For Hugh Hefner, gay rights were part of the sexual revolution
By Derek Hawkins
The year was 1955, and science fiction author Charles Beaumont had, by most accounts, crossed the line with his latest short story.
“The Crooked Man” depicted a dystopian future where homosexuality was the norm, heterosexuality was outlawed and angry anti-straight
mobs marched through the street chanting “make our city clean again!” Even the relatively progressive Esquire magazine had rejected
the piece because it was too controversial.
But Beaumont found a fan in a young Hugh Hefner, who agreed to run it in his Playboy magazine, then less than two years old.
Outraged letters poured in to Playboy. Even readers of the pioneering nude publication found Beaumont’s tale of straight people dressing
in drag and sneaking into dark barrooms to find partners too offensive for their tastes.
Hefner responded to the backlash in a defiant note. “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society,” he wrote, “then
the reverse was wrong, too.”
The move would serve to represent an early example of Hefner’s lifelong commitment to gay rights, and civil rights in general. Hefner,
who died Wednesday at 91, prided himself as an advocate for the LGBT community, taking public stands on high-profile issues such as
sodomy laws, same-sex marriage and transgender rights well into his later years.
The anecdote about “The Crooked Man” was little known until 2009 when it was highlighted in “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,”
a documentary on Hefner’s civil rights advocacy. The film expounds on Hefner’s efforts to promote black writers and artists, expand
reproductive rights and resist racial segregation. Some criticized the documentary for glossing over the more controversial aspects of his
legacy, namely drug abuse and sexism, while others dismissed it as a shrewd attempt to remake his image.
Indeed, Hefner’s life was full of contradictions that are sure to be debated exhaustively in the days and weeks following his death. He
portrayed himself and his magazine as defenders of women’s rights, but his critics have called him anything but, pointing to his rotating
cast of girlfriends, multiple divorces and general objectification of women in the pages of Playboy (“They are objects,” he once told Vanity
A widely publicized memoir by one of his former girlfriends, Holly Madison, described a life of manipulation and constant fighting at the
Playboy Mansion. Hefner was also accused last year of paving the way for Bill Cosby to drug and sexually assault a woman at the famed
estate in 2008. Hefner denied the allegation.
Iconic founder of Playboy magazine Hugh Hefner died on Sept. 27.
Hefner’s contradictions weren’t lost on the Advocate, a gay magazine that published a wide-ranging interview with him in 1994. Hefner
told writer Jeff Yarbrough their magazines had a lot in common in the sense that they were both “anti-discrimination.” Yarbrough was
caught off guard.
“What surprises me about that statement is that Playboy and you, of course, are both known as representations of male heterosexuality
and, to some degree, the objectification of heterosexual women,” Yarbrough told him. “I’m surprised you recognize the issue of
oppression concerning gays and lesbians so clearly at a time when most Americans still don’t.”
Asked if he considered himself a gay rights activist, Hefner responded that he
had been a“human rights activist” from the magazine’s inception. He said he
had campaigned against the nation’s sodomy laws, which criminalized certain
sexual acts. “If the pursuit of happiness has any meaning at all as it is written
in the Constitution, the government’s intruding into one’s bedroom, into
personal sexual behaviors, is as unconstitutional as anything can be,” Hefner
The interview also touched on the AIDS crisis, which “profoundly changed Hefner’s life” in the early 1980s, Yarbrough wrote. Hefner
fixated on the disease soon after it was identified, he wrote, and used Playboy to keep a spotlight on the epidemic “with articles that
examine everything from the disease’s origins to safer sex practices.”
Hefner told the Advocate: “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.”
Long before Caitlyn Jenner became a household name, Hefner took something of a symbolic stand on transgender rights. In the 1980s,
model and actress Caroline “Tula” Cossey was outed as a transgender woman by the tabloid News of the World and subjected to
intrusive headlines. Playboy helped her bounce back from the ordeal by publishing a photo series with Cossey, making her the magazine’
s first openly transgender model.
When the magazine reran the spread in 2015,
Cossey thanked Hefner by name, saying the
exposure helped her show that transgender
women can be sexy. “I wanted to fight for the right
of recognition,” she told Playboy. “That was my
goal, and Playboy was a great platform for that.”
Hefner came out forcefully in support of same-sex
marriage just as a group of marriage equality
lawsuits were weaving through the federal court
system. In a commentary in the September 2012
issue of Playboy, Hefner, then 86, argued that
same-sex marriage was “a fight for all of our rights.”
“Without it, we will turn back the sexual revolution
and return to an earlier, puritanical time,” he wrote.
He railed against people trying to “criminalize your
entire sex life,” using language that echoed his
remarks to the Advocate decades earlier.
“No one should have to subjugate their religious
freedom, and no one should have their personal
freedoms infringed,” Hefner wrote. “This is
America and we must protect the rights of all
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