The legacy and future of Houston’s LGBTQ magazine.
By Andrew Edmonson
When OutSmart was born, Bill Clinton was in the White House, LGBTQ people could not serve openly in the military, and Section 21.06 of the Texas Penal Code still criminalized gay sex between consenting adults.
A quarter-century later, the lives of LGBTQ Americans have been transformed in extraordinary ways: from the landmark 2003 Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated sodomy laws nationwide, to Annise Parker becoming the first openly LGBTQ person elected mayor of a major American city in 2009, to the marriage-equality decision of 2015.
Through it all, OutSmart has chronicled—and often helped catalyze—a wave of profound change.
“OutSmart has seen the GLBT community go from outsider status to being Supreme Court-approved legal,” says Ann Walton Sieber, who served as editor of the magazine from 1999 to 2002. “Of course, there is still enormous stigma in many quarters, but still, it’s a mind-blowing amount of positive change.
“I hope that perhaps OutSmart was part of making that change happen,” she adds. “We really believed that one very important part of the way to change was for people to come out—to make themselves known as gay people to their circle of friends, family, and coworkers—[so everyone could see] that gay folks aren’t all drag queens. And we were the magazine that also showed that panoply of gay/queer people to ourselves, so that we would know who we were.”
Clifford Pugh, a reporter who has covered the Bayou City over four decades, including for the Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle, praises OutSmart’s editorial department for “consistently producing such a high-quality publication that really has elevated the discussion of what’s going on in Houston’s LGBTQ community.”
Parker, a one-time OutSmart columnist who now heads the LGBTQ Victory Fund, concurs.
“The LGBTQ press is an essential component of our movement for equality, ensuring that our community understands the issues by providing a platform to LGBTQ elected officials and advocates who are working on our behalf,” Parker says, adding that OutSmart was “a lifeline and a connector” for activists in the 1990s and 2000s.
“Houston was not always a friendly place for LGBTQ people,” she says. “But OutSmart provided that sense of community and common purpose that was critical for organizing to make positive change.
“I know the coverage it provided—including exposing those opposed to our equality—played an essential role in changing the hearts and minds of many of Houston’s policymakers and elected officials,” she adds. “Houston is a better place because of OutSmart’s coverage.”
For noted LGBTQ historian JD Doyle, OutSmart has made a major contribution to documenting the evanescent history of Houston’s queer community and the institutions that comprise it. “In 1999, OutSmart did a year-long series focusing on Houston LGBT history, and it was wonderful. And there have been lengthy articles over the years about our organizations. I love OutSmart. It gets better and better.”
OutSmart sprang directly from an activist impulse.
In a letter from the publisher and staff in the magazine’s first issue on February 15, 1994, publisher Greg Jeu observed, “The emotional and pivotal experience of participating in the 1993 March on Washington for Gay, Lesbian and Bi Equal Rights was also integral to the decision to create OutSmart.”
The letter ended with a clever call to arms: “It’s time to be Out. It’s time to be Smart. It’s time for OutSmart.”
Jeu made a key business decision that would set the magazine apart: he would not accept the highly lucrative, sexually explicit advertising favored by many LGBTQ publications and alternative weeklies such as the Houston Press.
“At the time, there was a double standard that existed for advertising in mainstream and gay publications,” Jeu recalls. “We’re talking about a time in history before Ellen DeGeneres came out. Even a same-sex kissing scene on TV was kind of too much for mainstream America.
“Mainstream publications could have topless bars, chat-line ads, and other sexually explicit advertising in it, and still be distributed in major grocery stores and restaurants,” Jeu adds. “However, if you had photos of shirtless gay men dancing, it would be considered by some to be unacceptable and would cause problems. We also decided not to take sexually explicit advertising because we felt it would be a distraction from the other aspects of the community that we wanted to highlight.”
In those early days, Jeu was also confronted with the practical realities of homophobic Texas: finding a printer that was willing to handle gay content.
“Financially, it was extremely challenging since banks were not quite willing to loan to a start-up magazine,” Jeu says. “I think 50 percent of magazines don’t even make it through their first year. We started the magazine with a handful of credit cards, and credit from a generous Vietnamese newspaper printer. Those were some rough days, and the only one getting rich from the magazine was the bank—from all of my NSF [Not Sufficient Funds] charges.”
The first issue of OutSmart featured a cover story about high-glam A-listers Rod and Bob Jackson-Paris, which might have signaled that the magazine aspired merely to be a gay Vanity Fair. But the articles inside that issue revealed much greater ambitions, and were a harbinger of future editorial trends that would define the magazine.
In that maiden issue, there were profiles of two Houston artists, Damion Sondergaard and Missy Gentile, establishing OutSmart’s trademark commitment to in-depth arts and culture coverage. Community leader Rev. Ralph Lasher penned an essay, “In God’s Name—Gays, Lesbians, and the Bible,” expertly debunking homophobic religious leaders’ misuse of scripture to stigmatize gays.
Veteran activist Bart Loeser wrote an article entitled “Exposing the Myths of HIV Testing.” Since the beginning, OutSmart has played a significant role in helping to bind together a community devastated by the AIDS epidemic.
And the publication also has its lighter side, supplied in many cases by creative director and entertainment editor Blase DiStefano, a stalwart of the magazine for over two decades. His Queer Quotes column provides a witty, bite-size roundup of the comments of public figures sounding off on LGBTQ issues. But DiStefano’s specialty is actually his long-form interviews with a bevvy of celebrities. Through pluck and perseverance, he has landed interviews with such luminaries as Eartha Kitt, Shirley MacLaine, Harvey Fierstein, and Kathy Griffin.
“My focus is mainly entertainment, not politics—but I feel that talking to celebrities about anything gay is political anyway,” DiStefano says.
Pugh, the longtime Houston journalist, admits that reading DiStefano’s interviews is his “guilty pleasure.”
“I always find something new about the celebrity from his questions.”
During OutSmart’s first five years, mainstream organizations began to take note of the magazine’s quality. In 1998 and 1999, OutSmart was named Best Local Gay and Lesbian Magazine by the Vice Versa Awards.
Not content to rest on its laurels, the magazine continued to blaze new trails. In 2002, a decade before the mainstream media began to seriously cover the transgender community, OutSmart produced its first “transgender issue.” Editor Sieber interviewed Lilly Roddy (the magazine’s astrologer and longest-contributing writer, who transitioned in January 1999) for an article titled “Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Your Transgender Friends.” D.L. Groover profiled several pioneering trans activists including Sara Rook, who transitioned while working at Shell Oil’s Deer Park chemical plant.
During the same year, there was also a significant change on the publication’s masthead and in its mission: the magazine added “transgender” and “bisexual” to the “gay and lesbian” audience it had previously identified. .
In the early 2000s, the magazine also introduced a regular column by Parker, then serving as Houston’s city controller. She wrote candidly about many parts of her life, from instructing the City protocol office that her partner, Kathy Hubbard, would be included on all official invitations, to navigating the long, emotionally fraught journey through the court system to adopt her two daughters. OutSmart lavished coverage on her historic rise to mayor and her re-election campaigns from 2010 to 2016.
There were also many challenges along the way, most notably in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. “We suffered from the consequences of that nightmare, as did almost all other businesses,” DiStefano recalls. “We were a glossy magazine at the time, and had to revert back to newsprint. Since I am kind of snobbish about the inferiority of newsprint, that was a very challenging time. But let’s keep in mind that that was nothing compared to what some businesses endured.”
Through all of the ups and downs, the anchor for OutSmart has been publisher Jeu. Born in Houston in 1959, he attended Bellaire High School, where he started his first business with friends in 1978—a singing-telegram company that featured singers, belly dancers, tasteful strippers, and balloon deliveries. In 1985, he cut his teeth in magazine publishing when he founded Uptown Express, which was later renamed Health and Spirit Magazine.
“Greg’s leadership is ground-zero for OutSmart,” Sieber observes. “Greg hires staff who bring their own visions and skills—but really, I credit Greg with how OutSmart has thrived.
Sieber notes that Jeu, whose grandfather owned a Chinese restaurant in San Antonio, comes from a “family-business ethos.”
“It was open 24 hours; it didn’t even have a lock on the door,” she says. “When they needed to close for his grandfather’s funeral, they had no way to lock the restaurant.
“So I have a theory that owning businesses comes more naturally to Greg, because he grew up in a family culture that was family-business oriented,” she adds. “Greg values loyalty. He really takes care of his employees in a caring way, more than any other job I’ve encountered. And he expects loyalty in return. I think he and OutSmart deserve loyalty.”
DiStefano says Jeu “never gives up. He has always had the tenacity to—as fashion guru Tim Gunn would say—’make it work,’” he says.
By 2009, thanks to Jeu’s leadership and a talented and passionately committed editorial team, Houston Press had named OutSmart Best Local Magazine four years in a row in its annual Best of Houston competition. “We keep waiting for a local magazine to stand up and snatch this prize away from OutSmart, but it just never happens,” the Press wrote. “Even as the masthead changes from time to time, the quality remains high: smart, insightful features into Houston’s gay past and present, sharp reviews of theater, music, and gay-targeted movies, and lively interviews with national figures letting out their ‘Did they just say that?’ side. And it’s free. It’s a hard combination to beat, but maybe some year some [competing magazine] will.”
In a story entitled “Five Great Moments in Houston’s Gay History,” Houston Press cited the founding of OutSmart in 1994, along with the city’s first Pride parade in 1979 and the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision.
As OutSmart embarks on celebrating its 25th anniversary, it is looking decisively forward, not back. In March 2017, John Wright joined the team as editor, bringing two decades of experience at both mainstream and LGBTQ publications.
Under Wright’s leadership, OutSmart has placed greater emphasis on reflecting the diversity of the city’s LGBTQ community, as well as a commitment to more extensive coverage of news and politics. In January, for example, longtime reporter Brandon Wolf broke a story about the record number of LGBTQ candidates in Texas in 2018. The story quickly went viral, and was picked up by media outlets as diverse as the Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Hill, and Breitbart News.
“Texas is the second-largest state in the nation, and it still has a major shortage of LGBTQ media,” Wright observes. “So I think it’s critical that we do what we can to fill this gap.
“Over time, I envision us devoting more and more resources to our digital presence,” he adds. “In recent months, we have significantly increased our web traffic and greatly expanded our reach on social media. I expect that we will soon redesign our website and gradually begin to place a greater emphasis on digital sales.”
In this era of “fake news,” accurate, discerning reporting—whether online or in print—has become an increasingly valuable commodity.
“In this time of segmented media, talking heads, and sensationalistic journalism, community publications play an important role in organizing individuals around a common purpose,” Parker says.
“OutSmart remains one of the first places newly out Houstonians go to learn about our community,” she adds. “It remains the publication LGBTQ candidates and elected officials go to when trying to reach our people. And it remains a place to learn about the rallies and events that bring Houston’s LGBTQ community together. OutSmart is a necessity in a city like Houston.”•
This article drew significantly on research done by LGBTQ historian JD Doyle, and the website houstonlgbthistory.org, which he curates.
This article appears in the April 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.