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Hugh Hefner’s overlooked LGBTQ rights activism

In 1955, Hugh Hefner ran a pro–LGBTQ rights story in Playboy.

Hugh Hefner. Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy

Here’s something you might not know: Hugh Hefner, who died at 91 this week, was an early champion of LGBTQ rights.

The Playboy founder was, to say the least, a complicated figure. He has been accused of sexism and objectifying women through the nude images many know Playboy for — at one point even telling Vanity Fair, “They are objects.”

But Derek Hawkins at the Washington Post provides an anecdote that shows one of Hefner’s more progressive views: In 1955, Playboy ran a short story, “The Crooked Man” by Charles Beaumont, that “depicted a dystopian future where homosexuality was the norm, heterosexuality was outlawed and angry anti-straight mobs marched through the street chanting ‘make our city clean again!’” The story was too controversial for Esquire magazine, but Playboy ran it.

Given that it was the 1950s, the response from readers was very negative. But Hefner stood his ground, writing, “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society, then the reverse was wrong, too.”

As Hawkins explains, this was emblematic of much of Hefner’s life and career. In the 1990s, he talked about how HIV/AIDS changed his life, arguing that “[t]he only thing ‘wrong’ with AIDS is the way our government responded to it.” After model and actor Caroline “Tula” Cossey was outed as transgender in the ’80s, Playboy published a photo series with her — helping her stage a comeback. Hefner was also a big supporter of same-sex marriage rights, calling the battle for marriage equality “a fight for all of our rights.” (You should read Hawkins’s full piece for more at the Washington Post.)

There is no doubt that Hefner was a complicated man with some awful views about women. Although he’s often framed as a hero in the broader sexual revolution, this both overstates and misrepresents his influence. As Claire Heuchan argues for Glamour, “There is nothing revolutionary about men exploiting women for their own sexual gratification or financial gain — it has been happening for hundreds of years, and is called patriarchy.”

But standing up for LGBTQ rights as early as the 1950 is quite remarkable.