XY A GAY MAGAZINE THAT TELLS IT STRAIGHT S.F. publication gains national recognition with a hip focus that stays true to its teen audience

PETER IAN CUMMINGS sculpts his front locks in perpetual forward motion, frozen in time with the miracle of hair products. The rest of his hair is closely cropped and shaved from the nape up to almost the halfway point of his skull. The shorn pate adds to the impression of momentum, as if XY magazine’s founder and publisher is always moving, even when he is simply sitting still in his executive chair.

Then again, Cummings doesn’t sit still for long. He shifts through papers to pull out a gay fashion magazine he launched in London. He sits up in midsentence to check caller ID when his phone rings. He looks out his third-floor window to see yet another San Francisco Muni bus’s electrical connection come spectacularly loose from the overhead wires.

Except for when the phone rings, Cummings’ words don’t stop. The pacing might shift, but it picks up an impassioned speed when he talks about how his readers, Middle America’s young gay men, see the national magazine as their only forum and outlet.

The tone switches to outrage when the 37-year-old publisher talks about his detractors. He talks about accusations of “kiddie porn, ” for instance, which came not from Christian fundamentalists or Baptist naysayers, but a syndicated gay column that asked: “XY magazine: Gay youth mag or kiddie porn?” and went downhill from there. Cummings repeats the criticisms, many of them from “middle-aged, middle-class gays” who level accusations of pornography, then abruptly says, “I don’t even know why I brought this up.”

This maddening energy runs on its own batteries and explains how the thick, glossy publication has grown from a one-man shop in Cummings’ house to an operation of six staffers in a two-level office overlooking Castro central. It explains how Cummings decided to launch a national magazine and its AOL counterpart with little advertising support, which has survived almost entirely on newsstand sales two rare occurrences in the publishing world. While magazine standards such as the political Advocate (which Cummings once worked for) have larger overall sales, “we have the highest newsstand sales of any gay magazine in the country, ” he says.

“I’ve launched a lot of different magazines in England, but XY was always the magazine that I wanted to do, ” Cummings says. That desire was born not long after he discovered his first lover had committed suicide. They had lost touch since they had met at age 15, so Cummings didn’t even know his friend had killed himself until three years after the fact. “It’s an expression of anger, in some way. It’s sort of personal to me.”

Instead of an overtly political approach, the founder channeled his anger into something positive. “I wanted to produce a magazine that showed positive images of young gays so that people out there in the country who are isolated which is most people would see that there were young gay men out there who were having a nice lifestyle, who were happy, who were leading fulfilling lives, and to kind of dispel negative stereotypes that are present in the country about what young gay men are like and what gay people are like. And it’s helped thousands and thousands and thousands of people.”

Whether fueled by energy or anger, Cummings’ drive along with reader response will push the glossy magazine past its 100,000 circulation mark early next year. Despite some late issues in the past year, production was just pushed up from six to 10 times a year.

The expansion includes editorial upgrades as well. News and feature editor Benoit Denizet-Lewis (formerly a Contra Costa Times feature reporter) joined the staff in September to develop editorial quality and maintain its positive hipness. His goal is to make it “the way Details’ used to be.” Reader submissions will continue to make up the magazine’s core, but the mix of professional journalists and authors will increase.

Its riotous colors and bare-chested models certainly attract the roving newsstand eye. A single theme defines the core of each issue, pithily summarized with such words as “pride, ” “out, ” “love” and its latest issue, “straight.” Inside, fashion, technology, slang, health, film reviews and the latest in gay news and issues supplement the thematic stories. The XY attitude is no angst, no defensiveness just image after image of young men enjoying life or, as the editorial chant goes, “unapologetically gay.”

Unapologetically and defiantly. For casual browsers flipping through the February/March 1997 “love” issue, for instance, the advertisements that parody Nike and the “Got Milk?” campaigns would drop more than a few jaws. The raunch factor can soar in the articles as well, with a fair amount of locker room talk.

The words, though, often come from the readers themselves confessing their fears, recounting their joys and extolling their fantasies. Then there is the story about the New Jersey teen who successfully sued for divorce from abusive parents; the interview with the head of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, which put the tiny organization in its proper perspective; or the editorial by an United Airlines employee’s domestic partner who felt denied by the airline’s exclusionary benefits policies. Most center on issues intimately familiar to teens: walking down the school hallway and surviving, leading double lives, coming out to parents.

Editor Mike Glatze’s article on gay/straight labeling, for instance, “is the kind of story which is really important for our readers, because a lot of our teen-agers are not at the point in their gay lives when they’ve thought about this, ” Denizet-Lewis explains. XY introduces ideas usually not encountered until college. “Here’s this whole idea of queer theory, and we’re giving you the whole basics of this in language you can understand.”

What the pages don’t have are mainstream advertisers. Editorial policy bans ads touting alcohol, cigarettes and 900 numbers, but also missing are the retailers: cash cows who do advertise in gay magazines such as “Out.” The November “Age” issue asserts that Abercrombie & Fitch’s ad agency said “they have a note in their system that they’re never going to advertise in XY.” XY’s revenge is running the pictures from the company’s self-rated PG-18 catalog with muscled teens wrestling in locker rooms and pulling their briefs off.

As for XY’s shirtless, muscled boys, most could have been lifted from a heartthrob teen celebrity magazine. Swap in a girl in photos of the hugging couples and get the perfect idyllic romantic shot so beloved in the likes of Seventeen magazine.

XY’s expansion is poised at a time when gay sensibilities have filtered into the popular culture mainstream, which can sometimes turn the tide of public opinion faster than years of picketing, protests and education.

Still, such changes took place against a backdrop of religious and political organizations launching an ad campaign urging gays to be “healed.” Then, there was the murder of 21-year-old Matthew Sheppard, who was left strung up and exposed like a lynching victim. The particularly gruesome nature of his death commanded front-page news and even the cover of Time magazine.

The killing led people to grieve on XY’s AOL site (Web site www.xymag.com is limited to subscriber information). “It totally became a forum for about three or four weeks after his death, ” Denizet-Lewis says. About 50 responses flooded in, the biggest number for any subject posted. “First and foremost it was venting, because that’s what people need to do, ” he observes. Unlike the Castro, where people can mourn at public vigils, “if you’re closeted, who are you going to vent to? Who are you going to cry to? Basically, that was an event that led gay people, young and old, to break down and cry.” The postings continue to come in about new Sheppard Web sites and places to donate money in his name.

“It’s the first kind of major tragedy for young gay men. I’ve never seen as many young gay men feel so adamantly as they did about Matthew, ” Denizet-Lewis says. Their most common refrain, he said, was “it could have been any of us.'”

Little wonder that XY readers exult about the magazine in terms like “life saver” and “Bible.” E-mails and letters come in everyday like the one from Shawn, who writes, “I was down right close to slitting my wrists” until he found XY in a bookstore. A Nashville teen came out to fiercely Baptist parents: “I feel it was your magazine that made this 16-year-old feel enough pride to come out. Thanks so much!”

A Kansas 15-year-old, who describes himself as “gay ever since I can remember, ” finds the magazine enough to keep going while his “very old-fashioned and very, very religious” parents repeatedly condemn homosexuality as a sin, put him in a Christian school, and select his friends for him.

In the fictional world or everyday life, young gays for the most part are unseen and unheard. While girl magazines such as Teen Voices, Hues and Fabula open up their pages to lesbian issues, the few boy magazines that exist play it straight. Even scanning the shelves at a Different Light Bookstore on Castro Street brings up a sparse selection for young gays and lesbians, and certainly not on a glossy level.

About five years ago, “there was a real boom in zine publishing, ” says magazine buyer Tommi Avicolli. Young men in their early 20s cranked out desktop prose and photocopied for an eager market. “It suddenly just happened; it flourished for a few years and then it died out.”

Start-up magazines demand an exhaustive supply of devotion and money. Avicolli points out two factors that hinder the success of a gay teen magazine aside from the sexual orientation: Young founders often lack disposable income for such ventures, and advertisers in turn don’t take them seriously. “I think there’s ageism that they have to overcome as well as homophobia, ” says Avicolli.

That’s why XY magazine has “cornered the market, ” as far as Avicolli is concerned. “It’s overdue. It’s reaching a market that is hungry for this magazine. And they’re doing it in a way that’s hip. They’re doing in a way that’s speaking to their generation, their population.”

Cummings says XY provides a venue to introduce role models to a generation that often rejects its elders. He attributes the distance to more than a generation gap. For one, AIDS devastated a generation, and the survivors inherited the stigma for the disease. Youths still persist in sexually risky behavior, which would be curtailed if they learned from the generation before.

On the other end, older men who could serve as role models shy away from the task rather than risk accusations of being a “sugar daddy” or a pedophile. “There’s not any connection between older gay men and younger gay men in a positive way, ” Denizet-Lewis says.

With more youths coming out at younger ages, understanding what is possible for a gay person in America becomes a far more intriguing journey. “Before 1990, there were hardly any people under 18 who were out. Period. Now they’re all out. In our last reader survey, we had (between 10,000 and) 15,000 readers who were 13, 14, 15. They just didn’t exist before.” XY deliberately has shunned the celebrity-intensive focus available to most teen readers and returned it to the most important person in a reader’s life: himself.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times

“The life of young gay men developing right now is far more interesting than any Hollywood glamour. It’s an epic, ” Cummings says. “Any well-adjusted person with feelings would find that story inspiring.”

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