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Friday, September 29, 2017

About Hugh Hefner

Hugh Hefner died this week at 91. While most of us have probably heard of him, these days plenty of us would have no opinion about him—his heyday was a long time ago, after all. But the people who do have opinions often had and have strong ones, the strongest of which quite probably keep others silent. And yet, there are truths that must be told.

Hefner was not a saint, but neither was he evil incarnate. He was first and foremost a businessman who had been very successful, then less so as the years went on. He also challenged social norms in ways that had never been seen before, and he actually made the world a better place, despite what some of his critics want us to believe.

On the surface, the Playboy brand was about men objectifying women, and it was also about hedonism. Beneath that veneer that some found sleazy (or worse), however, Hefner also pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in sexuality. While it may have begun with openly talking about sexuality and sexual desire, along the way it made obvious that sexuality came in many varieties.

Hefner supported gay rights and abortion rights at a time when not even liberal politicians did. Many eventually caught up (or were replaced by socially progressive younger politicians), but Hefner was there before them all. To his critics, this is a “so what?” fact, but to people oppressed because of their sexuality, like gay people, it was a very big deal, and he made it concrete by setting up the Playboy Foundation to help fund progressive social change, particularly as it affected women, gay people, and other oppressed people.

In the early 1980s to early 1990s, I was part of a grassroots political group called the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force. For most of that time, we were the only LGBT political group in the state. We lobbied the state legislature, Congress, Chicago’s City Hall, other local governments, and more agencies than I can even remember. We ran training sessions on LGBT issues at the Chicago Police Department and at Cook County Jail so they would be better equipped to deal with LGBT people. But we also worked with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) at a time when few LGBT groups dared to do so.

One of our major projects was to make sure that accurate and useful information and resources on LGBT issues were provided to the counselling departments in all public high schools. Our co-chair at the time, Al Wardell, himself a high school teacher in the CPS system, recognised the need to combat anti-gay bullying, and new project was born.

A graphic designer designed posters and other materials to support the project, the most notable of which were the posters: The central feature was a stark black and white photo of a row of school lockers with “Die Queer” painted on one. The text provided the phone number of a group called Gay and Lesbian Horizons, a social service agency now rolled into Chicago’s LGBT community centre. They had the resources, training, and expertise to deal with any phone calls that may have come in, which made them the logical choice. The IGLTF name was also on the posters, in smaller type.

Al approached (from memory) at least 15 different funding organisations to help fund the project, and every single one turned us down—all of them. In the early 1990s, most people didn’t even want to admit that gay teenagers even existed, and many of them even still believed we tried to “recruit” teens, because that lie and myth was still commonly believed. Funding organisations were no different, really, and reflected the conservative social attitudes that were still prevalent.

However, ONE organisation said yes: The Playboy Foundation. They provided an in-kind contribution, paying to print the posters and some other materials. This was a major victory for our organisation, sure, but more so for the young people we might be able to help.

Until, that is, politics—LGBT politics—nearly destroyed it all.

After the posters were printed and the project was ready to be rolled out, IGLTF had its annual meeting at which a new board was elected, and they included some fairly staunch feminists who objected to the fact we’d received this support from the Playboy Foundation. At a fiery board meeting, we were bullied and hectored until a vote was held to destroy all the posters. I abstained from that vote because I felt pressured and bullied and wanted time to think it all through, but the motion passed anyway, and one board member tore up one of the smaller posters with a dramatic flourish. I then resigned from the board, ending around a decade of my service.

The rump of the board tried to spin the decision, but got intensely negative feedback from the wider community, with some individual donors demanding their donations back, others demanding a boycott of future donations, and things even more unpleasant. The rump of the board then revisited the decision, backed down and decided not to destroy the posters after all, but, as I recall, and may remember incorrectly, they wanted IGLTF’s name blacked out.

IGLTF never recovered. Within a year or two it was dead, and is barely remembered today. Nearly 20 years of damn hard work destroyed over—what, exactly? Nowadays we’d call it “political correctness run amok”, but I hate that phrase. Instead, I’d say they’d let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Forbid the group from ever seeking Playboy Foundation funding in the future? Stupid, but okay. Voting to destroy already printed posters? Criminally stupid, and a betrayal of everything we’d been fighting to achieve, and the people we’d been fighting for, over two decades.

The facts here are simple: Absolutely NO funding organisation would fund the project, and some were hostile to it. ONLY the Playboy Foundation would fund it, and it wasn’t the first time it had worked to support the LGBT communities, nor was it the first time their support had caused political controversy within the LGBT communities of Chicago.

For more than two decades I’ve remained silent about all this, mainly because it’s just history, or maybe an historical footnote is more accurate. But even though I was sickened by the whole thing back then, and the atmosphere at that meeting which was like a bookburning more than anything else, I nevertheless felt intimidated into silence. What dredged this all up was seeing so many people choosing to heap scorn onto Hefner as if nothing he’d ever done had any value.

Of course Playboy Magazine objectified woman—as did most heterosexual men at the time, from what I could tell. But for some reason, Playboy’s objectification was deemed to be worse than that of ordinary men. Was it because they made a profit? Or because they reinforced male objectification of women? Both? Something else? It all seems so long ago, but similar issues rise up from time to time.

The reality is that Playboy Magazine also published some of the most important writers from its part of the 20th Century, and featured many important interviews, too. It provided a platform for the voiceless, and was an advocate for the oppressed—including gay people.

All of that funded the Playboy Foundation that, in turn, provided the cash for so much social change, including funding groups and projects that could never get funding anywhere else. Accepting funding from the Playboy Foundation never—ever—bothered me. As one of my colleagues put it at the time of the IGLTF disaster, the Roman Catholic church has always accepted money from the mafia, and by using it for good, they said they purified and even sanctified the money. I wouldn’t put it in quite those terms, but we did essentially the same thing: We took money that came from a business some people objected to, and used it to advance the social and legal equality—and the very safety—of LGBT people. It was money we often simply couldn’t get anywhere else. So I have no regrets for accepting the money: In the context of the times, it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Obviously Hefner was no saint, and he was perhaps cruder and more sleazy than most men would like to think they were/are, but a great many heterosexual men of the time were just like him in thought, if not in deed. Articles and advocacy aside, the magazine traded in sexual objectification, something many men did, too, though perhaps quietly. Does that excuse it? That’s not my call to make (not the least because I’m not heterosexual). But to this day many men of all sorts simply don’t get the anger directed at Playboy, especially when there were magazines that were far worse (like the widely circulated Hustler, for example).

I’m not an expert in social morés or sexual politics, and I would never tell women what they can and can’t see as objectification or as objectionable. But neither can they tell men—gay men in particular—what we must find objectionable. To me, all that is irrelevant. The 1970, 1980s, and 1990s were hostile times for LGBT Americans, and we fought hard against the prevailing repressive attitudes. The Playboy Foundation, through Hugh Hefner and his magazine, made a lot of progress possible when no one else would. And I damn sure won’t apologise for putting their money to good use, nor will I in any way feel bad about it.

Because of the great good that Hugh Hefner made possible, I won’t say a bad word about him. What others do is their business, but they have no right to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do, say, think, or feel about Hefner. And, that sort of personal independence was one of the core messages Hefner himself sold, appropriately enough.

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