50 Shades Of Gay
By Clare BlumerAugust 20, 2012
The creators of a new cultural magazine are redefining Australia’s gay scene, and rejecting the ghetto.
"Gay as it was defined — it's dead. No-one cares."
Rick Viede, playwright, performer and self-proclaimed "political tranny" (transsexual), is on the phone with The Global Mail while at his farewell party; he's off on another trip to New York, his 50-50 hometown, after the Sydney premiere of his Griffin Award-winning play A Hoax.
"Oh my god, I'm going to be reviled," he says after expressing his lack of interest in the established gay scene. In Sydney, he'd be referring to the precinct around Oxford Street and Darlinghurst, which has been the geographical setting for the gay male scene.
Viede says he joined the scene in the early 2000s, when he moved to Sydney. "It was right at the tail end of Big Drag, this big, bold drag movement. [Now] it kind of feels like the club scene … just lost its vibrancy."
He doesn't identify strongly with the current political issues emanating from the gay community, especially the campaign for gay marriage: "I don't think it's the be-all and end-all issue. I think it [shows] a little bit of addiction to persecution."
Viede is not alone in his opinion that there has been a shift in Australia's scene in the past 10 years. The shift is so marked that creative minds behind the largest gay media company in the country have invested in a new monthly magazine, Cult, targeted at the changed ethos.
The first issue has eclipsed its advertising targets and suggests the magazine has found a growing market — in print media these days, that's an anomaly.
So watch as the ears of advertisers prick up: there's an untapped demographic — people who identify as queer but detest the established 'gay scene' hereafter known as the 'gay ghetto'.
Brad Monaghan, editor in chief of Cult, is also the group publishing director for Evolution Publishing, which has run a stable of free-to-street publications — including Sydney Gay weekly SX — for the gay and lesbian market since 2001.
"There are a lot of people out there who do identify as gay or lesbian or queer or whatever in between, who actually don't just concern themselves with what's going on in the queer or gay world," says Monaghan. "While sometimes they do like to hear about interesting, subversive, queer art, they also like to look at arts that have nothing to do with someone's sexual orientation."
Both Monaghan and Cult's editor, Garrett Bithell, say that the formation of Cult is about challenging the gay stereotypes that have been perpetuated by a long list of cultural gatekeepers in the music industry, in fashion and design and in the performing arts.
Bithell has long been an arts writer for Evolution publications. He arrived in Sydney after finishing a law degree in his hometown of Adelaide, and he is one of the familiar faces at the city's endless opening nights. Conveniently for this reporter, he's tall and easy to spot, towering above the crowd.
In our interview, on windy William Street's promenade up to the Coca-Cola sign of Kings Cross, Bithell leads me through the various sections of Cult, and the rationale behind each. One line on the cover we're holding heralds "IN WOLF'S CLOTHING: English prodigy Patrick Wolf on the gay ghettos, the tyranny of labels and ten years in the business".
"He's just really unfairly talented," says Bithell of Wolf. "He's certainly been very annoyed in the past by being called things like a 'flamboyant artist' or a 'queer artist' or a 'gay artist'. You know how kind of loaded those terms are — when people hear those kind of epithets, what it does for their impression? It limits them before they hear his music."
Bithell loathes what he calls "pink publicity pitching", where public relations people send him tailored press releases which focus on any possible gay shade in their cultural product — trumpeting gay-themed plays, up-and-coming gay icons, openly-gay singers. He recalls that it took him much negotiation to convince the big music companies that gay people liked all types of music.
"I hate cheesy pop," says Bithell. "I hate Katy Perry and Britney Spears, but because I'm a gay journalist working for a queer title, the music labels assume that's what our readers are interested in."
And, in an interesting insight into the niche market that Evolution occupies, Bithell says that he thinks gay magazines "paint a picture of the gay experience which isn't true for a huge proportion of gay men".
When flicking through various examples of gay street press, the fault seems not to entirely lie with the content, but with the hyper-sexuality of the advertising images. In the current issue of SX, Evolution Publishing's Sydney weekly, there's an alluring picture of a muscly man in his underwear sitting on a bath. It reads "Get layed right the first time" and is an advertisement for a sale on tiles at a bathroom-renovation centre. The magazine also contains lots of political and lifestyle content.
Bithell describes the stereotypical gay scene as the "gay ghetto", a movable landscape which in the Sydney context includes the Oxford Street and Darlinghurst cluster of gay bars and clubs, and which, especially for gay women, partially extends to Newtown. This theme is the first chosen debate topic in a Cult section called 'Shoot: Does the gay ghetto damage the soul?'
"When I say 'damage the soul' that's slightly dramatic," says Bithell, who then explains: "People who exclusively socialise in gay venues and have exclusively gay friends — how does that perhaps limit their ability to form relationships more broadly? Or how does it limit their perspective on things?
"A scene like that exists and starts because of oppression. I think as the world becomes a lot more accepting and it becomes less of an issue, the need for an exclusive gay scene like that, which is quite separatist, is becoming less and less relevant."
Bithell's take on things is informed, he realises, by the fact that he had a comparatively easy time of it when he came out to his loved ones in early adulthood. In a friendship group of diverse sexualities, he says, "it really was a total non-issue. The response was 'So what?' When I came out to my parents, they were totally fine.
"The idea of going to a gay club to pick up or to find support or a sense of community is, for me personally, an odd concept. I never censor my sexuality depending on where I am … To me, the fact that someone sleeps with a member of the same sex is about as interesting as their favourite colour."
Actor Ben Gerrard moved to Sydney about eight years ago and starred in Outland, an ABC series about a gay science-fiction fan club. He expresses a similar disenchantment with the gay ghetto, but sees its value: "I still think it's a cool right of passage. It was formative. It was for most of the gay guys I know. We all went there for a period, either for a week or five years."
When asked to describe it he laughs, "It's a trashy, messy, dirty little pit and I mean that with affection!"
Of more concern to Gerrard is the way that gay men are portrayed in the press. "I feel like the gay press does an equivalent destructive thing to [what's done by] women's mags, by perpetuating an impossible image: Do you have the lifestyle? Do you have the job? Do you have the face?"
The Global Mail asked Pearl Tan, actor and filmmaker what she thinks of Cult. Tan, whose short films have screened at queer film festivals all over the world, says, "When I first moved to Sydney 10 years ago I would pick up gay street press because I was new to town, but it always made me cringe, and I would not want that lying around my house. This, I'd be happy to have on my coffee table."
"It sits really well with me because it's my world. It's the creative world that's quite gay and quite left … it doesn't feel like it's overtly political. That's testament to where we are politically, it's mainstream to fight for gay rights now, which makes way for something like this that ignores the politics."
As for the magazine, Bithell asserts: "Cult is essentially an arts, culture and design magazine with a queer twist — but not really queer as in gay; queer as in bent, progressive and irreverent."
Monaghan agrees that 'queer' defies definition: "I can't pin it down, and I think that most people who actually use it really want it to be pinned down."
"Queer is a really unusual term in that means something virtually different for everyone who uses it. Obviously queer was a pejorative term for quite a lot of history — it was a pretty direct insult to gay and lesbian people, in fact anyone different," says Monaghan.
"It does certainly conjure up sexual orientation for a lot of people, but I think a lot of people that actually use the term, use it in a way that actually liberates people from being categorised sexually."
"If you were an ad agency asking me to define the demographic I would have to say: 'It's impossible.'"
Monaghan has spent 20 years working for media companies such as Fairfax and Yahoo, in Britain and in Australia, usually in the space where "editorial and sales intersect". He says Australia enjoys an uncommonly successful free-to-street market.
"In terms of advertising, there does seem to be this interesting myth about the 'death of print'," says Monaghan. "The cult of doom and gloom about the economy is so false in my view it's just astounding … We're doing pretty fine."
"Our business model is incredibly robust, our advertising budgets are being met or exceeded, and if they weren't, we wouldn't be able to launch a new magazine."
Rafael Bonachela, the Spanish artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, has been tasked with launching the first issue of Cult. In his three-and-a-half years in Sydney, Bonachela has been interviewed many times by Bithell. He says that the ideals behind Cult are very similar to the ethos of Sydney Dance Company and his choreographic aesthetic, "We are very collaborative and progressive here and we can also be challenging."
"When I first arrived in Australia people would say: 'Why would you do that [take a job in Australia]? You've lived in London — there's no culture [here]."
Bonachela says his experience has been entirely opposite to this self-critical view; that he has been overwhelmed by the quality and quantity of artistic work in Australia's capital cities, and struggles to find a night where he's not going to a performance.
"In this country, culture can be valued a lot more … Are you going to measure people on how good they are [at] running after a ball? Give them an instrument!"
Bonachela will launch the first issue on Tuesday, August 21, at the Australian Museum overlooking Hyde Park and just around the corner from the famous Oxford Street strip. The cultural crowd of diverse sexualities, sexes and artistic disciplines will come together to cast their critical eye over the proceedings and the magazine.
They might possibly squirm when reading the most confronting article in the first issue of Cult that has Bithell interviewing a leader of the United States-based Westboro Baptist Church. The church is infamous for its radical public protests against homosexuality. To write that they're 'homophobic' is too colossal an understatement, with the Kansas church's website putting their views front and centre with website 'Godhatesfags.com'. As far as Bithell is aware, his interview is a first for an openly gay journalist.
"Obviously there's my bias — I was very open about the fact that I was a gay journalist who likes to sleep with men, so they knew that from the get-go and I was keen to just see what might come out in that kind of interview context." The resulting article puts Bithell at the centre of the piece as he processes a series of bigoted attacks on his sexuality from a church elder.
Apart from this one serious note, Cult is almost entirely an exploration of Australian cultural life, with a queer bent. With free distribution to Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne (other locales can subscribe for a small postage fee) it's the closest thing to a national cultural monthly that's been launched in a while. The measure of its success will be whether the arbiters of culture in Australia grace the pages or not. And whether Cult's 'queer' market — that shrinks from attempts at classification — embraces the re-definition Monaghan and Bithell have bestowed on them.