Hugh Hefnera pornographer, revolutionary, and misogynistdied on Wednesday at the age of 91. It’s fitting to his legacy that he somehow managed to be all three.
While many saw him as what his magazine, Playboy, was fittingly named, others argue that he was a crusader against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Hefner was an early supporter of LGBTQ rights, viewing the nascent gay liberation movement as part and parcel of the wider sexual revolution of the 1960s. His magazine, which published its first issue in 1951, spread awareness of HIV/AIDS at a time there was little information on the virus.
While the HIV was widely referred to as “gay plague,” Hefner told The Advocate that “the only thing ‘wrong’ with AIDS is the way our government responded to it.”
Playboy gave transgender actress and model Caroline Cossey the cover in 1991 after she was outed by a British tabloid a decade earlier. Cossey was the first trans woman to pose for Playboy, giving her widespread visibility years before Laverne Cox and Janet Mock became household names. At its height, Playboy commanded a readership of seven million subscribers.
It was a groundbreaking landmark, but also one that allowed trans bodies to be objectified and fetishized. Such are the contradictions of Hugh Hefner.
His legacy as a crusader for LGBTQ equality is further complicated by criticisms from feminists over the tone Hefner set in the porn industry in regards to female bodies. After news of Hefner’s passing broke, Glamour argued that he was “no hero,” claiming that he “built an empire on misogyny.” That thesis isn’t new: A 1963 expose from feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who went undercover as a Playboy bunny, detailed her experience of being fondled, manhandled, mistreated, and underpaid in Hefner’s clubs; the expectation was to be beautiful, not comfortable. Men would follow her around in Hefner’s clubs yelling, “Bunny, bunny, bunny!”
The working conditions were unfavorable, to say the least.
Hefner only seemed to enrage feminists more as he grew older and his girlfriends got younger. The controversy grew more steep as he accumulated more young blonde trophies; at one point, the nonagenarian was juggling seven ladyloves. What riled critics was the fact that several of these women worked for him; they were then sent to live with and sleep with him. Like much of his career, Hefner’s relationships with the women who shared his bed straddled the line between sexual liberty, commerce, coercion, and exploitation.
As a nonbinary porn star who once graced the cover of Playboy magazine, I lived these contradictions.
In many ways, I consider my August 2011 cover to be a major accomplishment. At 24, I felt a palpable sense of pride to be on the cover of a magazine I always admired in secret, reading Playboy under the covers as a queer teenager coming to terms with her sexuality. The women who graced the magazines’ pages might have been objects to Hefner, but to me, they represented freedom, a model of someone I could be like or be with. It might lose me feminist points, but I can’t erase this part of my history. And that tensiona mixture of desire and nagging apprehensionis one I imagine many other queer women of a certain age share.
When you act in porn films for a living, people ask you a lot of questions: How much money do I make? Are there drugs involved? Am I faking it? But the one I’m asked most often is: What was it like to sit for Hugh Hefner? His larger-than-life image inspires a certain curiosity.
That day I felt an intense excitementin some ways the culmination of a life’s journey. But I’m also reminded of Steinem’s “A Bunny’s Tale,” in which she detailed a world of impossible rules and expectations. The bunnies of the 60s had dry cleaning bags stuffed in their bras to maximize their bust size. I was instructed that I must have bleach blonde hair. In order to obtain that, I had to fry my hair and wear hair extensions the day of the shoot. I was also told that I must be extremely tanand as in shape as possible.
After subjecting myself to one tanning bed after anotherand crying each day leading up to the shootI stepped on the scale the day of my cover. All was well, except for my self-esteem. I wanted to be perfect, just like so many young women before me.
I worried that I would never be good enough for a man like Hef. Even though I knew in my heart I wanted to be with a woman, I felt I would be more valuable to the world if I served men.
It’s easy to excoriate or celebrate a man whose entire life invited scrutiny and criticism. But the truth is that Hefner was many things to many people. Feminists view him as a libertine who built a multimillion dollar business off exploiting the women who bared all in Playboy’s pages. The models under him saw him as a boss, mentor, boyfriend, or a necessary evil. He helped me build a career that allowed me to pull myself out of poverty, but one that made it difficult for me to value myself on my own terms. It’s hard to leave the gaze behind, and it’s only as an adult that I recognize what I deserve: to be a fully realized person, not someone else’s bleach blonde fantasy.
Hefner used his platform to give voice to marginalized groups at a time when they needed advocacy and visibility, but that work made it difficult for women like myself to find our own. Is he a misogynist or a queer rights messiah? The answer is yes.