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XY editor Peter Cummings: target of gay youth praise, media scorn

By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Founder

Over a year ago, I remember getting a call from Peter Cummings, who started telling me about this gay youth magazine he was launching called XY. He asked if I had time to write something for the debut issue. Unfortunately, I told him I was working on the debut issue of Oasis at the time and didn't have any free time to give him. We both wished each other luck on our projects and I didn't think twice about it. A few weeks later, I got this hot, glossy magazine in the mail and immediately noted that I should have found time -- just to be a part of the first issue of something I knew was going to be big.

I'll admit that what immediately struck me about XY was the photos. If the same images had Calvin Klein written across the bottom, I wouldn't have blinked. But these were unapologetic photos of hot young guys for other hot young guys to look at. Initially, I didn't know how to process that information (that's not what I mean, I'm not that stupid).

Since that time, Oasis and XY have celebrated their first birthdays. I'm obviously biased, but between XY and Oasis, I feel we have done more for and written more about gay youth than the Advocate, Out, Genre and (insert as many current and defunct gay magazines as you want here) have done in the past two decades. The target audience for XY and Oasis are the same, but our editorial content is rather different. And despite the fact that I've consistently written articles for XY magazine, I'm constantly asked what I think of it, usually from the standpoint of someone who doesn't like what Cummings is doing. The phrase "half-naked boys" usually appears in these conversations.

Out magazine in a recent issue made reference to Cummings' introduction of XY to the market in the past year as a "dubious achievement" and compared it to the porn magazine Freshmen. On a side note, nearly every other section except "youth" featured positive achievements in the gay community. I am from the standpoint that gay youth should determine the merits of what XY is doing, not older gay men.

Cummings, 35, has been involved with four other gay magazines prior to this one when he lived in England. The fear of advertisers dealing with gay youth was anticipated by Cummings, who charged $5.95 per issue from the get-go, and XY has grown exponentially despite the price and is profitable.

But, even still, companies like Calvin Klein who make millions from young gay men buying their underwear and base entire advertising campaigns around hot, young guys bulging out of their underwear. Calvin Klein heads for the safer shores of Out, where its ads add nearly the only sexual element to the magazine. Within the next six months, Cummings predicts XY will be the largest news stand sale of any gay magazine in the country (although Out and Advocate have much larger subscription bases).

Cummings and I recently did a phone interview to mark both our anniversaries and to see what's going on with XY as its sixth issue with theme of "love" is about to hit the stands. Candid, insightful and chatty (as you can see from the length of his responses), Cummings pulled no punches as he explained and defended XY, the most liberating, pride-pumping gay magazine in existence.

Jeff Walsh: One of the reasons I thought we should do this interview is because I've seen a few conversations on IRC and such in which people pit themselves in conversation on if they prefer Oasis or XY, which I find to be silly. I mean, if there's only two main resources out there for youth, I can't figure out why they wouldn't just read both. Not to mention that I've written for your magazine, so I obviously have no problem with it.

Peter Cummings: Hmm... I'm online a lot and I've never seen anything like that. But if someone thinks we're in competition, fine. Because we're not. I just think that's weird.

JW: I guess we will be competing more soon. When does XY launch on the Web?

PC: Our site is up (www.xymag.com). We just don't have a lot of content there. We just hired someone who is going to be our Webmaster. And we're going to be working on the AOL site and the Web site. We're creating the AOL site ourselves and we just started doing it. We're going to be putting the content from the magazine on both, but the basic site which only has basic information about the magazine is up. Our main priority is to get out the magazine. And I'm trying really hard not to be diverted into other things and to keep putting out the magazine first.

JW: Both our magazines are a year old now and I know we had both talked to one another before either of our magazines existed. What's it like for you now? Is this where you thought you'd be?

PC: I expected people would like it. But I never really expected it would be as popular as it has been. Generally speaking, when you start a gay magazine (and I've been involved with four different ones), half the people hate them and half the people like them and everybody fights about it. But the reaction to XY has been 99 percent positive. That was very surprising to me. And just the fact that we've been making these huge sales. We're distributing 60,000 copies of the next issue, which I never expected to happen. Our distribution for issue one was 21,000.

JW: In relation, what does a magazine like Out do?

PC: There's a thing called the Audit Bureau of Circulations, and they have a thing which they publish twice a year which is the audited circulation of the magazines. Out magazine is 78,554 news stand and 40,938 subscription and The Advocate is 17,530 news stand and 56,813 subscription (for paid circulation for the six months ending 1/1/96 for an average issue). Right now, we're doing about 30,000 news stand and 5,000 subscription. Now, I feel when we increase our distribution, we will have the highest news stand sale of any gay magazine in the U.S., which sounds really impressive but it's a real hokey statistic. It's like saying you sold the most magazines in Idaho, you know, because those magazines, since they've been around so long have very high subscriber bases. So, it's really hard to build up a subscription base. But we are inching up on Out magazine on news stand and I feel quite confident that within the next six months we will be the highest news stand sell of any gay magazine, which is really amazing. I never expected that to happen. Despite the fact that is a hokey statistic, like I said.

JW: Just to give people an idea, how big is the actual paid staff of XY. Not contributors like me, but actual staff.

PC: We officially have a full time staff of five people. Almost all of the writing and photography for the magazine is done freelance. But we have an editor, managing editor, Web master, business manager and subscriptions manager. Which is very small. The magazine's first two issues were produced entirely by me in my bedroom, while I did another full-time job. So, it seems quite luxurious to have five.

JW: How many contributors do you get? My impression is you're not hurting for submissions.

PC: We got a lot of submissions, but we get too many of some things and not enough of others. The major features in the magazines and the major fashion is hard to arrange a lot of the times. A lot of the time, we have to find somebody to do it and it's quite hard. A lot of the things are finding someone who knows about the subject, can write well, and ... well, you know all that stuff because you do Oasis.

JW: Oasis is different in that, since we're only on the Web, we don't have to worry about finding an article to fit a quarter-page. We don't have to worry about newshole, and what they're writing. It's more just getting people to submit on a regular basis...

PC: Yeah. It's still really amazing to me. Of course, we have a relatively high cover price, which is because of our thing with advertising. We don't take cigarettes, alcohol and 900 number ads. And a lot of the fashion advertisers don't want to advertise with us, because, well, I think they're nervous about gay youth, really. So, when you combine all that stuff, we have very little advertising revenue. I anticipated this, which is why we set the price at $5.95. And the interesting thing is that I think our readers understand why we did that. I've had hardly any complaints about that. I wanted to make a magazine that was supported by the reader rather than the advertiser. That way, the readers could have the magazine they wanted.

JW: What would be the problem with having cigarettes or alcohol ads? Is it because of the focus on youth?

PC: No, we don't want to have cigarettes and alcohol because my opinion is that cigarettes and alcohol have had quite a bad effect on the gay community. I am really against cigarettes and they are increasing all their advertising in the gay press. It's very interesting, I read an article that said young gay men have one of the highest instances of cigarette smoking. Gay men between 18 and 30 surveyed have a rate of cigarette smoking 10 percent higher than straight men. So, I think that's quite bad. Plus there are political things like the cigarette industry gives a huge amount of money to the Republican party every year, and they support Jesse Helms. All the cigarette companies put money into Helms' campaign and he's anti-gay. As for alcohol, I believe alcohol has had a really bad effect on the gay community. There's a really high rate of alcoholism in the gay community and I think that gay life is too centered around going to bars and clubs and getting drunk and smoking, and that whole destructive lifestyle is something that XY wants to stand against. We want to say that there are cleaner ways of living. I feel quite strongly about that. I think alcohol is a really big pain in the neck. I don't drink myself, not because I'm an alcoholic. I just don't think it's a good idea. It's interesting, because people have gone around and saying that there was a question of morals and that we're too sexual and everything, but I think XY has a very high moral stand. We stand on principles about a lot of things. I think we are trying to address serious topics and draw a lot of the established truths of gay life into question. I don't see anybody else doing that.

JW: Initially, one of Oasis' columnists trashed XY and Out magazine has trashed it. How personally do you take that?

PC: I don't take it personally because I understand what's going on with all these people. People try to create this controversy about XY magazine, that it's controversial and that a lot of people don't like it. You know something? There are 80,000 people who like it, and for those 80,000 people that like it, three don't like it. That's the level of it. I've had no more than 10 complaints. Out magazine is a whole other thing. The biggest group of people who don't like it are the established gay A-list, the metropolitan gay elite, of which Out magazine is their Bible. They don't like us because we stand for a whole different set of values to them. I don't like Out magazine because they stand for a set of values which is very different from mine. I wasn't surprised by that particularly, because I can see why they said it.

JW: Do you think any of it's based on the fact that you're gaining on them?

PC: It would be very easy to say that. Out magazine is $6 million in debt, according to the New York Times. This is the theory I don't agree with, but I'll say what it is. You can say Out magazine, they were the magazine of the 80s, and their circulation is declining and our is increasing. I don't believe that. I just think we stand for a different set of values than them. The average age of Out readers surveyed was 35, and our is 23.5. And their readership is nearly half-women, and ours is 98 percent gay men. They are very upscale, and ours is middle-scale, suburban. We sell more magazines in Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas than we do in California. We're a very middle-brow magazine for people who go out and do ordinary stuff. We're not a high culture magazine. And they are really upscale. They cover opera, cologne and liqueur and trips to different places, how to invest your money and upscale consumerism. We are not that.

JW: What is the target audience of XY magazine?

PC: A lot of people ask me about the target audience for this magazine. "16 to 30? What is that? Is it a youth magazine?" I don't know if it is, exactly. Because I think XY represents a new and different kind of thinking. It doesn't relate to how old the person is, but to their point of view. I think people who are 20 are more likely to have the point of view of XY magazine than people who are 50, but I don't think it's limited to people who are 20. We're essentially a non-scene magazine. We don't cover clubs. We don't cover circuit parties. We don't cover any of the big gay events. What really upsets me is this whole ... I think there's a lot of problems with this upscale gay lifestyle. I think what the trends of the 80s were to say: OK, we can have a lifestyle that just as good as straight people. We could go out and buy houses and get joint mortgages and go shopping in shopping malls and buy all this stuff and get respectable jobs and do respectable things and have respectable relationships. We could move into the mainstream, that was the message of the 80s. The word used most in the Out magazine rate card is "upscale." I think people are now beginning to wonder, just because we did these things, did we really make it? Or are we exactly the same as we were before? Straight people might be happier with us, we have more rights and stuff, but looking back, there's a lot of problems with gay life. We should not only try to move our boat forward but to try fix it up. People are starting to call into question a lot of the truths about gay life. I believe that gay liberation is about sexuality and one of the most upsetting things about a lot of the gay things that happened in the 80s, and with Out magazine, is that everything is so desexualized. It was almost like to be respectable, we started acting less sexual. And, to me, gay liberation is about the freedom to act sexual and express our sexuality. Otherwise, what is being gay about? And I don't think XY magazine is any more sexual than Cosmopolitan. I really don't.

JW: Do you think it's a self-hating thing? People aren't used to a sexual magazine targeting gay youth.

PC: The 80s were a very desexualized decade. And because of AIDS and other setbacks, people became less receptive to sexuality and tried to take on a less sexual lifestyle, because they equated that lifestyle with AIDS. But that's not logical, it's just emotional. Being able to feel, discuss and express our sexuality, to celebrate it, is good. There is no bad thing about it. It's not bad that we like looking at pictures of cute guys. That's what being gay is. To say XY is somehow unrespectable because we express our sexuality is just ridiculous. I think that's the most repressive thing. It didn't used to be that way, but in the past 10 years we have become less sexual and XY thinks we should be more sexual. What's the point to fight for the right to express your sexuality as a political matter, but then you don't express it? What's the point of fighting for it. The "Out" way of thinking is that because we express this sexuality we're pornographic. They said we were a "dubious achievement" and compared us to [the porn magazine featuring younger guys] Freshmen. Comparing us to Freshmen shows they have a gross misunderstanding of who young gay men are, what they want and what they're interested in. It shows a gross misunderstanding of how gay sexuality works because we aren't pornographic. We are showing young gay men expressing their love and sexuality in a self-fulfilling, constructive, positive way and I don't think Freshmen does that. But their reaction is to se anything sexual as being a detriment, and if that's their attitude maybe they should publish a magazine about chess. But their publisher and staff don't seem to understand what we're about, and I'm not surprised they don't, because they have a whole different set of values. Comparing us to Freshmen, from the point of view of our readers, is preposterous.

JW: It seems whenever I talk to younger people, they see XY as a very, positive magazine that makes them feel good about themselves.

PC: That's why I wanted to do it. I wanted to send it out to Nebraska and Iowa and reach all those people and show them that being gay is fun and good and to validate that. And I think we do that really well.

JW: But when I talk to older people, it's usually "It's too sexual. It's too much." What is too much for XY? Where won't you go?

PC: We don't have nudity and everything in the magazine is there for a reason. I don't have a problem with it. It's not pornographic and everything we put in there is to make people feel good about being gay. It's fun and sometimes silly. And if people think it's too sexual, I just suggest those people get over their hang-ups. I agree with you. The number of complaints I have had from people in the intended target market is one. The majority of the complaints have come from the other gay press. There was syndicated column -- "XY: Gay youth mag or kiddie porn?" -- that was syndicated in all these newspapers. It's just another typical example of the New York gay media elite being out of touch with real people in the country.

JW: Do you think there's also the element of pedophobia?

PC: There is an element of pedophobia. But it's ridiculous to talk about 16-year-olds as being a question of pedophilia. Pedophilia is when you get pre-adolescent eight-year-olds with really older guys. I'm not making a judgment for or against that, because I haven't really thought about it and I don't really care. It's not my issue. It certainly doesn't apply to XY. There's no question of pedophilia when you're talking about teenagers, period. And when people say that they're just really being repressive.

JW: Do you think there's a whole element that we want to deny younger people's sexual freedom?

PC: Of course. I had sex when I was 15 and everybody else did.

JW (crying): I didn't!

PC: But you know what I'm saying. We have 12,000 readers who are under 18?

JW (shocked): And you think a lot of people under 18 are having sex?

PC (laughing): Yes, I think a lot of people 18 are having sex. The majority of Americans have sex when they're under 18. But I feel older people have no business telling younger people they shouldn't have sex. Especially not gay people. It is pedophobic, but there's no question of pedophilia with XY, because that's not our age range. We don't have eight-year-old readers. The youngest person I've heard from is 13. I don't even think that's a question of pedophilia, this whole question is ridiculous. I don't even want to talk about it anymore, because I just draw attention to it. And it's so ridiculous.

JW: Are you getting a lot of mail and e-mail from your readers?

PC: We get hundreds and hundreds writing every week. A lot of people really wait for it [to come out]. Most are people who are writing because they like the magazine. A lot of people probably think I bias the reader mail in the magazine, but there's hardly any negative e-mail.

JW: Even when I wrote about the Communications Decency Act for XY, I got a lot of e-mail about that article.

PC: Three quarters of our readers are online, so that's not surprising. Hmm, there was something else I wanted to say about what we were just talking about... it will come to me... ah! A lot of older guys like to buy it because it has pictures of cute guys. I think that's fine. If people want to buy it just for the pictures, I don't have a problem with that. Can't they get over it?

JW: What makes you so committed to doing XY magazine?

PC: People may have seen the story in XY issue four, about how my first love at 14-15 committed suicide, and it had a really kind-of angering effect on me. At the time I was very distraught. As time went on, I got very angry about it. And in many ways, XY magazine is for him. I just want to stop that from happening. And I guess I want to just reach these people. A lot of the problems gay people have have to do with ourselves and if you can feel strong and take life by the horns, being gay is cool.




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