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.
The Banana Republic ad that appeared in Out's third issue
Goff: ACT UP’s messages, among others, were starting to resonate. Clinton had said he’d end the ban on gays serving in the military, and Banana Republic, which was owned by the Gap, started running these ads, one of which featured two guys. It was like the sky was falling. Banana came into our third issue with that campaign, which made all the rest happen. Absolut had been in the gay market for a year, but that wasn’t news. Benetton was considered very weird as an advertiser -- this was at the moment they ran the ad with a guy dying of AIDS and looking like Jesus -- but Banana Republic was blue chip.
Shahid: After the ad ran in Out, USA Today had a headline, “Banana Goes Gay,” or something like that. It was the first time anyone had seen an ad with two guys in an intimate context.
Conrad: Of the 50 magazines I’ve worked for, I never experienced the big news of landing every major (and not-so-major) advertiser as I did at Out. It was always a big announcement, and always another victory in terms of the marketing [community] realizing the importance of gay/lesbian consumers.
Stewart Shining, photographer: I remember the Rupert Everett cover (Fall 1992), and thinking, Wow, Out’s come a long way. At the time, he was really, really popular and there he was on the cover. It was a mile marker for me.
Goff: The biggest cover was getting Keanu Reeves (July/August 1995), making the case to him that the only way to deny the gay rumors about him marrying David Geffen was to deny them in a gay magazine. The RuPaul cover (December 1993) was one of my favorites -- it just sort of came together, like, Oh, Baby New Year! RuPaul should be holding it. Ru was having her first moment there.
Conrad: I take full credit for that cover. That said, I have never worked with an editor more open to the whole staff’s creative input than Michael Goff -- who also had an exceptionally keen eye for images and ideas that worked.
Shining: Michael Goff and Sarah Pettit were really yin and yang. Michael was very effervescent and all big ideas and really enthusiastic and upbeat. And Sarah was super sharp, very savvy, very business-oriented, very practical. If Michael had some crazy idea, Sarah would try and talk him down to earth.
Signorile: Sarah would sometimes tell you very bluntly what she thought about something, and we had knockdown, drag-out fights about a million things -- but then we’d always go out for beers afterward. What I really liked about both Michael and Sarah was the faith they had in writers, the faith to say, “Here’s something really great, here’s something important, go and do it.” I went to Michigan, to cover the Jenny Jones murder, and to Hawaii, to write about the gay scene there, and I went on the road with gay truck drivers in the Northwest. It was the place for me to do the kind of reporting that I was really interested in doing and that needed a longer forum.
Goff: Sarah was always on the money. If she came in and said we needed to do an article on a gay opera, we were like “OK, whatever you say.” And wouldn’t you know, The New York Times would do it six weeks later.
Shahid: One of Out’s big successes was the Greg Louganis cover, when he came out about having HIV.
Goff: The Louganis story was one of the only stories that I wrote. Barbara Walters had the exclusive on it. We were going to give away advanced copies of Out, and she sent us something that was so strongly worded that we couldn’t give out the issue.
Shahid: Out used to have great parties to celebrate each issue, and everybody wanted to be there -- it was cool to be invited. It was like a club you belonged to.
Goff: We had a lot of parties. There was a march on Washington and we took over an entire train car. We invited all of our friends who were journalists and basically had them captive on this train for three hours to hang out and have them talk about the magazine. They all wrote about it. We had a blast, and we got them to pay. We said, “Look, we’re reserving this train, if you want to be on our train car, give us 75 bucks.”
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.
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.
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