The Morning After the Night Before: Out Celebrates 20 Years


By Alex Panisch

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

Despite his efforts to reinvent the title for the new millennium, Scott was out by the beginning of 2000, amid rumors of financial struggles. Liberation Publications Inc., publishers of The Advocate, bought the title, subsequently promoting Judy Wieder to editorial director and installing Brendan Lemon as editor in chief. At a time of increasing visibility and an explosion of reality TV that catapulted gays and lesbians into the living rooms of Main Street America, Out found itself competing for space with mainstream media and -- eventually -- the Internet. At the same time, the sense of community that defined gays, lesbians, and transgender people in the ’90s began to fracture. By the middle of the decade, however, the rise of blogs and citizen journalism was challenging print media to take more risks and adopt a stronger point of view. In one of the seminal issues of Out, Michael Musto brought a new term into the public vernacular, “the glass closet,” his concept for those gays and lesbians who were out in every way except on record would categorize an entire coterie of entertainment A-listers. “The Glass Closet” issue of Out would both polarize opinion and ruffle feathers.

“Over the next two hours, there’s only one subject that she [Jodie Foster] firmly swats away. A recent Out magazine cover featured two models holding up pictures of her and Anderson Cooper’s faces in front of their own, under the headline ‘The Glass Closet: Why the Stars Won’t Come Out and Play.’ When asked if she has any response, Foster says, ‘Was that the one with the Popsicle sticks?’ Her thin lips tighten into a calm half smile of reproach: ‘No, I have no response.’ ”
—Entertainment Weekly, August 31, 2007

Musto: [In “The Glass Closet,”] I was pointing out the weirdness of people who lived a gay life but didn’t want to say they were gay on the record. They were sort of halfway between total closet and total out-of-the-closet. It was a weird middle ground.

Aaron Hicklin, editor in chief, 2006–present: From the moment I arrived at Out, I wanted to do that cover story, in part because I was frustrated by a glaring double standard -- our readers wanted us to put more gay celebrities on the cover, but the fact was that most of them were in the closet, and even those who were out wanted to avoid being seen as “too gay,” which meant avoiding ­us. If you look carefully at the cover, you’ll see a note to readers pointing out that the cover stars were models but that “one day we’d love to bring you the real thing.” That wasn’t a joke -- we meant it.

Musto: Sure enough, after the article, celebrities did start coming out. Not that long ago, I did an update, and it turned out that Anderson Cooper was one of the only holdouts. And then he came out, hot on the heels of Matt Bomer and Jim Parsons. There’s so few in the closet there’s almost nothing to write about.

Hicklin: If we don’t quite yet live in a post-gay world, we’re certainly moving into a post-closet world. Even in the six years I’ve been at the magazine, there’s been a dramatic shift in attitudes so that it seems increasingly arcane for a public figure to stay in the closet, or even to start their career in the closet. At the same time, young people are talking about queer identity as a way to express a more complex sense of identity -- whether it’s Justin Bond or Lady Gaga.

Noah Michelson, senior editor (2008–2011) and current editor in chief, Huffington Post Gay Voices: “One of the great things about working at Out was the opportunity to indulge in writing about the things I loved. It was like that with Lady Gaga -- I first talked to her in October 2008, when no one really knew about her. By the following spring, just after “Poker Face” had come out, we started pitching her, but it took a lot of work. Between trying to pull off the photo shoot and trying to pin her down for the interview, it looked like we were going to have to find something else. I had read an interview in which she talked about how she loved B-grade ’50s horror movies, and thought, What a great idea it would be to have Gaga dressed up as all these different horror movie monsters. So we sent her the idea, and she loved it. She and Ellen von Unwerth shot it in Belgium, where Gaga was performing. When they sent us the photos, we all sort of inhaled deeply because we were so excited by what they had done.

Hicklin: One of the amazing things about Gaga was how she’s become a catalyst for gay equality, using her celebrity to bring our inequality to the attention of her teenage fans. The fact that we now live in a country where a slim-but-growing majority supports same-sex marriage reflects the great distance we’ve traveled in a relatively short time. Photographing Neil Patrick Harris, one of television’s biggest stars, kissing his husband-to-be, David Burtka, for the cover of this year’s “Love Issue” would have been unimaginable even five years ago, much less 20. I think it’s probably the single most important, and telling, image that has ever been published in this magazine.

Interviews and reporting by Alex Panisch