The act of gerbiling, according to the Internet, is simple. In most instances, it involves a tube up the ass, followed by a gerbil up that tube. Some accounts suggest that the gerbil should be declawed as a safety precaution, but the main gist is to have the gerbil burrowing around one’s anus long enough to bring about sexual pleasure. One might lure the gerbil up the tube with a piece of cheese, or, inversely, light a flame under the funnel to send the gerbil scurrying. I have seen more than few suggestions that drugs (for the gerbil) might also be helpful. For men, the burrowing of the gerbil stimulates the prostate gland, which can provoke spontaneous ejaculation. For women, there are options on where the gerbil can be introduced (thanks to one porn video site, I can confirm this). But whatever the variants, the equipment at its most basic is: Tube. Gerbil. Orifice. The concept is really not that hard to follow, even if its execution might generate other complications.
More compelling than how it happens, though, is the question of how often. Investigate even a little and you’ll find a large part of gerbiling lore is taken up not with mechanics, but with the activity’s status as urban legend. As this Urban Dictionary entry reminds us: “Although the rumors of this practice have been around since the early 1980s, with thousands of Google references to this, not one documented case of the practice exists.”
So why does the endless fascination about gerbiling continue? How is it that, even now, we’re unable to state with any conclusiveness whether gerbiling first emerged as an actual sexual activity practiced by real people—or as mere titillating legend? Was there an Original Gerbil, an Original Gerbiler? The why and wherefores of gerbiling seem bottomless.
I SMELL A RAT
In the hard-boiled clichés of noir fiction, there is often a rat to be sniffed out—one that scurries and hides—but is always betrayed by his miserable scent. This premise pretty much works in our case too; just substitute one rodent for another. In the 1931 film Blonde Crazy, a mobster by the name of Bert Harris (played by James Cagney) points a gun at his victim and says what is now a rather notorious line (that, like our gerbiling story, seems to get tweaked with each retelling): “Mmm, that dirty, double-crossin’ rat.” The culprit here is one Joe Reynolds and, in this instance, he’s hiding in a closet.
The rat and old Joe in the closet: they have never been so close as in the case of gerbiling. “Gerbil-stuffing,” as some call it, has since entered the pantheon of Stuff Gay Men Do. While some contemporary folklore include tales of rodents inserted up women’s vaginas, the very first mentions of rats in asses are explicitly tied to male homosexuals.
Folklorist Norine Dresser digs through this history in her 1994 essay “The Case of the Missing Gerbil.” With a title that nods to Raymond Chandler’s own detective stories, Dresser seeks to find the narrative origins of, to use her precise phrase, “rodents inside rectums of homosexuals.” The tales she relates appear more than a little apocryphal (Dresser says as much), but they have somehow travelled from the realm of hearsay into that of maybe-so—like so much to do with gerbiling. One story goes like this: during the Vietnam War, American soldiers would dodge the draft by letting a rat tail dangle from their anus and, as such, signal their homosexuality (then strictly forbidden in the military). In an odd way, these men seemed to anticipate the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy by preemptively show-and-telling, though, of course, to different ends.
In 1990, a piece titled “The Trouble with Gerbils” ran in the LGBT publication The Advocate. In it, media critic Catherine Seipp mentions a TV weatherman from Wichita, Rick Segal, who was pressured into resigning from his job because of gerbiling rumors. Scant consolation to Segal but he wasn’t the first newscaster to be so afflicted. In the early 80s, as is recounted here, a Philadelphian KYW newscaster named Jerry Penacoli suffered career damage after a rumor started that he had visited a local emergency room to have a gerbil removed from his colon.
THE RUNAWAY GERBILER
Two local newscasters, both prominent in their cities. Celebrity: this is what really drives a good gerbiling story. A rumor is always more salacious with someone famous attached. In Seipp’s 1990 article, she describes a conversation with a supervisor for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who estimated having heard gerbiling stories attributed to at least ten different celebrities over the past couple decades. Especially during the 80s—when these tales were at their buzzing prime—the whiff of gayness that came with handling a gerbil brought some truly offensive smells to the happily, concertedly heterosexual halls of Hollywood.
Now, enter the most notorious (supposed) gerbiler in the history of gerbiling, the one whose very name you’ve anticipated from the start of this piece: Richard Gere. Speaking of the angel city, William Faulkner once described it with the following disdain: “Hollywood is a place where a man can get stabbed in the back while climbing a ladder.” And it does seem that at the height of Gere’s hot glory, someone decided to whip out the gerbil—and stick it up his ass. The story (and as far as we know, that’s all it was—a rumor, a myth) went something like this: sometime in the 80s, Gere was admitted to the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai, an LA hospital, because a gerbil had gotten trapped in his rectum. The gerbil was successfully removed, and Gere went on to star in his most successful film to date, An Officer and a Gentleman—triumph! But that’s not to say that the gerbil did not leave a significant mark.
Jokes about Gere and Gerbil (who, at one point, was tagged with the casually racialized name “Tibet”) became fodder for media cheap shots. Dresser posits that the story of Gere’s gerbilectomy was “much more wide-spread and enduring than its predecessors, with associated allusions in tabloids and sly references on radio and TV.” During the 1992 Super Bowl halftime, ‘In Living Color’ TV stars made reference to it. Sam Kinison milked it in his lead joke for the 1990 out-of-London music awards, which was broadcast to the largest audience then yet connected by satellite.
Now this is where the unknown provenance of Gere’s gerbilectomy begins to grate on me. The above allusions were all made post-1990, but ask any Gen Xer and you’ll be told that Gere’s story was permeating the gossipy ether for years before then. Don’t take my word for it or anything, but the alleged gerbilectomy happened circa An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and definitely years prior to Pretty Woman (1990). Yet it was treated as a new rumor when it circulated in 1990.
While commercial internet wasn’t in existence for these earliest mentions of gay gerbiling, one site offers a clue as to where one might begin to chase the gerbil paper trail. Straight Dope author Cecil Adams received a letter about gay gerbiling dated March 28, 1986 that asked about “the mechanics and philosophy of gerbil stuffing.” Cecil’s response is consistent with others of its ilk in that it concludes with his hands thrown up:
I’ve checked with numerous sources in both the gay and medical communities, and though everybody has heard about gerbil stuffing, every attempt to track down an actual case has come to naught. The whole business sounds completely nuts, and implausible to boot.
Unlike others, though, Cecil does pull out at least some descriptive (if not verified) threads:
Rumors of gerbil (and mouse or hamster) stuffing have been circulating since about 1982. In 1984, a Denver weekly said it had a confirmed report of gerbilectomy in a local emergency room. The Manhattan publication New York Talk reported several years ago that New York doctors first caught on to stuffing when they started encountering patients with infections previously found only in rodents. But no such case has ever found its way into the formal literature of medicine.
If gerbil rumors did start circulating around 1982, then they coincide with An Officer and a Gentleman, Gere’s last big hit before Pretty Woman. The date of the Denver publication—1984—would also coincide with what was probably the first printed citation of gerbiling, by one Jan Harold Brunvand.
n search for an authority on gerbiling, you may wish to consult a learned volume on the subject. Which learned volume? Well, the pickings are slim. The Wikipedia entry on “gerbilling” refers to American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand’s Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, Ed.1 (which draws on information from academic journals). Brunvand also wrote a short piece titled “The Colo-Rectal Mouse,” which appeared in the “Medical Horrors” section of The Mexican Pet, his book on urban legends published in 1986. Here is a section from that entry:
In Fall 1984 I heard five versions of this story from places as scattered as Pennsylvania, through the Midwest, Colorado, Utah, and southern California. Correspondents—particularly from New York and California—have continued to mention the story through 1985. In one recent variation (“gerbiling”) it is said that the gerbil is first put into a plastic bag and given a shot of laughing gas to pep it up a little.
Now, I’m not saying that those 1984 stores included Gere, but I’m not not saying that either. When I emailed Brunvand for further details, he declined my request for an interview. After providing a few citational details for the Wikipedia entry, he told me: “Beyond this I have nothing further or new to say about ‘Gerbilling.'”
I wonder if Brunvand ever got a call from Mike Walker, the National Enquirer gossip columnist who had once spent months attempting to verify the Gere rumors. “I’ve never worked harder on a story in my life,” Walker told the Palm Beach Post in 1995. You can probably predict the end of Walker’s story. After much investigation, he was unable to find any evidence that the Gere incident ever happened: “I’m convinced that it’s nothing more than an urban legend.”
Brunvard had “nothing further or new to say about ‘Gerbilling,'” and the more I pursued this story the more I sympathized, wondering if there really was anything new to say, any originating story to track down, any First Gerbil to be caught. Or was there only a mirrored hallway, gerbils infinitely repeated in reflection, with the first one not even real—just an image of an image. The story seems an urban legend to its empty cardboard core.
Before abandoning this particular line of inquiry, I spoke by phone with Michael Musto, whose landmark gossip column La Dolce Musto has been running in the Village Voice since 1984, the year that interests us so much. His response didn’t open up any leads to the potential origins of gay gerbiling so much as negate them altogether.
As he told me, “Both are total myths: the fact that gay men like gerbiling, and the fact that Richard Gere likes gerbiling. So, y’know, to say that the Gere thing stemmed out of some gay phenomenon is kind of crazy ’cause that was a myth to begin with. It just became one of these incredible urban legends like the Rod Stewart story.”
When asked if he remembered when or where he first encountered Gere’s gerbiling tale, Musto couldn’t recall.
“So mostly it was just by word-of-mouth?” I asked.
“Yeah, it was just there and everywhere you turned. But,” he went on, “it was a much darker time.”
As urban legends go, the illicit rodent tale tends to have a few identifying hallmarks that stay consistent even as other details vary: the act often takes place in Los Angeles or San Francisco, and always with a gerbil. (Nevermind that you can’t even legally keep gerbils in California due to its threat to the ecosystem.) The paradox of urban legends, though, is this: if they are by definition unsolvable—if they are implicitly so very ungrounded from reality as to be legend—then why do we afford them so much attention?
Take the re-emergence of the Gere and Gerbil rumor in 1990, for instance. Its comeback, if you will. Dresser’s essay makes sense of this particular date by noting its concurrence with the release of Pretty Woman. In one version of the story, as it recirculated, Gere was accompanied on his trip to Cedars-Sinai by Cindy Crawford (to whom he was married from 1991-1995) by his side. What was it about his portrayal of a rich businessman onscreen or his marriage to a supermodel offscreen that prompted the resurgence in the rumor? Or did it have nothing to do with the particulars of his history right then, and everything to do with the fact that after an eight-year period of largely forgettable roles, Pretty Woman had given people a reason to talk about Gere again. All the many sides of Gere.
Shortly after the movie’s release, a phony letter addressed from the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was sent over fax across Hollywood accusing Gere of “gerbil abuse.” (The reason why Seipp was speaking with the supervisor for her Advocate article.) This phony letter is the most real document of the entire gerbil saga. Another thing that actually happened: in a 1991 interview, Barbara Walters asked Gere about certain “salacious rumors.” Gere responded with his own euphemism: “If I am a cow and someone says I’m a zebra, it doesn’t make me a zebra.” (A couple years later, a People story on Gere and Crawford’s relationship, including this mention of the rumors: “Nor has Gere appeared to take the talk at all seriously. ‘It’s kid stuff,’ he told an Associated Press reporter in February. ‘Kids in a schoolyard.’ Has his willingness to champion gay causes—most recently by being one of the first major stars to to take a role in the HBO movie And the Band Played On—fueled the talk? Friends say Gere is simply indifferent to such nonsense. ‘It is a nonissue to him,’ says Pretty Woman producer Steve Reuther.)
Other public references include a Century City Pet Shop in Los Angeles that placed a sign over an empty gerbil display reading: “Don’t worry, we’re not stuck, we just like tight places.” In 1982, cartoonist Gary Larson had sold a mug with the image of two cats mulling over a box of assorted rodents. The caption reads: “These little ones are mice…These over here are hampsters…Ooh! This must be a gerbil!”—in 1990, when the Gere gerbiling rumors took off again, the cartoon was sold in the form of a Christmas card.
By 1997, “The Simpsons” was treating Gere and Gerbil as old news. The opening sequence to “The Cartridge Family” episode shows Bart scribbling “Everyone is tired of that Richard Gere story” over and over on the chalkboard. While “the Richard Gere story” itself is too tired to bear restatement, Bart’s repeated inscription of the fact of the story stands as its own ironic echo of a tale tired, relentless, and finally unsubstantiated.