Hot Sweat!How Fitness Mags and Fashion Spreads Shaped Gay Identity
Words by: Kirkwood Conklin
My boyfriend Martin has a confession. And after 14 years together, it comes as a surprise.
“When I was 12 or 13, I went to the mall with my mother, and while she was shopping, I went looking for a special, illustrated version of The Hobbit." But on his way to finding Middle Earth, a fitness magazine with an impossibly well-built and nearly naked man on the cover, caught Martin's eye. He picked it up, hid the magazine inside The Hobbit, and spent 20 minutes looking at the pictures of shirtless guys.
"Spending time at the bookstore with those magazines hidden inside books became part of my mall routine," he says. "I used the memories of those pictures to jerk off when I got home.”
But here’s the irony. The magazine—the exact title, but not the contents, long forgotten—was a mainstream publication and not porn. Even at 12, Martin could have bought the magazine, taken it home, and secretly enjoyed it in the privacy of his adolescent bedroom. But the feelings it produced and the arousal it induced made it seem naughty, forbidden, and dangerous to view, let alone own or be caught holding. It’s an experience that’s been shared for decades by many gay and bisexual men as their sexual identities awaken and their journeys to erotic fulfillment begin.
The evolution of physique pictorials and fitness magazines mirrors the development of the gay rights movement in the United States and unquestionably established the foundation for today’s huge diversity of gay porn. As early as the 1930s, beefcake magazines featured attractive and athletic young men engaged in activities that allowed them to be photographed while scantily dressed and posing proudly to display their muscles.
Although presented as health and fitness publications, that intention was as flimsy and sheer as the posing straps the models wore. Homophobia and censorship prevented gay pornography from being sold openly, so the pretext of fitness provided gay porn pioneers like Bob Mizer (AMG’s Physique Pictorial) with acceptable situations in which to photograph nearly naked men. For closeted gay men across the country, access to these publications in the local drug store provided a sexual outlet, a connection to an invisible gay community and validation for their sexual identities.
By 1962, full-frontal male nudity was no longer illegal. In the late 1960s gay pornography had begun to emerge, and the popularity of physique magazines declined. But in the 1980s and 1990s, with the onset of the AIDS crisis and before the Internet and DVDs were available, not-so-subtly homoerotic fitness publications—magazines and catalogs—enjoyed a resurgence that coincided with the formative years of my friends, my boyfriend... and me.
GQ’s annual swimsuit issue provided fodder for my erotic fantasies. When my mother found the issue hidden under my bed, she assumed I was looking at the bikini-clad women who, in an attempt to defuse the homo reputation of the magazine, were included in most of the photos alongside the sexy men in Speedos. I did, however, learn a valuable lesson. As I graduated from GQ to the International Male catalog (which contributed to a whole generation’s erotic fixation on underwear and jockstraps) and eventually full-out gay porn, I knew I had to find some better hiding places.
“We all knew GQ was kind of gay and wouldn’t want to be seen reading it,” laughs my friend Will after hearing my story. He, however, vividly recalls discovering the 1984 Jockey underwear ad featuring a very handsome, very hairy-chested Jim Palmer, then a Baltimore Orioles baseball player, in the pages of one of his mother’s women’s magazines. “It was really hot, and there it was already in my house.” I hand him a copy of Exercise for Men Only from 1988 with another Jockey ad featuring gold-medal Olympic gymnast Bart Conner. Will smiles and says, “I remember that one, too!” His meaning is clear to anyone else who found teenage sexual release in those ads of real athletes posing in their underwear: these images were as good as porn.
Chris, another friend, was bolder than the rest of us. “While perusing Esquire magazine in the library, I discovered all sorts of interesting ads in the back. One I particularly remember was for a lavish coffee-table book of nearly nude men in some sort of Edenic fantasy called Before the Hand of Man but it was far too expensive for my budget at 14. The other ad—which I think also appeared in GQ and AfterDark, both of which I discovered later—was for a company that was clearly the precursor for International Male called Ah Men.”
Chris ordered the catalog and prayed it would arrive in a plain envelope. “I don’t recall if it did, but I remember the color catalog,” he says. “It was great fun with all sorts of hot guys in swimwear, underwear and athletic gear. The models included early gay porn star Gordon Grant and, I think, at least one shot of Jack Wrangler. One particular favorite model had a close-cropped beard and a hairy chest and legs—not that rare a sight in the ’70s, unlike today. And like the early International Male catalogs, there was no attempt to disguise what was clearly underneath those very tight items for sale.”
Gay men had been getting hot and bothered over physique pictures for years, but it was these new fitness magazines and the athletes they depicted that helped another generation’s coming-out process. Our identities as gay men—and what gay porn has become today—owe a huge debt to all those men who were willing to be photographed while “exercising” in next to nothing, because they offered a portal to the future and, as a result, helped many of us gain confidence in ourselves.
And while they might seem innocent today, and the agony we all experienced in lusting after these seemingly perfect and unobtainable men feels quaint in a world that now offers 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week access to gay porn, Will sums it up for all of us: “It let me know that there was gay life out there somewhere, and that one day, I was going to be able to pursue it.”