The New York Review of Magazines


By Joel Meares

Circulation: 200,000
Date of Birth: 1992
Frequency: Monthtly
Price: $5.99

The 18 months since the election of Barack Obama — and with him, the passing of Proposition 8 — have seen gay marriage rights denied in New Jersey and New York, and revoked in Maine. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is still in effect, despite promises to the contrary, while abroad, a bill before the Ugandan parliament proposes the death penalty for homosexuals and jail for those who don’t expose them. Flick through the pages of Out, America’s most prominent gay magazine, and you wouldn’t learn any of this.

Out has stayed out of these debates and true to its mission — to be a kind of out-of-the-closet Details, reveling in an unabashed idea of “gayness” that encompasses disco, mesh and Capote. To that end, a September redesign carved the front and back of the glossy book into three pretentiously titled new sections bracketing its features and fashion pages. There’s “Foreground,” devoted to fashion, music, fitness and style; “Symposium,” which covers esoteric matters like Norman Mailer’s gay boy Friday; and “Surveillance,” a catalog-like section advising readers on the best hatchbacks, clothes racks and instant cameras on the market.

The tone of these pages is snappy, light and readerly. Readers are schooled in gay musical history, where a list of best comebacks includes Kylie Minogue and Judy Garland, and advised on how to dress like Jean-Michel Basquiat. There’s a nifty breakdown of the differences between deodorant and antiperspirant — try Botox for anxiety-caused pit-stains — and my favorite piece: “Get a Great Ass.” Always keep your back straight, a personal trainer says. “Curving it outsources the work to your back and leaves your butt jiggly.”

My jiggly butt and I would love all this if there were meat between the low-cal bread. But what’s in Out’s center leaves me hungry. In February’s issue, which was published after the New Jersey marriage vote, all four features were profiles and none even mentioned the development in Trenton. Instead, we’re off to Argentina to meet a teenage photo blogger and to London for a sit-down with the latest British thesp to invite the “Is he or isn’t he?” question. The fashion pages then take us to Puerto Rico for a 16-page swimsuit spread where we learn that Speedos are out and mesh, abs and cut-offs are in. The writing is rarely sparkling enough to justify the political blind-eye. All too typical is writing like that in Gareth McLean’s profile of waifish actor Ben Whishaw, unimaginatively employing the much overemployed profile pivot: “No one, it seems, is more surprised by this astonishing ascent than Whishaw himself.”

Better is a piece on Moroccan writer Abdellah Taia, which touches on the troubling anti-gay sentiment taking hold in his country. Indeed, there are examples of grit and goodness here and there. Still, the most significant gay-themed journalistic work of the year, Matt McAllester’s piece on Baghdad’s gay pogroms, “The Hunted,” was found in a mainstream publication: New York.

There is, admittedly, a nod to activists in Out’s annual Out 100 issue. Dan Choi, Chaz Bono and James Neiley, the 17-year-old who spoke memorably to Vermont’s state legislature three weeks before it passed gay marriage, share page space with Adam Lambert and Neil Patrick Harris. But it’s Lambert, the inky-haired provocateur who publicly came out after coming in second on American Idol, who has dominated Out’s pages all year.

In his editorial letters, editor-in-chief Aaron Hicklin devotes more space to contemplating whether Lambert is out enough — adequately, publicly, spectacularly gay enough — than to advocating for the rights of those who have more to worry about than fending off the paparazzi. In an open letter to Lambert in the December issue, Hicklin bemoans the restrictions Lambert put on Out when he agreed to appear on its cover and the too-tame interview he gave to Details. The message: If you’re going to come out, Adam, come out.

It is this issue of outness and the process of coming out that drives the direction in which Hicklin pushes the magazine. He writes in his October editor’s letter: “Of the 300-plus entries for Out’s inaugural Best Gay Short Fiction Contest, at least 301 were coming-out narratives. To quote Dale Peck, who chaired the judging,  ’It remains, for whatever reason, the primary gay narrative.’”

I get it. I came out just over a year ago. It’s a tough journey, and, for me, an ongoing one. It deserves coverage. But reading Out, the flagship gay publication in this country, I am left wondering: What comes next? What might the secondary gay narrative look like? What happens when the closet door shuts behind you? From what I’ve seen, that’s when the next fight begins. In New York, in Maine, in California, in Baghdad, in Marrakech and in New Jersey, battles remain to be fought. For now, Out seems content to remain on a beach in Puerto Rico.

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