Two weeks ago I read an interview with the editor of Attitude, Matthew Todd, in the Observer. Todd was talking up the magazine’s latest issue and how it addressed the “taboo” of gay men’s mental health issues. This is how Todd summed up the message: “It’s about low self-esteem and the self-hating gay man. But the time has come to find the strength to face it and realise that, while it’s not our fault this has been inflicted on us, we do need to deal with it.” My first thought was that it was a bit rich for the editor a lifestyle magazine to defer the blame for low self-esteem in so cavalier a manner. After all, the mainstream gay press is dominated by the muscular physique culture and this inevitably promotes low self-esteem in a great many people. But on second thought I decided this was rather uncharitable, and that it was nevertheless an important issue to raise in a mainstream publication. I didn’t think any more about it until I saw the cover of the “issue’s issue” and read Todd’s editor’s letter.
The edition, Todd writes in this letter, is “the most important we have ever published”. Its cover features the topless Danny Miller, a young straight actor who is playing gay in the ITV soap Emmerdale. According to Todd, this is because young readers “relate to his difficult storyline”. Really? That is not a reason; it’s an excuse. If this is their most important issue the cover should by necessity reflect that. Why not run with an interview with someone like, say, Stephen Fry, who has been through his own mental health issues? It’s not as if the cover has to feature a topless celebrity. The unappealing mug of David Cameron was on there for the election special after all. Todd then states that there are interviews with six gay men between 17 and 60 on the subject of happiness. He congratulates himself with the claim, “I make it my business folks, that we don’t just feature buff models and celebrities – tell your cynical friends”. This is disingenuous. The identity of a magazine is not defined by its occasional articles. It is defined by the cover image, the features, and the photography that dominates its pages. In other words, buff models and celebrities. And the line “tell your cynical friends” is nothing more than a smokescreen.
An editor’s letter is invariably about selling the issue, which is fair enough. Attitude is a commercial magazine. So what of the main article, ‘How to be Gay & Happy’, also written by Todd? “We live in a commercialised world where all the messages suggest you have to have a perfect body, be a superhot sex machine, be famous, be rich, be better, always climb higher and be in constant competition with everybody else.” Well, that pretty much sums up the modus operandi of the mainstream gay press for a start. Todd then goes on to say that, for gay men, the question of happiness is “a particularly prickly subject as our enemies have always spread the disgusting hateful lie that you can’t be gay and be happy”. What? This isn’t addressing the issue. It’s juvenile whining. It’s somebody else’s fault. We’re the victims. Etc. At some level everyone is victim to the demands of mainstream culture, whether they are gay or straight. What matters is how one manages that. To claim victim status is to avoid responsibility for one’s actions, and surely claiming that responsibility is what this should be about?
The word happy is used throughout as an idealised goal, but it is used as if there is an agreed upon meaning. At no point does Todd feel it necessary to address what it actually means. Instead he summarises a few books on the subject and translates the conclusions into some sort of armchair pop psychology. Own the problem. Heal yourself. Why is this a problem, you might ask? It is a problem because in the end it is not about living your life, but instead about adopting an alternative lifestyle defined by bullet points. The devil is not in the detail but in the overall message. The key part of the feature article is the “things you can do” list at the end. Take responsibility for yourself. Accept your body. Move on from being a teenager. Stop being so judgemental. What it should say is ‘stop reading the gay press because it condones all these things’.
The whole enterprise is, ultimately, meretricious. It only matters if you take it at face value. Attitude, like GT, is essentially a teen magazine aimed at grown gay men. Its emphasis is on dating, teen-pop and fashion. The occasional article on politics or adoption does not negate this fact. Perhaps that is why the article ends with a laid-back defensiveness: If you think it’s twaddle forget about it or toss it. This is further smokescreen to forestall criticism. This is a serious issue and it must be taken seriously and not at face value. The very idea that there is an ideal state of being called happiness is an unrealistic objective and therefore self-destructive. The article consequently exerts precisely the sort of pressure that Todd criticises when writing about our “commercialised world”.
It is all too easy to play the urbane sophisticate who accepts that this is what the mainstream gay press is all about. Perhaps to work from inside the belly of the proverbial beast is the only way to get one’s message across. Attitude has certainly broadened its scope under Todd’s editorship and he should be congratulated for that. But an issue such as mental health should lead an editor to call in the experts instead of rehashing talk-show clichés. The only really helpful page is the one that lists which groups to contact should you need help. The “issues issue” of Attitude is an irresponsible approach to a serious problem. It is ultimately a placebo.