The Bears Are Coming to Kansas City

As anyone in the gay community knows, the expression of being “into bears” has nothing to do with hunting season. Bear Crossing, set for Aug. 14-17, will offer a weekend like no other for a group of men in Kansas City and surrounding states that will celebrate diversity and fun.

To learn more about Bear Crossing and the organization called KC Bear Mafia, I met with a group of organizers one Sunday at the LIKEME Lighthouse. The participants included Greg Mikelson; David Lopez and Aaron Lenig, who serve on the governance board and are former members of the KC Bear Mafia; Derek Armstrong, technology chair; Jason Vann, fundraising chair; Matt Stanley, events chair; and Larry Sharp, marketing and public relations chair. Chris Webb is the finance chair.

They told me that it was actually a straight female friend who joked that they were the “Gay Mafia,” and they took that as their name and changed it to KC Bear Mafia.

Their latest big news is that the group, which began “unofficially” in early 2009, has received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.

“We applied in April and just got confirmation two weeks ago,” Lenig said. They are thrilled to have achieved the tax-deductible status for their sponsors and donors.

Bear Crossing will be the biggest weekend that the Bear Mafia has ever done. Other cities do their own versions of Bear Pride –Bear Runs, Hibearnation, or other Bear events — and the KC Bear Mafia is looking to begin this weekend as a new annual event that will grow in future years.

“Ideally, this a weekend that we want to stake our claim on,” Lopez said.

The group chose this weekend of August for Bear Crossing to avoid conflicting with other regional Bear events.

The organizers say that all are welcome. As Lopez said, “Bear is a state of mind.” They’re currently looking at 125 registrants for the weekend and said they could easily see onsite registrations of 50 or more.

They’ve already done a lot of fundraising for the event, Lenig said, including Bear Bingo at Hamburger Mary’s, Glow Party at Industry Video Bar on Pride weekend, Dragnarock at Missie B’s, a rummage sale, and breakfast at Spirit of Hope MCC. They’re also relying on sponsors and will offer a Vendor Fair at the hotel that weekend. Tables for one day are $35; for two days, it’s $50.

KC Bear Mafia plans lots of activities, weekly and throughout the year. The group has held a holiday “Naughty Party” at Social Bar, where they have unique adult-themed white elephant gifts; a Halloween party; and Bear Prom: “The Growling ’20s” event. The group usually plays volleyball with 20 to 30 people twice a week at Weltner Park, 77th and Straight Line Road, Prairie Village; screens movies on Sunday mornings at AMC Ward Parkway; plans bowling events at Mission Bowl or Ward Parkway Lanes; and sets up tailgate parties at Sporting Kansas City or Chiefs games.

“I think it’s a testimony to our group,” Lenig said. “We have over 850 Facebook friends who go to our site. We have Twitter and other social media. We’re not bar-centric. That’s the nice thing about our group. Anyone can go out there and create an event. It’s just recently that we’ve decided we want to take the next step and help other groups. That’s basically why we got our 501(c)(3) is to be more outreaching to the community. That’s why we’re working with the LIKEME Lighthouse.”

Before their nonprofit status was established, they offered their services rather than money, working with Hamburger Mary’s on the Pride Carnival and Out in the Crossroads, and raising money for AIDS Walk and Harvesters. They ask that people bring children’s gifts to their holiday party for families from Good Samaritan Project. And they work with other groups like Heart of America (HOA) leather and Latino Gay Pride, as well. “We’ve reached out to them to see if there’s anything we can do for them in September,” Sharp said.

The group also prides itself on being able to offer activities for young people, usually over 21 but sometimes 18 and up. Members said that often some youth feel they don’t fit in with others their age because of body shaming, so their volleyball or movie events and other activities provide social opportunities. They’ve also reached out to seniors in the community with classes on social media, resume writing and other services that different age groups can use through the LIKE Me Lighthouse. The group is not male-exclusive and they said they have some female friends and trans men who participate in their events.

Body-shaming issues affect all ages in our culture, and Vann said that he thinks that’s one of the reasons that volleyball has been so popular with their group as a great equalizer.

“There’s a lot of guys my build or maybe bigger or smaller, there’s such a variety for volleyball,” Vann said. “Bears just don’t want to play sports with smaller people because ‘well, you’re going to be picked last,’ or any of that. Volleyball has eliminated a lot of that.”

“We have people in our group that aren’t even Bears,” said Stanley. “They’re small, they shave, they are not bears at all and they just love that nobody shames them even though they have good bodies. That’s what is great about this group, I think. There is none of that I’ve seen.”

Lopez spoke proudly of the KC Bear Mafia.

“The concept started between a conversation of friends where we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool?’ and then it started to gain leverage, and all of a sudden it just snowballed into this great organization,” he said. “I get emotional because this is the first time I’ve been a part of something, from inception to now, that I’m so proud to be a part of.”

With all of the group’s events and activities, Lopez said, every person involved puts their heart and soul into it.

“We can look at it and say, ‘I was a part of that,’” he said.
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If You Go:
Bear Crossing has a full schedule of events for Aug. 14-17. Find the details at Bear Crossing.

The registration fee is $99, and it includes the kickoff and after-hour parties, SplashDance, Furnado, breakfasts and dinner, volleyball and more. Hotel reservations and transportation costs are separate. Online reservations end July 31

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