Still Here, Still Queer: The Rise (and Rise) of LGBTQ Zine Culture
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At its core, the zine, and queer zines in particular, have always been a protest against normality and censorship. Not only do they provide a platform for free thought, but they also gives artists who don’t conform to the expectations of mainstream media a chance to share their art, fashion, photography and other works — often uncensored — with a like-minded audience.
In 2001, BUTT magazine — an “international faggot magazine for interesting homosexuals and the men who love them” — led the resurgence of queer zines by creating something that demanded attention, most notably with its uncensored imagery and candid interviews. Printed on pink paper with bold black ink, the zine broke into the mainstream in 2005 when The Guardian named BUTT one of its top magazines of the year.
While the title ceased publication in 2011, its impact on queer zines that followed is undoubted and has helped spur on a community by continuing to share the voices of those made to feel like they live in the shadows. Titles like Cakeboy, meat and Elska — the last a bimonthly photography, culture and travel publication best described as “part intellectual queer pinup mag and part sexy anthropology journal” — have thrived in a BUTT-less market.
Zine culture really emerged back in the ’70s and ’80s and was an important form of activism — an act of defiance against the norm — that felt necessary in getting facts and POVs heard that were otherwise unshared. In particular, life during the HIV epidemic saw a rise in queer zines in order to squash myths and misconceptions associated with the community at the time.
Thanks to the internet, you may be led to believe that modern-day zine culture has shifted into a format of hot takes via self-curated blogs. But in fact, the printed zine is as relevant today as ever before.
In response to a current climate of fake news and questionable politics, queer zines are having a major resurgence in popularity as readers seek out the truth and authenticity. Censorship in art, photography and writing have resulted in people once again taking to zines for true representation and diverse content.
“We wanted to create a publication that would offer a platform to discuss challenging topics openly and honestly,” says Rosie Faye Ellis, online editor of Sister. “I think that’s something that is always going to be missing in mainstream media.” Founded in 2012, Sister is a biannual, independent feminist publication. The zine came to be part of editor-in-chief Beccy Hill’s final project in university. By combining fashion, culture and feminism, the publication has continued ever since.
“Everything is very rehearsed and regurgitates the same content over and over again,” Ellis tells Hornet of mainstream media. “We never want that; we want to face subjects most people are scared to approach and constantly be fighting for change by providing the platform to do so.”
This is where independent queer zines will always have an upper-hand over mainstream media. Without the restraints of advertising, approval by board members or a need to have supermarkets move as many copies as possible, queer zines can better represent the community, sharing stories and visuals that larger corporations could never.
“Although there have been significant changes over the past 10 years, gay media tends to be full of unrelatable, perfect-bodied hunks who don’t really represent the guys I know or the guys I fancy,” says Adrian Lourie, meat‘s editor-in-chief. His publication is a gay pinup pictorial that has achieved cult-like status and global recognition since it launched in 2010. The zine celebrates the real beauty of men through un-retouched, natural photos. “It’s an alternative view of what makes a pinup,” Lourie tells Hornet.
While the current economic climate is watching more and more publications shut down their print offerings in favor of online media, queer zines in print continue to thrive. In fact, that’s kinda the point.
“We can edit and delete so many things about ourselves these days online,” says Sister’s Ellis. “Everything is on our phones, which are constantly in our hands, and we’re losing real human connections. By holding a zine — a physical copy — it feels more special and rare than it ever has before.”
meat’s Lourie agrees with Ellis: “It certainly felt that print media was dying when I started. I think the resurgence of zine culture was definitely a reaction to that.”
“I think the appeal of zines is the experience of something tangible. The smell, feel and experience of reading something — collecting something — has a certain value that could never be achieved digitally.” —Adrian Lourie, editor-in-chief of meat
As much as print is a preferred format for queer zines, it’s impossible not to capitalize on the digital age. Social media is a vital tool in spreading the word of these queer zines, and for getting people to buy copies or stock them in bookstores. “We completely understand how important digital now is, and we love the reach it gives us,” Ellis says. “The audience you can connect with by being present online is amazing and invaluable to us. Especially when it comes to reaching out to other creatives.”
But social media itself comes with limitations, particularly for unfiltered queer zines like meat. “The constraints Instagram and Facebook place on the type of content they allow is problematic for anything erotic or even slightly provocative — or, dare I say, too gay,” Lourie tells Hornet. “My account has been deactivated twice in a year for fairly innocuous imagery, which has been very frustrating.”
Tumblr’s much-publicized shift to ban adult content presents one less digital venue for the marketing of these queer zines. Elska remarked on Dec. 5 that it would be deleting the publication’s entire Tumblr account rather than adhere to the platform’s new standards. “Transforming Tumblr to another tame mass market site renders it worthless,” Elska said on Facebook.
But the need for independent, realistic viewpoints is only going to continue. “As we are in such a conflicting and uneasy time socially and politically, I think zines will become a way we can put out into the world what we want — a form of protest, in a way,” says Ellis. “I think in five years time, print and zines will be more alive than ever.”
Creators of queer zines are seeing increased demand from shop owners and bookstores too, which are seeking diverse content that won’t be found in leading magazines. “It’s definitely seen as an important addition to the shelves of quite a few of the ever-dwindling number of gay bookstores,” adds meat’s Lourie.
Queer zines will continue to thrive as long as there’s a need for a more ‘real’ side to our community and culture than mainstream alternatives provide. And print will most likely continue to be the preferred choice of enjoying those zines.
“When something is in print, it stays forever, and you can keep referring back to it,” says Ellis. “We hope people can pick up a back copy of Sister from three years ago and it still be relevant now.”
You can support queer zines and zine culture by purchasing one (or several) online.
This article was originally published on October 29, 2020. It has since been updated.