so anyone who can put up with my sanctimonious ass is a winner in my book.
JR: (Laughs) Wow! That’s great to hear. As you mentioned before, you’ve really put yourself out there at a lot of events over the past year. Do you find it difficult to balance your work with the Bear community with the proverbial “day job”?
KB: It has been difficult finding a balance. On top of an actual day job as an Architectural Historian/ Preservationist I recently bought a house, work a part time job, and try to make it to the gym 3-4 times a week. I put up a good front, but I am tired all of the time. I couldn’t do this without my amazing support network. I have a wonderful partner, Gregg, that puts up with me most days and is truly my right hand person. They are also the one who really reins me in when my head gets too big. I also have a wonderful pack that I can turn to when I need to talk out ideas, or need motivation. I am fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to have two sets of producers that have supported and encouraged me this last year. Finally, my mom has been a constant, calming, non-partisan voice. There is nothing more grounding than having your mom tell you to “knock it off” when you start to spiral. These people deserve all the credit for keeping the monster you see before you moving and sane.
JR: You’re a lucky guy to have all that support! Now… For someone who has never been to NAB Weekend, what would you tell them to entice them to “bust their cherry” — or bust whatever they wanna bust! As we know, everyone loves the spectacle, the pageantry, and the skin (!) of a contest, but there’s a lot more going on over that weekend too.
KB: I am going to tell you that Adam Rodriguez-Routt and the Kentucky Bourbon Bears pull off an amazing event every year, and they deserve so much praise for their work. If you hate pageants and sash queens, you can skip that part of the weekend because there are so many other things to do. Its also very relaxed. I have been to a lot of runs this year, and when I wasn’t competing, NAB has been the most chill of them all. So, if you’re looking to ease yourself into the scene or to meet new people, it’s a great way to get your feet wet. It doesn’t hurt that the attendees are all so handsome. The biggest draw for me, however, is the talented, one-of-a-kind, generous, Paul Lanner who is kind enough to tolerate me calling him Daddy even if he hates it.
JR: Dayuhm, I couldn’t have said that better myself! So, lastly, without giving too much away, what surprises do you have in store for us with “Cirque du So Gay” on Saturday?
KB: First, I am excited to say that we are going to have a really inclusive cast performing and working the event. I was fortunate enough to get some big name sponsors for the raffle prizes; Nasty Pig, Scruff, Gaypin, and Bear Skn have all donated items. We have a few special guest including Mr. Delaware Cub 2019 Eric Daniels, Mr. Connecticut Bear 2020 Kylar Maldonado, Emeritus Empress La Voix of the National Bearded Emperor/Empress Pageantry System Joey Gallagher, and everyone’s favorite genderless glamour monster Eric Jaffee.
JR: That’s quite a lineup!
KB: I am also really happy that all of my talent is local. I won the Delaware title and immediately went on to win at NAB, so I have spent the last year travelling and supporting LGBTQ communities throughout the country, and it is finally time that bring that love and support back to my local community!
We are raising funds for The Attic Youth Center which is the only organization in Philadelphia exclusively serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. All Attic programming is based on a youth development model and aims to build community, reduce isolation, combat homophobia, promote knowledge and life skills, and develop future leaders. They are a great organization that provides youth a place to feel welcomed and accepted; a truly invaluable service. For more information on The Attic and the programming offered, check out their website.
Last things last, since we are family and I am sure you will keep this to yourself, I have some piping hot tea for you. Let me rewind… This year I have seen and been seen my so many members of the community. While most interactions have been good, there have been a few that were a bit more critical. However, one really stuck out to me because it happened on Facebook and the initial interaction didn’t have anything to do with me. A member of my Delaware community made a disparaging comment about my weight. More specifically, he said I was too small to be a Bear. I engaged him and as always, took things too seriously. The entire time I kept thinking, “Both parties in this conversation are unhappy with my body. What is the point of this?” It got me thinking: If I, a conventionally attractive white guy, was being criticized, then people then who truly flouted Bear stereotypes must really feel excluded from the community. Then I thought about my inner circle which is full of individuals who are often turned away from our community, and figured: Why not use my privilege and platform to do something about it? I am happy to announce my new non-profit Bjørn Naked. The official launch and announcement will happen this Saturday at “Cirque du So Gay”. Bjørn is Danish for “bear”, and is pronounced similarly to the word born. We hope to really break down the barriers to entry within the bear community to become a more inclusive place for people who don’t fit the mold. I think it was RuPaul that said “We’re all Bjørn Naked and the rest is an outdated social construct.” or something like that.
Jed, I want to close by saying one final thing. Being queer, being open, being a Bear, and being sexual in any form you choose is a radical act of defiance. Simply living your truth is a form of protest. As a community we gain nothing from being palatable or neutering ourselves in the hopes of being accepted. If someone says they find you hard to swallow; let them choke.
JR: (Laughs) I agree. Let them choke… or, let them eat cake! The choice is theirs. And I, for one, don’t share my cakes with just anyone! Thank you for speaking with me, Kevin!