From Closet To Mainstream

In June 1947, a secretary at a Hollywood film studio began surreptitiously typing a newsletter for lesbians, Vice Versa, which she distributed in faint carbons to friends. "I venture to predict that there will be a time in the future when gay folk will be accepted as part of regular society," she wrote. "Perhaps even Vice Versa might be the forerunner of better magazines. . . which in some future time might take their rightful place on the newsstands beside other publications."

The newsletter faded away, but Lisa Ben's early yearning for the mainstream--chronicled in Eric Marcus's new book "Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights"--has emerged 45 years later in an outpouring of gay-oriented publications. The new magazines Out and Genre, the refurbished national biweekly The Advocate and the New York weekly QW, and the new catalog Shocking Gray are beginning to draw unprecedented attention in what has been a back-of-the-shelf fringe of the publishing world.

"It's a very exciting time to be living," says Michael Goff, editor in chief of Out, a blend of glossy art and vivid features due on the stands June 15. Of all the new magazines, it has the strongest publicity campaign and is taking the biggest risk-to try to appeal to both gay and lesbian readers who agree on politics but shop in different stores. Out and Genre, which is now a year old, are lifestyle publications, while The Advocate, which has added glossy advertising and stronger features, continues to focus on AIDS and gaybashing. Evolved over 25 years from a small newspaper, The Advocate claims 75,000 paid circulation, the largest in the country for a gay publication. "I spent a lot of money" on improvements, says The Advocate's new editor in chief, Richard Rouilard.

As in Ben's era, the people behind these periodicals dream of the day when gays and lesbians will bend the mainstream--when the president of General Motors borrows her spouse's pantyhose and the hot new Hollywood couple is named Fred and Bill. Such a change in American sensibility is unlikely, however, unless the gay press becomes much bigger and more profitable.

The advertising directors of the new magazines, and their enthusiastic liquor and entertainment advertisers, argue that in a recession dollars are best spent on affluent market niches. No one doubts college-educated gays and lesbians with no children have money to spend. A 1988 Simmons Market Research Bureau survey of readers of eight gay newspapers revealed an average household income of $55,430, compared with the $32,144 national average. The gay readers drank 2.7 times as much vodka and had 4.6 times as many American Express gold cards as the average American.

The new publications have better writers and more money than their pulp predecessors, due in part to an infusion of talented gays from general-interest publications. "There is a very healthy trend toward the professionalization of the gay and lesbian media," says Victor F. Zonana, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and organizer of the New York chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

As improved as the new magazines are, will they tap the hidden market of 14 million gay and lesbian adults? Some gays wonder. "I read three local gay newspapers, and then Vanity Fair and GQ," says one Chicago writer. "After that all I really want is pictures of naked men, and I go elsewhere for that."

Genre and Out have lured national advertising by banning the steamy personals and telephone-sex ads that sustain much of the gay press. They have also diluted political content, which may alienate social activists otherwise eager to show traditional loyalty to gay publications and their advertisers. "I don't know why it's any surprise that gay people can turn out totally worthless lifestyle magazines," says Robert Rafsky of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

Out's first issue offers everything from a report on AIDS research to a profile of a gay New York Times columnist to a seductive design for a "lesbian pleasure dome." Almost every article has a gay or lesbian angle, but "it appears that the marketplace will respond positively," says Gladys Oshins, senior vice president at the Hudson Media Group. She warns that magazine launches are as predictable as roulette. Some equally ambitious gay publications, such as Outweek, have crumbled in part due to vicious staff wars.

New products, no matter how attractive, often encounter customers not quite ready for a change. Genre publisher Don Tuthill wondered why his well-publicized magazine, displayed in the front of one store, wasn't selling well. Gay readers, he discovered, "just didn't see it. They'd go right past it and look for it where they always look, way in the back."