How dirty is Playboy's money? Each month the nation's leading magazine for young heterosexual men who haven't quite grown up yet celebrates the ancient art of public dishabille. But does this ritual make the magazine essentially silly or essentially malign?
Last month the board of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force came to a remarkable decision. So tainted was the coin of the Playboy realm that IGLTF (pronounced EAGLE-TIFF) concluded it would be more principled to call off a poster campaign intended to assist the young gay victims of hate crimes than to allow it to go forward with Playboy's assistance.
The poster is superb. It's a picture of a row of lockers, on one of which has been scrawled, "Die queer." Below the lockers appears the bold legend DON'T GET SCARED. GET HELP and a number at Horizons Community Services, 312-929-HELP. Designer Todd Kendall created the poster to tell its story at a glance, on the safe assumption that a glance is all many scared gays would feel comfortable giving it. Kendall has sent "Die Queer" out to be judged, and so far it has won a merit award from Canada's Studio Magazine, received a silver medal at the New York International Advertising Festival, and been chosen by the American Institute of Graphic Arts to be included in the traveling exhibit "Issues and Causes: Propaganda for the Public Good."
The need for "Die Queer" is compelling. The journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics recently reported on a survey that found 30 percent of gay males 21 or younger saying they'd attempted suicide. These are the desperate youths Kendall most wanted to reach. But donations to IGLTF, which in addition to its educational programs maintains a lobbyist in Springfield, are not tax deductible. Kendall beat the bushes looking for financial backing before the Playboy Foundation--which has supported gay causes for two decades--agreed to print the poster gratis (at a cost that came to $3,184).
About 1,900 posters were printed up last spring, most of them intended for the CTA's buses, trains, and platforms. But if you looked closely at the lower left corner, you would have seen the tiny legend "Printing donated by the Playboy Foundation." In June IGLTF elected a new, younger, more enlightened board of directors, who slammed the door on this trafficking with the devil by voting on September 7 not to mount the posters but to destroy them.
Val Glaser, the board member behind the 10-3 vote (with three abstentions) to quash the poster, told Windy City Times: "Playboy is antiwomen and thus antilesbian. [Playboy] exploits and objectifies women. I don't think it's a good voice for our organization."
Kendall, who joined the board in June, abstained from the vote to destroy his artwork, but he dutifully endorsed it afterward. "I think it would do more harm than good to put them up," he told Windy City Times. "It would keep some people from working with us, and there would be less enthusiasm within the organization."
We sensed an inconsistency. Were the posters he sent off to be judged ones that Playboy had printed? He said they were.
"Murky waters," we mused.
"They sure are," said Kendall.
Yet after condemning the posters, IGLTF didn't lift a finger against them. They sat undisturbed, most in IGLTF's offices and the others in Kendall's studio, while the board assessed public reaction to its decree. The reaction was not hard to decipher. Fury and ridicule rained down.
Windy City Times savaged the board's conduct as "fiscally irresponsible" and close to "outright perfidy." A long editorial written by publisher Jeffrey McCourt, who as a past IGLTF donor felt personally burned, pointed out that the board "has just eradicated eight percent of its annual income by this vote." McCourt defended the Playboy Foundation as "a long and true supporter of our community," and made the important point that the foundation's logo on the poster would send straight kids the message "Playboy says no to hate crimes!"
McCourt went so far as to declare, "We think many of the real objections to Playboy come from an anti-male and anti-heterosexual bias, i.e., women can objectify women and men can men, but not vice versa."
Cleo Wilson, the foundation's executive director, didn't know her generosity was being blown off until someone at Windy City Times asked for her reaction. She told us, "I was totally stunned, unable to answer him. It gave me the creeps. It seemed like violence against an idea. It made me think of the "Degenerate Art' show at the Art Institute--Nazis destroying pictures and things because they didn't like the source."
A letter came to Wilson from Tim Drake. He's a longtime IGLTF member who'd been cochair of the board of directors when Kendall arranged the Playboy funding early this year. Drake had seen no problem with it.
"I am embarrassed because this action is counter to everything IGLTF stands for," wrote Drake from Washington, D.C., where he now works for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. "I am humiliated because the destruction of these posters is portrayed by the new board as gaining the moral high ground against that evil Playboy company."
Fortunately there was no destruction. And last Thursday night the board changed its mind. It can be a splendid moment when higher authority admits and corrects a mistake. But meeting at Wellington Avenue Church, the IGLTF board managed to turn the occasion into farce.
Rather than search its collective soul in front of two reporters, one from Windy City Times and the other from Nightlines, the board voted ten to five, with one abstention, to meet in "executive session"--that is, behind closed doors.
"What are we afraid of?" asked director Mike McHale, according to Nightlines's Rex Wockner. "To cloak these proceedings in secrecy is an insult to the membership and further destroys our credibility. This is insane."
But director Mary Roberts responded, "We must feel free to speak our position without our voices and our speech being chilled by the presence of outside factors."
Wockner accused the board of violating its own bylaws and refused to leave. Call the cops if you want to, he said grandly, but I'm staying. After several minutes of what Wockner describes in Nightlines as "pandemonium," the directors hit on a solution. If Wockner wasn't budging, they would. Thirteen board members, including the reluctant Todd Kendall--who says he thought Wockner was right but felt the board should stick together--split for director Richard DeVries's nearby apartment. The meeting dragged on there until 2 AM. Four other directors went home in disgust, and two of them--McHale and Art Schenck--have since quit the board.
"I'll tell you," says the board's cochair Joanne Trapani, "the next morning I was a basket case."
IGLTF managed to put out a statement announcing that the board had (1) voted to release the posters but (2) indicated "that it will not seek funding from Playboy in the future." And Wockner, equal to the moment, issued a news release of his own. It was headed: Statement to the press. Why I did not leave the Oct. 17 IGLTF board meeting when asked to.
Don't expect to see Kendall's poster on your local el platform anytime soon. IGLTF has finally advanced to what should have been square one--negotiating with the CTA to have the posters mounted. No one thinks this'll be easy. Last year the CTA caught it from gays for first accepting, then hesitating to display, the Gran Fury AIDS poster "Kissing Doesn't Kill: Greed and Indifference Do."
IGLTF leaders are worried that having been burned once, the CTA will summarily reject "Die Queer" as public-service advertising. Then IGLTF would have to buy space, which means it would have to raise money from somewhere--which it now is in no position to do.
The larger question is whether the task force is in a position to go on existing.
"Quite frankly," Tim Drake told us from Washington, "I'm sitting here watching an organization I once headed fall to pieces over what I call an incredible example of PC idiocy. And it hurts."
"The Howard Brown Clinic got crucified in the gay press and they're thriving," Trapani says hopefully. "Horizons has taken its lickings and survived. I don't believe this organization will die."
Cleo Wilson isn't as confident. "That's the terrible thing about all this--it destroys their organization. At least it destroys its credibility."
Channel Two proved this week that no one knows better how to bring a story home. Reporting Monday night on the Oakland Hills fire, Bill Kurtis and Linda MacLennan informed us that in dollar terms, damage was equal to that of the great Chicago fire of 1871, if damage from that fire were measured in 1991 dollars.
As we tried to stretch our mind around this concept, the Loop skyline appeared on our screen. Thick lines superimposed themselves on the edges of this cityscape and we were told that the Oakland fire was so vast it would have stretched from Madison to 26th Street, from Ashland to the lake.
This was useful information. But wait, MacLennan wasn't finished. And so, she intoned grimly, if the fire had happened here, familiar landmarks like Soldier Field, the Sears Tower, the Field Museum--all would have been destroyed.
We were left breathless. Only by the grace of God, who allowed the fire to rage 2,000 miles away, was our city spared.