The Death of the Advocate

First published in “Between the Lines” in March of 2003

Once upon a time there was a great magazine called the Advocate. Founded in 1967, the Advocate was for many years a groundbreaking gay and lesbian newsmagazine. At a time when The New York Times would not even print the word “gay,” the Advocate kept our community — and many straight people as well-informed about significant events affecting gay and lesbian lives.

No, the Advocate has not gone out of business. But some days I wish it would.

Take the cover of the March 4 issue, which features a veiled figure in a judicial robe over the provocative question, “Is There A Gay Man on the U.S. Supreme Court?”

Are you ready for the answer? Are you sure? Okay, here it is:

Probably not.

The teaser on the cover refers to Justice Souter, the Court’s only bachelor. When Souter was appointed, there were rumors that he might be gay. But the rumors were never substantiated (indeed, they were pretty well refuted), and the story died.

Why resurrect the issue now? Well, the Supreme Court will soon decide a case that could reverse Bowers v. Hardwick and declare sodomy laws unconstitutional. (Fingers crossed.) Having a gay justice on the court would certainly make things interesting.

But we don’t have a gay justice on the court — at least, not one for whom there’s any convincing evidence of his gayness.

The Advocate concedes this point. But they decided a provocative cover was more important than a non-misleading one. (Kind of like “The Death of the Advocate” as the title for a story about a magazine that isn’t folding.)

This cover choice would not have annoyed me so much were it not for two things:

First, we need Souter’s vote. Which means that this is probably not the best time to suggest, on the cover of a national magazine, that he’s a homo — even if you decide to clear things up in the article.

Fortunately, despite being dogged by silly rumors, Souter has been a reliable friend of the gay community since his appointment by Bush the Elder. Even his majority opinion in Hurley, where he wrote for a unanimous Court upholding the right of Boston St. Patrick Day parade organizers to exclude a gay group, was groundbreaking in the respect it showed to gay and lesbian concerns.

(Are you surprised, by the way, that a gay-friendly justice is a Bush Sr. appointee? Strange things do happen. Consider the fact that the author of the magnificent dissent in Bowers, the late Justice Blackmun, was appointed by Nixon, and that Justice Stevens, arguably the most liberal current member of the Court, was appointed by Ford. By contrast, the author of the extremely homophobic majority opinion in Bowers, the late Justice White, was a Kennedy appointee. Rest assured, however, that Bush the Younger won’t repeat his father’s “mistake” by appointing another relatively liberal justice, should he have the chance.)

But the Advocate cover is annoying for a second, more enduring reason. The March 4 cover is just another installment in the Advocate’s unmistakable decline into tabloid journalism. The Advocate was once a great, groundbreaking magazine. Now, it reads more like a gay version of People — with occasional innuendo reminiscent of the Enquirer.

And this decline is not merely embarrassing, it’s boring. It seems that every other cover misleadingly suggests that someone is gay. Ben Affleck’s Gay Secret! (The secret? He has gay fans.) Matt Damon’s Relationship with Ben! (They’re friends and they co-wrote a screenplay.) Romeo (the male lead in the ballet) is gay!

Actually, that last one’s true. A gay ballet dancer. Shocking, groundbreaking news!

Let me be clear about something: I understand that the Advocate needs readership in order to make money. I also understand that sex sells. And I’m not generally prudish about such things. I think people who heavily protest Queer As Folk because it’s bad for our community’s reputation are just being silly.

But there’s a key difference: Queer As Folk explicitly (and, in my view, needlessly) disclaims any intention to represent the entire gay community. By contrast, the Advocate claims on its cover to be, and is widely regarded as, our “national gay and lesbian newsmagazine.” Which makes its descent into fluff all the more embarrassing and painful.

There is one consolation to all of this. A major reason behind the Advocate’s decline is the corresponding improvement of mainstream news sources on gay and lesbian issues. We don’t need the biweekly Advocate to break gay news when we can find it daily on CNN or in the New York Times.

But there’s still enough serious, interesting stuff in gay and lesbian news to merit a good bi-weekly newsmagazine. Which is what the Advocate once was and could be again.