The Morning After the Night Before: Out Celebrates 20 Years

9.18.2012

By Alex Panisch

An oral history of how a group of dedicated people turned a big idea into a bigger reality.

Henry Scott, president and editorial director, 1996–2000: We competed with The Advocate at the time. I instructed our sales folks to never criticize The Advocate, but when they went on the sales calls, typically they’d go to an agency and the agency would say, “Who’s your competition?” and they’d say, “The Advocate.” The agency would say, “How are you different?” and we would say, “The Advocate is a multifaceted publication,” at which point our guys would open their briefcases and lay out all the Advocate porn titles on the table. It was a wonderful strategy because the agency people would freak out and decide not to advertise in The Advocate. So we were pretty tough competitors.

Shahid: Michael came to me and asked me to think about being creative director of the magazine. It was my dream, and I had Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber all lined up and excited, and then I ran into Michael, and I knew something was wrong. He explained that he was no longer with Out. It was a great loss, because he was so connected to the community here.

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In 1998, publisher Henry Scott fired Sarah Pettit -- who had taken over in 1996 from Goff -- and replaced her with James Collard, the editor of the U.K.’s spunky upstart gay magazine, Attitude. Pettit’s firing infuriated many of the writers who had raised Out’s profile and led to speculation that women readers were no longer going to be served by the magazine -- speculation that Scott was happy to confirm. Along with a new look for Out, James Collard also brought with him a controversial idea that the LGBT community was entering a new “Post-Gay” phase. The phrase had been coined by gay British journalist and activist Paul Burston in 1994, but unleashed on gay America it turned into a lightning rod for dissent. “Post-gay isn’t ‘ungay,’ ” Collard told a symposium at the New School for Social Research. “It’s about taking a critical look at gay life and no longer thinking solely in terms of a struggle. It’s going to a gay bar and wishing there were some girls there to talk to.” Among other casualties of Collard’s shake-up was Signorile, who was highly critical of the magazine’s new direction. After a furious discussion at Manhattan’s Blue Water Grill, Signorile threw a glass of water in Collard’s face and quit, upping the ante for Collard -- who lasted barely eight months in spite of radically redesigning the magazine and bringing in a clutch of fabled photographers. Audits also suggested that circulation was falling as the magazine chose to reconfigure itself as a gay men’s magazine.

James Collard, editor in chief, 1998–1999: I’d just moved from London to Chelsea, and I remember attending a party that my downstairs neighbor threw, and I think there were about 150 gay men, and that was all there was. That’s something that would feel quite odd in the U.K., and it was a moment when I realized, OK, this culture is very different from the culture I come from.

Shahid: James came into it, bringing his new ideas, but the city could be very snotty to outsiders -- especially at that time -- and he didn’t belong to the community, whereas Michael was the community. We had lunch, and he said to me, “What do you think I should do?” and I said, “You need to get a good creative guy in there,” and I recommended Dan Lori, who brought in photographers like Jean-Baptiste Mondino. The design looked great, the stories were great, but James sort of disappeared.

Collard: The debate in the U.K. at the time was all about whether we’d become “post-gay.” Perhaps my biggest mistake, of several mistakes, was to see if there was some kind of mileage in talking about “post-gay” that would generate buzz around the magazine. I think that got me into a whole set of arguments that I didn’t enjoy and which didn’t help me or Out particularly. When I went into that “post-gay” debate, I was still relatively naïve about the gulf between British and American gay culture and between my experience and the kind of New York or American gay experience, which was very different and probably much harder. In Britain, we were pushing against a door that was opening pretty easily. I think in America, where you’ve got a very vocal, very articulate, very politically engaged Christian Right, you’re pushing against the door and you’ve got someone pushing just as hard from the other side.

Michael Musto, Village Voice columnist and Out contributor: I really thought the [post-gay concept] was wishful thinking. I thought that he’d jumped the gun; we hadn’t gotten our place at the table. And then he went right back to England.

Scott: Out’s job was to be in the middle of all the discussions of gay life. People could hate us, they could love us, they could scream at us; it didn’t matter as long as they were talking about us.

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