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What Homophobia is – and isn’t

Infighting and the state of gay media in Philly today

Homophobia is an ugly word. Worse, it's a hideous reality that's faced by many gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people on a daily basis. There's the gay man who's verbally or physically attacked on his way home from the late shift, the lesbian who must endure cat calls from corner boys threatening to "fix" her, and the trans woman who's fired from her job after starting to make a transition that's been a lifetime coming.

In Pennsylvania, there are no laws to protect LGBT people from discrimination even as episodes of homophobia persist from Fishtown to East Falls. And the state is also still no closer to achieving marriage equality. But sadly, a few gay spokespeople in Philly are using "homophobia" to create divisiveness in the city – and for all the wrong reasons.

Recently, Philadelphia Gay News (PGN) Publisher Mark Segal cried homophobia over an article in Philadelphia magazine about the so-called "A-Gays," or gay men (all mostly white and very well-heeled) who have joined the Union League and are making strides in business and politics. It's a similar accusation he made against Philadelphia Weekly (PW) last year over coverage of a story about alleged gay slurs at the City Controller's Office. It should be noted that PW has a long history of exposing wrongdoings against the gay community, which made the outcry so egregious for so many of us. Aren't there actual homophobes to take to task? Well, it seems as though Segal's found one in yet another publication that might be viewed similarly to PW - as competition.

The latest has the publisher calling Philadelphia magazine homophobic for not writing the story he thinks should have been written. Say what you will about these A-Gays (perhaps a real headline shocker would have been about black lesbian activists joining the old boy's club?), but to accuse a magazine that's spotlighting gay men (however elite and however many stereotypes admittedly flooded the story) of being homophobic is downright preposterous. I should know. I've worked at Philadelphia magazine. And it's baby steps like these in mainstream media that start to piece together real stories about the LGBT experience, and not just in community papers like PGN that tend to be overlooked by general audiences. Stories like these are also changing the gay media landscape.

Does that mean there isn't work to be done to include racial diversity and women in more of these mainstream depictions? Of course not. But just because a controversial story doesn't pass muster for being diverse enough does not make it homophobic. It just makes it, well, a little one-sided. One might argue PGN's coverage of the transgender community might suffer from the same set backs at times, especially when you consider a majority of coverage has focused on crime and prostitution. That's hardly a diverse way to characterize a community in the same way that wealthy white men might not represent all of gay kind. These are just parts of the bigger gay news puzzle, but thankfully, one that's being told one piece at a time.

The newcomers in gay media

To take a closer look at the infighting among Philly's gay media elite (and the reasons for it) is to also take a peek at what's happening on Philly's gay media scene today. Case in point: Philly mag's gone from seldom ever writing about gay people to launching a magazine for and about the community (G Philly) just three years ago. It's a significant step that a major city publisher would see the need (and front the dollars) for a GQ-style magazine exclusively for the LGBT community. It makes way for a new era of LGBT publishing – one that acknowledges that gay people may like to read as much about investigative journalism as maybe fashion and entertainment. There are also more and more websites and online magazines that are honing in on similar content, successfully so.

But like with any change, it can make the old guard nervous, especially as the competition heats up in a publishing world already strained by the Internet. It also has a few community leaders, like Segal, waving the homophobia card, even if it risks diluting the meaning of homophobia – and even if the argument is really about the C word:  competition. And where there's competition, there's fear. But it's not the fear of gay people – as homophobia might suggest – but a fear of change and of different voices taking the proverbial mic in this gay media niche that had been dominated by so few for so long.

Segal isn't the only one taking shots at mainstream media's gay forays, however. Even founder Steve McCann joined the ballyhooing against Philly mag, insinuating that its gay lifestyle "rag," as he calls it, lacks substance. This is the same magazine that tackled issues of queer homelessness, sexual addiction and bisexual bias in the gay community (I should know. I assigned those stories as the former editor). Interestingly, McCann's own events – like Boys of Summer – revolve around young gay men twirling on the catwalk in their skivvies at Voyeur Nightclub. So much for substance – or getting away from those pesky gay stereotypes about youth and gym bodies, huh?

Persisting stereotypes vs. progress

The other irony in Philly's gay publishing world is that some of the same people who champion diversity (and are quick to call out homophobia where there is none) are also the same people who are far less likely to accept a difference of opinion within the LGBT community itself. And this all fails to recognize the achievements and progress being made – and the people making it, like leading nonprofits to help fight AIDS, representing the community at City Hall like Gloria Casarez, or becoming elected as the first openly gay man in the State House (hello, Brian Sims). Did we learn nothing from the tired feud between Segal and Equality Forum Founder Malcolm Lazin (again, both white men) that held the LGBT community (and gay media) back for years?

While this community can, at times, be mired in stereotypes that are seemingly safe (read: boring) for public consumption – ones that idealize the handsomely funny gay man with that silly straight girlfriend on his arm a la Will & Grace – the biggest threat to gay media isn't that these images still make their way into our consciousness in print, online or in entertainment (have you seen The New Normal?), but that there would be no representations at all.

This isn't to say that progress doesn't still need to be made – of course it does. And as more mainstream news outlets cover real stories about gay people who don't fit the Will & Grace model, the more progress will be made. It won't be made fast enough for everyone. But it isn't as slow in coming as it used to be. It's even happening in a business that is struggling with ad sales, readership and multimedia competition.

But the worst thing anyone can do – especially LGBT community and media leaders - is to cry "homophobia" just because you don't agree with the picture being painted. Such an accusation ought to be saved for the legislators who are holding back equal rights, bigots who use religion to justify hate, and for bullies who make the lives of LGBT youth a living hell. These are the homophobes the community and its allies face every single day. And this kind of deep-seated, dangerous homophobia makes a story about fancy gays feel more like a party in comparison.


Natalie Hope McDonald is a writer and editor based in Philly. She's the former editor of G Philly magazine. During the past 20 years, her work's been featured in publications like Newsweek and The Advocate. Go magazine named her among the "100 Women We Love."