It isn’t often that a profile of a media personality in a major lifestyle magazine begins with an editor’s note pleading with readers not to conflate the words of the subject with the words of the magazine itself.
But yesterday, gay men’s lifestyle magazine Out, the largest queer-targeted outlet in the country, felt it had to do just that, placing a note at the top of a profile of Trump supporter, white supremacist, and professional human YouTube comment Milo Yiannopoulos.
“In this era of social media tribalism,” the note read, “the mere act of covering a contentious person can be misinterpreted as an endorsement.”
The piece, which runs to more than 5,000 words, is written as a fairly standard Vanity Fair-style celebrity profile, raising Yiannopoulos from his actual level—race-baiting internet troll—to one of a star media personality. He’s a button-pushing bad boy: "the Internet’s greatest supervillain"; a "professional mischief maker and provocateur"; "the right’s Kanye West, the NRA’s Kim Kardashian."
And while writer Chadwick Moore certainly gives Yiannopoulos enough space to talk himself into a hole, there’s no sign that he applied critical thought to anything his subject says. With no pushback, the line, "You really expect me to believe that I shouldn’t laugh about trannies? It’s hilarious. Like, dude thinks he’s a woman?" appears directly underneath a picture of Yiannopoulos in drag in the story’s online version.
Though Yiannopoulos has continually targeted women for harassment over his career, the one victim of his trolling who appears in the Out story is activist and New York Daily News columnist Shaun King. (Moore told me he reached out to many of Yiannopoulos’ other victims and was turned away.)
No critical female voices are present in the story at all, except for some previously reported quotes from Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones detailing the vicious harassment Yiannopoulos helped put her through this summer for her role in the all-woman reboot of Ghostbusters.
The profile does allow Yiannopoulos to say the Black Lives Matter movement is "wallowing in victimhood." Moore does not contest this claim.
The piece was almost instantly pilloried when it landed on Wednesday. Most people focused on the fact that, over the years, Out has consistently chosen to feature and write about heteronormative white men, the most privileged members of the queer community. “Gay white privilege is being a run-of-the-mill racist with a blog and getting a magazine spread ahead of [people of color] with positive contributions,” wrote one critic. Many derided the editor’s note as a cop-out that attempted to absolve the magazine for giving an anti-feminist, white supremacist a platform to air his views in a queer space. BuzzFeed legal editor Chris Geidner went as far as to refute Out editor-in-chief Aaron Hicklin’s claim that the piece is journalism.
It should be noted that many other outlets—including Bloomberg Businessweek and, indeed, Fusion—have published feature-length profiles of Yiannopoulos with his cooperation in the past. Though there is probably a limit to how much can be accomplished by talking to him, these pieces arguably provided more than token questioning of his ideas and didn’t portray him as a celebrity. The Out profile, however, allows Yiannopoulos to defend himself from accusations of racism by saying that he loves fucking black men, describe himself as a “nuanced character,” and essentially ends on this quote: “I’m demonstrating that someone sassy and silly and gay and flamboyant who loves RuPaul’s Drag Race and sucks black dick doesn’t have to vote Democrat. That matters. That’s really important."
Charges that Yiannopoulos has been given space in Out over queer people of color or queer women reflect the magazine's persistent problems when it comes to representation. Out, founded in 1992, was initially targeted at both queer men and women, but it has since become squarely aimed at the profitable niche of style-conscious young white gay men. This has not gone unnoticed. In March, in the aftermath of the #GayMediaSoWhite hashtag (one which the magazine responded poorly to), Fusion’s John Walker reported that 85% of Out’s cover stars since 2011 have been white, and 82% have been male. Just one queer woman of color has been a cover star in that time, though three trans women and one trans man were on the cover of the recent September issue. Just this year, white gay men Colton Haynes and Troye Sivan have been solo cover stars. So has Nick Jonas, an infamously queer-baiting straight white man.
Out’s staff demographics are seemingly reflective of this. Hicklin said that the diversity of the staff has grown over the years—as part of an “understanding that we need a plurality of voices here, although that should be obvious." He said in an email that he indicated was "for background info"—a provision I had not agreed to—that there are two black members of the editorial staff of 13, as well as one black and one female contributing editor out of four total.
When I brought up during a phone interview with writer Chadwick Moore that the politics endorsed by Yiannopoulos pose a very real danger to many queer people, he responded by reiterating points made by Yiannopoulos in his profile. "Their argument that Milo voices," he said, "is essentially queer people being hurt by the culture of the left and the silencing of the left. I’m not gonna comment on my personal politics and how I feel about Milo’s politics, because that’s not what this story’s about… If you don’t like Milo, it’s letting his own words do him in, and that’s what a profile does without editorializing."
I spoke with Out editor-in-chief Aaron Hicklin on the phone Wednesday. He staunchly defended both the finished piece and the decision to interview Yiannopoulos in the first place. We also discussed the broader issue of Out's efforts to increase its diversity. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you describe the process by which this profile came about?
The same way that any profile comes together. Someone emerges from the culture, from the news headlines, on social media, as someone who piques our curiosity and interest. I think if you work in gay media, it’s actually very rare to have a gay villain. I’m curious what makes this guy tick, I think we’re all curious about that. Why is this guy a figurehead on the alt-right gay? That seems striking and unusual to us and also possibly irresponsible to ignore it. I think we wanted to do what a profile does, which is interrogate that subject and find out who he really was. I feel Chadwick did a very diligent job in sitting down, speaking to Milo, speaking to people who had been victimized by Milo, speaking to people who supported Milo, and gave what for me is a first-class profile.
By my count, the only person interviewed who had anything critical to say about Milo is Shaun King, who is a straight man. I’m wondering why he was chosen to represent the critical voice.
I think there’s a misunderstanding about how journalism works. Not everyone you approach wants to necessarily be involved. I think as Chadwick wrote his piece, many people wouldn’t talk to him because they feared being trolled by Milo, which we made a point to not brush under the carpet, I think we make that very clear in the article. The people he got to speak to were the people he was able to access, and I feel with Mr. King spoke very eloquent words about his experience at Milo’s hand, and of course I’m aware that there are probably many other people we may have been able to secure we might not even be aware of, but I am saying that of the many people we approached, he was the one to speak and go on the record—and he was concerned about that because of the way he’s been treated by Milo.
I don’t believe for a minute that a single person reading that piece will be converted one way or the other to either a supporter of Milo’s or a disliker of Milo’s, because they’ll all come to this piece already with a firm impression of who he is, and if anything it’ll just reinforce that impression. He was profiled in Bloomberg Businessweek this past weekend, you can argue whether that was a better or worse profile, but I certainly don’t see Bloomberg attacked for giving Milo space at all, actually. I do think there’s a bit of a double standard when it comes to LGBT media, and I think that’s disappointing. I think we’re seeing that because we’re LGBT, we’re almost seen as having a kind of LGBT mission, rather than a journalistic mission. Our mission first and foremost is always journalistic. It’s a great, top-notch profile piece. I think the writer clearly critiques Milo and lets Milo—though he lets Milo speak for himself—I think in a profile, it really is about the subject damning themselves. It’s not about having an opinionated piece.
That’s why there’s little editorial criticism of any of Yiannopoulos’ views?
I think a good piece of profile writing, feature writing lets a reader come to an informed opinion based on observation, and what they see happening in the piece. I think a writer that inserts themselves and their opinions into a profile piece or a feature piece is not a good writer, and I’m sad that we have a lot of that journalism these days, I think it’s not the kind of journalism I was raised to write, it’s not the kind of journalism that you see practiced in a profile piece in The New Yorker or The New York Times, and there’s no reason that should be the kind of piece that you see in Out. I mean, if anyone is coming away from this piece with an idea that Milo is somehow an OK guy, I would be extremely surprised.
Someone coming to this story, picking it up in the print magazine who aren’t paying attention to the 24-hour cycle, who isn’t online much, but picks it up and sees this profile of Milo there’s high production value to the pictures, there’s a kind of goofy tone ascribed to him in these pictures. How do you think they would come away from that, if they skimmed through this profile?
I mean, he’s presented as a clown, I hardly think that’s glamorizing—
I didn’t say he was glamorized, but it is this goofy, silly thing that he’s being portrayed as, not as someone who potentially represents a danger to a lot of the readers of Out magazine.
I think, putting aside whether he’s a danger or not, I’ve always felt that there’s a lot of power in wit, and actually I think he comes off a little ridiculous. Should we have photographed him looking demonic? Do readers need those cues?
Talking a little bit about Out’s covers, which I understand Milo’s not on the cover. But there was, as I know you’re aware, a controversy earlier this year in which queer people of color on social media criticized many large queer media outlets, including Out, for dedicating what seems like a lot of space, and in particular a lot of cover space, to white men and in particular straight white men. How do you think it reads for the people making those criticisms to then see you dedicating space to a white, gay Trump supporter?
I’m more than aware of that conversation. We’re just off the back of doing an entire transgender issue, so taking this one profile out of the context of what we do all through the year in our magazine is deeply unfortunate. Actually, I think really trivializing what we do. I don’t think anyone in here would say we’re inclusive enough. I don’t know if it’s possible to be inclusive enough, you can always improve that. But it’s definitely something we’re very aware of, it’s something that’s reflected in our staff meetings, and I think anyone watching the evolution of the magazine will see that it has become wildly more inclusive in the last five years, that said it might have been ten years ago. Part of that also reflects the culture and the changing culture we’re in. There weren’t always a lot of people we were able to access who were mainstream and visible. Even today, you would be amazed at how many people consistently turn us down. So when people say, why hasn’t Frank Ocean been on the cover, well, there’s often a reason. He’s turned us down for three or four years in a row. [Ed. note: Ocean's representatives have not returned fact-checking queries.] I can certainly tell you that our staff has gotten more diverse over the years, not less, and some of that is a response to understanding that we need a plurality of voices here, and although that should be obvious, I think all of us in the media have to continually challenge ourselves to make sure that we are not sort of getting stuck in a silo of seeing the world solely from our own perspective.
Would you be able to say whether any women or people of color had editorial input on this story specifically?
On the story, really only I had input. I trusted my writer to speak to the right people, including people of color, but it’s not a team exercise with most of these stories.
At the end of our interview, Hicklin said he was frustrated that Out seemingly only gets social media attention by doing controversial things instead of for “groundbreaking pieces that were seen as progressive." I asked him to send me some Out stories he felt had been overlooked. He sent me 11.
Many of them are admirable pieces of journalism, especially a report about hormone therapy and two pieces by Moore about trans members of the military and a Native American “two spirit” gathering. There are interesting interviews with queer artists of color, first-person accounts of sex with a disability and the racial and sexual politics of being a black gay man, and brief reports about ancient queer Islamic poetry and queer students on religious college campuses.
All of these pieces are very good, and should be recognized. (He also sent me one meandering op-ed about “gaybaiters,” like Out cover star Nick Jonas.) But a common theme in all of them is that they either implicitly or explicitly align themselves with the powerless against the powerful. With its Milo Yiannopoulos profile, Out accomplished the opposite.
This post has been updated to properly reflect the number of queer women of color depicted on the cover of Out.
Sam Stecklow is the Weekend Editor for Fusion.