Sarah Pettit, the pioneering and outspoken lesbian editor who cofounded Out magazine, died Wednesday of complications from lymphoma after nearly a year battling the disease. She was 36 and had been the senior editor for Newsweek's arts and entertainment department since February 1999, until her illness sidelined her in the spring of 2002.
Pettit was just 25 when, in 1992, she joined forces with editor in chief Michael Goff to found Out, the nation's first glossy lifestyle magazine directed at both gay men and lesbians. The first issue hit newsstands that summer; the magazine went monthly in 1994. By 1998, it had the highest audited paid circulation of any gay magazine in history, selling an average of more than 130,000 copies per issue. In early 1996, Goff left the publication, and Pettit became sole editor in chief, a position she held until November 1998, when she was ousted and replaced by a British editor in chief who lasted less than a year.
A 1988 Yale graduate in comparative literature, Pettit moved to New York after college to work as an assistant editor for St. Martin's Press, but she dedicated her free time to AIDS and gay rights activism. In 1989, when Gabriel Rotello and Michelangelo Signorile among others--many associated with the direct-action AIDS activist group ACT UP--founded the rabble-rousing gay and lesbian weekly newsmagazine Outweek in New York, Pettit was hired as the magazine's third editorial staff member, the arts and entertainment editor. She stayed with the magazine until it went out of business in 1991.
Known for her uncompromising standards and her confrontational approach to problem-solving, Pettit won many fans and many detractors. She nurtured the careers of the writers and editors with whom she worked well, including Bruce Steele, the current editor in chief of The Advocate, whom Pettit hired as managing editor for Out upon its launch.
"She really kicked down doors and made people sit up and take notice," said Judy Wieder, editorial director for LPI Media Inc., the company that owns both The Advocate and Out, having acquired the magazine in 1999. "She was absolutely a pioneer."
As Newsweek's arts editor, Pettit landed high-profile exclusive stories on the Harry Potter movies, HBO's The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, the original cast of CBS's Survivor, and other subjects. Her brief but busy media career and dedicated activism earned her a number of awards, including the City of New York's Advocate's Award and the Yale Alumni Association of New York's Community Service Award, both in 1997. She had served as a guest editor at The Nation and had written for such magazines as Elle, Interior Design, New York Press, and The Advocate.
"Although Sarah was very serious about her work, the one thing she never took too seriously was herself," said Newsweek's Mark Whitaker and Dorothy Kalins in a memo to the magazine's staff. "She had a wicked sense of humor and joyous love of life, with all its quirks, that always made her wonderful company." Plans for a memorial service in February are under way but not yet final.