45 Years of Stirring the Pot

At The Advocate we’ve worked hard to keep people talking about the issues of the day, though the response to some articles was not always what we expected. Sometimes we got it wrong, and sometimes, despite our best efforts (or because of them), we became part of the news ourselves.

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September 1969: The “Newspaper of America’s Homophile Community,” as The Advocate called itself then, relegated the Stonewall riots to page 3, while a still image from Midnight Cowboy featuring a naked Jon Voight took the cover.

April 23, 1975: The Advocate became a contender, landing an interview with up-and-coming star and Continental Baths diva Bette Midler. None other than legendary queer photographer Annie Leibovitz snapped the accompanying photo of Midler primping for a performance, while her PR team sweated over the “gay” interview.

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March 10, 1976:
Former San Francisco 49ers running back Dave Kopay was the first major pro athlete to come out when he shared his story with The Washington Star in December 1975. A few months later he spoke to The Advocate about being gay in the locker room and his decision to come out.

August 7, 1980: With an image of San Francisco as the cover, “Gentrification: Is the Gay Role in Urban Restoration Creating a Backlash?” centered on gays turning around rundown urban neighborhoods, sometimes to the detriment of African-American residents who found themselves priced out of their homes. Writer Thom Willenbecher took on the nuanced subject with aplomb, pointing the finger at racist gays as well as homophobic black city leaders. Willenbecher suggested the new queer, mostly white, residents partner with their racial minority neighbors on elections and improvement projects. Thankfully, Willenbecher didn’t forget that gays of color exist: “Gay blacks must stand up and be counted,” he urged.

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March 18, 1982:
The term AIDS wasn’t mentioned once in “Is the Urban Gay Male Lifestyle Hazardous to Your Health?” cover story. The mysterious illness at the story’s center was then known as GRID (gay-related immunodeficiency). A questionnaire from the Centers for Disease Control found that many of the infected were promiscuous, and some were drug users. Amid all the clinical discussion of T cells and Kaposi’s sarcoma, an overarching fear that the “fast-living” urban gay existence may have serious repercussions was evident.

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December 23, 1982: “Sock It to ’Em: The Foot & the Fantasy”: Yes, while AIDS was exploding, we devoted a cover to an utterly out-of-touch exploration of foot fetishes. (Or was it? After all, foot play is safe sex.)

February 17, 1983: The Advocate finally put AIDS on the cover, with the unforgettable image of three men in a bathhouse seeing, hearing, and speaking no evil. The article, “Coping With a Crisis,” was just as powerful, with writers Larry Bush and Nathan Fain asking scientists, doctors, and politicians what they were doing to halt the seemingly unstoppable progression of AIDS.

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February 5, 1985: At a time when gay people were mostly invisible on the small screen, “Gays on the Tube” explored the little representation that had taken place. The cover story pointed a finger at American icons like Jack Benny and Lucille Ball for featuring lisping, stereotypical queens, but acknowledged that things began changing in the 1970s, especially with the introduction of Billy Crystal’s gay character on Soap. And a new format was emerging that seemed more amenable to queer stories: the TV movie. Referencing That Certain Summer, Consenting Adult, and Sidney Shorr: A Girl’s Best Friend, writer Richard Laermer made the case that things were changing, albeit slowly. As evidence of the sluggish progress, when NBC turned Sidney Shorr into the sitcom Love, Sidney, the title character, played by Tony Randall was suddenly straight. When asked was about the change in the character’s sexual orientation, the hapless network publicists talked in circles.

“There was no actual reference to his homosexuality except on the pilot. But we had established him as a gay character,” said one press agent. And another: “It really wasn’t about a homosexual character. It was about an unusual family where a single man lived with a woman.”

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March 10, 1992:
“Vanity Fairies” explored the gay male presence at publications such as Vanity Fair and Vogue, and how these men influenced the larger culture. With a Bush in the White House and AIDS at its deadly peak, it was no small feat for people like Vogue creative director André Leon Talley and Vanity Fair editor Kevin Sessums to tell their stories to The Advocate (Marc Jacobs, then an out designer at Perry Ellis, made an appearance in the piece as well). Quoted throughout the piece was legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour (who in 2012 is a major marriage equality advocate).

“My features editor is gay, my art director is gay, and most of the fashion designers I work with are gay,” Wintour said at the time. “My business — as far as the men in it go — is a gay business.” Out of 100 men who work in fashion, Wintour estimated that “90 or 92 are homosexual.”

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January 26, 1993:
Speaking to political activists including the Human Rights Campaign’s Tim McFeeley, The Advocate predicted a gay-friendly future with the new Clinton administration. There was hope that Bill Clinton and Al Gore would help end the ban on gays in the military and pass a national LGBT-inclusive antidiscrimination law. But while the story was sober and straightforward, the cover image as not. Thanks to the art of Photoshop, the two most powerful men in the world were turned into glistening, muscled gay clones who would fit in perfectly on Fire Island. The now-legendary cover shocked many at the time, but we think Bill and Al likely got a good laugh out of it.

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February 9, 1993: At the height of his fame, and a year and a half before his suicide, Kurt Cobain spoke to The Advocate about his avid support for LGBT rights and came out as bisexual. He said people thought he was gay as a teenager, and admitted spray-painting “God Is Gay” on trucks and befriending queers in his hometown of Aberdeen, Wash.

“I mean, I’m definitely gay in spirit, and I probably could be bisexual,” he told writer Kevin Allman. “But I’m married, and I’m more attracted to Courtney [Love] than I ever have been toward a person, so there’s no point in my trying to sow my oats at this point. If I wouldn’t have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle.”

September 6, 1994: Rebekka Armstrong, the September 1986 Playboy Playmate of the month, came out as an HIV-positive lesbian in an Advocate cover story. Her incredible story, which included sex, drugs, and a commitment to survive, helped change the image of AIDS, which had been seen as solely a gay man’s disease. (The Renaissance woman is now a successful bodybuilder.)

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December 13, 1994:
Because it sported a cover line asking, “Is God Gay?” and an image of Jesus on the cross, many retailers refused to stock this issue. The story inside, which examined whether mainstream religions would ever embrace gay members, was much more tame than the shocking cover.

“‘Is God Gay?’” was inspired by Time’s ‘Is God Dead?’ cover story about religious apathy in America,” former Advocate editor in chief Jeff Yarbrough now recalls. “But also a bit by Rolling Stone’s cover story about Jim Morrison: ‘He’s Hot, He’s Sexy, and He’s Dead.’ We wanted the headline to be the story. And it was. The mainstream media ate it up, giving us a good, strong week in the news cycle. I must have done 10 interviews about that cover in a few days’ time, which back then was a lot. The story itself was rather benign, but that cover image struck America below the belt.”

March 7, 1995:  Shortly after the Republican revolution of 1994 that propelled Newt Gingrich into the position of speaker of the House, his lesbian sister, Candace, gave a prophetic warning:

“I would tell Congress that if some of the bills they are considering become law, it will drive some young people who are struggling with being gay or lesbian to suicide. That’s what scares me for the future.”

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April 4, 1995:
In the “Rumors” issue, John Gallagher and Alan Frutkin looked at why gay rumors don’t derail certain stars’ careers, specifically John Travolta, Jodie Foster, Tom Cruise, and Richard Gere (Travolta and Foster memorably appeared on the cover). “‘Rumors’” grew out of my impatience and contempt regarding the lack of gay celebrities who were willing to come out publicly at the time,” Yarbrough says. “AIDS was still in full effect, the community was reeling from political and social oppression, and these stars who — like it or not — could shape public opinion were intent on having it both ways. I was sick of having conversations with their flacks, and sometimes even the stars themselves, about ‘maybe someday.’ And we wanted them on notice: You keep blowing our friends in steam rooms around town and we’re going to come after you.”

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