I grew up with Playboy Magazine in the house. I imagine that my father thought that by making them off-limits or hidden that I would just be even more intrigued, so there was a stack on a side table in his home office, or in keeping with the Playboy aesthetic, “The Den”. Also in that tribute to masculinity were duck decoys, prints of dogs playing poker, a decanted bottle of scotch, a selection of pipes in a handsome holder, and a humidor with tobacco that smelled of vanilla and cherries with a base note of football. I loved this room.
As a little gay boy, you might think that Playboy would hold little interest, but I loved the joke page and the cartoons, and in the quarterly Sex And The Cinema feature, I could count on glimpses of male flesh along with the boobs.
Thinking about the passing of Hugh Hefner, I was drawn back to that time in the 1960s. On social media, I have read a lot of criticism about the man and the magazine. I am going to risk the awakening the ire of the politically correct and come to the defense of Hef, just a bit.
“I only read it for the articles” was a common excuse for having a copy of Playboy. But, for me, a gay guy, that was mostly true. The magazine featured thoughtful, lengthy interviews with Miles Davies, Barbra Streisand, John Lennon, Jimmy Carter, Muhammad Ali, Joan Baez, Stanley Kubrick, Bette Davis, Steve Jobs, Timothy Leary, and Ayn Rand (who didn’t pose nude), and many others.
In 1966, Hefner sent Alex Haley to interview George Lincoln Rockwell, much to Rockwell’s surprise because Haley was African-American. Rockwell was head of the American Nazi Party.
It published fiction and essays from P.G. Wodehouse, Gore Vidal, Haruki Murakami, Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Gabriel García Márquez, Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, Hunter S Thompson, Vladimir Nabokov, Roald Dahl, and Margaret Atwood.
Hefner described his religious upbringing as “Conservative, Midwestern, Methodist”. He pointed out the guilt-ridden Puritanism of his era, an environment and lifestyle he rejected and that brought him to become one the pioneers of the Sexual Revolution.
Hefner had a lifelong commitment to Gay Rights and Civil Rights. He was proud to be an advocate for the LGBTQ community, taking public stands on high-profile issues such like Sodomy Laws, Marriage Equality and Transgender Rights.
“The only thing wrong with AIDS is the way our government responded to it. They are culpable on many, many levels. I have chosen every aspect of human sexuality, and the discrimination that goes along with some of those aspects, as my major concern. Homosexuality and, later, the homophobia that surrounds the AIDS crisis are part of a much bigger picture for me.”
In the 1980s, model/actor Caroline “Tula” Cossey was outed as a transgender woman by the tabloids and subjected to harassment. Hefner helped her bounce back from the ordeal by publishing a feature story on her with photographs, making her one of the first openly transgender models. When Playboy reran the story in 2015, Cossey thanked Hefner, saying the exposure helped her show that transgender women can be sexy. Cossey:
“I wanted to fight for the right of recognition. That was my goal, and Playboy was a great platform for that.”
In 1961, when some Playboy Club franchises refused to admit African-American members, Hefner bought them back and issued this statement:
“This is to say that we are outspoken foes of segregation… that we believe in brotherhood as a matter of practice and that we are actively involved in the fight to see the end of all racial inequalities in our time.”
For more than six decades Hefner used his magazine to promote black writers and artists and pushback against racial segregation.
I’m not trying to gloss over the sexism, his stands were probably shrewd business moves, yet he was vocal in his support of Women’s Rights and The Equal Rights Amendment. Hefner:
“Women are the major beneficiaries of getting rid of the hypocritical old notions about sex… Now some people are acting as if the sexual revolution was a male plot to get laid. One of the unintended by-products of the women’s movement is the association of the erotic impulse with wanting to hurt somebody.”
By the start of the 21st century, 40% of executives at Playboy Enterprises were women.
He also took on organized religion:
“It’s perfectly clear to me that religion is a myth. It’s something we have invented to explain the inexplicable… What does it all mean, if it has any meaning at all? But, how can it all exist if it doesn’t have some kind of meaning? I think anyone who suggests that they have the answer is motivated by the need to invent answers, because we have no such answers.”
“An afterlife would be a really good deal. Yeah, I would vote in favor of that. But in the meantime, I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife and to do it in a moral way that leaves this world a little better place than you found it.”
About Politics, Hefner was, unsurprisingly, all about First Amendment Rights and against Conservatism. His business was, for its entire existence, pitted against “traditional values”.
Freedom Of Expression was so important to Hefner that he established two awards: the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award, given annually to 100 embattled defenders of the First Amendment. The second is the Freedom Of Expression Award, given to one person every year who is “Dedicated to defending, advocating, or supporting the First Amendment through their personal or professional pursuits.”
Hefner was a lifelong Democrat. Through the decades, he gave millions of dollars to political candidates and organizations, but not to a single Republican.
He told reporters that he was dismayed to see the USA revert to Cultural Conservatism. He said that Playboy was embarrassed to have published an issue that included Donald Trump on the cover:
“There are lifestyle components to Playboy, but it’s really a philosophy about freedom. And right now, as history is repeating itself in real time, I want Playboy to be central to that conversation.”
Playboy might be embarrassed by the cover, but POTUS is not. That cover is framed in the Oval Office.
Hefner was the antithesis of Mike Pence. Hefner:
“We fought for birth control rights and the change in birth control laws, the change in abortion laws, we fought cases to give women the right to choose.”
“Today, in every instance of sexual rights falling under attack, you’ll find legislation forced into place by people who practice discrimination disguised as religious freedom. Their goal is to dehumanize everyone’s sexuality and reduce us to using sex for the sole purpose of perpetuating our species. To that end, they will criminalize your entire sex life”
Trump’s 1990 Playboy interview is a fascinating look of his positions at the time. He said he was “conservative” and predicted that the “working guy would elect me” if he ever ran for president. But, he said he would do better as a Democrat.
Hefner was hopeful that the nomination of Trump was a sign that Republicans were turning their backs on Cultural Conservatism. In summer 2016, he wrote an op-ed called The Conservative Sex Movement:
“After losing two presidential elections, core conservatives realize the time has come for the party to stop pandering to America’s fanatical religious minority and give up a losing war to suppress our sexual rights. We won the sexual revolution. Now it’s time for them to exit our bedrooms and close the door behind them forever.”
Gay Icons as Playboy Cover Girls: