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Janis Ian Advocate Cover
The Advocate Articles
My History At The Advocate

by Janis Ian

Although I'd had a book of poetry published when I was sixteen, and been a published songwriter at thirteen, I'd never given any thought to writing prose. So when Judy Wieder, then an editor at The Advocate, asked if I'd consider writing a monthly column, I turned her down. Three times. Breaking Silence had just come out. I'd be on tour for the next two years. I had no time, and no interest.

She insisted on having lunch with me anyway. It was a free lunch with one of gay journalism's most notable editors, so I brought Pat along to meet her. At some point, I made the mistake of going to the ladies room. When I returned, Pat informed me that they'd struck a deal. I was now a staff writer.

Working with Judy was fantastic. She was very clear on my role– I was to be the resident iconoclast. It was 1994, and The Advocate had been a real boy's club for years. It had managed to make the transition from a rag filled with sex ads to a serious news magazine, but there were no female columnists, and not much interest in women's issues, let alone gay women.

It was also extremely politically correct, and (to my eye at least) boring. The more I looked at the magazine, the happier I was to be a part of its next incarnation. I thought I might be able to adopt a completely different role from the public perception of me (which at the time was horribly serious, just like the magazine.) I thought it would be fun to be funny, and made that my mantra.

Judy left me free rein - to choose my own subjects, to say whatever I wished. She walked me through my first two articles, then told me just as she'd thought, I was a natural. Beyond word count and small editorial nudges, I was on my own.

I'd never used a word processor, but I quickly discovered that typing and re-typing revision after revision took a ridiculous amount of time when there was an alternative available. I plunged into Word with a willing heart and zero experience. Going through these old articles, I realized that for the first three or four, I had no idea how to center a title – I just indented until it looked right.

I also assumed everyone knew what I knew; Judy insisted I assume no one did, making me change "FCC" to "Federal Communications Commission" for overseas readers, and "Dr. King" to "Martin Luther King." Dealing with an international audience as often as I do, that lesson was invaluable.

Meeting a thousand words a month on the nose helped my songwriting enormously, because it forced me to say everything as concisely as possible. To make every single word count. To find the rhythm and beat of each sentence, each phrase, instead of counting on music to do it for me. To this day, I treasure what I learned from that experience, and from Judy. She spoiled me for the rest of my life!

My first article was "Doing Howard Stern." I closed the article with a quote from "Mr. Lesbian," which is how Howard had addressed Pat when they met. It was funny, but I hadn't thought beyond that. Judy, however, immediately called to tell me it was a brilliant ploy, a way to sum up every article with an edgy quote that had some bite to it. As time went on, Mr. Lesbian became a reader favorite, along with our "godson" Jason and his politically correct, perennially do-gooder fathers.

The articles were a success, justifying Judy's faith in me, and increasing my own confidence. Whether readers were angry (a response to "Me and My Mammogram" began Who cares about Janis Ian's tits?!") or supportive ("I wept through ‘Mother's Day', and felt better for it after – how did you do that?"), people were reading my articles. Even better, people were subscribing so they could read them regularly. Amazing!

It was 1994, and people were just beginning to feel comfortable coming out publicly. My own audience base was very mixed – parents who'd "grown up" on me, high schoolers who'd discovered "At Seventeen", mothers wanting their daughters to see a self-possessed female guitarist who could solo with "the guys". Not much of a gay presence, really. Now, when I stayed after the shows to meet people and sign things, I began seeing gay couples, old and young, all of them thanking me for coming out publicly, and for injecting some humor into the situations we found ourselves in. My world broadened, yet again. Best of all, I was having fun doing it.

That December, I began a tradition which would later get me into trouble. I had Mr. Lesbian take over the year-end article, writing it in what I thought would be Pat's voice if she were an acerbic, gun toting, take-no-prisoners broad with an axe to grind. (Actually, now that I think of it, there wasn't much exaggeration necessary.) The first time, she just whined about the general state of the universe. But as time progressed, "Mr. Lesbian" became a foil, arguing with me in print over unwanted subjects, pointing out injustices and inaccuracies, not caring who she offended. And as I said, it got me into trouble eventually.

I wrote a total of 34 articles for The Advocate, stretching from April 1994 to September 1997. It doesn't sound like much, but touring full time, recording, writing for myself and other singers, and running The Pearl Foundation really left no time to spare. I never missed a deadline, but it became harder and harder to find the time to do the job I thought I could do. Also, given the magazine's growing importance as the only real gay news magazine at the time, the lack of coverage of marginalized groups began to grate on me.

I'd been pushing for a cover story on older couples for years, convinced that younger gays needed to see people who'd been happily together for decades. I also thought the magazine should honor a few of our elder statesmen/women, in particular Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who'd published Sappho Was A Right-On Woman in 1972 and changed my life. I also wanted to see Barbara Grier and Donna McBride recognized in some way; they'd formed Naiad Press in 1973, and though I hadn't been a regular reader, I understood their importance to the lesbian community.

At the same time I was pushing for these things, Judy was made Editor-In-Chief. While this was a stupendous honor, it also meant I was losing my own main advocate. I'd watched the magazine change radically during my tenure, in no small part thanks to Judy's influence, becoming more inclusive, taking itself less seriously. I wanted to be a part of the next step, but it was not to be..
In February 1997, frustrated at the lack of interest in coverage of older gays, I submitted "In Praise of Older Women." In it, Mr. Lesbian excoriated the gay press for its lack of interest in anyone over 40, closing with this summation:

A community that does not treasure its elders does not deserve their wisdom. And that about sums it up.

Unfortunately, that was also the first article to be edited by someone other than Judy. It did not go well. When my new editor told me I had to make sure no one thought I was speaking about The Advocate, I laughed and said "So you don't want me to offend any of the readers?" He replied that it was okay to offend people, so long as I "offended the right people."

It went downhill from there. I submitted "Black Like You," and was told I needed to calm down. My role was not to take on the "big issues." My role was to lay back and be funny. But by then, the magazine had hired other columnists who were funny. And Judy, try as she might, was fighting a losing battle.

The Advocate and I parted ways that September, with bruised feelings on both sides. Fortunately for me, Judy and I remained friends. To this day, I'm grateful for what she taught me, and for her faith in me.

I've picked a few of my own favorites here, along with my first couple of efforts, and I hope you enjoy them!

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