In the process of coming out, gay magazines have been a beacon to many gay men and women. Their existence, particularly in the pre-Internet era, signalled that there were others out there.
In all aspects but that of sexuality, membership in a minority is usually signposted from birth, whether by skin colour or cultural uniform. Homosexuality is not: it is a discovery that one makes for oneself. It is therefore disorientating to suddenly become part of a minority, or to realise that one belongs to yet another minority.
Gay magazines have been for many the first stop in understanding what this disorientation means to the individual and have therefore played a fundamental part in what we have become and the way we live now.
This history of the lesbian and gay magazine is a testament to that process. Here is the first of three personal recollections from Polari’s British writers, Paul Baker, Abigail Wiseman and Bryon Fear:
From Recipes to Pecs:
A brief personal history of gay magazines
The first I knew about gay culture was from seeing the rock musical Tommy at the age of ten. Early in the film, blind, deaf and dumb Tommy is left by his parents to be sexually abused by his uncle Albert, a slobbering dirty old man in a mac – the sort of pervert who was the subject of “stranger danger” public warning adverts in the 1970s. As Tommy’s parents arrive home, uncle Albert is shown reading Gay News, with Tommy tucked up in bed, as if nothing had happened. Despite the fact that uncle Albert was a pretty awful role model for gay people, the fact that he was reading a magazine with the word GAY in the title opened my eyes to the possibility of people out there, who were like me and organised enough to put a magazine together.
Gay News (which later morphed into Gay Times and is now inexplicably called GT) began life as an inky, itchy over-sized newspaper in the early 1970s. Along with gay magazines of the time like Quorum, Lunch and Jeffrey, they are a strange reflection of a very different era, when a commercial, relatively public and unashamed form of gay culture was starting to get off the ground. Before the 1970s, and away from back streets, public loos and parks, men who liked men were not catered for very well.
You had to ‘make your own fun’ in those days.
Travellers to America could get their hands on beefcake magazines with exotic titles like Vim and Tomorrow’s Man, but in the UK we had to make do with the rather more dour 1960s magazine Films and Filming which occasionally had not-so-subtle homoerotic content and often featured personal adverts from ‘bachelors’ who were looking for ‘friends’. Films and Filming was the closest we got to a gay magazine in the black-and-white days of pre-liberation.
The decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 paved the way for a new set of magazines, where for the first time openness about sexuality was allowed. These magazines tended to be edited by intellectuals and activists with next to no PR or marketing experience, and (often hilariously) the content reflected that. Compared to today, there is a dearth of advertising (the back page of Quorum was often left completely blank, as if the writers just ran out of things to say – unthinkable in a modern magazine now).
However, some of the articles in these 1970s gay magazines were intelligently written, daring and thought-provoking (such as pieces on bisexuality and cottaging), while others are quaintly reminiscent of a slightly more nelly Women’s Weekly, with problem pages, horoscopes, recipes (!), short stories and poems.
It was a poem, of all things, that got Gay News into trouble, when in 1977 the paper was found guilty of blasphemy. The poem in question,“The Love that Dares Speak its Name” by James Kirkup, was about a centurion giving Jesus a blow-job after he’d been crucified. It was targeted by a clean-up campaign from Britain’s favourite insane housewife, Mary Whitehouse, and her National Viewers and Listeners Association. It is still illegal to publish Kirkup’s poem, though it is reasonably easy to find online.
In the decades before the Internet, despite the occasional run-in with moral crusaders, gay magazines played an important role in providing listings about clubs and pubs and other organisations, as well as operating as a dating service via their personal columns. It’s difficult to imagine now that a ‘profile’ consisted of a 30 word description with no picture, and that people would actually write letters to each other, enclosing passport photos or naughty Polaroids, before arranging to meet.
It must have taken weeks to arrange sex – so much for the instant McSex of Gaydar’s “What you want, when you want it”.
As the 1970s ended and the 1980s began, articles about AIDS started to appear – and the magazines began providing much-needed information and news about the disease and safe(r) sex. They also began reporting on reactions from the increasingly hostile mainstream media.
Terry Sanderson’s mediawatch column in Gay Times was normally a depressing if informative read throughout the 1980s, as he described an endless litany of tabloid homophobia, which became more and more unpleasant. It was no wonder, then, that during the 1980s, the personal columns in Gay Times started to resonate with culture-negating phrases like “straight-acting”, “non-scene”, “discreet” and “no fems” as the writers of personal ads struggled to disassociate themselves from appearing like a Daily Mail stereotype.
Oh yes, there was a lot of self-loathing going on in those days. Give yourself a big pat on the back if you got through the 1980s without getting totally screwed up.
Yet there is an endearing earnestness about the gay magazines of the 1970s and 1980s. Even the male models in the soft porn magazines like Him and Zipper appear charmingly innocent – there are few tans, bodies can be on the puny side or a bit overweight, hairstyles are bad, and body hair is unkempt. The men look more natural, they are not perfect, but they are attractive without trying too hard.
Compare them to the waxed, steroid-‘enhanced’, six-packed, disco-titted, sun-bed tanned, air-brushed models that started to appear in Gay Times and noisy newcomers Boyz, AXM, Attitude and QX from the 1990s onwards.
Gay Times used to feature pictures of gay celebrities or icons on its front cover in the 1980s and early 1990s – can you imagine Jimmy Somerville getting on the front cover of GT now? By the mid 1990s a change was afoot and now the rules were that the front cover was always a meaty young orange torso, with almost every other issue featuring the word SEX in big bold capitals. Inside, more pumped up bodies were used to advertise everything from escorts to insurance.
I find it difficult to read Gay Times or any other gay magazine now without feeling intimidated, that my body isn’t good enough, that I don’t have the right clothes, the right tastes, that my lifestyle isn’t urban enough, that I’m a boring, unfashionable, ugly, old loser who lives in the sticks. I also resent that these magazines claim to be about lifestyle or even gay culture, but they’re really just soft porn dressed up. If I want porn, I’ll go and get some thanks. But how can I concentrate on this (possibly fascinating) article about Lily Savage or Lily Allen when there’s a picture of a 16 year old in a lily-white posing pouch suggestively sucking a lolly-pop on the opposite page?
I’m not sure why Gay Times has renamed itself GT – perhaps the word gay is now so unfashionable, so tainted, that the magazine can only refer to itself with code-like initials, a hark-back to the 1950s when codes predominated. I certainly don’t feel proud or liberated when I read gay magazines of today.
I feel like a dirty old man.
It’s a shame that gay magazines have become so commercialised over the last 20 years, now touting a narrow definition of what is considered acceptably attractive, along with a greater focus on sex and youthfulness. But it’s also understandable – magazines must ultimately sell copies if they are to survive (does anyone remember the now defunct Fluid or Bona?), and in an increasingly competitive market and a society already saturated with free Internet porn, the gay magazines and those who advertise in them have had to adapt and find new tricks to sell themselves. It’s not just gay magazines that have gone down that path – magazines aimed at heterosexual men and women are also increasingly in the business of making their readers feel bad about themselves.
At least uncle Albert would like the current magazines. But it would be nice to see the odd blasphemous poem or even an anachronistic recipe or two amongst the ads for gay wedding organisers, plastic surgery and sex-on-tap. I’m working on my own blasphemous gay poem at the moment – it’s about Mary Whitehouse having lesbian thoughts about the Virgin Mary while following a recipe for curried trout.
The Revolution starts here.