Over the last decade or so, “adult coloring books” have increased in popularity, part of a burgeoning self-care movement that recognizes coloring and other forms of art creation are not only good for the soul but can have an almost meditative effect on the body. For many of us, the act of “coloring” is also a much-needed return to childhood, as it was a favorite pastime of so many of us. But what we’re talking about here is an adult “adult coloring book” — specifically a gay coloring book from the year 1964 that offers a campy look into mid-century queer life.
Clearly not intended for children, The Gay Coloring Book was billed as “a great little gay gift for a gay friend.” And check out this hilarious marketing copy, taken from a 1966 print advertisement and best when spoken out loud in your best Paul Lynde impersonation:
But now everyone knows you absolutely have no right to call yourself gay if you don’t own a copy of this funny, sexy, fantastic picture-story with which to send all your friends into gales of laughter.
That same ad describes it as “Superb illustrations, sophisticated lines and gay wit that marks a new era in this field.”
The Gay Coloring Book introduces you to Percy, a 20-year-old gay man, as he navigates the world. You meet him, get a glimpse at his “fruity” apartment and meet Percy’s framily — his “mother,” the older gay friend who brought Percy out of the closet (and referred to as “she”); his butch grandmother (seriously, she has a jawline that could stop a Buick); his circle of queer friends, referred to as “sisters” and “aunties”; his (sugar) daddy and his drag-loving uncle.
You’ll also meet Percy’s many tricks in The Gay Coloring Book, referred to as his “acquaintances.” While straight people at the time — and maybe even now — may have been confused at much of the coloring book’s terminology (swapped gender pronouns, coded language), its intended queer audience of course would have easily deciphered it. And as a side note, it’s pretty amazing how much of the queer vernacular hasn’t changed all that much since 1964, don’t you think?
Much of The Gay Coloring Book is what you’d expect from a humorous, uncensored dissection of gay life in 1964. But what you may not expect is that it has a somber, downright sad ending. The coloring book goes from a spread showing Percy’s 21st birthday party in his apartment — a shindig that looks like a helluva time — to the coloring book’s final page, in which the party is literally and figuratively over: Percy has been drafted into the Vietnam War. Gone are his fabulous clothes and devilish smile, replaced with a baggy, ill-fitting uniform, a frown and what looks like Army work duty.
Did Percy make it back from Vietnam? Was he able to return from war and continue his proudly queer life of parties, cruising and general fabulousness? We’ll never know. (Here’s hoping Percy was caught in the Army showers getting frisky with a fellow private, only to be discharged under the military’s “no fairies” policy, and was shipped back to New York City, where he eventually fulfilled his dreams of starring on Broadway.)