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In News, in History : First Female Editor of the Advocate Defines Her Mission

September 03, 1996|KAREN OCAMB | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Judy Wieder gazes out of her 10th floor window at the deserted Hollywood High School track field below. For a brief, unguarded moment, the Advocate's new editor in chief does not look like one of the most influential gay people in the country. But, as the first woman topping the masthead of the 30-year-old national gay publication, she is well aware of her place in history.

"Sometimes I look back and say, 'I remember when I didn't know any of this.' It makes me feel the whole reach," says Wieder, 52, as she pulls out the paperback "Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate History of the Gay and Lesbian Movement."

"This comes with the job. It's like carrying our huge family tree. It's our history, and I have to pay attention to that and respect that."

Wieder, who was promoted from executive editor, also has to pay attention to vigorous competition from 4-year-old Out magazine, also edited since January by a lesbian, co-founder Sarah Pettit. The hip, Vanity Fair-ish monthly boasts a circulation of 119,000 while the Advocate, which publishes biweekly, reports a circulation of 74,000.

Wieder, a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, says she hopes to build on the Advocate's strengths as a news magazine. For the fourth year in a row, the magazine bested its mainstream competition, winning the award for best news magazine from Folio, an industry publication. She wants to pump up news coverage while also maintaining a balance between news and art, lesbians and gay men. "We want to bring gays to the world and the world to gays."

To start with a clean slate, Wieder's first issue will feature an apology for a "lapse" in failing to clearly indicate that an interview with President Clinton in the June 25 edition was a written exchange of questions and answers rather than a face-to-face session, as was suggested in then-Editor in Chief Jeff Yarbrough's editorial.

When Yarbrough abruptly left his post three weeks ago, the backstage word was that he was pushed out because of a flap that erupted over the Clinton interview.

Publisher Sam Watters, also president of Liberation Publications Inc., the Advocate's parent company, could not be reached for comment. But a press release states that Yarbrough resigned "to pursue other avenues in his career." Wieder says the transition was underway when she was promoted to executive editor in January.

Yarbrough will not talk about leaving the Advocate but is enthusiastic about his successor. "The minute I hired Judy I knew I wanted her to be the one to replace me. I've been her biggest fan," he says before heading off to his new job as a supervising producer for San Francisco-based multimedia C / Net, a computer network.

Reaction to Wieder's appointment has been favorable.

"I think it's a very good thing that a woman is the editor of the major gay and lesbian magazine in the country. She brings a real maturity and knowledge to that magazine," says author Victoria A. Brownworth, who weathered the early '90s sex wars at the magazine.

Lesbians have been eyeing Wieder's rise through the ranks as a sign that the Advocate was aggressively trying to dispel a sexist reputation earned after turmoil three years ago, when four of five women on the editorial staff resigned or were fired. Two lawsuits claiming sex discrimination or sexual harassment were settled.

Wieder, a native New Yorker, attended UC Berkeley during its Free Speech Movement heyday. From 1977 to 1992 she had 39 songs published and recorded and won a Grammy award for a song for the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Some Wieder songs, written with her girlfriend of eight years, Suzanne Buirgy, are being recorded by Buirgy for a CD that will feature a duet with lesbian singer-songwriter Janis Ian.

It was during the late '70s, when she was on the road writing songs for a number of rhythm and blues musicians, that she discovered her sexual orientation, she says.

Later she went into music journalism and was hired as the editor of Genre, a smaller national gay magazine targeted to young men. In 1993 Yarbrough hired her as the Advocate's arts and entertainment editor. She used her music background to generate many celebrity covers. That sparked some criticism that the Advocate's covers featured too many straight celebrities. "I don't think people understand we're using celebrity to get to the common humanity we share," Wieder responds.

She points to her recent interview with Liza Minnelli, who, after years of silence, revealed what it was like to be "fooled" into marrying a gay man. She's also proud of Chastity Bono's "coming out" after a year discussing how it would affect her conservative Congressman father, Sonny Bono, and famous mother and the subsequent interview with Cher about being the mother of a lesbian child.

"There's never going to be some empty-caloried interview," Wieder says. "This magazine existed before Stonewall. The fact that it's evolved into a real contender as a news magazine is very exciting."

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