The Morning After the Night Before: Out Celebrates 20 Years
By Alex Panisch
Early in the spring of 1992, about the time when the 46-year-old governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, was trailing both President George Bush and independent Ross Perot in the polls, an article in The New York Times noted a surge in gay media that was challenging the old consensus that gay press had been defined by protest and advocacy. Among several new titles was one that called itself, with pointed brashness, Out. Sarah Pettit, the magazine’s executive editor, told the Times, “Out will be a cool magazine, but if you don’t get it, you’re not invited.” Editor in chief Michael Goff added that, in contrast to much of the gay press of the time, Out would be a magazine “I could show my mother.” That this was ever a radical concept seems quaint today, with mommy-approved shows like Glee and Modern Family dominating the networks, and a weekly parade of smiling same-sex newlyweds in the Times’ own Vows section.
But in 1992, the landscape was vastly different. One billion people watched the Freddie Mercury tribute concert that April, but when the singer had died of AIDS five months earlier, the Times conveniently neglected even to tell its readers he was gay. The impulse that lay behind Out’s dedicated team of writers and journalists, including several émigrés from the defunct OutWeek magazine, which had scandalized Americans with a string of high-profile outings by columnist Michelangelo Signorile, was to equate being gay with celebration, not shame. “Out Is In” declared the launch cover, and indeed, in those heady first months, Out appeared to fulfill its own prophecy as advertisers -- including Calvin Klein and General Motors -- threw their support, and their dollars, behind the fledgling publication.
“We were seriously days away from shutting down a number of times,” says Goff, who had been an associate editor at Esquire and found himself calling favors from just about everyone he’d ever worked with as he steered Out into calmer waters. Jann Wenner, the founder and editor in chief of Rolling Stone gave advice on the prototype. The artist Ross Bleckner contributed some start-up funds. Sam Shahid, the legendary creative director for Calvin Klein who went on to create A&F Quarterly, was “wildly supportive,” says Goff. When Shahid moved to Banana Republic shortly after Out launched, he successfully persuaded the brand to advertise in the magazine -- ensuring that others would follow:
Michael Goff, editor in chief, 1992–1996: OutWeek was an inspiration for me because it was so powerful, though it never reached more than 10,000 people, I think.
Michelangelo Signorile, columnist and radio host: Michael Goff and Sarah Pettit had come out of OutWeek. We’d done a kind of newspaper type of a magazine. What about going to a national glossy? So I think they were really just trying to take it to another step; reach more people. In that sense, it did foster equality because it said, “Hey look. We have the same interests and the same outlook on life as a lot of other people.”
Sam Shahid, creative director, Calvin Klein, Banana Republic, and Abercrombie & Fitch: I remember someone saying, “Do you think it can make it?” and I said, “Yeah, we’d love to have a magazine like Vanity Fair that belongs to us.”
James Conrad, art director, 1992–1996: There was a lot of talk about how Out was too mainstream, too fluffy, fashion-y, celebrity, and controlled by advertisers. Was every single writer, photographer, staff member gay? Things like that.
Goff: A big question was what do we put on the first cover? How do you put a guy and a girl on it, but have it seem homosexual? The guy on the left is a friend of mine who now works at The Limited in Columbus -- he used to bartend uptown.
James White, cover photographer, issue No. 1: I was really conflicted over the whole thing. The girl wasn’t a lesbian; she was a model. The guy -- he was gay, he was a real guy, he was pretty butch, but the art director kept wanting him to vamp it up and be more queeny. They put color on his lips in the end, in post-production. This is a time when ACT UP was really going strong and people were pretty politicized, and I just felt like what we were doing wasn’t quite right in a way. It just felt fake and insincere.
Goff: There was a big fight about the editor’s letter. Sarah [Pettit] almost left, because I wrote, “Everyone was welcome,” and she said “Even gay Republicans?”
“Even gay republicans.”
Shahid: I said to Bruce [Weber], “We’re doing a campaign called Free Souls about young kids making love on the street -- only in New York and Paris can you do that, and I want two boys in it. We cast Mark Vanderloo, who was a big star at the time. He was actually just sitting on the wall with his arms around another guy, and Bruce whipped around and shot that.