3 min

Getting steam room action

Gyms are a source of erotic tension

Credit: Xtra files

For the last couple of months, I’ve been researching gyms, fitness centres and health clubs for a local mainstream magazine. I’ve travelled from the canyons of Bay St to the wilds of Etobicoke and I’m now something of an expert on such arcane theological issues as Cybex versus Hammer Strength, and machines versus free weights.

I know the difference between “aerobics” (passé) and “group” fitness” (very in). And I can explain the not so subtle sociological distinction between say, the Fitness Institute atop the southernmost TD Centre tower where the Bay St bigwigs work out, and the Monster Gym, north of the 401, where members of the WWF occasionally drop in.

My editors like to think this will be of help to their readers. But of course, all my gay friends want to know is, “Any cute guys?”

Actually, what surprised me the most was just how asexual the whole experience was. Admittedly, I visited mostly suburban gyms and it’s a fact reluctantly to be acknowledged that the farther you travel from downtown, the fewer the obvious queers.

Still, it surprised me to hear so much talk of motivation and fitness and so few insinuations of sexual success. Isn’t that why everyone’s here?

Isn’t the sole point of stiffer abs a fuller social life?

Yet, of the dozen-odd managers and membership reps I met, not one so much as intimated the benefits of a long linger in the sauna, and only one even hinted at the beauty of his clientele. In fact most of them went out of their way to suggest that they catered to the average and imperfect, which was consoling but hardly enticing.

One very straight manager whisked me right past his club’s locker rooms, saying one locker room is much the same as another. Well, you can imagine my surprise. At best this seemed naïve, at worst, just bloody poor marketing.

Surely, he was aware of the allure of the locker room, beauty glimpsed in deshabille and disarray? A well-planned locker room offers dim corners and other features that urge the libido to action.

But of course straights don’t need social space as much as gay people do. For gay men, a gym is a locus of sexuality, not just a rest stop on the road to beauty and social success but a social sphere in itself. Indeed, gyms are right up there with bathhouses as outposts of queer space and they share many of the same antecedents.

Long before the Village People sang “YMCA,” Ys and other gyms had homoerotic associations, at least in part because many were more than just way stations for weights. Before the YMCA started to shed some of its fabled residences, it was the closest thing many centres had to a bathhouse.

The Toronto version disappeared in 1984, replaced, ironically by Toronto police headquarters, but the Y’s good-hearted gift to the gay community lives on in cultural memory. The legendary Samuel M Steward immortalized San Francisco’s Embarcadero Y in a letter to photographer George Platt Lynes in 1953. He called it a “Christian bordello” and embroidered his account with a tale of shower-room sex. (See John Preston’s Flesh And The Word anthology.)

Almost 30 years later, I stayed at a different San Francisco Y, in the heart of the notorious Tenderloin district, but I can’t say my experience was much different. A semi-cute guy crouched in the hallway outside my room, naked from the waist down. And then there was the naked fat guy who never seemed to leave his room or close his door. He lay on his bed with his bum in the air and his face to a TV, and in the week that I was there, he never moved, dressed or closed his door.

Depressing – but certainly gay-friendly.

Today’s gyms are tamer places. I’ve heard rumours of on-site sex at most of the downtown fitness centres, but in 15 years of fairly regular attendance at the Metro-Central YMCA, where up to half the male membership is gay, I’ve never actually seen any. Plenty of boners and enough dumb-eyed looks to suggest a small flotilla of lust. But no actual sex.

Who knows, though? Maybe I’m just not spending enough time in the saunas. Judging from the skin on some of the regulars, you have to get positively soggy to get sex.

True or false, though, the myth of rampant sexuality says much about our need to assert queer space. In a world dominated by straights, where most fitness facilities are shared, the myth extends our claim to an old-found land.

*Brent Ledger’s column appears every issue.