Making queer normal
Lots of gay magazines cater for a very specific reader, choosing to focus on a niche within a niche. But Muff does things a bit differently; open and inclusive, it’s clear that Muff’s creators want to appeal to readers from all walks of life.
Women outnumber men on the magazine’s pages and there’s a strong lesbian influence, but throughout there’s a clear effort to show gay people as normal, rather than a strange and exotic ‘other’. I spoke to editor Kate Bond and creative director Elisabeth A Bukanova about their motivations for creating such a broad church, the difficulties they came across making the magazine, and just how exactly you take a tasteful photograph of a sex toy.
In your editor’s letter you mention “the myriad of flimsy excuses that many people gave… for not getting involved with a queer magazine”. I’m surprised to hear it – can you tell me a bit more about that?
Kate: That’s probably more our perception of things, but we felt like we got a lot of ‘no’s. Probably more than a standard magazine would get.
Elisabeth: You might have seen the Do It Yourself story [a series of still life photos with sex toys worked into domestic settings, above]. Most lesbian and gay magazines fund themselves via sex toy advertisements, but nobody wants to sit on the tube and open a magazine that’s covered with sex toys. It’s just embarrassing.
So we wanted to do a piss take of that, with a shoot that is ironically using the sex toys but showing them in a different perspective – basically an ironic take on the sexually-charged advertising in other magazines.
But it was really hard finding somebody to do that. My background is in photography and I work with a lot of the fashion magazines, and I wanted to bring the quality of photography those magazines have, to Muff magazine. I wanted to get the best photographers involved, and I don’t want to mention any names, but we went to some top photographers and they said they liked the idea, but they couldn’t have it in their portfolio, or their agency didn’t want it, and so on.
We had people coming up with all sorts of excuses and I just don’t know why it was seen as so taboo – the big fashion magazines photograph sex toys and it’s not a problem, but as soon as it’s in a queer magazine all of a sudden it’s a problem. Even Selfridges had sex toys in their windows recently!
It seems like that’s a big part of the motivation for you making this magazine – you want to challenge those inequalities.
Kate: Really we were just bored. Like I say in the editor’s letter, all the gay magazines are just featuring the same stereotypes and we wanted to get away from that and show that people can be gay without it being a label.
The thing I really like about Muff is that it’s such a broad church – you have lots of different types of people in the magazine.
Kate: That’s right – gay people are just people, and that covers such a huge range of personalities, so we wanted to showcase them all.
Elisabeth: That was important to me with From Russia With Love [a photo story showing gay couples at home together in Russia, above]. I’m originally from Russia, from St Petersburg, and after Putin said gay does not exist I wanted to prove him wrong, so I sent a friend of mine to the different cities and she found all of these gay couples.
I wanted her to photograph them at home, in the kitchen, in the living room, just like normal couples. Someone asked me what reaction I tried to achieve, and I said, well, ‘Ahhh’. I just wanted it to be the same reaction as when you see a cute straight couple sitting on a couch. And I think we did in a way, because when you see the pictures there’s nothing weird there – it’s only when you see the copy and it says they’re couples that you realise they’re gay. And even then it doesn’t strike you as weird – often when you say, ‘let’s film gay people’, you’re thinking short hair or leather or scene clothes going to a gay disco. But they sit in the kitchen and chop onions and make dinner too!
For me the power in that story is that they’re normal people in normal domestic situations, except they’re in Russia, and at the moment that’s a very politically charged place for a gay person to be.
Elisabeth: In Russia there’s huge anti-gay propaganda, which makes things harder because it makes being gay seem stranger. If we don’t see something every day it’s weird to us, but if it becomes an everyday thing you don’t even notice it any more, which is exactly what we’re trying to do with the magazine – we’re making gay normal by not singling ourselves out. A lot of lesbian magazines in particular have a very militant approach to the world – they’re frustrated and angry, but that’s exactly what we don’t want, because that’s how you single yourself out.
Kate: There’s a place for that kind of thing…
Elisabeth: Of course, but we decided to go exactly the opposite way. The idea is that anyone can pick up Muff magazine. I think lesbians would notice quite quickly that there are lesbian themes in there, but any straight girl should be able to read the articles and enjoy them too.
Having done research, a lot of my friends say they wouldn’t buy a magazine that sells itself as a gay magazine, and I have a lot of male friends who work as art directors, and they’ve accidentally bought gay men’s magazines and thought afterwards, ‘Oh my God! I’ve bought a gay magazine!’
Kate: The main thing is we don’t want to alienate people.
How are you getting this magazine in front of people?
Kate: It’s distributed all over the world – issue one came out in August and it has pretty much sold out now. We’re in major cities like London, New York, Berlin, Paris and Stockholm, and issue two is due out in February.
We printed 2,500 of issue one, and we’re planning to print more for issue two. The demand for issue one was almost double what we printed. Sadly it got blocked in Russia, but places like Australia and America, the orders that were placed were insane.