AOL’s buyout of Time Warner may have been this year’s largest new media/old media merger, but in terms of sheer market consolidation, PlanetOut’s purchase of Liberation Publications in late March was the most unabashedly triumphant. An Internet venture with more than $19 million in financial backing from investors like AOL, the Mayfield Fund and Eden Capital, PlanetOut produces PlanetOut.com, a gay and lesbian website that offers its 600,000 registered members a smattering of news, entertainment and lifestyle content along with what appears to be its main draw–an expansive, searchable database of personal ads (photos optional). By acquiring Liberation Publications, which has published The Advocate magazine since 1967 and which only a few weeks earlier had itself acquired Out and HIV+ magazines, PlanetOut became a multimedia conglomerate for the new economy. With the merger, PlanetOut not only owns the two largest gay and lesbian magazines in the country (Out‘s circulation is 115,000; The Advocate‘s, 88,000) but controls a broadband distribution network that, in the words of CEO Megan Smith, will allow the company to “touch the customer twenty-four hours a day.” A chilling thought, but one echoed by other industry insiders who celebrated the merger as a strategic marketing coup.
And yet, despite Smith’s proclamation that the merger would “rock the gay world,” outside of media circles it received little scrutiny. A few gay activists raised concerns about ownership concentration, but for the most part the gay community seemed neither to notice nor to care. In part this is because many gay activists had written off glossies like The Advocate and Out years ago, well before they were consolidated into one company–bemoaning the soft-focus feature stories on gay vacation spots and diet and fitness trends, the proliferation of ads hawking the latest high-end fashions and luxury goods, the obsession with celebrities and the aversion to anything that could possibly be deemed perverse, kinky or too political. Critics often registered these complaints under the rubric of “lifestyle”; the gay glossies, they argued, were simply “lifestyle publications” that manufacture and market a version of gay life that is increasingly commodified, depoliticized, desexualized, white and rich.
There’s a lot of truth to these critiques. In the early nineties, eager to cash in on the legendary gay dollar, gay entrepreneurs launched a stream of slickly designed magazines such as Out, Genre, Girlfriends and Curve. From its inception Out defined itself as a “gay and lesbian Mirabella or Esquire with a little bit of gay and lesbian Cosmo thrown in.” These magazines largely avoided controversial sexual content and advertising; the industry buzz was that “you could show them to your mother.” The Advocate soon reinvented itself along those lines, first redesigning and then altogether abandoning its personal ads.
But in some ways the charge that what’s wrong with these magazines is their preoccupation with “lifestyle” misses the point. It’s true that they eschew tough political issues in favor of fashion and glitz, but in any vibrant gay press there should be a role for publications that reflect and shape the myriad strains of gay and lesbian culture, whether or not they are explicitly engaged with politics. The idea of “gay lifestyle,” in other words, should not be written off; it just needs to be rescued from the gay glossies and the corporate brand-makers that keep them afloat.
Models of gay-lifestyle journalism already exist. Some of the most socially vital and widely read gay publications are neither national gay magazines nor gay and lesbian newspapers but local nightlife guides. As any gay traveler will tell you, these are essential to understanding the cultural, political and social landscape of a city’s gay community. Weekly guides such as New York’s Next and HX, Los Angeles’s IN and San Francisco’s Odyssey are distributed free in bars, nightclubs, coffee shops, bookstores and on street corners. Unlike The Advocate and Out–which avoid sexually explicit material in order to appease corporate advertisers, and which won’t take ads from escorts, porn producers, phone-sex lines and adult theaters–nightlife guides are inherently sexy products, because they’re intricately tied to the fabric of gay urban life. They cover local drag shows, plays, movies and concerts. Along with listing clubs, sex parties and bar nights, they post notices on community groups, health services and religious meetings. They depend on ad revenue from gay restaurants, bars, dentists and real estate agents as well as from the sex industry. In short, they give gay people information on where and when to meet, in person, face to face–a social function no less crucial now than during the days before Stonewall.
Make no mistake, the reader of the nightlife guide is primarily defined as a consumer, and a fairly wealthy one at that. The nightlife-guide reader is, as HX publisher Matthew Bank puts it, “someone who likes to go out, someone who likes to have fun.” And what fun they have. The average HX reader, for example, goes to 4.6 restaurants, 2.2 bars and 1.5 nightclubs a week, consuming some 6.2 beers and 5 cocktails along the way–a lifestyle no doubt facilitated by a $90,000-plus average household income. But this isn’t just about celebrating the fabulous lives of party-circuit queens. In an age where the biggest threat to sexual freedom is not antigay discrimination per se but the regulation of sexual behavior, pursued on the one hand by corporate censorship and on the other by antisex quality-of-life campaigns, the need to promote gay culture as sexual culture has become at once more important and increasingly difficult.
Nightlife guides, as well as their more risqué national counterparts like XY, a “lifestyle magazine” for young gay men (13-29), consistently have trouble landing national advertising accounts, even though their reader profiles neatly match ideal corporate demographics–young, single men who spend a lot of money on clothes and entertainment. “Too on the edge, too graphic,” big advertisers told XY publisher Peter Ian Cummings. “Not the profile we are looking for,” they said to HX‘s Bank. While these magazines may yearn for the ads that fill the pages of The Advocate and Out, it’s their refusal to sanitize their content in order to land those accounts that ultimately distinguishes them as journals of “alternative lifestyle.” It may not look like gay and lesbian politics as we’ve come to know it–no stories on same-sex marriage or gays in the military–but in light of attempts to clean up public space and media, we shouldn’t underestimate the value of covering the who what when where of sex.