Spend some time browsing at your local newsstand, and you're likely to see gay magazines displayed not alongside pornography, but alongside men's magazines or the ethnic press. It's Playboy and Penthouse that now come in plastic envelopes, not their mainstream gay counterparts.
Glance at the covers, and you won't find the semi-nude hunk of the month, but female and male gay leaders in various fields--such as "gay super-model" Tim Boyce promoting Out magazine's current fall fashion issue and Gore Vidal, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, currently on the cover of the Advocate. Browse through the gay magazines, and you'll quickly find that the salacious ads for phone sex have been largely bumped in favor of classy pitches for airlines, computers and cars.
In short, and despite a conservative tide frequently hostile to gays, 1995 has been a banner year for a fast-growing, increasingly diverse national gay press. Paul Poux, vice president of the New York-based Mulryan/Nash advertising agency, said the 11 national gay magazines project $12.7 million in ad revenues in 1995, a 16% jump over the previous year, edging out the growth rate of the mainstream magazine market, and double that of the black and Latino print markets and of mainstream newspapers.
Paid circulation among gay magazines now tops 350,000, two-thirds of it going to the Advocate, Out and Genre. As recently as 1990, by contrast, the Advocate was virtually the only established national gay magazine on the market, with a circulation of 75,000.
Many liquor, airline, clothing, automotive and computer firms, which never dared advertise in the gay press, now run full-page ads, some specially tailored to this market. Saab and Saturn, for example, started advertising this year while Apple Computers began last year, Poux said.
Other national advertisers include Virgin Atlantic airlines; Chase, Chemical, and Citibank; Evian and Perrier; Days Inn and Holiday Inn hotels; MCI; Benson & Hedges cigarettes; American Express Travelers' Cheques; fashion companies from Benetton to Versace, and liquor companies from Absolut Vodka to Zima.
Typical of the new crop of gay-sensitive ads is one that shows a well-dressed man looking into the camera across a busy bar, and the caption, "When you get up the nerve to send him a drink, make sure it's a real drink. Dewar's."
The vibrant market put the 28-year-old Los Angeles-based bimonthly Advocate in the black last year for the first time ever, its editor says. Genre, too, reports that it's profitable. And while 3-year-old Out does not expect to break even for another two years, publisher Harry Taylor says revenues have shot up 70% this year, enough for the snazzy book to expand from publishing 10 issues this year to becoming a monthly in 1996.
In fact, the New York-based Out, a sort of gay Vanity Fair, recently surpassed the Advocate in circulation. Out's lengthier general interest pieces tend to be less politically pointed than the Advocate's, yet still cover topics such as "The Newt Era: Is It Good for the Gays?" and "Keanu Reeves Sets the Record . . . uh, Straight."
Editor Sarah Pettit, dismissing what seems to be a natural rivalry, said she does not see other gay magazines as Out's primary competition. "My question is not how are we doing vis-a-vis the Advocate," she said. "It's where are all the gay readers and why are they still not reading us?" Part of the answer may be inferred from the fact that 60% of Out's 100,000 subscribers request delivery in black plastic wrappers.
So promising has the market become that even though the existing national magazines are all privately held, the larger media conglomerates are sniffing around. Time Warner, for example, spent time and money developing a magazine to be called Tribe. Although that effort died on the drawing boards, "The way it traditionally works is that [mainstream publishers] will let magazines like us finesse the market over the next five years. Then, they'll come in and buy us," Pettit said.
All of this makes it harder to remember the hard times. When Jeff Yarbrough was named Advocate editor in 1991, he seemed to face two choices: Tread water and watch the publication slowly expire, or eliminate the classified sex ads, which made up 40% of ad revenues, and plunge more deeply into the red, gambling that in time the magazine could attract mainstream advertisers.
Yarbrough, formerly a reporter with People and for London's Sunday Times magazine, thought that the classifieds would forever get in the way of the Advocate's claims to serious journalism. So, he spun off the ads into a separate publication, the Advocate immediately shed a third of its heft, and rumors of its demise centered not on if, but when.
Today, the gamble appears to have paid off. The Advocate's profit margin again climbed by double digits in '95, he reports; the January 24th Roseanne cover issue was the largest seller ever, at 150,000 copies. Other cover stories in the past few years have included interviews with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, then-presidential hopeful Bill Clinton, director Oliver Stone, and movie stars Cybill Shepherd, Tom Hanks and Patrick Swayze. Louisiana white supremacist David Duke, as well as fundamentalist preacher Fred Phelps, have also been interviewed--Duke agreeing only if he were on the cover.
Yarbrough has broken some big stories. After it published an April in-depth interview with Candace Gingrich, an uncomfortable Newt Gingrich called a Capitol Hill news conference, his lesbian half sister by his side, proclaiming the theme of family unity.
The Advocate has also gone after some of its own advertisers. In one case, the magazine came across an American Airlines' memo following the '93 Gay March on Washington that instructed an outbound Washington, D.C., crew to change all blankets and pillow covers after landing in Dallas; the apparent fear was that gay passengers might transmit AIDS to subsequent passengers. After the Advocate reported on the memo, American promptly pulled its advertising.
Some interesting stories never made it into print. During the past few years, the Advocate threatened to separately "out" two closeted political leaders pursuing anti-gay policies. "We showed each what we had and gave them the choice of being outed on our pages, or coming out on their own," Yarbrough said. Both--whose names he would not disclose--"voluntarily" came out and have markedly changed their policies toward gays, he said.
Such a political edge is less apparent elsewhere. At Genre, editor Ron Kraft develops many of his ideas skimming Cosmopolitan and Vogue. The result is a fluffy lifestyle magazine for "the happy homosexual." About 45,000 subscribers receive the magazine 10 times a year for articles such as "It's Raining Men: How to Find Mr. Right." And while 28% of the Advocate's readers and 40% of Out's are women, Genre appeals almost exclusively to men.
Despite progress in gay publishing, Joe Dolce, editor in chief of Details, Conde-Nast's mainstream magazine for young men, thinks the magazines still have a difficult road ahead. "They have to placate skittish advertisers, constantly having to weigh editorial concerns against advertising concerns," said Dolce, who is gay himself.
Dolce doesn't feel threatened by the competition. "Our circulation is five times bigger than that of the largest gay magazine," he said. "We tell our readers that should they want the best fashion coverage, music coverage and writing, as opposed to a one-pointed focus on the gay community, they're better off reading us."
Dolce does see a place, however, for a national gay news weekly, a sort of gay Village Voice, perhaps with zoned editions for the major gay urban centers. "New York has no gay newspaper," he said. "Yet there's a viable national market just waiting to be tapped."
There may be a price for recent successes. Richard Rouilard, former editor of the Advocate now with Buzz magazine, believes that as gay magazines continue gaining national advertising, "They are transitioning from a more activist stance to increased complacency." The resultant slack, he said, has been taken up by the more than 100 regional gay newspapers.
The stakes are high. Karen Steele, advertising manager for Apple Computers, said Apple started placing ads in Out "because we've become increasingly interested in research indicating that not only is 6 to 10% of the American market gay, that market is also very affluent." Further research indicated that 60% of those in the gay market hold a college degree and that gays are "very brand loyal to companies that advertise first in the gay press."
"Advertisers are increasingly waking up to the value of this particular market," added Allen Banks, director of North American media for Saatchi & Saatchi. "In our view, the gay media represents an excellent, if still limited, growth opportunity."