Many Ways to Skin a Cat: The Dark Side and Light Side of Gay Gym Culture

October 8, 2009
Category: Health

John Fitzgerald Kennedy said, "Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity."  Though not Jack's most eloquent moment (perhaps he had Marilyn or missiles on the brain), I know exactly what he means.  After I modeled for the new Daddyhunt campaign, they asked me if I would be interested in writing a health and fitness blog.  I accepted with a self-imposed mandate to approach writing about fitness in a JFK-approved fashion:  from a cerebral and not a body-centric perspective, from a scientific and not superficial one.  Thinking such a task might prove painless at worst (I have countless bylines in all of the major fitness publications) I set to reviewing the blog entries and member comments that had come before me, and discovered painless it was not.


One entry ("Daddy, You're Gonna Carry That Weight") seemed at first as innocuous as a leather studded harness in the Castro, but when I investigated the consequent member discourse, I discovered evidence that a great schism of Episcopalian proportions may exist in the gay community: on one side are those who view our inextricable and communal body-consciousness as harmless, on the other, those to whom gay gym-going is narcissistic, culturally irresponsible and akin to "slavery."  Now, my mom always said to my two brothers and me, "there are enough rooms in this house for each of you."  I never quite got what she meant (who the hell wants to hang out in a room alone?), but to the gentlemen who find dedication to physical development deleterious, and to those who regard religious exercise as a requirement for living well, I say:  there are enough rooms in this house for all of us.

Thus, I hold fast to my Kennedian mandate and to maternal wisdom when I submit that both groups are right, and both groups are wrong.  It's merely a matter of perspective, and we would all do well to consider the view from the other's eyes. To give voice to John-John again: "It takes two to make peace."

Those that decry the body absorption, which does indeed permeate gay culture, see it as a harmful preoccupation with tight asses, taught abs and towering arms.  Since studies indicate regularly that gay men suffer from body image issues in far greater numbers than straight men, and since similar studies evidence an exponentially larger perceived value of muscle and masculinity among gays, the gymnophobes do have a case.  Commercial interest and queer stereotypes conspire to create an Adonis complex in the shadow of which every gay man falls short.

At the same time, however, a recent APA study found that 17.1-percent of gay men are clinically depressed -- more than four times the national average -- but the rate of depression among gays who exercised regularly was far lower.  A recent poll of almost one million gay males demonstrates that a lack of communal congregation ("togetherness") is a principal sociological shortcoming perceived within our culture; but another study conducted by the National Institute of Health found that 52-percent of gay men believe the gym is the second best place (behind only clubs and bars) to socialize comfortably with other gay men.  Thus it seems the gymophiles have a case, too.

Most importantly, let's not forget from where the gay masculine ideal and muscle culture stem:  As HIV ravaged our community in the 80s, many gay men were "wasting." In an effort to curb this weight loss, physicians prescribed steroids, testosterone and human growth hormones. Weight training in combination with these drugs made it possible for men who had once been gaunt to become "hunks," and muscular physiques became not merely a symbol of fitness or discipline, but a revolution of what was then thought to be impending death.

Thus, we return to my proposition that this debate is a holographic one -- a quarrel among gays that only exists in the absence of perspective.  As a personal trainer (and I'm told, a "Baby Daddy," or a gay man who straddles the Hunter-Daddy demarcation), I have had the pleasure of working extensively with both older and younger gays, Daddies and Hunters. Unconditionally, my older clients have long since shed the craving for carved and massive bodies; instead, they recognize that fitness is an investment, and engage my services so that years from now, when they are seventy-eighty-ninety, their condition is such that they do not have to depend on the care of children they are unlikely to have (statistically speaking), or watch each other "waste" once again in slowly deteriorating health. 


The perspective of the Daddy is a forward-looking one constructed with the stones of experience and the mortar of history.


My younger clients seem categorically concerned with getting big, getting ripped, getting hot, getting laid.  They engage my services so that in their teens-twenties-thirties, their condition is such that they can live comfortably now, and like the stag whose oversized antlers become a detriment to survival but a necessity to mating, that they may enjoy sexual selection with other gay men on a quest for a fuller and more enjoyable future life.  And who taught these young men that they could only be men, only be desired, as long as their bodies agreed with unattainable masculine and muscular ideals?  The Daddies did.  The ones that run the gay magazines, the porn studios, the television shows, and who sought the same physical ideals yesteryear.  As a professional model, I am responsible for this too! 


The perspective of the Hunter is an immediate one constructed with the stones the Daddies handed them and the mortar of a desire for belongingness.


What I've written is meant to be neither an indictment, nor an exaltation of either group.  And though this discourse may weigh a bit heavy (and long) for a fitness column, I want to establish from the first post that, in gay culture, fitness is much more than a hobby.  It holds a powerful, wonderful, bountiful and dangerous position among us.  I also want to establish that I view fitness with a scientific, intellectual and sociological gaze.  And lastly, it is my duty to establish that fitness is of ineffable importance, regardless of our various reasons for desiring it.  Health, confidence, community and consideration are things we all need, despite our age, and perhaps by digesting one another's perspectives, we can find a way to take the best of our inextricable gym culture, and leave the worst behind, in order to grow fitter, healthier and happier. 


Precisely how to go about this, I will leave to you (and I look forward to hearing your thoughts), for as my mom also said, "There are too many ways to skin a cat."

Tags: Health, Fitness, Aging, Gym culture, Depression, Body Image
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share this
Post written by Duke Greenhill (View Author Profile)
About this author: Bio coming soon.
View all posts by Duke Greenhill


I just wanted to stop by and tell you how profoundly refreshing it is to have someone so identified with the gym culture be able to see with some real clarity the other half of the issue.

As a man on the other side of that fence, but one who has spent time in gyms before and doubtless will again before my span is done, I find that my own conflict narrows to this. I want to be healthy but I don't not wish to do so at the expense of placing myself squarely in the midst of the very things that I find so unpleasant about our culture. Those things would be our seemingly relentless desire to stave off apparent aging, our obsession with sexual prowess, and our vain grasping for a sexual physical ideal that daily grows further and further away from the possibility of attainment.

Add to that that, to be blunt, good health does not in any way require regular attendance at a gym. How about getting our lazy butts away from the computer, (written with the full and ironic knowledge of where I am right now) and go hike somewhere, or ride our bikes, or work in our gardens or do any of the myriad things in the real world that will not only keep us healthy but accomplish something of value as well.

As you say, there IS room for us all here, and perhaps the most vital thing for us all to remember is to honor, reverence and respect each man's choice for what it is, his choice. I may not want to be a hugely muscled man, certainly not at this stage in my life, but I respect that in others. I ask only that the same respect to be accorded me for my choices. I choose to stay healthy by keeping active in my own non gym focused ways. Perhaps others might perceive me as not being healthy since I carry some extra poundage, but I would challenge any of them to a 10 mile hike and see how we both do. (grinning)

And tangentially, As I have gotten older I have found that hot is hot and often comes to us in the most unexpected of packaging. So I ask my brothers not to dismiss the man who is in front of your eyes cause he doesn't fit some narrow paradigm of attractiveness. Some of the hottest men I have known in my admittedly profligate life have been men who didn't fit my own perceptions.

So go out there and do something to make your body feel healthy, and feed your soul's health at the same time by staying open to the beauty that exists within ALL of us.

Thanks for putting up with my ramblings.


I work out to lower my blood pressure and reverse my diabetes. I don't cling to my youth i embrace what's coming next. I have way more to offer than my body. there is no reason for shame in my life anymore. So now i can relaxe and enjoy what's in front of me.

The author has a real talent for stating the obvious in a convoluted way. Maybe you'd do better to stick to fitness and leave the psychiatric evaluations to qualified people.

Huh? It appears that the Author hit a nerve with you.... perhaps you are one of those gay men that suffer from body dysmorphia. The author obviously speaks from volumes of experience dealing with gay men from all walks and ages of life... he probably has more insight into gay gym culture then any psychiatrist.


it's sad that if that is all you've got is your body. I am 46 and I look 100% better than li did in my twenties and I am not even close to gorgeous. I don't show up and say "Here I am! Look at me and give me things!" I bring stuff to the table like logic,verifiable talent empathy and compassion. However tis the way of the world. Pretty is as pretty does.

By all means do as the Greeks did, but when you're picking up more barbells than books that's a problem.

This article is right on the money and every gay man, both gym going and not, should read it and perhaps learn from it. The author has really tapped into the essence of the struggle that gay men in the modern world face. The Abercrombie & Fitch driven view of the male body has saturated the media and everyday life for over 20 years now. Back in the 70's a man with a fair amount of hair on his chest, or other places on his body, was considered sexy. Today, many men (especially younger ones) consider too much body hair to be "gross". What a foolish way to look at another human being. The same goes for physique. How many profiles do you see on gay social networking sites (especially the more sex focused ones) looking for "slim, athletic, or muscular men" and that tell "fats" or other people who may not have a chiseled appearance to basically go pound sand? I can understand everyone having their own type, but the overwhelming bias toward unattainable (for most) body images is way over the top these days, IMHO.

The depression that many gay men feel, especially those of us just creeping over 40, stems mostly from the fact that the chance of finding a partner moves further and further away because the expectations get more and more out of control and unreachable every day. A degree of isolation comes from that. The easy answer from those who have the "gym mentality" is basically to "go work out". Well, that might be great for those of you that have the time, but what if you are a fairly successful business person without the kind of time to spend in the gym that would allow a person to get close to this physical ideal? Is it right for that person to be an outcast because he can't achieve 17" biceps?

On the other side of the coin many gay men both old and young really do tend to let themselves go in ways that are dangerous for their health and self-esteem. It's almost sad to see some men that I've seen and how depressed and unhealthy they look. They should make an effort to help themselves get healthier and look better, but how can they when negative reinforcement from others is all that comes their way? Healthy living is a lifestyle commitment and many people have serious challenges getting there. Does that make them inferior? No. Don't say that, however, to many gay men that hang out at the local gay bars and on-line.....they all expect perfection. Even when they haven't achieved it themselves.

The author has it right on the money, we don't have to exclude the point of view of either group. Both groups do need to understand that we're all human beings, in this together, and everyone needs to be just a wee bit nicer to one another. People actually need to be willing to take the risk of getting to know someone and not just worry about how big their chest is.

I think that something needs to happen here before we can really proceed to a dialogue of any substance. We need to come to an agreement about what we mean by fitness and what we mean by health. Though to many people such terms are absolutes, they are in fact a bit fuzzy.

For example, to me a person would be deemed healthy and fit if their body functions smoothly and without on going problems (external or internal), and that they are capable of doing safely any task that they set themselves, whether that is lifting something heavy, going for a long hike with a pack on, or being out dancing for hours on a Saturday night. Lots of people would disagree with me about this.

For some other people good health and fitness are defined by more visual cues like a six pack and butt you can bounce quarters on. But as our author mentions, just having a hot bod is not an automatic indicator of health, as anyone who must plow through the regime of meds for HIV will tell you.

So what do we mean when we say fit, and what do we mean when we say healthy?

Myself, I would disagree strongly with those who claim fitness and health are only the province of the 6% body fat crowd, or that fitness and health are only attainable through vigorous workouts every other day at the gym. There are endless ways to get and maintain ones health, the gym is one answer but not the only, or indeed for many people, the best answer. And again many would disagree with me about this statement, which is of course, their choice.

I'm just not very good at getting myself out of these situations. Who would have thought that a thing that looks like its 16 and American, would want to talk about MARXISM, FREUD, The insurgency in Sri Lanka, Sarah Palin, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Well, it wasn't that

I think it is a very interesting column, about an issue that I have reflected upon, myself.

I try to go to the gym, and I'm rather a loner, but in pursuing a "vain" goal, I get out of my home and (try to) meet people. Thus, I'm fulfilling two needs (improving my physical appearance AND socializing). Not necessarily with other gays - although a lot of the gym clientele is gay). I do other stuff to socialize, but as the author stated, I have been contaminated by a specific body-centered culture (I'm 40 years old now).

The author makes a good point, in my opinion, but with soooo wordy and lengthy sentences. To me, he often takes the longest road possible to get to the point. Sorry if this sounds hard. I know he has a Master Degree from Columbia University. But online, you need to keep it rather short or be more concise.

Great way to introduce yourself Duke, and a nicely written, obviously thoughtful article. Thanks for putting in the time and energy it took to produce that. I also straddle fences: Hunter/Daddy, Gymophile/Gymophobe, etc. and always appreciate being reminded that there are other men out there giving thought to the same issues I do. I look forward to reading more.

This is an interesting concept to explore, but the writer takes a rather apathetic approach to the subject matter.

I agree in the importance of using exercise to restore and maintain health. As we live longer, it is imperative to maintain a healthy lifestyle to avoid future health problems down the road. Heart attacks, strokes, bone loss and erectile dysfunction (probably the most significant to the gay community, sad but true) and mentioning staying in good health since having no offspring in most cases to look forward to for help...this is an important ideal for gay individuals and equally for the straight community as well. And yes, any group who exercises shows a decreased level of depression because exercise will cause the release of "feel good" chemicals in the brain. These are a great benefit and I wish more people would consider these instead of turning to a pill in order to make themselves feel better. A healthy body and mind tend to go hand in hand with exceptions to every rule of course.

The disturbing part of a gym culture is the self-abuse that these "men" will go to in order to prove their masculinty that in the end just makes them stand out and appear even more homosexual than ever. We have all seen men that have pushed themselves to a level to look "manly" and sometimes through the use of steroids, just to overshadow his inners feelings of sexual inadequacy simply due to his sexual orientation. And the number of straight bodybuilders that permiate the gay porn industry in order to feed off a group that will worship them without question because of their appearace alone is staggering. How many Colt models that are straight that you know of do jack off videos to further push this ideal of "male beauty"? It is no different than young girls (or young men wanting to be women) starving themselves to be the ideallic female form....5'11" and a size 0.

And what is even more disturbing are websites that really focus on the gym mentallity and reward the sometimes dangerous consequences it can have....isn't this site part of a group of sites that is linked to Big Muscle where they must see a picture of your development and ask your percentage of body fat on the screen before "accepting" you to their site? I understand using the argument that it is to show the work some have put into their bodies, but is it not a little demeaning to those that do not find the need for 6 pack abs that attractive? To me this demonstrates the shallowness that a subculture can have and how much damage it can do unto itself. If you're more concerned with your body development than your social skills, it may get you "laid" more often, but does it make you any happier or a better person mentally? I am amazed at the vapidness of the gay gym culture that will judge someone strictly on the size of his pecs to determine his sexuality. I have been to gay events and watch psychology and sociology at work and the hierarchy it entails. I think that would make a more interesting study and hopefully show a better evolution in gay thinking.....

Until then, I will still go to the gym to better myself for my own benefit and not worry about gay culture and how it affects my gym routine. And yet I'm amazed at the number of gay men that have difficulties establishing relationships when visual stimulation is reigned supreme....even though many find themselves so detached from themselves and their sexual conquests.

A few random gems of wisdom:

I've been out of shape and I've been in shape, and in shape is way better. Way better.

Given my genes and my age, there's no way I'm gonna match the visuals of a porn actor or a fitness model. My goal has been to feel good and look good...good enough for my age. One of the benefits of being older is that you get high marks for not looking terrible! And I have to say that I am doing pretty well. No one would ever mistake me for a young guy, but I look like a healthy older man who takes care of himself. Suits me just fine. And people can take it or leave it. What's most important is that it makes me feel good.

A lot of this stuff has to do with attitude. When I have felt overweight, unfit, etc. I have not given off the signals that would make men want to notice, approach or know me. When I am more at home with myself, that changes.

And if you are not in shape, you have to give yourself time, keep at it, keep at it, and enjoy the process. Enjoy the process and be patient.

Some of the best sex in my life has been with men in their 50's. They know who they are, they are at home with themselves (there's that phrase again), they have experience, etc.

I am very pro-male, but I have to say that we do have our problems as a gender. One of them is that our sex drive is so damned visual. We let our eyes dominate way too much. I tried an experiment a few years back that has really improved my life. I learned it from an old acquaintance of mine, a college prof who moonlighted as an escort! As long as my eyes were not really put off by how a man looked, I let myself concentrate on how he felt, literally. I let my skin and my hands tell me more and my eyes tell me less. As a result, I have had some great sexual connections with men I would otherwise have turned down. When you let touch tell you more than sight, you let a man's energy into play in a big way, not just his silhouette.
And then a lot of times how he look changes for you.

And finally, I am a lucky dog. Met a great guy --on Daddyhunt-- a couple of years ago and we are now a duo. He's also older than 55. Not a cover model either, (balding, wears glasses) but he runs and he works out a few times a week. He's an ordinary guy in good shape.

And damn, he is is one sexy fella.

I've had sex with men who are handsomer, more muscular, leaner, etc. than he is, but he has the gift of animal joy, sensual play, happy presence, the thrill of being alive. It makes all the difference, and I'd take him any day over the narcissistic hunks I have known in the past.

End of wise gems.

My biggest problem with the body fascists in the gay community is the whole concept that the gym is the only way to achieve fitness and health. I am the president of a gay square dance club in San Francisco and we are starting up a class to learn to dance. It's a great way toward improving mental and cardiovascular fitness. Thursday nights in the Castro, check out the website for more details.

Also, I lead a monthly series of stairway walks in San Francisco - the next one is this coming Sunday 25 October. Here's another way to get some good exercise, socialize, and learn stuff about San Francisco history.

I have on and off worked out in a gym, but I find the smell and lighting and horrible music and self-absorbed people to be un-fun. Instead, I am taking a more French attitude toward getting my exercise: I walk most places when practical, and do real world activities. Why walk on a treadmill for three miles when you can actually walk out in the fresh air, even in the rain?

Finally, while strength training is good, most of the gym-goers neglect flexibility training, which has (in my opinion as a massage therapist and health educator) more benefits for keeping people relaxed and pain-free.

Great post, Duke. Look forward to reading more for you soon.

I hate gyms and their male dominated ego. I never have liked them. In my younger years, guys thought i worked out in a gym and I didn't. I walked a stupid amount since I was poor and many times could not even afford to take the bus. I had married men compliment me on my calves which i used to think was very weird.

I still hate gyms WITH A PASSION. I do 25 flights of stairs with weights plus bike and walk.