Translating Sex: Spartacus and the Gay Traveler in the 1970s

Writing in the age of Yelp from Dupont, the historic center of gay life in Washington, DC, I can have trouble fully imagining the difficulty that many gay men had in accessing gay spaces. Even in the second half of the twentieth century, when gay scenes were expanding in major metropolitan areas across North America and Western Europe and gay rights movements were attaining increased visibility, access to specific gay locales remained largely dependent on local knowledge. This presented a particular challenge for the novice gay traveler, who might have possessed a vague sense that Schöneberg was the “gayborhood” of Berlin or the Marais functioned similarly for Paris, but have no idea which were the best bars, saunas, and so-called darkrooms, let alone whom to call if they ran into trouble with the police. 

To address this problem of the mostly middle- and upper-class gay tourist, John D. Stamford founded Spartacus in Brighton in 1968 and began publishing the Spartacus Gay Guide in 1970.1 Spartacus sought to provide addresses and recommendations of all gay spaces, not just in Western Europe but in every country in the world, from Castro’s Cuba to war-torn Vietnam (with the notable exceptions of the US and Canada, deemed too large to handle accurately). In addition, Spartacus included information about the legal situation in each country with helpful caveats (beware the secret police in Argentina, but in Egypt the police would likely side with a tourist over his Egyptian partner) as well as listings for legal help and gay groups.

Although about three inches by eight inches and meant to be easily transportable, by 1974 Spartacus was already 420 pages long. In 1978, the editors reformatted the guide so that it was about five inches by eight inches and included hand-drawn maps of major cities. Given that this cover was quite typical, it would take a rather courageous reader to pull it out for reference while out and about. (Source: author’s collection.)

In 1975, Spartacus declared its new motto and goal of working “toward a better world for gays,” which, after 1979, no longer included lesbians as “Spartacus is a male organization and has problems in seeing the needs and difficulties of lesbians from a sufficiently sympathetic viewpoint.”2 For the editors of Spartacus, building this better world primarily meant fighting endemic loneliness by providing points of contact and bringing together same-sex desiring men from around the world.

But how did Spartacus accomplish this daunting task of assembling local knowledge of spaces of same-sex contact and making them easily accessible to the average North American or Western European tourist? Moreover, how did Spartacus translate complex understandings of same-sex sexuality and gender identity into terms easily understood by a tourist with a Western framework of identity politics?

The guide primarily relied on tips from gay travelers and local men, which were to be mailed to its offices in Brighton and, after 1971, its new offices in Amsterdam. By 1977, Spartacus was receiving over 12,000 of these letters yearly, and, because it published annually, begged its readers to submit letters in a timely manner so that it could provide the most up-to-date information.3 In addition, Spartacus sent out teams of researchers to visit places to see if recommendations were really worthwhile. In 1973 alone, Stamford claimed to have visited over 2,000 of the listed addresses, primarily in the UK, the Netherlands, and West Germany.4 In 1978, Stamford upped his game and departed on a three-month tour of East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands—for research.

To efficiently communicate both whether a place was worth visiting and what sort of clientele it attracted, Spartacus developed a system of stars, stripes, and abbreviations. Stars, ranging from one star (“hearsay recommendation”) to five stars (“reserved only for a small handful of the very best places”) were placed next to recommended locales while stripes, ranging from one stripe (“not recommended”) to three stripes (“DEFINITELY NOT RECOMMENDED”) were placed next to entries that the reader should avoid.5 To quickly describe whom or what could be found in each place, Spartacus placed a letter or sequence of letters next to each entry. Each letter corresponded to a different term listed in the introduction such as L (leather), R (rent/sex workers), or F (food available).

The knowledge of international gay scenes that Spartacus presented to its readership was therefore distorted in three primary ways. The first difficulty had to do with translation. Spartacus attempted to be as international as possible by offering translations (all included in the same guide) from English into German, French, and, starting in 1977, Spanish and attempting to find translators to read all submitted recommendations. Nevertheless, given that its readership was limited to speakers of three or four European languages, so too likely were its submissions, because why would a speaker of exclusively Mandarin or Arabic submit a tip to a guide that they couldn’t read?6

The second problem came from geographical constraints. The most detailed descriptions and numerous entries appear for countries that the Spartacus team most frequently visited. This meant that in 1978, for example, West Germany, an easy train ride from the Netherlands, had 830 listings, with West Berlin boasting 94, while India, given its greater inaccessibility and anti-sodomy laws, had only 27 listings with Mumbai (listed as Bombay) topping out at a mere 13, with no listing receiving stars or stripes.

Distance however wasn’t absolute. Personal preference played a significant role too. After Stamford’s 1975 trip to the Philippines during which he “had 30 to 40 boys calling me every day to offer themselves,” the entry for the Philippines contained highly detailed descriptions and always remained very current.7

The third problem was a result of translating very local knowledge about sexual practices and identity into a universal code, such that the same system of letters could be applied to a dance club in Nottingham and a brothel in Kenya. This difficulty becomes perhaps most visible in the caveats attached to listings for places where one could find male sex workers. While a simple “R” might do the trick for cruising grounds in Berlin, the same letter did not seem to capture the full situation in contexts outside of Western Europe.

In its description of the pleasures of Tunisia, Spartacus warned readers in 1978 that most boys expect to be paid in large tourist resorts. However, Spartacus stumbled somewhat in its description of southern Tunisia, writing that the boys there may expect a gift, like old t-shirts or socks, and begged its readers “not to offer money . . . as this is one of the few areas in the world where money is not expected—let us try to keep it that way.”8

It is in these descriptions that we also see how the translation of local knowledge into a universalizing, Western frame was deeply entangled in the (re)production of racial knowledge, often stemming from centuries-old orientalist fantasies. In 1978, Spartacus elaborated on its description of Tunisia, writing that, “Tunisians take little trouble to disguise their basic bisexuality.”9 Inherent bisexuality, however, was understood as being in no way limited to Tunisians. In its 1976 description of Cyprus, Spartacus wrote that, “although homosexuality is technically illegal, in common with a lot of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, the Cypriots accept it as part of life and bisexuality is a common and integrated part of life, as in Greece and Turkey.” In case the reader didn’t fully get the picture, Spartacus added that the men there “are hot and highly sexed up!”10

Next to many of the entries were drawings meant to be both comical and enticing, often depending on old orientalist tropes. One wonders how the young Moroccan depicted above was supposed to experience a “better world for gays.” (Source: Spartacus International Gay Guide, 6th ed., 109, author’s collection.)

The connection between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries and “basic bisexuality” was by no means new and, in fact, constituted little more than an eroticized reproduction of Richard Burton’s 1886 “Sotadic Zone,” which itself was a “scientific” categorization of older stereotypes. The Sotadic Zone, encompassing the Mediterranean and stretching east to Japan, the South Pacific and on to the Americas, was theorized as a region in which homosexual activity, particularly between men and boys, was prevalent and accepted as normal and was dependent on environmental theories of race.11

In the pages of Spartacus, we see this theory being rearticluated through the lens of late-twentieth century geopolitics and Western European gay desires to create an understanding—not quite a fantasy—of certain Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and East Asian countries as being veritable paradises for the gay traveler. Just as in Turkey, homosexuality “abounds,” and “the Philippines is the gay paradise of Asia.” In Iran, “being gay is normal for the young”; however, should a tourist wish to find an older partner, then he should expect to take the passive role.12

Spartacus elaborates that this expectation should not be limited to Iran, but that in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean most men “will put you in a woman’s traditional role, i.e. you are there to be penetrated and provide their sexual satisfaction.”13 This interpretation further points to the limitations of interpreting local sex practices through Western frameworks. As Afsaneh Najmabadi points out, the Iranian “traditional” ordering of sexuality, to which Spartacus is referring, had less to do with a gender-based hierarchy and more with a hierarchy along the lines of penetrated orifice.14

Spartacus‘s attempts to build “a better world for gays” by making local knowledge accessible to a mass market went hand-in-hand with the perpetuation of Orientalism, particularly what the literary theorist Joseph Boone calls “Orientalism’s homoerotic subtexts.”15 Because of the limitations of translation, as well as the mere fact that Spartacus was ultimately an English, Dutch, and, after 1986, German company, the guide’s attempt to develop a universal gay code rested on prefabricated Western European understandings of race, gender, and sexual identity. Nevertheless, the Spartacus team’s attempts to navigate their desires for non-white bodies were consistently challenged by local sex practices that could not be easily understood through the Western frameworks at their disposal.

Spartacus continued to grow throughout the 1980s and, in 1986, was purchased by West Germany’s largest gay publishing house, Bruno Gmünder Verlag. Although immersed through the late 1980s and early 1990s in accusations of promoting sex with underage boys (the vagueness of the term “young crowd” abbreviated “YC” led some to call Spartacus the “bible of pedophiles”), Spartacus continued to be published and now exists in app form.16 It uses the same list of abbreviations, although some of the letters have changed (“F” now means “fetish,” so don’t go if you’re hungry—or do, your call) and Manila still has plenty of listings. While rather clunky and full of in-app purchases, it nevertheless raises the question of how or even if digital review platforms like Spartacus or Yelp have changed the way in which local knowledge of spaces of same-sex sexual contact are disseminated and translated for a mass market. Perhaps it’s time for a three-month world tour to figure that out.

  1. This examination of Spartacus is part of a much larger dissertation project on the history of race and homosexuality in the Federal Republic of Germany after 1945. For a history of race, gay publications, and gay travel in the 1950s and 1960s, see Christopher Ewing, “‘Color Him Black’: Erotic Representations and the Politics of Race in West German Homosexual Magazines, 1949–1974,” Sexuality and Culture, published online on March 10, 2016, doi: 10.1007/s12119-016-9345-2
  2. John D. Stamford, Spartacus International Gay Guide, 5th ed. (Amsterdam: Euro-Spartacus, 1975), 4; Stamford, Spartacus International Gay Guide, 9th ed. (Amsterdam: Spartacus, 1979), 8. 
  3. Stamford, Spartacus International Gay Guide, 8th ed. (Amsterdam: Spartacus, 1978), 10. 
  4. Stamford, Spartacus International Gay Guide, 4th ed. (Amsterdam: Euro-Spartacus, 1974), 3. 
  5. Ibid., 7–8. 
  6. This didn’t necessarily result in an absolute exclusion. As Andrew Shield points out, men from around the world were writing into Western European gay publications, often in search of contacts for their own travels. Nevertheless, this was a select group of individuals who (1) could speak a Western European language, (2) had access to gay publications, and (3) had the resources to travel. See: Andrew Shield, Immigrants in the Sexual Revolution: Perceptions and Participation in Northwest Europe (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). 
  7. Stamford, Spartacus International Gay Guide, 6th ed. (Amsterdam: Euro-Spartacus, 1976), 481. 
  8. Stamford, Spartacus International Gay Guide, 3rd ed. (Amsterdam: Euro-Spartacus, 1973), 306. 
  9. Stamford, Spartacus International Gay Guide, 8th ed., 485. 
  10. Stamford, Spartacus International Gay Guide 6th ed., 109 
  11. Robert Aldrich, Colonialism and Homosexuality (New York: Routledge, 2003), 31. 
  12. Stamford, Spartacus International Gay Guide, 3rd ed., 307; Stamford, Spartacus International Gay Guide, 8th ed., 50, 297. 
  13. Ibid., 42. 
  14. Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Types, Acts, or What? Regulation of Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Iran,” in Islamicate Sexualities: Translations across Temporal Geographies of Desire, ed. Kathryn Babayan and Afsaneh Najmabadi (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), chap. 8. 
  15. Joseph Allen Boone, The Homoerotics of Orientalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), xxii. 
  16. Hans-Hermann Kotte, “Schwulen-Reiseführer ‘Spartacus’: nett, verkniffen und heuchlerisch,” Die Tageszeitung, October 1, 1991.