Guerneville Gay Bear Talks Gender Roles in Queer Relationships

*This is entry #2 in a series on LGBT passengers, put together in honor of Pride month

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Exploring the city

Located along the Russian River in northern California’s Sonoma County, Guerneville has a funky, free-spirited vibe that SF Gate describes as being “as much a constant as the towering redwoods that surround the town.”

Passenger Ruben* (whose story will come later) said that this town of 5,000, established in the late 1800s as a logging community, started becoming a gay refuge in the 1970s.

“That’s when gay entrepreneurs from San Francisco began vacationing there on the weekends,” he explains.

Every January Ruben attends Polar Bear Weekend, a “gay bear” charity event for the LGBT community that takes place in downtown. Other LGBT events include the Lazy Bear Weekend in late July and Women’s Weekend in the summer. 

Down at the warm pebbled river beach, a dad with shaggy red hair shows his kids proper technique for skipping rocks. 

“Mine just sinks,” laments the little girl of her unsuccessful attempts, before her brother takes the pebble out of her hand and skips it for her (which she doesn’t like). 

“I wanted to do it on my own,” she protests, arms crossed and sulking— unreceptive, like many are, to having her autonomy so blatantly wrested from her.

Elsewhere along the shore, I make eye contact with a drenched female duck whose eyes look as if they are re-adjusting to the daylight after waking up from a 20-hour nap on the bottom of the river.

A young (late teens) couple argue next to their inner tubes—one a donut with pink frosting, the other a rainbow unicorn. The boyfriend wants to take their burger, curly fry, & ice cream meal out onto the water for a wine and dine cruise; the girlfriend, who absolutely does not, insists on staying shoreside to eat. 

“No one wants to swim in your ice cream dribble,” she quips, in response to which he defends: “I won’t food bomb into the water, I swear.”

A corgi shimmying into the blue-green water is one of the last glimpses I catch before packing up my things and preparing to drive Lyft for the day.

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Into the woods with Ruben the bear

With his jolly demeanor, bulky build, scruff and plaid shirt, Ruben* immediately reminds me of a Santa Claus / logger hybrid. The smell of warm toffee fudge fills the car when he gets in outside of Rainbow Cattle Company (one of Guerneville’s several LGBT-friendly bars). 

Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” is playing on the radio when Ruben gets in

Setting his maroon bag down on the middle seat—where it opens slightly to reveal a pair of black swim trunks next to a purple towel and a deflated unicorn— he explains to me that he’d bought the fudge earlier from the local sweet shop, to take home to his boyfriend.

“It’s nice and warm—not ‘fresh from the oven’ warm but ‘sitting inside my beach bag out in the sun for a couple hours’ warm,” Ruben says while scratching his beard.

 His boyfriend doesn’t need to be made aware of that distinction though.

“Warm fudge is warm fudge, right?” he laughs.

Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” is playing on the radio, which prompts Ruben to defend her against some of his friends who have criticized her more recent change in sound.

“Artists grow over time, and change accompanies that growth. As long as they’re not selling out or becoming something entirely different or manufactured or just in no way them, I think it’s important to give them room to grow. I plan to stick by Gaga. I love her.” 

We drive past a voluminous tree looming above a cozy-looking cafe. Red and crimson leaves speckle its otherwise dark-green branches, bringing to mind the image of a lumbering Sesame Street character whose fur has been tinged with dollops of ketchup and mayo mixed together. Its personality, were it to have one, I sense would be well-meaning but clumsy.

Though I don’t remember exactly how—maybe it’s a lyric in the song we were listening to, or maybe it’s the rainbow sticker in my dashboard—Ruben and I get to talking about gender roles within LGBT relationships.

 Ruben, who met his boyfriend on the dating app Scruff, shares that both of them present as more masculine, “alpha type” bears—at least in terms of demeanor and outward presentation to the world (“On the inside though, we’re both pretty big softies”).

He says that even amongst other gay men, he often fields questions about his relationship that feel heteronormative to him, most commonly when he is asked who is the “top” and who is “the bottom.”

The app Ruben met his boyfriend on

“Why can’t we both be switches?” he wonders aloud. “It’s so binary. But lots of people still think that way, and I don’t always have the energy to try and expand their views. So I just chuckle and let it go.”

“Totally!” I affirm. “Having fixed roles might work for some couples— like, I know some who function really well that way. Sometimes it’s even the man who’s in a more passive role, and the woman taking on a more active one, and they’re both comfortable with that. But that doesn’t have to be the standard for everyone.”

Ruben supports a relaxation of roles too.

“Partners switch depending on who’s in need at the moment, or who’s more equipped to handle the given task at the given time,” he proposes. “I just think it’s important— in my relationship at least— to allow both of us to embody our full range of masculine and feminine traits.”

He feels he has found that with his current partner. “We take turns with things. We switch off.”

Back in the ’50s, the word for women who switched between roles within the lesbian community was KiKi (often used derisively).

Outhistory.org states that Kikis “were viewed with suspicion by other working-class lesbians. This was often due to a belief that a woman who did not dress or speak appropriately was assumed to be undercover police.”

Specifically, the roles they resisted choosing between were butch and femme—the two groups that 1950s queer society divided lesbians into.

After choosing an identity, each group faced pressure to adhere to a code. At bars, the butch was supposed to approach the femme, while the femme was to wait for the butch. Many bars even had separate bathrooms, labeled ‘Butch’ or ‘Femme’ on each of the doors.

Even though these roles were originally designed to help the LGBT community by granting lesbians opportunities that were otherwise unavailable to them in a homophobic society, members of the gay community became rigid in their imposition of them.  

 I womansplain to Ruben that lesbians who breached this code often faced ostracism from the community; that femmes most often became active with a more “knowledgeable, experienced butch;” and that it was taboo for butches to be attracted to one another, or for femmes to date other femmes. I recall a book I once read on lesbian history that stated the “guidelines for attraction ran very deep.”

“Guidelines for attraction,” Ruben chuckles incredulously at this phrasing before asking me if I’ve ever come up against lingering traces of those biases in my own dating experiences.

Nowadays these roles definitely aren’t enforced the way they were before. Still, I tell Ruben that even though I haven’t, years ago I did date a femme girl whose friend (who presented as more butch / androgynous) called the two of us together “a waste of two femmes.”

“At the time I just sort of laughed it off, when I heard she said that,” I explain to Ruben, “but years later, thinking back on it I was more like ‘WTF?’ Because I saw it as an example of the LGBT community like, basically reproducing the same roles that limited us in the hetero world we all started out in.

After coiling through more woodsy streets, I brake when I spot three deer at the side of the road. Two of them cross, while the third remains behind, waiting for me to pass. I gesture for it to go ahead. Staring back at me, it responds to the gesture and does.

I find this very cute, and so does Ruben.

“I meant to say this earlier,” he adds as we near the final block of our route—we’ve just driven past a bed and breakfast that reminds me of a Swiss Family Robinson village, with separate wooden lodgings connected to one another by hanging bridges—”but thank you for the luxurious amount of leg room.”

He’s referring to how I keep my seat pulled up extremely close to the steering wheel, which allows ample space for the person sitting behind me.

“No problem!” I tell him, explaining that both my short stature and my fear of losing control of the car are the reasons for it.

“We’re a compatible driver-passenger pair,” he says in response, letting out a laugh that’s sturdy like a logger and comforting like Santa. If his laugh were an inanimate object, it’d definitely be one you could lean back into and take a nap in, while also feeling supported.

Before Ruben gets out he thanks me for the ride and I thank him for a substantive conversation.

Readers, what are your thoughts on gender roles? How do you notice them showing up in your own romantic relationship(s), if at all?

Thanks for reading, and check back later in the week for more Pride stories! If you liked this post, consider sharing it on social media. You can also follow us on IG @lyft_tales

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Photo credits

1950s lesbians– https://rebeccajanemorgan.medium.com/the-lesbian-paradox-homophobia-empire-and-the-law-in-1950s-britain-4ea1b7732b0d

Rainbow arms– Rainbow flag —https://www.diverseelders.org/2020/06/18/riots-before-parades-lgbt-pride-month/

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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