A Gay Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
... originally titled "Fee Males," and just ... no.
A feel-good fable about hustling... really? Indeed. That’s author Bert Shrader's Fee Males (1968), a novel of allegedly straight gaycation entrepreneur Travis Todd’s newest enterprise, after having already put together vacation packages with a dudes-only dude ranch and a tour of East Asia, where sex tourism is big business. And now an entire queer “Olympic Village” where all the fit competitors are for rent is the next step. Now, don’t get Travis wrong — he insists he’s not gay himself. Sure, he used to hustle, but the men were “strictly business.”
Travis rents an entire 200-year-old town in Mexico — parts of that country look like Greece and hey, this isn’t a history tour. He offers jobs to the local men (who send their wives and children off to stay with relatives) to clean rooms, do laundry and staff the bars and restaurants; they also care for their own goats, chicken and horses, which add to the ye olde atmosphere. He recruits hustlers through ads in gay magazines — carefully worded to stress sports and physical culture — prints tasteful brochures and buys targeted mailing lists. Finally, he has the one road into town dynamited to keep strangers out, putting a small road crew on the payroll to make it look legitimate, and commissions a small airstrip so guests can be flown in. He hires his gay friend Jim to handle the finances.
The responses pour in. For the hustlers, the gig promises well-heeled customers, warm weather, oversight — the threat of dangerous johns is what helps keep brothels in business — plus the fun of playing dress up: There’s nothing like a toga and lace-up sandals show off your legs. And not only do the locals not resent being paid to do menial work but — like the hustler/athletes — they get swept up into the hoopla as if these were the real Olympics. One of them has a degree in classical art, so he gets to devise ceremonies. Another used to work at MGM and is tasked with costumes. Pretty soon the hustlers are taking the track-and-field and other events seriously, competing to win.
If it all recalls the whimsey of Bill Forsyth's 1983 film classic Local Hero, in which the citizens of an isolated Scottish town put on their own sort of immersive make-believe, note that Shrader's book was published 15 years earlier. And the book directly anticipates the thematically similar immersive-vacation fantasy movie Westworld (1973), minus the spooky robo-staff. In fact, the movie's brief glimpse of sister-resort Roman World suggests that the fantasy appeal of vacationing in a faux-ancient sexual paradise wasn't lost on Michael Crichton, a writer not laboring in the fields of adults-only publishing.
Fee Males is both surprisingly funny and remarkably sharp about issues ranging from racism within the gay community to the psychological price of hustling and to the casual, unthinking arrogance of Anglos who assume that rural Mexicans are all naïve and simple folk. And the hustlers aren’t all brainless beefcakes — some of them figure out how to fix the closing-night bacchanal after the first one gets seriously out of hand. They come up with the idea of staging it like a ritual, since with employees in charge and directing the action, the guests are less likely to go off the deep end. That decided, Travis can return his attention to matters like sourcing nicer toilet paper.
Now, about the title: My imprint 120 Days Books republished Fee Males as A Gay Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum because the title Fee Males was an epic fail on every level. It's a homophobic-feeling pun suggesting either that gay men really want to be women or that straight-acting gay men are better than limp-wristed sissy boys, secret cross-dressers or flamboyant drag queens because they at least have the decency to act like “real men.” None of these is a position one wants to espouse, and in fact they're not supported by the text — though to be fair, the protagonist is a veritable smorgasbord of hot-button topics. But at its core, A Gay Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a rom-com that doesn’t cut away from the love scenes. Everyone gets some, and Travis and Jim — both of whom have been single forever — find real boyfriends... yes, Travis finally admits he’s “one of the boys.”
For those who might like to read it, A Gay Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is available from Riverdale Avenue Books with my introduction and nine pages of back matter from the original book, including a great selection of ads for adult books like SIN-E-MA Scandal, Sex — It Feels Good and Honey Tramps.
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