I have a long memory.
I was born in the mid-1950s and remember the flavor of the 1960s. I remember the old bodybuilding magazines of the era like “Strength and Health,” when Larry Scott was competing and Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived on the scene with that supposedly unmarketable name.
I was drawn to the culture. How could guys look like that I wanted to be like that too. In 1970 the AAU Mr. World contest was televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports between Arnold, Sergio Oliva and Dave Draper. I still remember the buzz about it the next day in high school, and I remember that it wasn’t entirely positive. I was different. I loved it, but in my teenage brain I couldn’t explain my blend of awe and attraction to those men on stage.
I stuck to wrestling and rugby in school.
I knew I was gay from the time I had hormones and saw my first Tarzan movie. Being a closeted gay kid, to me it seemed that if I hit a gym and began lifting, somehow, in that era, I was going to be questioned. I only started lifting in the early 1980s — in my later 20s — to rehabilitate myself after a serious bout of arthritis. To keep it under control I’ve been lifting ever since, and now at the age of 60 I think I’ve earned the hashtag #lifelonglifter.
My formative years in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, were marked by anti-gay government witch-hunts of the 1960s, as well as hyper-Catholic and deeply homophobic parents and brother. That and the fear created by the AIDS crisis, and the loss of a number of freinds in the 1980s, all did a number on me and kept me in the closet until I was 40.
I came out with a bang, to my friends and colleagues, in 1997, at the age of 41. I found full acceptance, with the exception of my immediate family.
Weight training has always been my refuge and the thing that centered me. Being a dedicated lifter, I have cranked through a ton of gyms in 30 years, from early sweaty hard-core iron dungeons to modern bright fitness centers.
Home-built equipment with weights that looked like they were left over from the Depression gave way to slick corporate high-tech machines during those years. Despite this, my old-school gym roots have always led me back to those basic hardcore bodybuilding gyms, with intelligent, experienced lifters and no fancy flavor-of-the-month group training classes.
Strength training and bodybuilding evolved with lots of competing reputations. There are plenty of opinions about those who engage in a sport that is so fundamentally embedded in the perfection of an aesthetic.
“It’s not a sport.”
“I’d look like that if I did a cycle.”
As if by over-compensating for all this pejorative opinion, bodybuilding had a reputation of being homophobic at its core. Unless I was at a “gay” gym, usually downtown and urban, I always kept to myself and didn’t reveal too much, just getting about my business with my training. That’s just my comfort zone.
It took a group of millennials to change that for me.
For the past few years I’ve been going to a bodybuilding gym in my city that is as classic and hardcore as they come. Many of the members are serious competitors and a few have their pro cards.
The physique training, dieting and competition are all part of the culture. It’s serious and fun, and the members are the friendliest and most supportive of anyone, competitor or not, that I’ve ever seen.
From what I can tell, it’s mainly straight, with a few exceptions. There are lots of millennials there, guys from 18 to 30 who train hard and seriously and clown around together during the rest periods.
And yet they all respect each other, including me. We all follow each other on social media and they all know I’m gay with a boyfriend of many years. What I’ve seen isn’t just tolerance, it’s acceptance and a welcoming environment to the point of being able to horse around and make the same teasing joking fun, gay or straight, as if we are all on the same team.
This is a generational surprise to me, even in Canada.
One of the young guys who works the desk and trains there is entering his second regional contest in a few months (Ontario Physique Association in November). Myki is immersed in bodybuilding culture and is a huge fan of Kai Green. He’s friendly and outgoing.
He’s also about as out as you could be. He’s the first guy I ever saw kiss the guy he was dating in a gym. Straight couples do it all the time right? The other straight guys in the gym include him as a bro, and if they can joke about sex or physiques, well so can he.
It’s all fair, including making comments on how great his straight buddy’s butt looks in his gym shorts. He takes it as far as anyone. All guys talk about their sexual adventures, and Myki does it along with the rest of them. It’s all the same.
This has been a little confusing for me. The “us” and “them” is missing here.
Conversation on Outsports often discusses the locker room as an over-hyped inner sanctum where the presence of gay men can sometimes mess up the “fun.” I just don’t see that here. Everyone flexes, takes selfies, compares, checks progress, and no one seems to care as long as you have progress to show.
Two big straight friends were talking about girls they know in high school and how they had turned out. I laughed at their conversation, and one of them said to me with a big smile, “for you it’s just about the proportions.” We all laughed.
At my gym it isn’t an issue to be gay or straight. What’s important is to be real, to be authentic, and to be open. I’m still a bit circumspect to a degree, but these amazing young people, both gay and straight, are teaching me a lesson in inclusion.
James Bourdeau can be found on Instagram @denetjim, or via email at email@example.com.