April 1, 2013

The history of gay rights according to magazine covers


Time covers left to right: 1974, 1979, 1997, 2013

Media coverage of the ongoing fight for gay rights reached a fever pitch last week as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases which will determine the future of gay marriage in America. The endless barrage of newspaper articles, TV interviews, and blog posts was capped with a pair of bold Time magazine cover photos of gay couples kissing. The headline: “Gay Marriage Already Won.”

As usual, New York is way ahead on this one.

Time‘s take on the issue might not be quite as cutting-edge as it seems to think (New York magazine was already on to gay divorce on a nearly identical cover three weeks ago), but it’s still a striking moment in the evolution of a magazine whose attitudes have so closely tracked the evolution of American culture over the last four decades.

Writing for The Atlantic Wire, Elspeth Reeve compiles a survey of this evolution in Time and other newsweeklies, and as we consider the achievements of the gay rights movement this week, it’s a fascinating way to see how the issues have played out in the popular culture. It starts with a Life feature from 1964 headlined “Homosexuality in America” (“A secret world grows open and bolder”) and another from a 1967 issue of Look about “The sad ‘gay’ life of the homosexual.” The covers progress through the “gay drive for acceptance,” Anita Bryant, the AIDS crisis, the “limits of tolerance,” the emergence of gay politics, and on to gay marriage and “the first gay president.” Along the way, the imagery evolves from shadowy photographs of men in leather bars to couples holding hands and finally embracing.

And now, kissing. But as Jen Doll writes elsewhere on The Atlantic Wire, the fact that Time says gay marriage already won probably means it hasn’t: “[I]t won’t have won until gay couples kissing wouldn’t even merit consideration from an editor at Time magazine as a cover, not because it’s too sensationalist, but because, well, why would you even do that?”


Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.