Keeping a straight face

Month after month, the nation's largest gay and lesbian magazines feature heterosexual celebrities on their covers. Why?

By David Boyer

Published October 1, 1996 6:10PM (EDT)

Glenn Close, Keanu Reeves, Wesley Snipes, Michael Stipe, Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Calvin undies model Antonio Saboto, Jr., David Arquette, Newt Gingrich and perennial favorite Roseanne.

And that 's just the covers of Out.

The Advocate has served up Sting, Liza Minelli, Bruce Springsteen, Sharon Stone, Whoopi Goldberg, Jodie Foster and John Travolta, Bill & Newt, Catherine Deneuve, Patrick Swayze, Patrick Stewart, Howard Stern, Emma Thompson and, a few months later, her ex-hubby Kenneth Branagh. The Advocate too found room for Roseanne. In fact, she was the magazine's 1995 "Person on the Year."

As gays and lesbians are increasingly better represented on the tube and the big screen, so it seems are straights on the covers of gay and lesbian magazines. In fact, over the past two years, roughly half of the people who appeared on the covers of the nation's two most popular gay magazines -- Out (48 percent) and the Advocate (57 percent) -- were heterosexuals.

Instead of seeing images of themselves, readers of the gay glossies are treated to the faces of straights playing gays, straights denying gay rumors, straight ladies who sue lesbian magazines, straight ladies who love gay men, straight politicians who hate all gays (and ones that sell them out), as well as straight musicians who write a song or two about a gay person and, most recently, straight hunks who hock underwear to gay men.

So what's the rub? Why would niche publications targeting the gay community choose heterosexuals for the cover?

Jeff Yarbrough, former editor-in-chief of the Advocate, believes it's about giving the people what they want.

"If people bought gay covers we would do more of them," he explains, pointing out that Advocate sales are 40 to 50 percent higher when they feature straights on the cover as opposed to gays. "The readership loves when big, straight superstars talk to them directly. A lot of gay people need the straight world to acknowledge and make them feel good about who they are."

For Out magazine, the motivations are similarly market-driven. "Part of what makes Out a good magazine at this point is that we are responsible -- editorially and financially -- to our bottom line," says Sarah Pettit, editor-in-chief. "At the level of production that we take on, we need to sell a certain number of copies, so we need to respond to what our audience is telling us they want. They're telling us they want people of a certain size and recognizability."

Pettit, however, believes it's not the sexuality of the cover person that matters, but the person's recognizability and, thus, ability to move magazines. "Unfortunately, there are not as many well-known out gay faces as there are straight people who may be doing things of interest."

Others take issue with this market-wants-what-the market-wants-cult-of -celebrity strategy. Zelie Pollon, managing editor of the lesbian glossy Curve (formerly Deneuve) suggests it is not readers, but, like most magazines, advertisers that gay magazines have in mind when they decide who to put on the cover: "I don't really buy the argument that there aren't enough high visibility lesbians and gays out there not to have anyone to put on the cover. I do know it is far less threatening to have straight people on your cover. Far less threatening to advertisers and magazine buyers. But I really think a lot of it is for advertisers."

Pollon believes Curve's policy to avoid "straight covers" has hurt ad sales and may have limited its appeal, but is ultimately serving a loyal readership. In the magazine's five-year history, Curve has had one straight person on the cover, Kelly Lynch. "And," adds Pollon, "we got a lot of feedback from people who said 'No, we don't like this, we don't want this.' "

Like Pettit and Yarbrough, Pollon does believe some readers may be getting what they ask for. "I think [straight covers] are appealing to gay people who are going to say, 'This straight person is supporting me.' It's internalized homophobia. But I think [these readers] are a bit deluded to think this is going to change gay and lesbian politics."

Larry Gross, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, sees magazines like Out and the Advocate wanting to have it both ways: "They want to command a certain loyalty and respect as 'the voice of a movement' yet in all other ways they try to appeal entirely on marketing grounds. At some point you have to make a decision between [the two approaches] or 'the movement side' becomes a tattered fig leaf."

The Advocate seems to be taking this sentiment to heart. A recent cover featuring Judith Light (remember "Who's The Boss?") questioned this trend of "straights for gays," wondering if "our straight allies are helping or hurting our cause?"

In reality, probably a little of both.

David Boyer

David Boyer is a writer living in New York.

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