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An unordinary life
Veteran gay journalist Sarah Pettit knew how to kick butt
BY MICHAEL BRONSKI

I DON’T KNOW that I’d say I enjoyed working with Sarah Pettit. One of my first dealings with her was in 1993, when she was the arts editor for Out magazine. She called me on a Monday to ask for revisions on a piece I’d written. She needed the rewrite by Wednesday. I told her that I’d do my best but that my lover, Walta, was having brain surgery on Tuesday. A shunt was being placed in his cranium to drain fluid that was building up because of an AIDS-related infection. Sarah listened to me. When I was finished, she paused and said, "Well, that excuse might work in Boston, but it won’t fly here in New York."

I love telling this story — which always shocks people — because it epitomizes Sarah’s complexity. While some might have found her remark insensitive, I took it as she intended: a form of humor that people — mostly gay men — use in an attempt to make the horror of AIDS emotionally manageable. But there was another message there as well. Sarah wanted to make sure that we both understood that she was to be taken seriously. AIDS epidemic or not, Sarah was not going to get all sentimental about deadlines.

So I’m not going to get all sentimental about her death last week, at age 36, from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It would be improper, though, not to send her off with appreciation for what she accomplished as a journalist. Throughout the 1990s, Pettit was a force within the gay press, covering the queer community in such a way that the mainstream press had to sit up and take notice. Along with San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts (who gained national fame with his 1987 book And the Band Played On) and Richard Rouilard, the editor of the Advocate from 1990 to 1992, Pettit changed how the mainstream press viewed and dealt with gay issues and culture.

In 1989, Pettit became an editor at OutWeek, a new lesbian-and-gay paper that grabbed attention first with its coverage of new political groups such as ACT UP, and then with its wholehearted editorial endorsement of outing. In 1992, she and Michael Goff founded Out magazine, where she was primarily responsible for overseeing the arts and political coverage. In 1997, after Goff was fired by the magazine’s publisher, she became its editor in chief until she was let go a year later by Out president Henry Scott. She worked at Newsweek as a senior arts-and-entertainment editor from 1998 until her death.

Under her guidance, Out did what no other gay or lesbian publication had done before: it became a "must-read" that was also able to attract — and keep — mainstream advertisers. There’s no question that one of the reasons Out was so hot in its early years is because Pettit knew how to mix politics with glamour. She could also spot and capitalize on cultural trends. In Out’s May 1997 editorial, in which Pettit urged Ellen DeGeneres to come out, she noted that much of gay-and-lesbian culture had morphed into a consumer culture — epitomized, ironically enough, by Out’s success, as demonstrated in page after page of Benetton and Calvin Klein ads. She wrote: "[T]he real pulse of gay and lesbian America ... [is] smarter and more politicized than it is given credit for but still hemmed in by the gay fundamentals like coming-out, families, and making the world safe for ourselves. Most folks, as Thoreau said, ‘lead lives of quiet desperation’ or in our case, at least, ordinary lives of reasonable gratification."

Pettit’s original vision for Out — which was conceived with Goff — was startling in its simplicity. In the magazine’s debut, 1992’s summer issue, the "editors’ letter" — signed by Goff and Pettit, but ringing with Pettit’s voice — stated defiantly: "Some of us get up in the morning feeling like outlaws. Some of us just like seeing things a little differently. This magazine is about being out there as we are. No apologies."

"We’re not here to tell you how you should live, think, dress, work or have sex in the ’90s," the letter said. "Everyone else has been doing that all along. You can make your own decisions. We want to push your buttons, explore your world, challenge your ideas, and offer an entertaining few hours. You can take it or leave it."

While not as clarion as Charles Foster Kane’s journalistic declaration in the beginning of Citizen Kane, this was a decisive break from gay-and-lesbian journalism as usually practiced. There had been much fine news and cultural reporting in the gay press since the early 1970s, but the national press — a complex web of weeklies and monthlies, agitprop, serious journalism, and arts coverage — had never had the inclination (or the advertising money) to articulate such laissez-faire identity politics.

But as sassy as her editorial declaration sounded, Pettit was political. The magazine’s early issues make clear that, right from the start, Pettit pulled a bait and switch on readers every month. She introduced serious, well-researched journalism to an audience that, in all likelihood, picked up the magazine because Rupert Everett or Melissa Etheridge was on the cover. And readers kept coming back.

In the first issue, writer Anne-Christine d’Adesky penned a thoughtful piece on the medical establishment’s politics on safe sex (at a time when many doctors took the homophobic stance of urging abstinence). The issue also featured a profile of openly gay New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott. In the July 1993 issue, novelist Dale Peck wrote "Town Without Pity: Milwaukee After Dahmer," a dazzling piece that examined the homophobic fallout of the Jeffrey Dahmer case. In the 1994 February and March issues, Jewish journalist Donna Minkowitz went underground and passed as a devout believer at a Christian Coalition meeting in the South. That these pieces were good ideas might seem obvious today. But that wasn’t the case 10 years ago, when it simply never occurred to the editors of mainstream magazines to turn their lenses on the gay community and report back (or if it did, they never followed through).

IN MANY WAYS, Pettit was born at the right time and reared in the right places. Born in Amsterdam, where her father worked for an international banking corporation, she was raised in Paris, London, and Bad Homburg, Germany. She went to Phillips Exeter Academy and then on to Yale, where she majored in French and German literature, graduating in 1988. Coming from a life of privilege, Pettit moved through the world in the way she’d been brought up: smart, self-possessed, and in charge. If she had been born earlier in the century, she might have been one of those American lesbians — like Margaret Anderson, who started the highly influential Little Review, or Sylvia Beach, who opened Shakespeare and Co. in Paris and published Joyce’s Ulysses, or even Gertrude Stein — who fled to a more-tolerant Europe to pursue a career in literature and publishing. Of course, she was born in postwar America and came of age after Stonewall. So she became a magazine editor.

Pettit’s generation of lesbians and gay men saw sex and politics as one and the same. Activist groups like Act Up and Queer Nation, with which Pettit was involved, used politics to save lives. And sex was infused throughout their politics. Queer Nation made its stamp with "kiss ins." Act Up, of course, fought to end the AIDS crisis. Not to deal with queer sexuality — or to be dishonest about it — was a form of hypocrisy Pettit would have no part of. One of the animating features of Out’s serious content, under Pettit’s editorial hand, was an insistence on examining sex with a complexity absent from most other magazines. In the December 1997 issue, noted science-fiction writer and mainstream literary critic Samuel R. Delany bemoaned the gentrification of Times Square as marking the end of a vibrant aspect of gay-male culture: public sex. And the next month, New Yorker writer Suzannah Lessard discussed the history of sexual compulsion in her family beginning with her great-grandfather, noted architect Stanford White, who was murdered in 1905 for his public affair with showgirl Evelyn Nesbit.

Meanwhile, Pettit was one of the first magazine editors to seriously cover the politics of transgendered and intersexed people with a June 1996 article by columnist Michelangelo Signorile and another piece, published a few months later, by d’Adesky. While Rouilard had turned the Advocate into a publication that "made news" — especially with the story by Signorile that "outed" Pete Williams, spokesman for the Pentagon under then–secretary of defense Dick Cheney — it was Out that often provided substance and deeper insights into vital sexual issues.

ASIDE FROM HER intelligence, her political acumen, her love of popular culture, and her sharp — even biting — humor, what made Sarah Pettit, well, Sarah Pettit? Some of her friends point to her anger. Or, as Signorile and Urvashi Vaid, a close friend of Pettit’s who was the executive editor of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force during Pettit’s tenure at Out and who now works for the Ford Foundation, say, her indignation. No doubt this indignation was fueled by the times. As Signorile recalls, "She was — as we all were — furious at how people with AIDS, and the epidemic, were being treated by the press and the government."

But Pettit was also a woman operating in a man’s world. "Let’s face it," Signorile says, "the gay press was dominated by gay white men. Sarah brought a whole new and very-much-needed perspective to the gay national press." Signorile, who hired Pettit at OutWeek, remembers her as being "incredibly stubborn during intellectual discussions" and says with gratitude that he was "never in a truly subordinated position to her. She could be sometimes so angry she could scream at people. She had a lot of anger, and she could make employees cry," though he also notes that "women bosses get pegged far more than men."

It’s never easy being a boss, and it’s a lot harder when you are a self-confident lesbian working with gay men who’ve never had to pay attention to women before. Pettit’s reputation for imperiousness — which was as strong as her reputation for kindness, thoughtfulness, and being a fun, loving person — was based on truth, but that didn’t make her a bad person; it just made her complicated.

I HAVE ANOTHER Sarah Pettit story that I like to tell. In the late spring of 1994, I gave a talk at New York University about how the AIDS epidemic had invaded all aspects of gay men’s lives. I spoke about my discovery that I frequently enjoyed explicit sexual fantasies about men in my life who had died — it was a way to keep them alive in my imagination and to keep myself sexual in the midst of death. It was obvious to me that I was making a number of people listening to me uncomfortable.

Sarah happened to be in the audience. When it came time for questions, she stood up and thanked me for being honest and then began to speak — movingly and with quiet dignity — about how in the midst of daily caregiving for a close gay-male friend who was dying of AIDS, she also found him in her erotic imagination. She talked about how surprising this was to her as a lesbian, but how comforting it was as well.

If I had made the audience uncomfortable, what Sarah had to say nearly unhinged them all. I believe she spoke because she wanted to be supportive of me. I also think she relished making the audience even more uncomfortable. But I also believe that she spoke because not to do so would have been dishonest and disingenuous. Sarah Pettit was never going to lead one of those "ordinary lives of reasonable gratification." She was too demanding, smart, and honest for that. And the life she did lead was complicated, vibrant, sometimes irritating to others, but always in the moment.

Michael Bronski is most recently the author of Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s Press, 2003). He can be reached at mabronski@aol.com

Issue Date: January 30 - February 6, 2003
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