Judy Wieder, former Editor-in-Chief of The Advocate, has just released her memoir, and I can’t put it down. Random Events Tend to Cluster is not only a fascinating look at Wieder’s life in journalism, activism, and rock n’roll, but a history lesson on lesbian and gay rights in America. I was hooked from the moment she explains the title of the book, and found myself learning about crucial moments in American history and the snowball effect of the civil rights, gay rights, and animal rights movements, all the while captivated by the details of her personal memories. In the following excerpt, which Wieder was kind enough to share exclusively for AfterEllen readers, we revisit the “coming out” years, when many celebrities were finally emerging from their closets, and the part she played in helping them brave revealing their true selves to the world.
In my memoir, Random Events Tend To Cluster, released this month ( Lisa Hagan Books), I cover many different episodes of my life, including my early years at The Advocate, when I was first hired as the Arts & Entertainment Editor in 1993. My first big assignment came on my first day at work. The Editor in Chief (EIC) told me to track down “Marky Mark” (Mark Wahlberg) for a cover story interview. Although Marky is not gay, I am told he’s gotten himself into a giant mess with the gay community over several perceived insults including a screaming fight with Madonna. Naturally, there’s a lot of interest in hearing his side of the story. These are the years when the mainstream media will not cover gay issues; these are the “coming-out” years. The years when locked closets and AIDS strike fear and silence into even the bravest hearts. Today it may be hard to remember the depth of this darkness; today it’s easier to be “beyond that heartache.” But, if we are ever truly past these times, it will only be because of what a few courageous people did to lift us up and over to a safer place. And they did it the hard way, by risking everything and speaking truth, their truth, to power.
At this point in my “hunt” for Marky, I have tracked him down to the hotel room he’s holed up in while filming his first movie in South Carolina. I am in another room, waiting and wondering if he will ever talk to me. Several days go by.
Random Events Tend To Cluster is written in the present tense of whatever decade we are in…
This is what I do; I wait and nag; first as the Arts & Entertainment Editor, then the Senior Editor, then the Executive Editor, and finally as the Editor in Chief. I hound and bother, badger and coerce the handlers and celebrities—be they entertainers, scientists, or politicians—to talk to the magazine, to tell their stories exclusively, passionately, and truthfully to The Advocate. Some dislike me for my persistent, take no “no” for an answer approach. But it’s a lot better than “outing”—something I’m against long before The Advocate declares its own “no outing” policy when I become EIC in 1996.
I begin by asking, inviting, and suggesting ways to get together and discover what might make someone feel more comfortable before doing his or her Advocate coming-out interview. During these meetings we discuss timelines, family members who might be affected, children or parents who aren’t ready. Chastity Bono and I will meet over lunch for nearly a year before she’s ready to come out as a lesbian in 1994. Jann Wenner and I get together in his Rolling Stone offices almost every time I go to New York, batting around when he might be ready for his Advocate close-up. George Michael does his first tell-all interview with me in The Advocate because I stay close to him for five years, even flying to London on my own dime to demonstrate my sincerity.
But if someone isn’t ready, my tenacity can be very unsettling. Rosie O’Donnell screams at me out of sheer terror for making calls to her publicist in 1994, but gives me one of the most gracious, forthcoming, and educational interviews ever in 2003. Later, at a dinner when she is reminded of her initial outburst, Rosie’s so horrified, I return to my hotel room to find a huge bouquet of flowers in a Tiffany bowl with the card, “Sorry I yelled at you.” And the awesome Ellen DeGeneres? Ellen and I will go through one stormy mix-up after another until we finally sit down to chase her “Yep, I’m Gay” 1-page Time interview with my Advocate 11-page coming-out interview in 2000.
Sometimes it’s as harrowing for me as it is for the interviewee: Lily Tomlin agrees to “officially” come out in The Advocate as part of our cover story with filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman in 1996. Presumably Rob and Jeff originally asked Lily to narrate their documentary, The Celluloid Closet, because Lily said she’d “come out” by the film’s premiere date. The late Vito Russo, who wrote the book on which the documentary is based, was a good friend of Lily’s and her partner, Jane. How could the narrator of a movie about the history of LGBT film be in the closet?
And yet, after a fun cover shoot (featuring Lily spoofing “tough” by wearing my leather jacket, smoking a cigar, and holding a beer bottle by her thumb—all at her own direction!), Lily decides she’s already out, and doesn’t need to talk about it—even though she’s never spoken candidly about her personal life in the media. In other words, she reneges on her promise.
When Tales of the City author, Armistead Maupin (who wrote Lily’s narration for The Celluloid Closet), gets wind of this, he has a fit during a radio interview, and outs Lily for narrating the film from the closet. Armistead’s outing of Lily gets picked up and printed in all the “local rags,” which sends Lily over the moon. However, not wanting to take on someone as revered as Armistead, Lily goes after me instead.
She’s upset that I refused to cut one sentence (something she said) from her Advocate interview: “Vito was a close friend of mine, and I’m proud to say that he wrote part of The Celluloid Closet when he stayed at the house Jane Wagner and I have lived in together for many years.” It is literally the only thing she says in our article that can be vaguely construed as “coming out.” The sentence goes to press with the rest of the cover story, and I’m left with very unfriendly messages from Lily on my home answering machine. [Since we had gotten along so well before the interview, the riff felt like a betrayal for both of us.]
As the critical “coming-out years” lurch through my early work at The Advocate, one dependable guideline emerges: People, who really don’t want to come out, don’t! Rock Hudson would have gone to his grave without saying he was gay. AIDS outed him, period. Jodie Foster doesn’t “accidentally” show up at lesbian bars or get caught on camera making out with her latest flame until she’s ready to tell her truth. But Ellen does! And Melissa Etheridge does! When George Michael propositions an undercover cop in a Beverly Hills men’s room, he’s definitely throwing caution—and his “secret”—down the nearest toilet!
Sure, to some extent it’s a generational thing; older celebrities like Rock, Richard Chamberlain, Liz Smith, Tab Hunter, and Lily—still feel the bad old days lurking nearby, when the word “queer” was a club to bash you with, not something hip to call yourself. During my early A&E editor years, I have unavoidable run-ins with many closeted stars that tease at coming out but feel terrified if something truly defining breaks through in their interviews. Doors open when they open, but it’s my job to knock on them regularly.
Marky Mark is very important for many reasons. He represents the first time that my phoning and imploring brings someone out of the dark to discuss gay issues with me. Though it takes time to get Marky to the other side of the door in my small South Carolina motel room, it finally begins when I hear, “Judy, it’s me, Marky. Let me in. I’m psyched!” When I let him in, we’re both so nervous, we just pace the room, circling each other like kids. I know it’s up to me to take control, but, in fact, it’s Marky who finally grabs a desk chair and says in thick Boston street, “Judy, you should sit down.” Thank God.
The interview is amazing in the only way that an interview can be—the things he says! You can read every word of it in my interview book, Celebrity, on Advocate Books, but nothing there will illuminate what happens to me when this tough kid slides over to trusting me—opening like an oyster, raw and vulnerable, his words rushing straight into my notes and recorder. At the end of our multi-hour session, I reach into my briefcase to pull out the Advocate tee-shirt the EIC wants me to give him. Although by now I assume that Marky will be gracious and take the tee with him, I’m unprepared for him to pull off his own shirt on the spot, put on The Advocate shirt, and rush out of the motel room to find someone who will take pictures of us together. Marky is so happy and relieved he can’t stop grinning. And I can’t tell you how many times interviews end like this when everybody involved does the work it takes to get there.