4 min

Between the covers

The Joy of Gay Sex enjoys three decades of success

Credit: Capital Xtra files

Seven years after Stonewall, in a “sunny, sensual, try-anything era,” drug use was one of the joys of gay sex, and the response to being raped was “lay back, relax, try to enjoy.” That’s how Felice Picano remembers the 1976 edition of The Joy of Gay Sex – by two supposed truisms found nowhere, three decades later, in the third edition of the bestselling bedside how-to book.

Picano didn’t write any of the first edition – it was the work of a progressive gay therapist, Dr Charles Silverstein, and of a queer literary lion, Edmund White, who with Picano was a member of the fabled Violet Quill circle of pioneering queer writers. But the sexually active, romantically-inclined Picano was an anecdotal source and an informal advisor to the authors.

“By the time Dr Silverstein asked me to help update that version in 1991, much had changed,” Picano recalls in an interview from Los Angeles, where he is shaking mothballs from the winter clothes he’d packed away after relocating from New York several years ago – garb he’ll need for his appearance at the upcoming Wilde About Sappho readings in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto.

Most significantly, AIDS was then at its height, a reality reflected in the book’s less hedonistic tone, and more poignantly in the lives of the authors. “Both our life partners were ill as we wrote the book. I was wrangling over the contract from a pay phone in a hospital corridor outside the ICU unit of the man I loved most. Charles had to abandon our book tour midway to take care of his partner.”

In the 1991 New Joy of Gay Sex, Silverstein and Picano wrote about domestic violence, racism, health insurance, wills and suicide, topics barely touched on in the first edition. “Some critics asked where the joy of gay sex had gone to. But we believed even then, and we still believe, that the gay community has matured. We had to grow up, become responsible for ourselves and others. Plenty of pleasure was still available.”

And if entries like “homophobia” and “puritanism” seem expanded in the third edition,it’s a result of how many attempts were made to censor and ban The New Joy of Gay Sex from stores and libraries across America. “Blinded by personal morals, the censors are keeping people, possibly their own children, from knowing how not to die as a result of having sex,” says Picano, expressing a message he’s expounded in dozens of talks since the new edition was published in 2003.

“Charles and I have come to believe after decades of travel and appearances that JOGS 1, 2 and 3, from 1976 to 2003, are surprisingly significant and quite subversive ‘little red books’ in the ongoing struggle,” he says.

“These days we have readings where men stand up and ‘testify,’ as they do at religious revival meetings, how one version or another of the book has changed their life. It keeps happening and I’m still always amazed by it.But that, as much as instructing on gay health and sex technique and how to get into gay life, has actually been our aim all along – to empower gays in all ways andto get them involved in their communities via volunteerism and activism.”

That activism has a Canadian connection, too. “Over the years, both of us have been asked to appear either as witnesses in court in Canada or to help raise money for gay bookstores and libraries under attack – Glad Day and Little Sister’s, for example – which we gladly did and will do again.”

Like many queer books over the years, the first Joy of Gay Sex had its own censorship problems. It was stopped at the Canadian border, Picano remembers, because of its “emphasis on sodomy.” But he gleefully quotes – or at least, paraphrases – one line from the Supreme Court ruling that allowed it into the country: “Having a text of gay sex without reference to sodomy was like having a music textbook without mentioning Mozart.” The two subsequent editions were co-published by HarperCollins Canada, a conscious arrangement on the part of the publisher to avoid similar censorship woes.

Picano’s Wilde About Sappho readings will come from his literary work – he’s published more than 20 books of fiction, memoir, poetry and essays in his near-30-year career, most recently the 2001 novel Onyx. His trio of memoirs, Ambidextrous, The Men Who Love Me and A House on the Ocean, A House on the Bay, were also reissued in 2003. But he anticipates discussing gay sex with a Canadian audience, particularly in light of this country’s distinctive tolerance for such issues as gay marriage, adoption rights and survivor benefits.

“What’s going on in Canada is mirrored in some states here, California for example, which luckily for me, is my home,” says Picano.

“And a lot of us think these Canadian victories are great because it puts added social pressure on the governments of at least those dozen US states that border Canada or do business with the country to deal with this sensible approach to gay rights.”

On the other hand, sex is pretty universal, so he imagines he’ll hear the same sorts of questions from Canadians as he does from Americans, if the subject of The New Joy of Gay Sex comes up at his readings – “but then again,I might be surprised.”

One belief he hopes holds true: “I don’t think Canadians fall as easily into the politically correct silly-walks of a lot of American queers – especially those in academia.” Warming to the topic, he remarks, “Did you know it’s no longer correct to say gay or lesbigay or even GLBT? It’s now GLBTQ, the latter for ‘questioning.’ Questioning, my left testicle. I say it’s BLT and to hell with it.”

As for queer Canadian writers, he’s long admired the retired Jane Rule and the late Timothy Findley, he’s shared literary conference microphones with Karen Tulchinsky and admires her work and the writing of Will Aitken, and he’s looking forward to meeting his two other Wilde About Sappho confederates, Suki Lee and George K Isley.

But there is one Canadian writer he disdains. “Alice Munro bores me: I can seldom finish one of her stories,” he says.

Felice Picano is a man with definite opinions. About politics. About literature. And certainly about the joy of gay sex.


Third Edition.

Felice Picano and Charles Silverstein.


336 pages.


A celebration of gay and lesbian literature.

General admission to the readings

only $10 in advance; $12 at the door.

Thu, Feb 5. Readings at 8pm.

National Library of Canada,

395 Wellington St.

Info: 791-6729