Inclusiveness, Mateship, Community
SYDNEY: With just under a fortnight until the end of his reign, George Showell looks back at his time as Mr Harbour City Bear and what it’s been like being part of a group that’s about mateship and community. Serkan Ozturk meets the members and president of Harbour City Bears.
You need to be hairy. You need a big belly. You need an ever bigger beard. You need to be middle-aged and surly. Talk to someone in a bar or flick on your television and that’s apparently what makes a ‘bear’. However, it seems being a bear in Sydney today has much more to do with being connected to a bunch of guys for whom looks and the latest superficial trends fall a distant second to having a good attitude to life, friends and helping the local community.
Such open attributes are there for all to see in the shape of 33-year-old administration manager George Showell. Employed at the University of NSW as part of the team that oversees graduation ceremonies, Showell has witnessed in his career plenty of people going up on stage to collect a much-deserved award.
Despite all the bachelor degrees and PhDs he inevitably sees in his day job, it’s perhaps no exaggeration to say Showell already owns the prize he covets the most – the reigning title of Mr Harbour City Bears (HCB).
With the competition to select the 2012 Mr Harbour City Bears upon us in a matter of days, Showell tells SX this week that entering last year’s event helped give him a new lease on life.
“I had ended a relationship in 2010 and that meant that I was in a new phase of my life and was ready to sort of get up on a stage and be competitive,” he tells SX.
“It was a chance for me to get a little bit out of my comfort zone but for a really good cause, a cause I really believed in. And it turned out to be a lot of fun.”
Showell walked away with the crown and an opportunity to visit Melbourne for the Mr Australasia Bear competition, where he came in third place.
“Since then, for the last year, I’ve been representing HCB in whatever capacity they’ve asked me.”
Current HCB president John Carayannis tells SX that the organisation formed back in 1995 as a small social group for like-minded individuals.
“A group of men got together at the old Stronghold Bar … and from then we have been taking over pubs on Friday nights, from the Beresford back in the early days, to the Flinders, and most recently, The Oxford Hotel,” Carayannis explains.
“We have 800 members so far, which sees us being one of the biggest community groups in Australia.”
With such growth in numbers HCB has in recent years diversified to hold a number of social events and happenings for an increasingly inclusive community of bears, cubs, otters and even lions (the rare longish red-hair bear).
“There have been lots of highlights in my time with Harbour City Bears,” Carayannis says.
“Most notably was the recent resolution with the Sydney Opera House Trust, where we received a licence that lets us keep the use of the image of the Opera House in our Logo.
“Other highlights include being part of three very successful Bear Essentials Festivals, which we run alongside the Mardi Gras Festival in February and March, and the helping of organising our 15th anniversary Sydney Bear Pride Festival in August 2010, which has now become our annual ‘Winter Woofy Festival’.”
Showell explains to SX that it remains one of HCB’s major goals to continue to be visible as part of the broader community.
“It will help other facets of the gay community understand what we’re about and that we’re not exclusive and not out to scare them or anything like that,” he says.
“Bear is much more a state of mind and an attitude – or a lack of attitude about things – it doesn’t matter what people look like.”
Carayannis says efforts at community engagement are needed as there remain a number of misconceptions surrounding bears.
“I think the main one that is out there is that we are imposing, because of the stature of some of the bears, and unwelcoming, which is definitely not the case. Anyone who has been to one of our events will know we’re the total opposite,” he says.
“It’s not just a group for the older males either, with our demographic showing that a lot of the younger guys, from about 25 up to 40, making up about 45 per cent of our membership.”
In recent months, HCB have partnered with ACON to produce four campaigns around health and wellbeing under the motto “Bears and Cubs look after their mates”. A series of posters on Domestic Violence, Sexual Health, Street Safety as well as Drugs and Alcohol were created and distributed around pubs, saunas, gay businesses and HCB events.
“This campaign was very important to us because we, as a community group, are about looking after each other, and watching out for each other, just as much as we are about putting on the fantastic events for our members, and the community,” Carayannis adds.
ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill tells SX he considers HCB as an important, vibrant and dynamic part of Sydney’s GLBT community.
“We’re proud to have worked with HCB on many campaigns and projects over the years, especially the recent We Look After Our Mates campaign and our Street Safety Ambassadors program,” Parkhill says.
“We commend the values of inclusiveness, mateship and community service which HCB fosters and thank all members past and present for their contribution to our community.”
HCB are also big supporters of the Inspire Foundation, Carayannis tells SX, with raffle monies from the Bear Essentials festival and other donations going to the foundation which helps disadvantaged youth, as well as suicide prevention amongst teenagers and young adults.
“So far we have raised in excess of $17,000 for them over the last three years,” he adds.
As last year’s winner of Mr HCB, Showell also took time to patrol city streets as part of ACON’s Street Safety Ambassador campaign.
“It’s been fantastic and a great learning experience doing the patrols up Oxford Street … It was certainly an eye opener,” he says.
With under a fortnight till the end of his reign as Mr HCB, Showell is adamant that others give the competition a go this year.
“I would encourage them to take the step. Be brave and do it. No matter if you think you’re not right for it. There’s no way of telling who will win or what the winning factor will be on the day. It’s a fantastic experience.
“I moved up to Sydney almost five years ago from Tasmania where I grew up ... I got a hairy back at the age of 13. I used to be called doormat or wombat. I kind of got ok with that but when I was still in Tassie I used to have my hair clipped off,” he says.
“But when I moved to Sydney I felt like I had found my people. It was like a homecoming. And I still feel like that. I love them.”
[Pictured] Mr Harbour City Bear 2011 George Showell and, inset, members of Harbour City Bears. Photo: John McRae.