Frederick Colson – The Devil is Gay (1965)

Review by Justin Tate

Happy Pride 2024. You know, not long ago in the early days of post-Obergefell v. Hodges, I believed Pride would become obsolete. Soon enough, I thought, we’d just be living our ordinary, twice-married, twice-divorced lives like everybody else. Nobody would care. It would be glorious.

Clearly I’m no prophet! Conservative fury over queer happiness is as vicious as ever and in a world where Roe v. Wade can be overturned, no freedom is safe. Every time I hear someone call a trans person mentally ill, which is every day online and by officials in high offices, I’m reminded that being LGBT+ was once reason enough to be institutionalized.

Gay pulp fiction from the 1960s and ’70s often tackled such dark topics. Being disowned by your family, blackmailed, fired from work, expelled from school, bullied to death, near-death or suicide, internalized homophobia, religious crisis, and extreme poverty due to any of the above circumstances. These were the matters of everyday queer life also portrayed in fiction. For some, particularly those in rural areas, the Sexual Revolution made things even more depressing. Progress was happening—you could see it!—but happiness remained just out of reach. Like dying of thirst in the desert with an oasis seen in the distance.

Now, nearly sixty years since The Devil is Gay was published, perhaps the most painful thing about the novel is that it remains exceedingly relevant. That’s a testament to our unfortunate current affairs, but also to Colson’s mastery of storytelling. What great art isn’t painful?

Though billed as a “sex comedy,” the novel provides numerous heart-wrenching portrayals of homophobic situations. Vern, our protagonist, is twenty-one and still figuring himself out. The book opens with him on a date with a girl. She’s known as the campus slut, which is perfect, because he’s using her to gauge his interest in women. If he can enjoy himself, maybe he’s “normal.” Otherwise—he’s probably gay, which he has suspected for some time.

They drive to a forested location off campus and slutty Sarah is all too eager to get things moving. Vern tries to delay but there’s no stopping the “nympho blood” that “ran hot in her veins.”

With bare breasts out and about, she urges him to fondle them. Vern reluctantly proceeds, thinking they feel repulsively like “warm half-melted jello in thin bags of skin” and “somewhere in the depths of the jello were knots of yielding gristle.”

“Kiss them,” Sarah instructs, guiding his grimacing lips toward her eager bosom. This is a step too far and Vern calls off the date.

Not used to being rejected, an offended Sarah cries: “Hey! What’s the matter with you? Don’t you like girls?”

“I guess not,” Vern admits truthfully.

Sarah is not to be deterred, however. She honks the car and in the moonlit darkness there’s a slam of doors. Three frat boys emerge from a nearby vehicle. They don’t look happy.

Vern recognizes the guys from school. They explain how Sarah invited them as insurance in case he wouldn’t put out. “You’ve awakened her sensuous needs,” one guy says. “You have to satisfy her.”

“Here’s your opportunity to prove you like girls,” says another. “We’ll be your witnesses.”

They yank Vern out of the car and strip away his clothes so he can perform straightness for them. Unfortunately, one of the frat guys is also Vern’s secret crush. Despite the horror of the moment, Vern’s body is unable to reject the pleasure of having his crush hunched atop his groin and stripping away his pants. Vern’s erection gives him away and the guys beat him up severely before stealing his keys and leaving him, naked and alone, in the woods.

How’s that for an opening scene? Despite humor peppered throughout, this horrific sequence would be all-too-relatable for gay men discovering their sexuality in 1965. It was relatable to me and I turned twenty-one in 2010. If somebody wasn’t trying to pray my gay away, guys eagerly suggested girls for me to test drive. Good pussy is all you need, they said. Once you get some you’ll be cured. I recommended they try cock. That changed the subject quick.

No one beat me up—physically—for being gay, though plenty of my peers weren’t so lucky. We’re still far from a post-gay bashing society, but at least we have cell phones. For Vern, he has no choice but to wander out of the woods to the nearest house to call for help. He knocks on the door, a bloody, bruised nude, and when a middle-aged woman answers he nearly collapses into her arms.

The woman calls to her son for help—Ralph. Ralph is a gorgeous hunk of man who Vern recognizes him from Sociology class, though they’d never spoken. He’s dressed in a revealing robe that leaves little to the imagination. Beyond Ralph’s “thick and powerful” legs and “bulging white cotton briefs,” he’s protective as he tends to Vern’s wounds. He says he knows the rumors going around about Vern being gay. If that’s why he was attacked, Ralph says he ought to show those jerks how it feels to be clobbered.

Vern soaks up the image of Ralph’s “powerful chest” and “well-developed pectorals” and has no doubt he could beat them up, all three.

This tender moment is soon interrupted when Vern’s father, Amos, shows up. Amos is a powerful figure in the community and eager to keep this ordeal under wraps. Especially if, as he suspects, it has anything to do with homosexuality. “Son, I’ve watched you for years, turning into a soft book reader, no guts, no drive, no balls! You think I’m blind?”

Vern is annoyed everyone seemed to know he was gay before he did. The one good thing to come from this is his own self-discovery—and meeting Ralph. Maybe they will become friends.

At home, we gain further insight into Vern’s family situation. Spoiler alert: it’s freaky. His stepmother, Emily, is a worldly woman who takes many young lovers. Amos is not opposed to having affairs himself. And Honi, Vern’s eighteen-year-old stepsister, is always willing and ready. Honi says she’s known all along Vern was gay—for the narcissistic reason that he never tried to screw her. She also admits to messing around with girls and says he should feel comfortable sharing secrets with her. (Don’t do it, Vern! Her plan is to blackmail you later!)

Before bed, stepmom enters Vern’s room with a sleeping pill. She offers the theory that maybe he’s just intimidated by girls and hasn’t met the right one. There might be a cure for him yet. “An older, experienced woman could help you,” she purrs as the sleeping pill slowly takes effect. “I could help you, dear.”

What makes the family so disturbing, beyond incest-adjacent possibilities, is that everyone but Vern is sexually promiscuous. His parents are unfaithful, his sister is free-loving with possible lesbian tendencies—and for fuck’s sake, his stepmom just propositioned him. Yet only virgin Vern is seen as the problem. When he decides to embrace his homosexuality, they accuse him of being a blight on the family name, an ill mind who should be locked away at a “funny farm.” They will, in fact, plan to institutionalize him—after incarcerating his lover, Ralph.

Yes, Vern and Ralph will become lovers. And yet, ironically for a book from a so-called “sleaze” publisher, there are only a few bedroom scenes. None particularly descriptive. Sex organs, when not veiled by metaphor, are written in clinical terms throughout. At one point the word “cock” is desired to be used, but the text censors itself, replacing it with a “—-” instead.

Censorship was likely self-enforced because adult novels routinely faced legal jeopardy. The 1957 “Roth Test” was still being used to determine if daring books were obscene or not. Most survived the Roth Test, which just required some “redeeming value” to avoid obscenity. Still, it was expensive to hire lawyers who must potentially argue your case all the way up to the Supreme Court. Some publishers took that fight to the top, but most preferred to avoid legal battles in the first place.

In a meta moment that addresses this context, Vern and his sister go on a double date to a drive-in movie. The way the fictional movie is described sounds a lot like how Frederick Colson would describe public outcry against his novels:

“It’s one of these modern bedroom farces the religious fanatics are crying about. They scream it’s full of sex, and it isn’t. It’s about sex, and it’s a satire on modern morals—like, the public morality and the real morality—the way people are supposed to act and the way they really act.”

Indeed, despite some farcical moments, The Devil is Gay aims to portray reality—warts and all. A major theme is that coming out is only half the battle. Then you have to navigate the social complexities of being gay in a time of constant danger. This includes posing as hetero as a means of survival. When a frustrated Vern bemoans “I hate pretending!” Ralph explains it to him this way:

“I do, too, but it’s a fact of our life and we can’t ignore it. Not yet and not in this town. Maybe someday this country will learn to be more secure and tolerant sexually, but not for years and years. In the meantime, we have to live.”

Photo of Frederick Colson, aka Richard Geis, at age 56. Photo by Rick Hawes.

I’m leaving a lot out, but know that by the end Vern will face just about every horror so common for gay men in 1965. Including, possibly, the worst horror of all—the kind derived from those who you think you can trust.

All in all, The Devil is Gay offers stunning revelations, devastating drama and genuine chuckles to lighten the mood. It’s not a masterpiece of prose, but it is perfectly plotted and historically significant as fuck. That it was published in 1965 is truly jaw-dropping. Most gay pulp fiction didn’t arrive until after 1966, when Richard Amory’s Song of the Loon became an unexpected bestseller. Before then, only a small number of trailblazing novels with queer-positive messages and unambiguous gay romance existed.

Personally, I much prefer The Devil Is Gay to Song of the Loon because it is more in tune with the real world. Colson writes not just an entertaining yarn, but a textbook for coming out and dealing with the likely aftermath. There’s plenty of optimism, but he also prepares gay readers for the worst—just in case. I felt educated and liberated experiencing it in 2024, and I can only imagine how readers clung to every word in 1965. Of course, the way politics are today, it doesn’t require much imagination.

Sadly, there has been little enduring legacy for The Devil Is Gay. Its fame now survives primarily due to the catchy title and striking cover art. You can find numerous Etsy and eBay sellers offering the cover image as magnets, posters, postcards, coffee mugs, and other trinkets. Based on the comments, most don’t seem to realize the cover is of a real book. Instead, they think it’s modern art designed to look vintage.


Frederick Colson was a pen name of prolific author Richard E. Geis (July 19, 1927 – February 4, 2013). He wrote 114 novels, almost all of them “softcore porn” paperbacks. One of his novels, Call Her Lesbian (aka The Three-Way Apartment) (1964), made the censors especially angry. He was arrested, strip-searched and required to spend an entire winter in Sioux City, Iowa, while a court decided if his book was obscene or not. During the trial, the state prosecutor proclaimed, “God knows what other sex crimes this man has committed in the past!” to shadily imply writing an adult-themed book equated to criminal activity.

In the end, the book was ruled not obscene and Geis was free to go. Of course, by then his name had already been defamed in newspapers all across the country. And he had to endure three months in Iowa!

After the sex book market dried up in the late 1970s, Geis went on to other projects. Notably, he received 30 Hugo nominations and 13 wins for his editorial work with Science Fiction Review.

Sioux City Journal – April 20, 1965, Page 1. Shows Geis heading toward his obscenity trial.

Here’s a full list of known Richard Erwin Geis pseudonyms:

Frederick Colson
Albina Jackson
Sheela Kunzur
Bob Owen
Robert N. Owen
Ann Radway
Peggy Swann
Peggy Swenson

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Here’s a reprint of an interview with Richard E. Geis from March 18, 1980. It was conducted for inclusion in the reference book Contemporary Authors:

CA: In addition to writing a great many books and publishing Science Fiction Review, you’ve done assorted jobs ranging from dishwasher to apartment manager. How did these other jobs fit into your writing?

GEIS: I was a dishwasher and what you might call a menial before I started writing. Then being an apartment house manager was a way of getting free rent while I wrote, because it provided a lot of free time.

CA: But once you started writing, you just wrote?

GEIS: Oh, yeah. I’ve been a free-lance writer and fan publisher full time since 1969.

CA: When did you know for sure that you wanted to be a writer?

GEIS: When I was about thirteen years old, I guess.

CA: What led you to that ambition?

GEIS: I don’t know exactly. I just liked to read a lot, and being a writer was very romantic at the time. I suppose it still is. It appealed to me, and I didn’t want to work too hard. Little did I know.

CA: What attracted you to fantasy and science fiction in particular?

GEIS: That’s unknowable, really. I don’t think you can find that many people who can pinpoint why they like science fiction and fantasy. I suppose either it goes back to my very early childhood or it goes beyond that into the womb. Who knows? I was reading it when I was about nine or ten years old.

CA: Do you feel you’ve been instrumental in the fan movement in science fiction?

GEIS: I don’t think I’ve been very instrumental at all. I’ve always been a fringe force, if you want to call it that, in fandom. And fandom itself, as I understand it, is a very small phenomenon, at least publishing fandom. There haven’t been more than, I’d say, fifty or sixty fanzines published at any one time that one would consider science fiction fanzines. It’s really a fringe, marginal thing. Convention-going fans are much more numerous, and I’ve never been into that.

CA: Who are your favorite writers?

GEIS: I really don’t have favorites anymore among what you might call the mundane writers. I haven’t read a modern novel in years, because my time is just devoted to science fiction and fantasy. It’s very difficult to find time to read anything else, although I do read the financial press.

CA: What about science-fiction and fantasy writers?

GEIS: It’s easier to say the ones I don’t like. But favorites? Phil Dick—at least the old Phil Dick—was one of my very favorites. Poul Anderson. Robert Heinlein has disappointed me of late, in the last five or six years. His latest book is terrible. Fritz Leiber. There’s a new young writer, Diane Duane, who is beginning to write very good fiction. Harlan Ellison is dynamic, of course; in fact, he’s always been a phenomenon.

CA: You have now published at least ninety books. You must write all the time.

GEIS: I haven’t written hard since I moved up to Portland in 1972. I’ve written a lot of books since then, but not really at the rate I was writing before that. You know, you don’t have to write much to publish a lot of novels if you can sell them. Over the period from 1959 till the present day—for a lot of years—I was doing about six or seven books a year. But that’s only a couple of thousand words a day. To a writer, that’s not a lot. Especially to some of those old pros who whacked out five to ten thousand words a day. Some people can write a book in a week.

CA: It must take a lot of discipline just to sit there and keep writing.

GEIS: Well, of course, you have to want to do it. And it does take a lot of self-discipline to choose writing and to keep at it. To me it seems normal. I know other people think it’s incredible, but I don’t understand that.

CA: You’ve won eleven Hugos. How do you feel about these awards?

GEIS: Very well. I like them very much, and I want more if I can get them. I would really like to set the all-time record for Hugos won. Maybe I have already, I don’t know. I’d like to make the history books—in this respect, anyway.

CA: Is there any genre you haven’t worked in that you’d like to try?

GEIS: Not really. I think if I had wanted to do something else, I would have done it by now. I think my talent really is in sex writing, very secondarily in science fiction.

CA: Is there still a good market for sex novels?

GEIS: No. That’s probably why I’ve cut out writing it for so long, because the markets have gone away—disappeared and melted and everything else.

CA: Why do you think that’s happened?

GEIS: Basically because the films came along and drove the books away. There’s more work to reading and visualizing than there is to just looking. Of course they’ve used up the whole potential. They started very timidly in sex, then became more and more bold, and they’ve used up every area of sex imaginable in greater and greater detail in graphic illustrations and words until they’ve overkilled it. Now there are one or two small publishers who publish sex novels, but it’s just wall-to-wall sex. They have formulas they want you to follow, and they pay at most one thousand dollars, which is actually five hundred dollars in purchasing power nowadays, so it isn’t worth doing.

CA: Would you tell me more about Science Fiction Review?

GEIS: It’s mainly a subscription magazine; it has about nineteen hundred subscribers now, and I’m selling around five hundred copies to book stores, but it never was really a big seller in book stores. I haven’t made a big effort to get into the university libraries. Perhaps I should.

I think the value of the magazine is its material by and about the professional writers, the well-known writers. Over the years, almost everybody has written for Science Fiction Review, and they reveal some of the most remarkable things about themselves and their writing. I think the magazine really is a gold mine for researchers, and it’s also very interesting. John Brunner, for instance, has a column every few months. He sends installments in which he discusses his writing and his life in England. I should think for someone who’s doing research on John Brunner that would be a must to read. The column has run for about ten years. And other known writers have contributed. I have a news section and extensive reviews of magazines and books and just commentary on books and personalities. There’s also a letter column, in which we argue back and forth about the future, writers, writing, trends, books—everything.

(Jean W. Ross is credited for this interview)