Sexual Politics and Queer Publishing

By Michael Bronski


The news sent shock waves through gay and lesbian literary and publishing circles. On December 4, Sarah Pettit, the editor-in-chief of Out magazine was fired by Henry Scott, Out’s president. Pettit had held the position since January 1996. Pettit was on Out’s founding team five years ago and has been one of the most visible lesbians working in the publishing industry. On December 9, Scott announced that James Collard, the editor of the British magazine Attitudes, which labels itself a "post-gay" magazine, would become editor-in-chief in late February 1998.

While sudden replacements and lateral moves are common in the publishing industry the dismissal of any prominent gay or lesbian public figure from an important job is notable, but Pettit’s firing has, for many, become a symbol of the tensions that often exist when gay men and lesbians work together, particularly in a gay-owned workplace where often a utopian vision of easy collaboration exists. These tensions may center on immediate working conditions, but are frequently indicative of issues of inequality in the broader culture: Who has power? Who has money? Who has control? Or, more bluntly, issues of misogyny, sexism, and gender discrimination.

As in most disputes of this sort, many of the specifics of the firing are contested by each side. Pettit claims that she learned of the job termination when she discovered that Scott had already been engaged in a month-long search for her replacement: "It came as a complete shock. I was stunned. I had been at Out for its entire history and had no warning this was about to happen."

Scott counters that Pettit should not have been surprised. "Her contract was up for renewal on February 28, 1998," he says. "In September I told Sarah that unless there were some serious changes in office management I was not going to renew her contract." He also adds that while Out was doing well financially and was showing a profit for the first time, and during Pettit’s tenure advertising pages increased 8 percent and circulation rose by 5 percent, Out’s organizational culture and management style was seriously strained. "The office was imperious and authoritarian, writers and other editors were denied the basic respect they were due," he says.

But Pettit says that she was never warned that her managerial style had to change. Instead, she recalls the September discussion as a collegial, but intense talk about budget for an issue. "It is unheard of in publishing, or almost any other profession, not to issue written warnings or memos about an unsatisfactory performance. I received none," Pettit says. "I was dismissed without cause and for no stated reason. If they actually had reasons, they obviously would have stated them to protect themselves against a lawsuit."

Speaking of which, Pettit says she’s considering suing her former employer for breech of contract or sex discrimination. Making matters worse is the issue of a severance package. Scott did offer one, but Pettit claims that the offer was "to pay me two more months to finish my existing contract and was so low as to be insulting," and that, on the advice of her lawyers, she turned it down. Scott, meanwhile, says that he is willing to negotiate, "like any management offering with a severance package I started low and expected to go higher."

So why was Sarah Pettit fired? Scott acknowledges that Pettit was an "intelligent editor" but that she was "too cautious," and that Out was taking itself too seriously. "We did a series of focus groups and discovered that while both gay male and lesbian readers buy and for the most part like Out it was not "essential" to their lives: it was a "want to have, not a need to have." We wanted it to be sexy and serious, to have more wit, and an edge. Scott claims that Pettit was not the person to bring a new, needed "edge" to Out and strenuously denies that the dismissal has anything to do with gender politics or a change in Out’s editorial direction.

Yet Daniel Mendelsohn, who Pettit brought on as one of Out’s few paid contributing writers in 1993, and who quit over Pettit’s dismissal, says Scott’s actions were gender based and sees the hiring of Collard as a bellwether of changes in Out’s editorial direction. "Phrases like ‘edgy’ and ‘post-gay’ feel like code-words for less serious features as well as let’s-get-rid-of-the-women. Edge and wit have nothing to do with gender," he says.

Perhaps one reason Pettit and others are charging gender discrimination has to do with an email debate that took place in late November over Pettit’s abilities to edit a magazine for both gay men and lesbians. While everyone agrees that a more male-oriented market poses unique problems for a co-gendered gay publication and may influence (even passively) editorial direction, simultaneous to the job search to replace Pettit, author and activist Larry Kramer, Out magazine columnist Michelangelo Signorile, and Sexual Ecology author Gabriel Rotello were angry over some of Pettit’s editorial decisions.

What sparked the unhappiness was Pettit’s decision to publish two pieces by Village Voice editor Richard Goldstein. The first was a lengthy, in-depth critique of Rotello’s Sexual Ecology; a controversial book that received attention for its contention that gay men’s sexual promiscuity—and by extension gay male culture—was one of the root causes of the AIDS epidemic. The second piece was a breezy run down of the very public battle of words being fought between Sex Panic, a pro-public sexual liberation activist group, and writers like Kramer, Signorile, Rotello, and Andrew Sullivan who are in favor of same sex marriage, and have written negatively about gay male promiscuity, public sex, and the overt sexualization of much of gay male culture.

Kramer (as well as Rotello and Signorile) felt that Pettit’s editorial judgment (evidenced by her decision to print the Goldstein pieces) was wrong-headed. These writers and such community notables as Judy Weider, the editor of The Advocate, Urvashi Vaid, Daniel Mendelsohn, Henry Scott, and various Out editors engaged in a brisk round of email debating (which has since found wide distribution on the Internet). In the middle of the debate came an email from Kramer (to Pettit) that pointedly brought the issues of gender to the fore: "I find it beyond acceptable, for instance, that Out is entirely edited by lesbians now. That you can be so passively hostile [well, not even so passively] on this current issue [the Sex Panic debate] is such a slap in my face, in Gabriel’s face, that it becomes doubly painful that we have no recourse to anyone on your staff who knows what the fuck we are talking about....The Advocate too is now becoming more lesbian slanted because of its editor [Judy Weider]. But the Advocate has strong ownership input, and from men who are exceptionally politically motivated. The ownership of your magazine is invisible. So you and your fellow editors, all women, are left to deal with us as you see fit. I would rather you made it a lesbian magazine entirely. I would not pretend to assume what would interest a lesbian audience or to cast such rigid parameters around this content as you have cast, are casting, around us."

In a community that gives, at the very least, lip-service to the idea of male and female equality and endorses an ideal of lesbians and gay men being able to work together in a caring, intelligent manner, Kramer’s remarks are shocking and disconcerting. Aside from the fact that he is wrong about the gender composition of Out’s editorial staff—four out of the eight editors listed on the masthead are men—Kramer’s remarks assume (or seem to assume) that lesbians are incapable of understanding issues that concern gay men, or are so unconcerned as not to be interested in them.

Pettit says she was "stunned" by Kramer’s remarks, adding that "to know that they were off the wall did not make them less hurtful." Daniel Mendelsohn points out that Out senior writer, Anne-Christine d’Adesky, is one of the leading experts on HIV/AIDS treatment issues. Long-time activist and writer Urvashi Vaid characterized Kramer’s remarks as "incredibly misogynist" and "absurd." She noted that shortly after this email exchange Kramer wrote a New York Times op-ed piece blaming lesbians for not urging gay men to act more responsibly about safe sex. "Apparently Larry believes dykes make better mothers than magazine editors."

But Henry Scott maintains that Kramer’s complaints had nothing to do with Pettit’s dismissal. "We had already begun a search for Sarah’s replacement six weeks earlier. You don’t hire someone from London on a weeks notice. But more importantly, the Goldstein pieces, or anything else to do with gender balance or gay male sexuality concerns were simply not issues in looking for a new editor."

But can this exchange be separated from the larger context of gender relations? Vaid thinks not. "Out magazine’s claim is quite expedient and self-serving. I’m sure it did not help Sarah that prominent writers were attacking her judgment and editorial acumen. Both the emails and the Pettit firing reveal the old truth that those who own the presses control what is in them—lesbians do not own very many of the general interest gay/lesbian/bi/trans-oriented publications in this country."

Meanwhile, much of the public discussion around Pettit’s firing has been over Out’s editorial direction and Scott’s statement that he’s seeking to attain that as-yet-(un)defined edge. Urvashi Vaid says, "there is no question in my mind that gender has everything to do with Sarah Pettit’s being fired from Out. I suspect that it was an economic decision based on the thinking that Out will be, or could be, more successful as a magazine aimed at gay men." Vaid is not simply discussing who buys Out—subscribers are currently 69 percent gay male and 31 percent lesbian—but the economics of advertising. "If we are looking at what ads bring in money, what ads you need to get to make more money, we are looking at ads aimed at a male market. Out, like all commercial publications, is market driven and the bottom line is that men have more money than women. Advertisers know that and that is where they will put their money."

Pettit acknowledges this economic reality, and while she claims that she was fired because of a shift in Out’s editorial direction, this is ultimately short-sighted. "When Michael Goff started Out, he understood that its co-gender basis was necessary, it was what made it unique. Out can’t compete with GQ and Details. The marketing demographics show that though women readers make up just under 40 percent of Out’s readers, these women spend as much as the male readers. If Out—intentionally or through a slow attrition of losing female readers—becomes a gay male magazine they will lose their niche and ultimately their income."

Until now—under founder Michael Goff’s editorship and then Pettit’s—Out has been decidedly and decisively co-gendered in its editorial content and outlook, offering an even balance of both serious and lifestyle features. Henry Scott is clear in his determination that this will continue. "There may be changes in Out under James Collard but there is no question that we are committed to maintaining a lesbian and gay male readership. That is what Out is about."

But a lesbian contributor to Out who wished to remain anonymous is worried. "Let’s face it, it’s a struggle to maintain a consistent lesbian and gay male balance when much of the advertising and subscriptions are male oriented. As the editor, Sarah made sure that happened. I’m concerned it may not now. Most male readers probably could not care less about Out’s lesbian content." She may be right. Scott admits that recent focus groups showed that while lesbians read the articles about gay male concerns, almost none of the men interviewed could recall a single article that dealt with lesbian issues.

But this is a complicated discussion and one would need the spin control of a Solomon to neatly divide the content of Out into neat "gay" and "lesbian" categories. Under Pettit’s stewardship there were plenty of editorials and features for both genders. But is an article by Anne-Christine d’Adesky detailing cutting edge HIV treatment drugs of interest only to a gay man and not a lesbian health professional who treats people with AIDS? Sure, a fashion layout glorifying a trendy lower East-side glamour-whore-look may appeal more to women than men, but might not an article on the legal hassles of gay adoption (which used examples of lesbian couples) also be of interest to some gay men? Articles on police crackdowns on public sex are probably aimed at male readers, but how do you classify articles on Ellen DeGeneres or the murder of a female to male transsexual in the mid-west?

Pettit’s defenders all point to Scott’s desire to make Out "edgy" as code for a flashier, more service and fashion oriented publication for men. Yet market research indicates that this may not be in the magazine’s best interests. Sarah Pettit notes that while there has been at times a perception that Out’s gay male readers were more interested in the "service" aspects of the magazine—fashions, grooming, how-to-invest-as-a-couple articles—the recent focus groups that Out commissioned showed that most men wanted more in-depth, critical articles that examined social issues. Out has not been everything that every reader ever wanted and never will be. In magazine publishing the search for the edge is tantamount to the quest for the Holy Grail—endless and usually unobtainable, for it exists only in the fevered imagination of those who are seeking it.

In the meantime discomfort and concern over the role of gender in Sarah Pettit’s dismissal continues. Vaid thinks the Pettit firing brings into high relief tensions that have always existed in forging a co-gender movement. "I presume—or at least I hope—that very few men think like Larry Kramer does about lesbians’ ability to edit magazines that can be of interest to men, but the discussion brings up quite vividly the whole problem of men’s fundamental lack of faith in lesbian leadership. It also brings up the harsh truth that many men are not at all interested in creating mixed, co-gender publications or spaces, in reading about issues that may affect lesbians more than affect men, or in otherwise having to deal with lesbians."

In many ways gay and lesbian publications are caught in a double bind. On one hand, they may want to reflect a better world in which gay men and lesbians work, play, and struggle together. It is a world in which lesbians are as interested in discussions of gay male sexuality and AIDS coverage as gay men are in advances in combating breast cancer. A world in which income from advertising aimed at women is comparable to that aimed at men. Yet, in the material world this is not how things work, and the inequality that exists between all women and men—and that is replicated in the relationship between lesbians and gay men—is going to be an impediment to equality and freedom.              

Michael Bronski is an author and regular contributor to Z Magazine and other periodicals.