PANSY BEAT

As the de­funct zine is reis­sued in a spe­cial edi­tion book, we ex­plore the legacy of the sem­i­nal 80s pub­li­ca­tion.

Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - Words Ryan Cahill

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!

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