My Life in 5 Magazines: 1: Him Monthly

This month, October 2019, Gay Times reaches its 500th issue—a fantastic achievement marking more than 40 years of continuous publishing that has seen tremendous developments in LGBT+ rights. In the first of several posts highlighting important magazines in my life, I turn to one of Gay Times’ earlier incarnations.

HIM Monthly

Issue 55: 90p (Cover-date March 1983)
Publisher: Millivres Ltd

This was the first gay magazine I ever bought, albeit second hand; for that reason alone it was genuinely life-changing. Embarrassingly, the “gayness” of Him Monthly didn’t really sink in until I started flicking through it on the bus home—I hurriedly put it away for later, private consumption.

Why that reticence? Well, it was 1983. Homosexual acts between men had been decriminalised in Scotland for three years, but there was already growing paranoia around AIDS—the so-called “gay plague”. There was also the small matter that then-19-year-old me would still be breaking the law if I had sexual relations with another man. (I didn’t become “legal” until two years later.) All of which, I now realise, helped explained the strange look I got from the woman behind the counter, as I handed over my money. As it happens, I never visited that shop again.

In part, that’s because I found somewhere else I could buy subsequent issues of Him Monthly; a place where I definitely felt safer. 1983 was also when I learned of, and for the first time visited, the (to me) legendary Lavender Menacethe first LGBT bookshop in Edinburgh, indeed Scotland!

Like any successful magazine, what made me pick up that particular copy of Him Monthly (hidden among a diverse selection of magazines in a second hand book shop in Edinburgh’s Southside) was the cover—an illustration by artist Oliver Frey of a young, blond punk looking a tad more “twink” than any punks I’d seen. What the rest of this particular issue inspired, though, was a conceptual break-through of sorts; it offered proof that there were lots of gay men, at least some of whom went to gay pubs and clubs—and there were such places even in Edinburgh!

GAY PUBLISHING IN THE UK, 1983
What I didn’t realise at the time – well, how could I? – was that this issue of Him Monthly was both a magazine in transition, and part of the emergence of a far-more commercially-focused era in British gay publishing.

Originally launched as Him Exclusive in 1974, the magazine was decidedly “raunchy” for the time, pushing against the UK’s then-existing pornography laws. It paid the price for such “rudeness” on numerous occasions, with copies seized by police and pulped. Reliable distribution ultimately proved to be an insurmountable problem; its publisher, the Incognito Publishing Company, was declared bankrupt in 1982.

Him Exclusive was rescued by co-founder Alex McKenna, now the publisher of its largest rivals. Known in some circles as “the Pornographer”, McKenna published Zipper, Mister and Vulcan from his Camden High Street office. Purchasing Him Exclusive not only gave him a near monopoly in UK gay “soft porn”, it also ensure that – at least when it came to “UK homosexual periodicals” – his Millivres Ltd was second only to fortnightly newspaper Gay News in terms of revenue. McKenna wasn’t in the same market, of course; Him Monthly, along with “stroke” monthlies Zipper, Mister, etc, had no pretensions towards journalism.

That was to change, however: not least because it made little sense for Millivres Ltd to cannibalise sales of Zipper and Mister by continuing with a near-identical magazine like Him Monthly. Instead of buying Him Monthly just to shut it down, however, McKenna opted instead to relaunch the title. Indeed, by the time I picked up that copy of Him Monthly in mid-1983, the magazine’s evolution under editor John Marshall was well advanced; yes, it still contained sexually explicit stories and softest porn photo spreads, but there were also numerous features, news pages and national “gay scene” listings.

“Britain’s Biggest Gay Newsmag”

As the features and news pages expanded, Him Monthly even began describing itself as “Britain’s Biggest Gay Newsmag”. This approach, deliberately, put Him Monthly in firm competition with the fortnightly newspaper Gay News, first published in 1972. I’ve since learned that the latter was, by this time, facing significant financial crises, management panics, staff unrest and cutting criticism for failing to address the needs of an increasingly commercialised gay scene.

Its chief critic was former contributor Peter Burton, who had essentially jumped ship to Him Monthly to provide the “gay scene” listings and features he’d previously compiled for Gay News.

Sadly, I never saw a copy of Gay News “in the flesh” until well after the publication’s closure – it’s publisher Gay News Ltd ceased trading on 15 April 1983, a few months before I picked up that March 1983 issue of Him Monthly, second-hand. Indeed, it was through that issue’s news pages that I first read about “the ailing Gay News”—in hindsight, given that the monthly was attempting to wean away both the fortnightly’s gay male readers and its display advertisers, it’s little wonder that most mentions of Gay News were invariably hostile and often mocking in tone.

GAY TIMES
The sudden closure of Gay News nevertheless left an obvious gap in the market. London-focused weekly Capital Gay extended its distribution for as long as its limited resources could endure, while a host of small new titles temporarily flowered to serve their local areas—few* really lasted that long.

[*A notable exception proved to be Gay Scotland, published by the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group (later, Outright Scotland) and initially edited by Ian Dunn, a former contributor of Scottish coverage to Gay News. First appearing in March 1982, Gay Scotland would survive – in various formats – for more than 20 years.]

In other words, there was an opportunity—and McKenna’s Millivres Ltd went for it. Him Monthly’s cover parade of nameless “models” (or illustrations) was replaced with people you might actually recognise, such as the actor Rupert Everett (breakout star of 1984’s Another Country) and US new-wave band Berlin.

From issue 69, the magazine became Him Monthly, Britain’s Biggest Gay Times. A few issues later, the Gay Times branding took precedence on the cover.

For, following a doomed-from-the-start attempt to launch a fresh Gay News (by someone with absolutely no publishing experience whatsoever), Millivres Ltd had swept in and bought up the title. Thus, in 1984, Him Monthly completely relaunched as Gay Times, incorporating Gay News. (Interestingly, this is now the date given by Gay Times for its “foundation”.) The ghost of Gay News remained visible (albeit in smaller and smaller text) until the early 1990s.

BATTLES LOST AND WON

Gay News had been established in 1972 as a “collective”, and arguably held on to its reputation for being a “community-owned resource” much longer than it actually deserved—allegedly, ownership of the title was split between a major financial sponsor and first editor, Denis Lemon, as early as 1973.

In contrast, from the start, Him Monthly/Gay Times was a privately-owned publication, run by gay men with an eye for commercial realities—or, as some of their critics suggested, an “undemanding” approach to its news coverage, along with a shared personal interest in the burgeoning gay entertainment scene. Not that Gay Times entirely avoided “serious” news subjects in its pages; it was only after launching sister-title The Pink Paper in 1987 that Gay Times consciously began to reduce its regular news coverage, instead opting to touch on “political” or “campaigning” issues through its lifestyle and celebrity features.

All this was in the future when I picked up that copy of Him Monthly #55 back in 1983. If you’d told me that I would contribute to the magazine (albeit during its GT incarnation), I wouldn’t have believed you. It was enough of an eye-opener as it was!