VISIONARY GAY ZINE MAKER PHONES FROM THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE
Last March, the small Parisian gallery 12 Mail devoted itself to a retrospective of one of my favorite publications: Didier Lestrade’s pioneering gay zine Magazine. The walls were collaged with the incredibly influential homoerotic photography and drawings featured in Magazine throughout the course of its seven-year run from 1980 through 1987, as well as framed portraits of legendary interview subjects such as Sylvester, Jimmy Somerville, Divine, Edmund White, Erté, and Tom of Finland. With the younger generation’s interest reignited, Didier has now begun uploading the entire Magazine archive to his website, as a gift to both the fans and the Tumblr crowd, who he hopes will go crazy grabbing pictures and articles for their own sites. After many years working as an outspoken AIDS activist, founding and leading the first French chapter of ACT UP, and co-founding Têtu, Lestrade moved to the French countryside, where he’s busy writing for minorites.org and working on his next book. We spoke by phone last week.
Billy: Can you tell BUTT readers a little bit about your background, for people who may not know?
Didier: I was born in Algeria before the independence there and my family was kicked out, and rightly so, after the war. And then my parents divorced on top of that. We were four boys — three of them gay — and I was the youngest. I grew up in the countryside between Bordeaux and Toulouse. As a teen, I was into everything but mostly it was stuff like Lou Reed, punk, and folk. I tried to commit suicide at 17 — the Larry Kramer way, with 200 aspirins. It didn’t work out so I decided to turn the page, live in Paris, and fall in love.
I once met your rock star brother Lala and his partner Billy Boy when they stayed at my friend Steve Lafrieniere’s place. While they were visiting, Diana Vreeland telephoned asking for Billy.
The Lestrade family name is probably gonna die with us. All the gay and lesbian cousins definitely outnumber the straight ones. I owe a lot to Lala and to Billy Boy. They were the influential queens around me when I was younger.
What influenced you to make Magazine and why do you think people are connecting with it now after all this time?
When I began publishing Magazine, I had just moved to Paris and was starting from scratch. I wanted to write but didn’t know how, and had little respect for the mainstream media. I was too gay. I specialized in stuff that was very separatist and wanted to create a niche, even when that name was not used. Maybe that’s why people are interested in Magazine now. It’s an example of an independent from 30 years ago, which was precise in its taste and its view. Gilbert & George were saying, ‘It takes a boy to understand a boy’s point of view.’ And that sentence ended up as a motto for us. Men for men.
Were there other magazines that influenced you?
I was looking for ‘sister’ fanzines and couldn’t find any at that time. There was no competition whatsoever. I thought it would be so much better if Magazine was part of some fagzine movement, but we were the only ones. Then one day I got one of the first books of dirty stories published by Boyd McDonald and it really turned me on. The writing was so good, so dry, and so matter of fact. I loved the idea of no layout, just text with old cheap porn pics from NY seedy stores. So I sent Boyd a fan letter and he sent me copies of STH and my eyes went sore. There was also Folsom — the big format chef d’œuvre from SF. It was in color and had stuff that you could scratch and sniff, incredible flyers for leather events in the woods, and info about the whole leather scene. The ads were really gorgeous. So I once again sent a fan letter from France and sure enough, very few letters were coming from Paris and Jim Moss was so happy that he loaned us ten photos of real men for our 8/9 issue.
How was Magazine received initially?
Well, in France, when you start anything, everybody tells you it will flop. They told me that about Magazine, ACT UP, Têtu, and about the stuff that I’m doing now. In the beginning, Magazine was understood by very few people. It grew for a couple years and then in 1984, I discovered that I was getting cruised by hunky guys at the Palace Tea Dance on Sundays who would have never laid eyes on me before. One night, the leader of the pack, Didier Claude, cruised me at the Palace and I went home with him. Just before having sex I went to the bathroom to pee and discovered his whole Magazine collection. I suddenly realized that I was getting laid because of it. It felt good.
How did you distribute it to all those hunky guys at the Palace Tea Dance?
Half of the 5000 issues we were publishing would stay in France and the rest would go to Intermale, in Amsterdam, who distributed it abroad in England and the U.S., which is how we got Magazine in San Francisco and New York. The rest I would post myself, or deliver it in Paris on my bike. It was such a pain in the ass. I really didn’t like that part of the job and trying to get gay money for advertising, which was the worst.
I remember being very impressed when you published an interview with Brion Gysin, and you always featured the crème de la crème of international homo personalities of the 20th century. Can you relate any anecdotes about working on any of those pieces?
Unlike many young fags today, we knew our gay history. We were learning all the time about all kinds of stuff and we were always eager to lean more. OK, I admit we were snobs. We wanted to rub shoulders with those names, and we loved the idea of how it looked on the cover. For each cover, we simply put the title Magazine and then listed all the names of the people we interviewed for that particular issue. Just listing some of those prestigious names in effect created a brand for us. When you put Raymond Voinquel next to Paul Bowles, it looks good, and there’s no denying it. And at age 20, I was so excited to have my name related in even a remote way to someone like Brion Gysin! Even in the ’80s, we had the feeling that the gay world of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s was vanishing. A part of me was happy about that too. It was like, good riddance to all that, and make way for us, bitch! But then the other part of me was fascinated by all that and we were trying at the same time to hold onto something from that era before it all passed away, which it did! It freaks me out to think how quickly we went from creating our own history to not caring about gay history anymore! It happened so fast. No one has even begun to collect and preserve all the material from the Paradise Garage, The Saint, etc., and now gay people don’t seem to even care. I don’t wanna sound tired and typical when I bitch about the young gays, but let me put it this way, they don’t go to gay bookstores in Paris anymore and they’re simply aren’t interested in learning about their own history. For instance, English queens were in the closet forever until people like Jimmy Somerville came along and were brave enough to be out there and strong and insisting on being themselves in spite of the consequences, but nobody give him his dues nowadays. That kind of thing bugs me.
Along that line, with ‘gay’ bookstores closing rapidly in the U.S. and other places, and the print medium diminishing all the time, do you see a future in homosexualist publications or independent publishing in general?
I don’t know what to tell you. Printing a gay fanzine has never been as expensive as it is now, but everyone’s doing it so it must be possible. All this might be fueled by a growing frustration towards the gay mainstream press (which isn’t voicing the ideas and concerns of so many people out there). It’s not that there aren’t still good pieces of journalism in the gay press, it’s just that they are generally out of touch with so much else. They tend to shrink things up because the Internet is there and they think, well, if gay people wanna find out more, they will go online and look there. But it’s a catastrophic idea and we know it doesn’t work even for straight media. Everything is watered down. You get a review of a book or a CD in twenty words… that’s it. This is how they lower the standard of everything. It’s stupid, and not what I signed up for when I decided to be a faggot.
The photographers and artists in Magazine were so cutting-edge at the time and the work still holds up, but homo-themed art was not yet mainstreamed when you were doing it. I don’t even think Bruce Weber had started to popularize homoeroticism in advertising yet. Did you have a feeling that what you were doing would lead to the commercialization of homoerotic imagery that we have today?
Actually I didn’t imagine how it would all turn out. Nothing like what we were doing was mainstream of course, but don’t forget that we all bought that seminal copy of GQ, in 1980, when Bruce Weber got to do the whole issue around the Los Angeles Olympics. When that happened, you could begin to feel that something was starting to happen. Then we launched Têtu — partly because we wanted to create a gay magazine that could get corporate ads because there was no gay media in France at that time and we were yearning to make that a reality. So, I guess I’m part of the problem because, although I might be dissing gay consumerism, I actually did a lot to help make the modern French gay media possible. I thought that we had to go down that road because it seemed to be the key to get more power in the society at large. Little did we know what it would lead to!
Like-minded people from all parts of the world are now in somewhat constant communication… Do you feel that this may be a way of instituting effective change, or are people just essentially wasting time and not doing much more than clicking buttons?
Oh that’s a hard one. There is a strong lineage of resistance in French culture and I want to believe that I’m a part of it, even when I’m doing some nice, lovey-dovey things on Facebook. I don’t throw my legs in the air and show my butt or my dick on the net, but I’m all out porn crazy. So I don’t get it when people are just posting YouTube videos all the time on Facebook, because it’s so boring when you could discuss Gaza and make a stand and scream at each other. I am afraid gay demonstrations are a thing of the past, that people do kiss-ins because it’s dead easy, that we’re gonna wait a long time before some new group thinks it’s cool to demonstrate again. I love guys like Simon Watney who go out there and march. I totally worship them.
What was the reason Magazine ended?
I got HIV girl, and suddenly everything changed.
Much of your creative energy went into ACT UP, right?
Yeah, I stopped Magazine in ’86 and ACT UP started in ’89. I fell in love too. But I really stopped it because I knew I had reached the quality goals I had in the beginning, when we started it.
Can I ask you about the new book by Tristan Garcia, Hate, which is clearly based on your life and the barebacking fight you were engaged in against Guillaume Dustan? Have you read it, and what did you think of it?
Of course I read it. First, I don’t have a problem with anybody writing anything about my fight with Guillaume Dustan. I spent ten years of my life on that fight, so that’s okay. The thing that bugged me was that the author really didn’t tell me anything about the book beforehand. And then when I read it, I thought it was clumsy. I’m going to give you an example. He talks about my car in the book and the only thing he does as a writer is to change the color. It goes from a red 4L, which was my car, to a green 4L. I don’t get why the guy got an award for this book. I felt cheated.
Like someone wrote your biography, without your approval?
I spent a lot of my life as an activist, just to end up a character in a novel. It’s a shame for me. I put a lot of feeling in it and it gives you… a novel. Dustan and I was really a fight, and the only way to describe it is to make it better, more real. Even for Dustan, I regret now that he’s gone because we would be two mad queens screaming at Garcia. The fight is over now, though, Dustan is dead. In activism like that, you have to stay in the long run.
Is barebacking still huge in Paris the way it’s described in the book?
Oh yes. It’s not really barebacking anymore; it’s real life. I think there will be a lot of guilt about it. Gay guys are going to think they fucked up and have shame about it, because now we know that it’s wrong, and that’s the way it is. In the ’80s we were just trying to have less sex to reduce the risks.
Did you participate in the free-for-all sexcapades in underground Paris parking lots and other places that were common in Paris in the ’70s and ’80s?
I used ride my bike by the Tuileries and Louvre where there was a lot of cruising before they redid all the gardens, but I’ve actually never been a real slut. During the Magazine years, I was jealous of my friends who were doing it full time but I was so broke and getting up at 7:00 a.m. to work as a groom in a hotel just to pay the bills. Then when I got off work, I spent the rest of the day and evening working on Magazine. So, by the time the late-night cruising was happening I was wiped-out and I usually just settled for a wank. All my life I’ve been involved in very consuming jobs like that, like working for years for ACT UP in the days and evenings, then for Têtu… all of which kept me away from the glory holes.
You said a few minutes ago you’re porn crazy. What’s your favorite porn?
Oh, these last few days I was in a Titan phase but I change all the way through the year. I keep on having erotic cycles.
Can you take me through them in a little more detail?
I love all porn except the really, really kinky stuff. I can have a long period with a specific studio but I keep on changing, it’s like you’re doing your homework and feel ‘Mmm, I haven’t watched any Bel Ami in a looooong while.’ Also, I’m a TV porn guy, I can’t stand people who watch porn on a small computer screen.
No web porn?
Never. It’s so small. I think people are crazy to wank on a computer chair! It’s so uncomfortable, and not a good position to watch good porn. You gotta enjoy it and not do it like it’s another part of your work on the net everyday, quelle horreur!
Is it easy to meet guys where you are?
I have a boyfriend, thank you. He’s 29. His name’s Marc Endeweld. He’s a bearded Jewish nerd.
We met four years ago, after I had spent a very long stretch of my life alone in the countryside. He read my last book, and we started to write to each other. Typical. Old-fashioned. Then it led to phone conversations and then he came once to spend the weekend. He was talking so much that his voice was kind of disappearing. Then I showed him the village and the garden and we got talking again. I loved it. You can imagine, this young, clever, HIV-negative guy comes over — and I had not had sex in more than four years…
So you must have had a lot of energy stored up?
No it was dead calm, like slow love-making you know? It was like bicycling, you never forget. We’ve been together for four years. He’s a journalist too, and put out his first book this year. He lives in Paris.
How does that work for you?
His life is in Paris. I mean, very few young 29-year-old gay guys want to live in the countryside in France anyway. I’d love to have a fuck buddy around here though.
But do you not think like maybe you should move back to Paris to be with him?
No way. I left Paris eight years ago. I’m too happy here. This is my life. I gave Paris 25 years of my life, and now I want to be in nature, be on my own, have friends come over, be free, with nobody looking at me. Just like I grew up, on a farm.
Exhibition photos by Philippe Menager: www.didierlestrade.fr