Apr 4, 2015

Fall 1970: What is Gym Class For?

When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, I hated gym class.
1. Trying to catch a projectile aimed at your head.
2. Not catching it, and being jeered by your classmates.
3. Or catching it, not knowing what in the world to do with it, and being jeered by your classmates.

Ok, I liked one thing about it (see left).

Why was gym even a class?  What were we expected to learn?

Gym class derives from the 19th century "muscular Christianity," which tried to remedy the increasing "feminization" of Western culture through hard physical labor.

But it got a kick start in 1956, when President Eisenhower decided that American youth were too sedentary, not able to compete with the Russkies, so he established the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

By the 1960s, an hour of "vigorous physical activity" every day was mandated for middle school and high school kids (grade schoolers made do with recess).

There were regular "Fitness Tests" to see if we were adequately muscular. The one I hated the most: push-ups, sit-ups, and chin-ups.  The number you could do at one time was your grade:
Less than 60, F
60 to 69, D
And so on

I have never in my life been able to do 100 push-ups in one set.

The Canadian Council on Physical Fitness says that, for a 20-year old, 36 push-ups is "excellent."

But I liked the public-service announcements that the President's Council broadcast during the 1960s, lots of smiling, muscular, semi-nude all-American boys exercise.

The one I remember most clearly -- is a President's Council on Physical Fitness PSA.

 It depicts a muscular teenager named Eddie Lewis, naked except for skimpy gym shorts, doing push-ups, the camera lingering on the interplay of muscles, while the narrator says that for each push-up, he's "a little bit hotter, a little bit healthier, and a little bit happier" than before.

Just watching made me a little bit hotter.  And a little bit happier.

See also: How to Survive Gym Class; the Trauma, Terror, and Beefcake of Shop Class.

Apr 2, 2015

What's Gay about Sesame Street?

Come and play, everything's a-ok
Friendly neighbors there, that's where we meet.

Sesame Street premiered in 1969, with the goal of giving inner-city kids a "head start" in reading and math skills.  We didn't get it in Rock Island until our PBS station arrived in 1972, when I was too old to have muppets teaching me numbers and letters.  But my baby sister watched, so I saw some episodes.

Was Sesame Street a "good place"?

1. Beefcake: None.  Some of the human characters were cute, such as Alex (Alexis Cruz, left, who starred in Rooftops with Jason Gedrick).  And there was a never-ending supply of hunky guest stars, from Tony Danza to Zac Efron, but I don't recall a single bare chest.

2. Lack of Heterosexual Romance:  No.  There was no hetero-romantic interaction among the muppets, but among the humans: Bob dated Linda, Maria dated David, and finally married Luis.

3. Homoromance: No.  Neither muppets nor humans expressed any particularly strong same-sex friendships.  Indeed, pairings seemed mostly random.

The exception was Bert and Ernie, who were shown living together.  Some people have pointed to them as a homoromantic couple.  The Children's Television Workshop has issued a homophobic statement strongly condemning any suggestion that any character on Sesame Street is gay -- apparently gay children are unwelcome on The Street -- but that in itself should compel us to look for a subtext.

I still don't see one. Their friendship is neither intense nor passionate enough to qualify as homoromance. They behave like brothers.  Bert, the older, has concerns that little kids would find boring -- a paper clip collection, a devotion to the letter "W" -- and finds Ernie childish and naive.  Meanwhile Ernie keeps trying to  get Bert to play with him or read to him, exactly as a younger brother might.

They live together, but they are not homodomestic partners, like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.  They do not have adult responsibilities, like paying the rent and buying groceries.  They are children, not adults; their parents must be hovering about nearby, supervising their play.

4. Validation of Difference: Yes. The muppets are unique in temperament, and often "queer" in interests, tastes, and abilities: Oscar the Grouch's love of trash, the Cookie Monster's obsession with cookies, the Count's compulsion with counting.

But validation of difference (other than gay difference) is not enough for Sesame Street to qualify as a "good place."

See also: Burr Tillstrom, the gay puppeteer behind Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.

Apr 1, 2015

Bob Paris: The World's First Out Gay Bodybuilder

 I started working for Joe Weider's Muscle and Fitness in  July 1985.   Bob Paris was on the cover.

We had a lot in common: he was one year older than me, grew up in Columbus, Indiana (near where my parents live today), attended Indiana University, and escaped to the gay haven of West Hollywood.  Originally he intended to become an actor, but he soon found his way into the world of competitive bodybuilding.

He won many competitions, including Mr. Southern California in 1981, and both Mr. America and Mr. Universe in 1983.

I met him sometime in 1986 -- we never dated, but I learned that he was gay.

He came out publicly in July 1989, in an interview in Iron Man, by mentioning his lover, fellow bodybuilder (and Playgirl model) Rod Jackson, whom he had just married in a Unitarian service.

No professional bodybuilder had ever come out before.  Actually, no professional athlete in any sport had ever come out during his career.

His friends advised him to stay closeted, but he was optimistic that, with all of the gay people working in bodybuilding and all of the gay fans, there would be no problem.

But there were lots of problems. His career didn't exactly end -- he continued to compete through 1991 -- but he lost a huge amount of business, including advertising tie-ins, and extensive homophobic harassment, including death threats.

But many fellow bodybuilders and fans applauded Bob's decision to come out.  Even the rather homophobic Joe Weider put him on the cover of Muscle and Fitness three times in 1990 -- the "Sexual Response" tag near Bob's crotch wasn't an accident.

In 1991 Bob and Rod retired from bodybuilding to concentrate on being the most famous gay couple in the world.  Eventually the stress of having to be perfect all the time put a strain on their relationship, and they broke up.

Rod has been busily acting, writing, and advocating for gay rights, especially gay marriage.   He has published several books on fitness, plus fiction, poetry, and two autobiographies: Straight from the Heart: A Love Story (with Rod) and Gorilla Suit: My Adventures in Bodybuilding.

He has appeared frequently in theatrical productions in Los Angeles and elsewhere, including the Broadway musical Jubilee.

Today Bob lives on an island near Vancouver, British Columbia, with his second spouse, Brian LeFurgey.

He continues to act, write, and inspire a new generation of bodybuilders, gay and straight.

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