History of Gay Porn, Part I

This is a post originally published in 2011.

Many gay men, and nearly all of the ones that I know personally, love gay porn.  Gay men and their attitudes toward pornography tend not to be as stigmatized as it is with heterosexual men and women, though there are plenty of them who enjoy pornography as well.  Pornography as a whole does not have the stigma that it once did, at least not with the majority of the population; in fact, in some ways, it is becoming somewhat more mainstream.  I’ve noticed even with my students, they are willing to admit that they like porn and are much more likely today to admit that they masturbate than my generation had been.  I think that my generation was the beginning of that change, but as a whole, the attitudes toward sex are becoming more liberal.  I think that part of that is the fact that many people dismiss the AIDS crisis as being something of the past, when it most certainly is not, no matter who well the drug cocktails are working.  All that being said, I thought that I would write a post about the history of gay pornography.
I haven’t done a really salacious post in a while, and 2011 is the 40th anniversary of Falcon Studios. Founded in 1971 by Chuck Holmes, the company is one of the most recognizable brand names in gay pornography. The estate of Chuck Holmes, who died of AIDS complications in September 2000, gave $1 million for the completion of the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center, the largest individual donation ever to any gay community group in San Francisco.

The Swimming Hole (1884–85) by the American artist Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) is regarded as a masterpiece of American painting, and has been called “the most finely designed of all his outdoor pictures”. The painting has been “widely cited as a prime example of homoeroticism in American art”. Eakins himself appears in the water at bottom right – “in signature position, so to speak.” According to Jonathan Weinberg, The Swimming Hole marked the beginning of homoerotic imagery in American art.

Homoeroticism has been present in photography and film since their invention. During much of that time, any kind of sexual depiction had to remain underground because of obscenity laws. In particular, gay material might constitute evidence of an illegal act under sodomy laws in many jurisdictions. This is no longer the case in the United States since such laws were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas.

However, hardcore pornographic motion pictures (“stag films,” as they were called prior to their legalization in 1970) were produced relatively early in the history of film. The first known pornographic film of any kind appears to have been made in Europe in 1908. The earliest known film to depict hardcore gay (and bisexual) sex was the French film Le Menage Moderne Du Madame Butterfly, produced and released in 1920. Most historians consider the first American stag film to be A Free Ride, produced and released in 1915. But in the United States, hardcore gay sexual intercourse did not make it onto film until 1929’s The Surprise of a Knight.  The Surprise of a Knight‘s plot was relatively simple:

The film opens with an elegantly attired “woman” with short hair as she finishes dressing for a visitor. As the “lady” completes her boudoir, she lifts her skirts to reveal a thick patch of pubic hair. At this point, an intertitle reveals that the screenwriter is “Oscar Wild” (clearly a pseudonym).

The “lady” goes into the drawing room and offers her well-attired gentleman caller (her “knight”) a drink. He refuses it, and she drinks the cocktail. They talk briefly, and then engage in passionate kissing. Whenever the gentleman caller puts his hands on the “lady’s” breasts or genitals, “she” pushes his hand away. Finally, she slaps him coyly. The “lady” then apologizes for her aggressiveness by fellating her partner.

The “lady” then lies face-down on the sofa with her buttocks in the air. It is revealed that she has no underwear on. The gentleman caller then penetrates the “lady” anally (although no penetration is actually shown). After a minute or so, the gentleman withdraws and sits back on the sofa. The “lady” gyrates her buttocks in the air. This induces him to mount her anally again. Both individuals reach orgasm, and the gentleman caller walks off-camera.

The “lady” stands and raises her skirts to reveal that “she” is really a he. The film’s second and final intertitle announces “Surprise.” His penis is exposed. The man in drag then dances about briefly, making sure that his penis bobs up and down in the air. The gentleman caller re-enters the camera’s view, and helps the other man remove his skirt and most of his other clothing. The gentleman caller (now completely clothed again) dances briefly with the nude young man. After a jump cut, the “lady”—now dressed completely in business attire—walks back on screen, winks at the audience, and walks off screen.

The Surprise of a Knight ushered in a brief period of homosexual hardcore pornography in the stag film era. About a year later, in A Stiff Game, an African American male would engage in fellatio on a Caucasian man without the need for drag. The appearance of gay sexual contact on film would soon end, however, and not reappear until the advent of legal gay hardcore pornography after 1970.

It has been noted that the lead character (the “lady”) is in costume, yet costumes are the antithesis of the hardcore pornographic film (in which nudity and the display of genitalia and penetration during intercourse are key). “The costume spectacle either steals the show…” as film historian Thomas Waugh put it, “…or becomes a grotesque distraction…” The revelation of the “lady’s” penis is not real surprise, Waugh concludes, as audiences knew what sort of film they were getting (e.g., homosexual porn).

The use of drag in The Surprise of a Knight also distances the audience from the performers on screen, Waugh argues. The main character of the film is a drag queen, and yet nearly all the audience members could say that they were not drag queens. Waugh see the film not depicting gay men on screen, but reaffirming heteronormativity and negative stereotypes of gay men and gay sex. John Robert Burger writes that it is unclear from the film whether the visitor knows of the drag queen’s gender before the encounter, and that hiding the gender of the drag queen makes it “faux homosexuality”. Burger also writes that The Surprise of a Knight is an exception to the norm of stag films, in which the receptive parter in same-sex anal sex is typically perceived to be victimised or punished.

Legal restrictions meant that early hardcore gay pornography was underground and that commercially available gay pornography primarily consisted of pictures of individual men either fully naked or wearing a g-string. Pornography in the 1940s and 1950s focused on athletic men or bodybuilders in statuesque poses. They were generally young, muscular, and with little or no visible body hair. Those pictures were sold in physique magazines, also known as beefcake magazines, allowing the reader to pass as a fitness enthusiast.

The Athletic Model Guild (AMG) founded by photographer Bob Mizer in 1945 in Los Angeles, California, was arguably the first studio to commercially produce material specifically for gay men and published the first magazine known as Physique Pictorial in 1951. Tom of Finland drawings are featured in many issues. Mizer produced about a million images, and thousands of films and videos before he died on May 12, 1992. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the advent of 16mm film cameras enabled these photographers to produce underground movies of gay sex and/or male masturbation. Sales of these products were either by mail-order or through more discreet channels. Some of the early gay pornographers would travel around the country selling their photographs and films out of their hotel rooms, with advertising only through word of mouth and magazine ads.

The 1960s were also a period where many underground art film makers integrated suggestive or overtly gay content in their work. Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963), Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (1964) and My Hustler (1965), or Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) are examples of experimental films that are known to have influenced further gay pornographic films with their formal qualities and narratives. Tyler Gajewski is a noted actor and model of the period who appeared in Warhol’s and Morrissey’s films, as well as in Mizer’s work at the AMG. Also of note is Joe Dallesandro, who acted in hardcore gay pornographic films in his early 20s, posed nude for Francesco Scavullo, Bruce of L.A. and Bob Mizer, and later acted for Warhol in films such as Flesh. Dallesandro was well-known to the public. In 1969 Time magazine called him one of the most beautiful people of the 1960s, and he graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in April 1971. Dallesandro even appeared on the cover of The Smiths’ eponymous debut album, The Smiths.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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