‘It’s great to be niche. It also sucks’: inside the grind of queer publishing

Since 2018 when “The Guardian” published this article most of the magazine listed in the text disappeared or was readapted to web existence. Unfortunately, queer publishing is not sustainable as it was before. We lose a lot since the main media outlets will never describe our micro-society as we can do it as members of it. GAY45 is determined to exist for a long time. Please consider donating 1-2 € to your favorite magazine so they can maintain their activity.

The cover of Cakeboy with Nocola Formichetti, the former artistic director of Diesel and Mugler and fashion director of Vogue Hommes Japan. Photograph: Courtesy Cakeboy magazine

For queer publishers, life can be tough: despite the corporate love of all things LGBTQ, there’s no money in it.

Someone has queered the magazine shelves of McNally Jackson, the boujee bookstore in Soho, New York. The shelves are throbbing with thick, glossy, high production magazines with titles such as Butch, Cakeboy, Cave Homo, Gayletter, Headmaster, Posture and The Tenth. Queer publishing – at least on the surface – appears to be having a moment. Bout, not anymore in 2022.

With the same-sex marriage debate (mostly) over and trans rights now a mainstream topic, it seems like there is a shift in media. Even publishing giant Condé Nast is in on it, launching Them, “a next-generation community platform” that will tell its stories “through the lens of today’s LGBTQ community”. Grindr, the gay dating app, has Into, its own online magazine.

But appearances can deceive. Life for independent publishers is tough, and perhaps even more so for queer ones. “Queer publishing has been bad,” says Cakeboy founder Sean Santiago over coffee in McNally’s cafe. “The upside is it’s really queer now – queer magazines put together by queer people,” he says. The downside is that for all the corporate love of all things LGBTQ, there’s no money in it. “On the one hand it’s great to be niche. On the other it sucks to be niche.”

Cakeboy and the end

Sean Santiago from Cakeboy: ‘On the one hand it’s great to be niche. On the other it sucks to be niche.’ Photograph: Lia Clay/The Guardian

Cakeboy describes itself as a “breeding ground for disruptive faggotry”. The latest issue is eclectic to say the least. There’s a lengthy – and funny – interview with hot cultural critic Andrea Long Chu on the many, many problems with men, sex and identity. (Sample sentence: “Like, if you are a man, you should know that you’re a disease and that you really ought to transition.”) There’s fashion – queer fashion, obviously – interviews, reviews and a guide to ass scrubs. Previous issues have included helpful guides to taking the perfect ass pic.

Queer publishers are on to something, and after years of stolid, safe offerings queer people are being offered publications that reflect their rainbow. The bad side is that “we build something. Then big corporations come in and take our ideas, our strategies and take all the money,” says Santiago.

Hello Mr. and the end

A case in point sits forlornly on the shelves: Hello Mr. The six-year-old magazine’s latest issue is also its last. Founder Ryan Fitzgibbon says there were many reasons why he stopped publishing. He felt it was time to do something new and was “exhausted by the demands of running a queer business under this [Trump] administration”.

Hello Mr was in at the start of the new wave of queer mags, and Fitzgibbon has been a mentor to many newcomers. He says he was proud of what he had achieved and inspired. But running an independent magazine was not for the faint-hearted.

The first, big, problem for independent publishers – and not just those in the LGBTQ community – is advertising. Take the latest issue of Cave Homo: 108 pages of high-gloss, queer culture featuring work by global art stars Ryan McGinley and David Wojnarowicz, among others. It also has features on out skateboard star Lacey Baker, sponsored by Nike. But don’t look for a Nike ad, or any other ads, for that matter. And not because of aesthetic considerations.

The last issue cost about $20 a copy to make and sells for $40. Creator Luke Williams now has about $17,000 burning a hole in his credit cards and, though he wants to, is unsure whether he can really afford to get started on issue three.

“I tried Nike. For someone selling 666 issues [the current run], I don’t know. They don’t seem interested,” he says.

So why do it? Williams says it started in part as reaction to Trump’s election. “It helped me cope with the political climate,” he says. But he also said he wasn’t seeing himself reflected in the media – not even in gay media. A bear of a man, all he saw was the conventionally good-looking. And, he says, that’s what he continues to see outside the indie sphere. “Look at the people working for Them. They’re all gorgeous and 20. If you walked into an office and everyone there was a beautiful 20-year-old blond woman, you’d think something was wrong. What’s different with this?”

Nor does the internet help much. While the web has given a platform to minority issues, its Silicon Valley masters heavily regulate what we are allowed to see. The algorithms say male breasts are fine, female breasts are not and, please, nothing below the waist.

Tech has also removed their ability to make much money. Online cash is hard enough to come by even for major publishers. Facebook and Google took 63¢ of every ad dollar spent online last year, according to analyst eMarketer.

“Yes, I am a publisher, but what does it mean to be a publisher when Apple News is a publisher?” says Santiago. The algorithms that choose what news we see on Apple News and Facebook prioritize the establishment and the advertising follows.

“It’s dangerous. I wonder if people realize how much of a funnel these companies are.”

Having a physical product helps. Williams compares the renaissance in physical magazines to the new popularity of vinyl. “People love sitting down with it, holding it. It’s good to put your phone down sometimes. It doesn’t feel like work,” he says.

But trying to get a foot in the door with advertisers is impossible.

“The higher up you go the whiter and straighter it gets and the less and less interested people are,” says Santiago.

The problem has been exacerbated by the number of titles available, says Fitzgibbon, and by mainstream media’s greater focus on queer issues. “Advertisers still clearly want the pink dollar, but you don’t have to go niche to reach it,” he says. Them’s “launch partners” include Burberry, Google and Lyft.

It’s even worse for lesbians, says Florence Gagnon, co-founder of Lez Spread The Word, a Montreal-based magazine published in French and English. “There were a lot of publications for gay men, [but] nothing for women. I wanted to see role models for us depicted in magazines.”

Like her cohorts, Gagnon is a huge fan of print. Not least because it creates an archive. Gagnon recently spent hours poring over the Quebec Gay Archives in Montreal. “There was such good stuff from the 80s, 90s and further back. More recently there was nothing,” she said. The internet is probably to blame for that. Physical products have left us a record of queer history. We do not yet know that the internet will do the same.

But making a physical product costs money, and Gagnon says there seems to be even less interest in advertising for lesbians than for gay men. Even shipping magazines is expensive. Until LSTW found an international distributor, it was costing them $100 to ship 10 copies.

“We know there is a need for a magazine like this,” she said. “Now we are trying to make it more of a business. It’s not easy.”

Some of this magazines does not exist enymore. And we loved them.


Different type of business

There are other business models. At Posture magazine, a queer-run art, fashion and culture magazine, Winter Mendelson has diversified. Mendelson, who identified as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, also didn’t see themselves reflected in mainstream publishing. “All I saw was gay boys for gay boys,” they say. “It was very binary. All the men’s magazines, and even some of the biggest women’s ones, are run by men.”

Posture is now an online magazine, a print publication, podcast, a membership program and Posture Media, a creative agency and production studio that promotes diversity in the media and advertising industries. Zappos and HBO are clients.

Mendelson says they had mixed feelings about corporate America’s newfound love of the queer community. “I just hope it’s not a fleeting fad. But what’s most important to me is social progress.”

It’s not easy being a queer indie publisher, says Santiago. “But it’s worth it. It’s cool to be able to celebrate this culture.” Santiago doesn’t trust mainstream media to do that. “It’s not just about printing a load of rainbow stickers and saying love is love.”

This article was written by Dominic Rushe for The Guardian in 2018 and was updated by GAY45 in 2022.


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