It’s 7:30 PM, Friday night, in SoHo, and I’m at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay Art for the opening night of “Boys of El Barrio”, the first ever retrospective of the work of Dana Bryan, who under the nom de porn Brian Brennan created the celebrated porn brand Latino Fan Club. Since 1985, Bryan has been creating work that celebrates the sexiness of Puerto Rican and Dominican men, first in photographs for Blueboy magazine, and then in videos with wonderfully funny titles like Hooked on Hispanics, Attack of the Amazing Colossal Latino, and Cuckoo for Cocoa Cocks. Around the room, fans and gay erotica enthusiasts stare at blown up covers from these film’s VHS and DVD boxes, which have been framed and hung alongside vintage photos of the LFC models. Though the internet has crippled Bryan’s business, he keeps pushing on, making new films, and now, thanks to SAGE, a New York-based organization that helps support older gay men, he’s been studying documentary filmmaking, which is why he keeps moving about the gallery with a video camera, capturing the entire experience for use in a later project. The evening before the show, I sat down with Bryan to discuss his long, long life in porn, working with hustlers and other non-professional performers, and how he broke down barriers in porn by celebrating guys who didn’t fit the industry standard.
Adam: We’re sitting here in the project space at Leslie-Lohman, and this weekend is the opening of your retrospective, Boys of El Barrio. Can you tell me what the show is and how it came together?
Brian: Actually the show was a surprise to me. The guy over there is Tony Zanetta, he and I went to school together in Buffalo, and he got this idea and emailed me because he didn’t have my phone number. I’d been doing photography for gay magazines for the past thirty years and videos for Latino Fan Club, and Tony’s idea was that we would exhibit the DVD covers and that they would really look great if we blew them up and took some of the text away and made them into posters.
It’s been nearly thirty years since you started Latino Fan Club. Do you have a sense of accomplishment with this show happening? Or does this fulfill a long-standing desire for recognition?
No, not really. Let me preface that by saying, in the past few years, I’m sure you know, the sale of X-rated DVDs that you buy at the porn stores or online has gone way down. The whole industry is practically in the toilet because of all the free porn on the internet. But after 30 years, I can now look back and see that there were three or four years that were the golden age of Latino Fan Club. I think I’m a realist. I had a lot of satisfaction and now I’m looking back and thinking about what I got out of it. I was in my element the whole time. It was wonderful. The parties we had at our building on First Avenue and 117th Street were legendary. The younger generation doesn’t know about that. That’s why I’m glad we’re doing this show. Even on 42nd street in 1980, that’s a period in New York City and in gay history that most people don’t know about. Outside of New York, people talked about how dangerous it was, and that you were going to get mugged, and the hookers and all that, before it was cleaned up. It’s an era that’s come and gone. It has a sociological and historical importance, and again, this show relates to that.
A lot of the oral and written histories of 42nd Street sex culture don’t emphasize the presence of Latino hustlers. Yet, I just read a wonderful book called NYC Hustlers by Barry Reay, and it talks about how the history of New York hustling is so related to the history of Puerto Rican men and the open sexuality of Puerto Rican gangs. This guy Thomas Painter, was documenting them in writing and photography from the early 20th century on and Kinsey ended up studying all this material.
Yeah. Growing up near Buffalo, I’d never seen a Puerto Rican man in my life. I moved to New York with my lover, and after three years we broke up, and all of a sudden I realized, wow, Puerto Rican guys are gorgeous. It was a big discovery on my part.
There weren’t any Latino guys in Buffalo?
No. The closest would have been the migrant workers who were mainly Mexican. But we didn’t even see that much of them because the farmers would have barracks way off the road and even when the Mexican people came into town nobody socialized with them. As a kid I never saw a guy that appealed to me.
I feel like, in a way, Latino Fan Club, along with things like Old Reliable, could be kind of considered the godfather of this internet, homemade porn thing. Self-made solo videos, porn with a low-fi aesthetic that’s very prevalent now online. There are many sites now devoted to black and latino guys. Do you feel like you’ve done the world a service?
Oh yeah, the reason I decided to start doing video porn was because around ’83 or ’84, I would rent VHS tapes, looking for gay porn that would feature Latin guys, and it was virtually impossible to find them. It was a few years later that Kristen Bjorn would do his stuff, but he would have Brazilians, and I was specifically turned on by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. There’s a certain look, and differences. I was the first person who basically started a line, and of course, in that period all the gay porn was being made in the West Coast. When my stuff started coming out it was labeled amateur right away.
But you kept going, despite that criticism.
In those days, if you were going to go into business making porn, what you did was you got the best equipment, a three-quarter-inch tape camera. I didn’t have the money to do it. I just used consumer VHS, but it worked because I was tapping into a market that had never been served and because I was working at Blueboy magazine, I took my first photoshoot there, and when I gave them the photos I said, “Instead of being paid extra for the photos, how about giving me an ad space?” That’s how I started Latino Fan Club – by mail order, which was terrific because I had advertising that didn’t cost anything, and it’s great to find money in your mailbox. My customers were so happy to see the type of guys who turned them on, they forgave that it wasn’t so polished. Maybe the image wasn’t so sharp, but they didn’t care.
When you came to New York, did you just jump right into working in porn?
No. When I moved here I started a company called Sky Walls, because I had seen a painting by Magritte which showed a bedroom with a mirror and closet and a shaving brush, and the walls are painted as though they’re transparent and it’s all sky. I thought that would be a beautiful room. So when I started Sky Walls I would paint a room with the clouds as realistically as possible so they would sweep around the corner and it felt more rounded than square.
So it was kind of decorative trompe l’oeil, you were making people’s rooms look like they were in that painting, floating in sky.
Yeah. People would have different ideas of how they wanted the clouds to be. Some wanted to see a layer of clouds and then blue sky above it. As if they were on a plane. I did that for a number of years.
Do you remember who was the first Puerto Rican guy you became fixated on?
Yes. The first Puerto Rican guy I met, I went into a peep show, and I picked him up and got to know him. This was in the early eighties. We became friends. What was interesting was that he said that he and his five or six buddies, what they would do, was come down together on the subway. They had no money and they wanted to see some movies, because 42nd street was where all the cheap movies were. They would come down, split up and go to different peep shows and go in the back and go in the booth and entice the gay guys into the booth with them, and they would agree to meet later at a certain time and they would all have some spending money and they could go to KFC or the movies. And it was was no big thing to them. They were so open about sex.
It didn’t affect their masculinity or their sexual identity to go fuck a guy or get sucked by a guy.
Not at all. But other cultures, forget it. The religious influence, the family influence, forget it. They were really uptight.
So the first guy was someone you picked up?
Yeah, he was the first guy I photographed. Then just about that time I got the job as art director for Blueboy magazine.
Blueboy at the very beginning was owned by Donald N. Embinder. When it first began it was really classy, beautifully designed, graphically and everything. By the time it was sold and resold and I got it, our budget was so low it wasn’t the same. When I first got the job, before our budget was slashed, there was an art director, and I was basically the draftsman doing the boards and there was an editor. They would buy a lot of photosets. At that time in New York, there was probably four or five photographers who did strictly gay photosets. The second year, the art director was dying of AIDS. Halfway through the year, they just cut our budget so much. I said, I’d love to start doing photography myself. That helped them financially. They gave me the ad space and all that. I think it was in the third year, I said, I’ll do the whole thing, for less money. But of course, I was basically scheming because I knew most of the guys I was going to be photographing, were going to be guys who turned me on. They didn’t object but Blueboy wasn’t what it started out as. We didn’t have a lot of fiction or articles. When porn was made legal, they really stressed that it had to have some socially redeeming values.
So you start to take over Blueboy, and you start to put your own type of guys in there. Is that at the same time that you’re doing Latino Fan Club, or is it prior?
I started Latino Fan Club May of 1985. That’s when I put my first ad in. So I was starting to shoot videos at the same time I was working at Blueboy.
In the eighties in porn, foreskin wasn’t celebrated, right?
Yeah. It was a fringe thing. Even now, there’s a big debate still. You’re either for it or against it.
Did you have an office for Latino Fan Club?
To begin with, no. I worked out of my home and when I started originally, I was renting a small house in Astoria, and then a friend of mine who was a fan, he and his partner were buying this former elementary school on 1st and 117th street and that was a dream come true. High ceilings, huge rooms, oh it was fantastic. We could build sets, and there was sunlight and everything. He was on the third floor, I was on the second. He had a deck with a pool and the boys used to love to hang out there. It was great. And then he and his partner sold the building to some big corporation and they were trying to get everybody out of the building so they could turn it into luxury condos and stuff. They were trying to kick me out because they said in my lease I couldn’t have a business going on, and I said I don’t have a business going on here, I have an office in the Film Center Building. So I got an office there right away. They finally bought everybody out but we waited and waited.
I know you’re making a documentary about it, but let’s talk about how you found the guys to be in your films.
Well before I had any thoughts about doing photography or video or anything, between relationships, I was out there running around and one of the hot spots was Port Authority on 42nd Street. Before the Port Authority, in the sixties, before I moved to New York, maybe the early 70s, male hustlers would be hanging out on 42nd Street itself which is shown in Midnight Cowboy. I don’t know why they ended up hanging out in Port Authority but they did. I enjoyed coming up and seeing the hustlers and you could play with a hustler in a peep show or if you didn’t want to take him home and take a chance that he’d rob you, you could take him to a porno movie theater, up in the balcony or something. There was also a kind of club on 8th Avenue, it had three or four levels, and now it’s one of those tour bus headquarters. But they used to have an elevator and each floor had themes. It was mostly hopping at night. There would be one floor that would be like Central Park at night and it had plastic bushes and trees and park benches and stuff, and another room that would have a cowboy bunkhouse. It was fun and a lot of guys used to go there.
So you would find the guys just out and you would say, do you want to come take some pictures?
Yeah. Before the internet you went cruising.
But when you would approach the guys how would you do it?
Well, if they’re a hustler they are trying to make eye contact with you so you didn’t have to search them out. If you weren’t interested you’d just look the other way. Friends of mine were very good, they wouldn’t know the sexuality of a guy, but if he looked great and was macho they would hit him up, because I always tried to find the most masculine guys. A lot of times those guys were straight, but my friends would just strike up conversations with the guys they saw and say “Are you interested in making some extra money?” I also found them at the Phoenix, which was a hustler bar on 8th Avenue between 13th and 14th. During the day they would have the girlfriends hanging out with them, and they had oil wrestling there which was terrific. They would wear little bikini briefs while wrestling. A couple older guys owned the bar and they announced one night “If you want to bring your camera and videotape the boys go right ahead.” It was like, “Wow, really?” That’s how I found the first guys who did some solos for me, at the Phoenix.
These guys were not porn professionals or even people who wanted to be in porn all their life and were looking to be discovered. Were they hard to work with?
No. At first I was nervous because they would come in like machismo tough guys. I would have a helper in the next room, who was this obsessed fan who came to our parties and said “You don’t have to pay me, I just want to work for you.” I said, “Okay, fine.” I let him work for me, which was good because then you’ve got some security. I could be in one room and he’s in the other and I don’t have to worry about the model. After a couple of months I said “I can’t not pay you.” So I started paying him. But the best part was working with the model and what surprised me was when the guy comes, he might be a little bit nervous, but they would usually just start stripping down without me asking them to take their clothes off. That was fun. Then of course, once they’re naked, they do feel vulnerable and so I would try to get them to talk and tell me about their life and their girlfriends and all that. That’s really important. Even now if I just meet new people for the first time I try to get them to tell me about themselves. I love to hear about people’s lives. I’m all ears. It sounds funny because here I am talking all about myself.
No, it’s great.
You find out so much from that. The toughest, scariest guy, which of course, that was the thing that would turn me on, that he was so hot —
“He could beat me up.”
Yeah! I didn’t really feel that way, but then they would turn out to be like little puppy dogs. They were so sweet. It’s a cliché, not always true, but two-thirds of the young guys I photographed, and they were all between 18 and 23 at the most, two-thirds of them, probably were ignored by their fathers if their father was even there. You could see also, in this culture, women are the sex objects, they’re the little princess, they get treated, complimented, and boys just act tough — “Be a man, grow up.” But where’s the affection? I think a lot of times I enjoyed it, especially as they got older and older, I became more like a father figure to them. That was the best part. When I’d have a one-on-one with the guys. Always at the end of the session, they were always really relaxed, because for the still photos they don’t have to have an orgasm. Some of them because they got so heated up, they would ask if it was okay if they jerked off. And of course they could, they needed that release. But at the end they would always say, “Wow, that was amazing. That was fun.”
There were some guys who were actually gay right?
Would that interaction be the same?
Sometimes. I took stills for the magazines of a lot of gay guys. Videos I tried to find and focus on the masculinity element because I was so tired of seeing L.A. videos where if they’re trying to get the guys to act tough and macho, it just didn’t look authentic. Half the time they looked like they had costumes on. They weren’t being themselves. I don’t know. You could just tell. Of course, people say, “Well, if they say they’re straight, but they have sex with guys, they’re not straight.” But it’s really how you define it. There’s homosexual behavior, but what’s in their hearts of hearts, what are they looking at when nobody’s judging them? They know what they are.
One of the things you did that was different was that you would show guys who were soft, rather than instantly hard.
Yeah. I would like to see the transformation. I mean sex is subjective, it’s different for everybody, but they say, whatever your career is, try to do something that makes you happy. We don’t know why certain things turn us on. I think it’s built in.
Did you jerk off to your own videos?
No! That’s the funniest thing! Actually, in the last few years I tried an experiment. I would find a scene that I did in 1989 to look at, and in a way I do see it more objectively because there’s all that difference. Now I find scenes that I don’t remember photographing. I don’t remember the boys, but now I find certain scenes on the internet that turn me on, from other sites. For some reason none of my stuff turns me on.
You’re probably critical of things.
And I’m remembering too much. The trouble we went through shooting the scene. What was going on that day. But I will admit because I was shooting so much, every couple of days, I was shooting something new, and once in a while a guy would come along, and they were all the type I liked, but not necessarily, sparks or something. But every once in a while the seventh or eighth guy, and I would be like wow. At the end of the session I would pay him, have him sign the release, and then ask, hey do you want to make 20 or 30 more? He’d say, why not?
That’s good. A lot of people say they don’t do that, but I’m glad you got to.
I’m very professional at first. But two hours later, when I’ve seen everything… It depends. If I see the guy has some kind of attitude, I don’t even ask him.
What are your favorite titles of your films?
Cuckoo for Cocoa Cocks. Even Lisa Lampanelli mentioned it in her standup. I don’t think she saw it but she noticed it.
It is a great, great title.
I love Roger Corman and the way he did everything. I always respected and admired him. I’m good at doing what he does. I don’t have to spend money to create something. I have Yankee ingenuity. I can take materials, make something out of it, which I think is great. Corman did this too, but all of a sudden I would go, “That would make such a great title” and I would say, “That’s the next thing I”m doing.” And then make the story to go with it.
I like Attack of the –
— Amazing Colossal Latino. Have you seen that one?
Through the years, each one I would do, it’d be like, okay I did that, now I want to do something different.
Some of your films would have sci-fi elements, comedy bits.
What are your favorite of your own films? Do you have one or two that you feel like were the best?
Early on I decided I wanted to make the first double VHS cassette four hour movie. It was called Spanish Harlem Knights. A gay reviewer at the time who wrote for magazines, his name was John Rowberry, I don’t know if you ever heard of him, he died of AIDS, I think he wrote for Mandate. He wrote a review that was like a college thesis. He went into all the sociological what this meant and what that meant. It was some review. It went on for like ten pages.
Jerry Douglas told me a similar stories of reading someone’s college thesis about their work.
Isn’t that great? Who doesn’t like fans?
How many videos did you release a year?
When I hooked up with Paladin as a distributor in 2005, I was doing ten to twelve a year. That was kind of hard to keep up with. But then everything went to hell because of the internet. So this year I’m trying to put my third one together and we’re not going to make it by the end of the year. Last year I think I only did four titles.
Did you leave and stop doing porn for a period?
No. I just slowed down.
Okay. I had this sense that you put it on hold for a period.
No, well, I slowed down suddenly when I met and got involved with Freeman, who starred in Cuckoo For Cocoa Cocks, who’s straight.
You got involved with him sexually?
Yeah. Which was weird. I spent the previous five years adjusting to the fact that I was not going to have sex with another human being for the rest of my life, and it was like, “What’s going on here?” And I of course, didn’t trust it. I thought it was a big act. But it was hot and sexual. It baffled me. If I was him, I could never do it. I couldn’t have sex with some old guy. I mean thank you Jesus. But it happened over six months, and he was engaged at the time, I met his girlfriend, and I didn’t know if she knew or not. It evolved, though. I mean, I would talk to my friends and said “He’s probably just hustling me.” I’m so used to hustlers all of these years. And they said, “Yeah but you’re enjoying it. Go with it. Dana, you’ve never gone beyond what you could afford.” If somebody needed some help financially, at the end of the photo session they would say “Do you have any work for me?” And I would say “I’m going to shoot a scene in a couple of weeks.” And they’d say “Can I have an advance?” And I’d give them 20 bucks, and my friends would yell at me but I’d say “It’s an investment. I know they’re going to come back.” As a teenager Freeman really was a bad boy, but over the next three or four years I just saw him evolve and our relationship evolved. But it always stayed affectionate and caring and he would do stuff for me. It’s still like that. He and his wife and his kids, I’m a part of the family. I have a brother who’s gay in Tennessee, I have two sisters in California, but I don’t get to see them much. I’m really close to Freeman’s family. The kids call me Grandpa.
And there’s no weirdness between you and the wife that you have this ongoing thing with him?
He thinks she never figured out that we had something sexual at the beginning. We don’t do anything sexual now. But he’s always grabbing me and he kisses me in front of her, and we always say “I love you” to each other all the time. She’s cool. Women are different. She goes nuts if she thinks he’s cheating with a woman. But I think she thinks, “I don’t know what those two men do, but you know, men are pigs.”
So how did things slow down because of your relationship with Freeman?
There was kind of a hiccup when after knowing him for four or five years, he married his girlfriend. They both grew up in East Harlem, and she had a little girl from a previous marriage, and he had a girlfriend that he got pregnant and she was a mess so he went to court and got custody for his little girl. So they had two little girls, and he was dying to have a baby boy. She got pregnant. Low and behold it’s gonna be a boy. We all moved in together in this apartment on 116th street. What I loved about him by that time, was I was really like his father. I loved the guy so much, just seeing how he had progressed and gotten better and straightened up his life and stuff. Their dream was to move to the country and have the kids grow up in that environment. So his wife and I said, if we’re going to move to the country, we both have to learn how to drive. So we went to driving school and got our licenses. We found a beautiful house up near Saugerties, New York, up on the side of a mountain. It was 200 bucks cheaper than the apartment we were renting in East Harlem. Now after a year of living up there, the extra expenses we didn’t figure on, like 700 bucks for heat, oil, oh my god.
That’s why it was so cheap.
They how are you going to make movies if you’re up there? I said, well, we gotta do the dream. I’ll figure out how to keep making movies, but it did prove to be almost impossible because I would try to get in contact with the boys who were still around and didn’t change their cell phone numbers. I’d try to arrange when we would drive down for the shoot, and half of them didn’t show up for the shoot. Finally after living upstate for two years, we said, okay we have to find a cheaper rent. They wanted to find another house so they could stay up there. I said I have to come back to New York. It’s the only place things can happen for me. I have to work, I can’t live on Social Security. I didn’t save my money, so…
It went in all the hustlers’ pockets.
Yeah. Ha ha.
Is he the only model that you keep in contact with or do you still talk to some of the guys?
I run into others here and there, but realistically with most of the guys, they really needed money desperately. If they weren’t hustling, they were looking for work, and with the whole cell phone situation and being young, after two or three months, they’d have a new number, and wouldn’t bother to tell me. So we lost touch. A couple of the models died of AIDS way back when.
What was your most successful video?
They all sold just about the same. There was never much difference. In general, if the emphasis is on a big cock like Super Sized or something like that they sell well.
How is Latino Fan Club different now than in its heyday?
Well because financially everything is so different, I don’t have the budgets. The glory days were when I could have seven, eight, nine scenes, and some of them would have four or five guys in a scene. I can’t have that anymore.
That’s the only real difference. Otherwise I would love to.
Do you ever think about bringing in other directors or finding new blood to reinvent the brand?
I did work with some other people. A friend of mine, he wanted to direct one, and he had an idea for one. It was called Hip Hop Body Shop. I was the cameraman and he directed it. Then I worked with another friend who directed and wrote one called Spanish Lessons. He did two sequels, More Spanish Lessons and More Spanish Lessons 2. I think those are better than a lot of the ones I’ve done myself. I have a lot of respect for him. J. Colina.
Is there anyone in porn now that you admire or feel like is doing your kind of work?
I don’t pay too much attention to what else is going on. I think a lot of interesting stuff is out on the web now.
What kind of stuff do you look at?
Personally, I like hidden camera stuff. I like amateur stuff. Anything that seems real and not staged. At the beginning I thought I had to think commercially and get the polish if I wanted to be successful, which was in conflict with the fact that I liked cinema vérité and things like that.
Like you said, most people didn’t care about the quality of what you were making. They wanted to see those guys.
That’s really the only thing that sells, at least, well, you can go online and see photographs of guys. But a guy buys a video based on the guy they’re looking at. Is this the guy I want to see?
Did you have any rivals?
Well what’s funny is when I started, I was the only kid on the block. Two years later, I see an ad in some publication, looking for latin models. I went “Aha, what’s going on here?” So I contacted him. We got together and were friendly. He wanted to work for me, and I said, “There’s no money. I do everything myself.” I had to have complete control. He was my competition. His company was Latin Connection. We would make digs at each other in our newsletters. I would refer to him as the “Latin Concoction”. All this silly stuff. We were really competing. Well, three months ago, I went over to SAGE, and who in the hallway do I see? My nemesis, Richard. Lamont is his stage name. He said, “Can we talk? Has enough time gone by?” I said yeah. Now we’re best friends. We both took the same class at the New School in documentary filmmaking. He has decided that he wants to do a book about our rivalry and I think it’s a long shot because there wasn’t really a rivalry. I said, “We’re going to have to make stuff up!” He said, “That’s okay.” It’s mainly his project.
What’s your day to day like now? You said you’re involved with SAGE, which is an important group in New York that helps connect older gay men. Do you live comfortably?
No. But that’s funny, both Richard, my former rival and I, we’re both at this age, we were talking about the fact that when we were young and had no money it was so depressing. Now over life you go up and down, and I’ve made lots of money. I was never foolish with it, but I never thought it would end, that the internet would come along and mess everything up. Now, a friend of mine has been renting me a room, and I’m looking for work. It’s really hard to live on Social Security. But I’m happy. It’s an experiment to see, how can one live on a couple of dollars a day. I look on it as a challenge. It doesn’t upset me. I’m glad I can figure things out. And look at this show.
I also spent a lot of time editing my website. I love the fact that if I want to change something I can easily. My roommate is a genius, he said, I have a two-year plan for you. “With everything I know about you you ought to be a teacher or an assistant to a professor and making good money.” He said I need a graduate degree, and he took me and applied to colleges with me. Now I’m going to SUNY Empire State for the spring semester. I love going to classes. Even taking that documentary class once a week at the New School, it was so great. I’ve been really lucky. The thing I love the most is designing the covers. The movie I’m finishing now is On the Down Low Part Two. I’m always busy. There’s always a little project going on.
Adam Baran is a filmmaker, blogger, former online editor of Butt Magazine and co-curator of Queer/Art/Film. His short film JACKPOT, about a porn-hunting gay teen, won Best Short Film at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and was recently featured on The Huffington Post, Queerty, and Towleroad, among others. He is a features programmer at Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival and NewFest in New York. In his spare time, he complains about things to his friends. “Fisting for Compliments”, his weekly musings about the intersection of sex, art, porn, and history, will appear every Monday on TheSword. You can contact him at Adam@TheSword.com and follow him on Twitter at @ABaran999. Check out his previous columns in the Fisting For Compliments Archive.