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Scott Merritt, Playgirl's 30th-anniversary centerfold, is sitting in the bar of Toronto's Sutton Place Hotel remembering life on the other side of the closet door. "It's taken me a while to get to this point," Merritt sighs, "but I'm gay. It's time to live truthfully. I've always been gay, and I'm done playing the part of a straight man in any context at all--in photographs or in life. The road to this point has been personally rocky at times, but I'm tired of keeping my head down. I don't want to hide anymore, period."
Like many extraordinarily handsome men, especially those you first meet in magazines, he's slighter and somehow more accessible in person. In his photo spread in the June 2003 issue of the magazine, which famously--and with no discernable irony--bills itself as "Entertainment for Women," he appears as remote as an alabaster Donatello, posed poolside in the searing Miami sunlight. Today the model-turned-events promoter is tanned, tousle-haired, and unshaven, dressed in faded jeans and an elegantly shabby sweatshirt. His eyes are the same vivid blue as in the photographs, but they have a new warmth and immediacy. Merritt looks exactly the way you'd want a centerfold to look off duty: hot enough to inspire fantasy but real enough to make you want to take him in your arms and kiss him with all the passion his printed image was crafted to evoke.
Playgirl's readers must have felt the same. Merritt was chosen as Playgirl's "30th-Anniversary Man," not by the editors but by fans picking from hundreds of photographs that poured in from across America in response to an announcement by the editors that the magazine was looking for a one-shot birthday beefcake to represent its 30th year.
After three decades of successfully exploiting and marketing the male form, the magazine was looking for the jewel in its crown. Merritt had E-mailed his photograph in to Playgirl, and when he was selected, he was flown to Miami and photographed. Even by Playgirl's standards, the resulting images were stunning: clean, elegant, classically masculine but not aggressively sexual. The spread begins with Merritt dressed in white Jockey shorts then unfolds until he is nude. His expression is mischievous, almost elfin. Scott Merritt looks like he could have a mysterious side.
Contacted in New York, Playgirl editor in chief Michelle Zipp acknowledges that Merritt's coming-out is a surprise. "I didn't know he was gay," she says. "But I don't have a problem with a model being gay or coming out, and I don't know why anyone would. It's about a gorgeous guy, and if he's gorgeous, I really don't care about his preferences. I just write, generally, to women because most of our readers are women. It really bothers me when I get mail that says, 'That model was gay, and you lied to us.' That's not the case. We don't ask," she adds, laughing.
That attitude marks a sea change, says Dirk Shafer, Playgirl's 1992 Man of the Year, who famously came out on the cover of The Advocate in 1995 and turned his story into the mockumentary feature Man of the Year. "Playgirl, for the longest time, never admitted that they had a gay readership. [But] the magazine is very clearly geared toward gay men. Look at the ads in the back and the kind of men they choose for their centerfolds."
Merritt says he answered all of the queries on the Playgirl questionnaire honestly, including the ones about his most memorable moments with women. He had passionately loved a woman--the mother of his young daughter.
"When they asked me about fantasies, dreams, experiences, I didn't lie," he explains. "When I said that my wildest experience was making love for two days straight, I was talking about my fiancee, the woman I loved, the mother of my child. I was, and am, fine with having said that. I didn't mention my child in that context, because I wanted to protect her privacy at that point."
He pauses, anticipating the next question. "You may ask how I'm 'protecting' her by mentioning her in this interview, but this is something she will eventually read. She's a very smart young lady, and when she has questions about all of this, I will be honest with her. She knows I'm gay, and she's known since she was very young. I've never hidden that from her."
Being honest in front of Playgirl's camera was more difficult. On February 1 of this year, Scott Merritt found himself poolside in Florida with two female Playgirl editors, a photographer with a mission, and no wood. His boyfriend had supplied him with an emergency hit of Viagra, should he need it, but when he casually mentioned that to the editors, they urged him not to use it. "They said it would make my eyelids droop or something," Merritt says dryly. The humor of the situation wasn't lost on him. Trying not to be nervous, he gingerly stepped out of his trousers and put on the official Playgirl underpants.
The photographer shot some film. "Before lunch, I was thrown into the pool. They did some shots there, and I froze my nuts off. So I stood in the shower for 45 minutes trying to warm up." In preparation for the shoot, Merritt had dieted himself down to low-single-digit body fat, and in 65-degree water, he was chilled. Just then, they announced that it was time to take the "hard" shot.
Not knowing Merritt was gay, the editors offered him a huge stack of Swank magazines and sent him behind a privacy screen. Swank is a down-market porn magazine for heterosexual men with flexible standards of female beauty. Merritt frantically flipped through the ocean of rippling female flesh, cheaply photographed and printed, desperate for one of the few shots of men engaged in sex with the female models.
He was relieved to find a few, and he focused on the naked men in the pictures before facing the camera on the other side of the curtain. "The photographer was very professional, which helped," he says. "We'd had dinner before the shoot, and he'd explained all of the shots to me. I couldn't be 100% aroused, but we'd do a shot, then I'd go behind the screen and look at some images, then come back out. He'd say, 'Look sexy; look like you're enjoying this.' And we were able to pull the photographs off."
Not long afterward, Playgirl faxed him the layout, and he was impressed. But somewhere along the way Merritt began to wonder what he was doing. He knew Playgirl's readers would think he was straight, and it bothered him. "On one hand," he says, "I didn't really care, because I saw it as a modeling job, and I did it well. They didn't ask me if I was straight, and I didn't lie." On the other hand, in moments of introspection, he began to feel as though it was one more in a long series of masks he had worn since he was a teenager, framed in half-truths and technicalities. "I could rationalize all sorts of reasons to stay in the closet--protecting the feelings of family members, colleagues, the people around me. But suddenly it didn't seem nearly worth the personal cost."
Scott Merritt seems an unlikely candidate for the closet. Young, personable, unbelievably handsome--what's to hide? At the same time, Merritt's reluctance to discuss his homosexuality till now reminds us that even in 2003, gay men and lesbians agonize over how and when to come out. In Merritt's case the reasons stretch back across years.
He was born in an Ontario farm town. His parents separated when he was 2. "My earliest memory is that night," he says. "I remember phones being ripped off the walls, slamming doors, grown-ups storming around. It was very intense. I asked my dad where he was going. I wanted to go with him."
In short order his father remarried, and Scott went to live with his father and new stepmother. Two half brothers followed in quick succession. As a young man, his father, a police officer, had been scouted by the Chicago White Sox, and he passed that athletic ability along to Scott, who threw himself into sports as a way of processing the tensions at home. He showed a particular talent for track and field, settling into the decathlon as his primary event.
"In the world of athletics," he says, "if you're the decathlon champion, you are considered the greatest. I ate, drank, and breathed track." Athletics also channeled another growing source of stress: a confusing and frightening attraction to men.
"I loved the way guys were, they way they looked. I loved it," he remembers. "But I also had to protect myself. I wouldn't shower when we had gym class or go anywhere I could physically see a guy's penis, because I was afraid of getting turned on, of having an erection and being picked on for that." Nor, he says, did he explore sexually with other boys. "I explored by viewing magazines," he says. "I remember looking at the pictures, and I realized that I liked the poses the models were doing. They were sexy; they turned me on. I have a vivid memory of one particular image--a guy lying on his back, stretched out, muscles striated. It was in Playgirl. You could see his penis. Looking at that picture, I felt something I had never felt before."
Playgirl and its men are icons of adolescent gay dreams. However inevitably we may outgrow the all-American boys of Playgirl, trading them in for rougher, more overtly gay imagery, more men than not remember discovery of the magazine, and what it meant to them growing up.
Last year, in his luminous debut novel, The Year of Ice, author Brian Malloy evoked the Playgirl experience in the story of Kevin Doyle, a gay teenager growing up in the late 1970s. Kevin befriends a straight college student who buys him copies of Playgirl as well as The Advocate. But in the end Kevin has room to hide only one set of magazines.
"Kevin throws out the Advocates because, he says, they're 'too boring.'He keeps the Playgirls," Malloy says sheepishly on the phone from Minneapolis. "In the mid '70s, I stole Playgirls," he adds. "I never bought them, because I wasn't old enough. And I didn't have the nerve to pay for them at the cash register."
Once he got it home, Malloy remembers, Playgirl was precisely what he needed. "I got to look at nonthreatening, clean-cut guys. I think graphic depictions of gay sex would have been too startling for me when I was in my mid teens. As an adolescent, your hormones are raging, but it's also a very romantic time. When I was a teen I could imagine that the Playgirl model was my boyfriend and that he was there just for me, because he posed alone. It was romantic and erotic at the same time."
Scott Merritt's teenage Playgirl period ended badly. When he was 17 his stepmother found the collection of erotic magazines he had hidden behind the washstand in the family's Victorian farmhouse. "My stepmother didn't really want to deal with it," he says, his face darkening at the memory, "so she told my father." His father's fury was towering, apoplectic. "I said to myself, Oh, God, I can't be gay! How could I ever tell my father?"
He buried his secret urges and redoubled his efforts at track and field. If anyone was curious why the handsome, popular high school jock seemed sexually frozen when his peers were stirring to sexual life, he didn't hear about it.
At 19, with tensions near a breaking point, he moved out of the house. He met a young woman (Merritt requests that her name not be used, to protect her privacy), and they began to date. "I wasn't looking for a relationship or a girlfriend, [but] I saw this girl in my class," he says. "She was a very intelligent, a very quiet girl. We just kind of hit it off, and the next thing you know, I ended up having sex with her."
The two began a relationship, moved in together, and eventually got engaged. "She took a lot of control," Merritt says, adding that control was welcome at a time when his life seemed chaotic. They both applied to college; then his fiancee discovered that she was pregnant. They briefly discussed terminating the pregnancy but decided against it, a decision Merritt says he hasn't regretted from the moment he first laid eyes on his tiny blond daughter and fell irrevocably in love.
When the woman returned to school, Merritt took a job as a home-care worker and looked after their child. "My daughter and I were exceptionally close during her early years," he recalls. "If she fell down, she would usually run to me for comfort first."
Although, he says, he was faithful to his fiancee, his attraction to men began to resurface. Due to many factors, "one of them being the natural breakdown of the relationship," the relationship ended. She eventually moved to Los Angeles, taking their daughter with her.
"Right after [they moved away], I had my first experience as a gay man," Merritt says. "I was 25 years old. I did it once, and I figured, You know? This is right. It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders."
Yet Merritt didn't choose to identify himself as gay. For one thing, his ex had reacted with fury after he finally confessed his attraction to men. For another, their daughter was in a first-rate Catholic day-care facility, and "her schooling was very important to us," he remembers. Somehow the precocious child had already sensed his situation and had taken to telling her schoolmates, "My daddy likes boys." It seemed quite possible that her place at school might be threatened.
The child's mother vented her fears in no uncertain terms. "[She] said, 'Scott, did you ever stop to think what it's going to do to your daughter?'" he recalls. "'[Other kids] may not want to be friends with her because her father is gay!'"
Reeling with guilt, Merritt shut down again, spiraling into a period of hard living and drugs. He began a modeling career that took him to Hong Kong and Europe. He also began his first serious relationship with a man. He still wasn't entirely out: The two formed an events promotion company, and to the outside world they were merely business partners. But good things began to happen. Merritt was able to tell his father he was gay, and instead of ending his world, the news ended their estrangement.
After five years, Merritt and his partner have separated (he diplomatically describes it as being "on hiatus"). But he readily acknowledges that theirs was the most significant relationship of his life.
While Merritt was overhauling his attitudes toward gay life, so was Playgirl. Although the magazine still presents itself as completely heterosexual, its tacit gay-friendliness today has evolved significantly from its stance just a few years back. According to a gay former senior-level editor whose tenure at Playgirl spanned the early '90s, the magazine was aimed at women--end of story. "There were gay men who read it, but the editorial wasn't tailored to them," explains the editor, who asked that his name not be used. "The concern was Playgirl models showing up in the gay [erotic magazines] at the same time. I used to peruse the gay magazines--a real chore," he laughs.
Back then, the editor says, "a model coming out as gay would have been a problem because the fantasies the magazine was creating were styled to be women's fantasies. There was always the question of erections. 'Did women want to look at erections?' The consensus of the women on the staff--and I was the only male--was that they didn't."
In the last decade and a half, Playgirl's policies have evolved with the times on models, sets, and, yes, erections. "The gay readership is about 30%," Zipp says definitively. "It's 'Entertainment for Women' because there's no other magazine out there that caters to women in the way we do, but we love our gay readers as well."
These days both gays and straights occasionally accuse Playgirl of being a "gay magazine," says Zipp. "I find it interesting when people make that observation. I've read a lot of the gay [erotic] magazines and looked at the photos. I don't see Playgirl as being similar to them. The pictorial 'eye' is just a little bit different."
Judging by the feedback she receives, sexuality is in the eye of the beholder. "I get letters from our gay readers that say things like, 'I love Playgirl because it's not a gay magazine.' For them, we provide an 'insider' view--enabling them to share in a fantasy that although these guys are straight, they might be able to turn them around. Then I have women readers who say things like, 'These guys look a little gay because their chests are shaved,' to which I reply, 'So? Do you think he's sexy or not?' "
Amid the ceaseless debate about Playgirl's market, one thing is clear: As far as Zipp is concerned, gay boys no longer need to worry that Playgirl is not for them. "The overall mission and the overall attitude of myself and the staff we have now is very positive and very accepting," Zipp says firmly. "We have something in common, straight women and gay men. We both like men, and they have to be good-looking."
As encouraging as all this is, most gay teens still have no idea of the acceptance Playgirl's creators might feel for them. The story they expect--the story that Scott Merritt grew up with--is that everybody in the world is straight and if you're honest about being gay, you'll be hurt.
"It would have meant an awful lot to me," Malloy muses as he contemplates how an out Playgirl centerfold would have opened up his world as a teenager. "I was convinced that it was me alone on the planet. You hear the insults on the playground, but you don't think 'people like that' really exist. With teen boys, their rite of passage is getting their first girlie magazine and talking about it with their buddies. With gay teens, you don't swap the magazine with your friends. You feel so alone. Knowing the guy I was looking at was also gay would have ended the isolation and brought him into the realm of possibility."
If anybody understands that, it's Scott Merritt. "Looking at the situation now, I realize that by not making myself identifiably gay in the magazine, I've contributed to that fiction of universal heterosexuality. I wasn't being true to myself. By coming out, here and now, I'm taking control of my life. Hopefully some of the same young people who might have seen Playgirl will see this issue of The Advocate and make the connection."
Thanks in part to Merritt's action, that connection is likely to improve. When he began this journey, he had no idea that Playgirl would treat his speaking out in a friendly way. Who could have predicted that in coming out, Scott Merritt would bring Playgirl along with him?
As the summer dusk descends on Toronto, Merritt is talking once more about his ex-fiancee, now living outside Los Angeles with her new husband and his daughter. They're frequently in touch, building a new friendship. "She's a caring and loving mother," he says. "I have tremendous respect for her." He hopes for a renewed relationship with his daughter in the near future. "She means the world to me," he says fervently. "There is no one in my life that I love more. Being a fully integrated part of her life is something I dream of."
For Merritt, coming out is one step in that process. "Personal honesty about certain aspects of my life has been a big issue for me, and lack of it has cost me a great deal over the years, including time with my daughter that I'll never get back. It's all interconnected--honesty, dignity, order, pride. It's all connected to being out, to being a fully out, fully integrated gay man."