As the defunct zine is reissued in a special edition book, we explore the legacy of the seminal 80s publication.
Illness and death have always been core themes of the narrative surrounding gay life in NYC in the late 80s. Pansy Beat, a short-lived queer zine, offers a glimpse at a life in the city not shrouded by impending doom. With features on RuPaul and Lady Bunny, as well as sexual health advice columns, the publication celebrated queerness during a time when it was widely labelled a death sentence.
“If you could describe Pansy Beat in one sentence, what would it be?” I ask Michael Economy, cofounder of the 80s queer zine, when we sit down to talk. “An accident” he profoundly exclaims. But as my parents would tell you (I hope), not all accidents are a bad thing! Both controversial and groundbreaking, the short-lived publication was in circulation for only a year between 1989 and 1990, over which time it published just five sold out issues. Despite its short run, Pansy Beat became an iconic piece of gay media and at the time of its inception was recognised as one of the most important and influential pieces of LGBTQ press available to the queer community. It was even allegedly used as a reference for OUT Magazine when the US publication launched back in 1992.
“The idea came about one summer afternoon hanging out at my friends Donald Corken and Endive’s apartment,” Michael tells me of the publication’s humble beginnings. “We were flipping through magazines and we were excited about Linda Simpson’s zine, My Comrade / Sister. When out of the blue, Endive announced that we’re going to make a magazine too, mainly for the sole purpose of wanting to be on the cover.”
The publication went on sale during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when opinions of the LGBTQ community were at their lowest. In the same year, esteemed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe died from the virus, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration granted $20 million for HIV care and treatment and the overall number of AIDS cases in the US had reached 100,000. Across the pond in the United Kingdom, the Tory government had just reintroduced the first anti-gay legislation in 100 years. It stated that local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” In the wake of the new legislation, a number of gay men were murdered in their homes – the case remains unresolved today. It’s fair to say that it was a risky time to release a gay-centric zine, and in terms of business ventures, it probably wasn’t the safest option for investment.
“We sold out of almost every issue and I feel like maybe we were a welcome relief from the reality of bashings and the all-consuming threat of AIDS,” Michael explains of the publication’s positioning in predominantly homophobic landscape. “Looking back now, I can see how we were out of sync with the prevailing mood of the day, but we were young and wanted to have fun despite everything around us.”
Despite the sinister mood and the negativity
towards the queer community, content inside Pansy Beat included coverage of queer parties, explored same-sex relationships and included features on people at the forefront of the queer community, including Lady Bunny, Quentin Crisp, and a bunch of other icons from the East Village scene. It gained acclaim for its niche features, which included an essay on the history of false eyelashes, an exploration on the life of Judy Garland, and a guide to drag queen hair style inspiration. It also included what Economy calls ‘typical magazine stuff’ such as recipes, short stories, comic-strips and pin-ups. Each issue came with a complimentary condom, which was provided by New York State Department of Health and stuck to every cover “like a free toy in a box of cereal.” The State clearly knew that Pansy Beat was getting noticed.
Despite the success of Pansy Beat, back in the 80s, queer publications were sparse. Excluding Gay Times, which launched in 1984, the gay publishing industry was dominated by pornographic magazines like Zipper and Bound & Ga¢ed. A few of these publications would feature ‘community’ stories, but the overarching theme was that of homoeroticism and pleasure. It was the shunning of nudity and pornography that helped to make Pansy Beat so unique and set it aside from its competitors. It was only after Pansy Beat came to an end that gay publishing really took off and a LGBTQ mass market was successfully established. “In the end, timing is everything,” Michael says of the matter.
As for the reason behind the publication’s premature closure, Michael says he “had to face reality”. He was receiving eviction notices as a result of focusing all of his attentions on Pansy Beat and thus was unable to pay his rent. Beyond the seminal publication, he has nurtured his own graphic design brand, where he’s produced work for a range of major clients.
Despite his breakaway from publishing, there’s still a firm fondness for Pansy Beat. Over the past few months, he’s been working on a commemorative project. Manifesting in a retrospective book, aptly named Pansy Beat Book, Michael is once again showcasing the prestige of his publishing prowess in a celebration of the zine’s brief but influential life. The reissue will feature all of the previously published issues of Pansy Beat, as well a selection of unseen material that he amassed during the creation of the zine. Why now? “Partially as a way of paying homage to all of the amazing people from back then. Also because Pansy Beat was an early labour of love from a strange time and place that no longer exists,” he tells me.
Looking through the content that Economy and his collaborators produced, it’s clear to see the unique creativity and fun that helped to formulate each page, and it’s totally understandable as to why it has been used as a reference for queer publications decades later. Every issue is undeniably a ‘fuck you’ to the bigots that existed at the time, and a protest against the negativity and hatred towards the LGBTQ community. It helps to showcase that - despite the social stru¢le and regardless of the horrific hate crimes - the queer community were always up for having a good time. Now, clap your hands and stamp your feet, let’s get moving to the Pansy Beat!