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Why Teen Magazines Have Gone Queer

Editors are making efforts to include LGBTQ diversity in their pages and websites in an age where fewer readers are heterosexual than ever before.

by Melissa Kravitz
Oct 1 2016, 4:00am

Actress Amandla Stenberg embraces poet Camonghne Felix in a still from a Teen Vogue video

This past January, 17-year-old Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg chose a very public nexus of teen media platforms on which to come out as bisexual: Teen Vogue's Snapchat account.

A week later, 14-year-old Girl Meets World actress Rowan Blanchard announced she was queer via Twitter, with Teen Vogue, Seventeen, and other publications quickly reporting the announcement. And last October, Seventeen featured proudly queer YouTube celebrity Tyler Oakley as a cover star, in an issue that also prominently featured a story about dating a bisexual guy.

Teen magazines—canonized as packed with dating tips and eye candy for young, heterosexual, female readers—have gone queer. More specifically, mainstream teen titles are slowly shifting toward pages and websites full of LGBTQ voices and visibility, reflecting a broad consensus that in order to survive, broadening their editorial perspective beyond a traditionally heterosexual readership isn't just good business, it's imperative to reach teens today.

It's a shift that hasn't escaped Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, an LGBTQ media monitoring group. "We've seen notable improvements in recent years in terms of LGBTQ representation in mainstream women's and teen magazines," said Ellis. "Writers and editors are now looking for diverse stories that haven't been told, and the LGBTQ community has plenty of them."

The rise in LGBTQ content can be attributed to a number of factors: the expanding digital reach of print media, which demands a greater volume of content and, consequently, room for more voices; the rising importance of identity politics to teen readers; the fact that old-line teen magazines, packed with beauty tips, heterosexual eye candy and images that reinforce traditional beauty standards, read as an anachronism in the age of Tumblr intersectionalism.

"For the past year or so, we've made a concerted effort to limit (and, eventually, banish) heteronormativity from all of our content, especially as it pertains to matters of sexual health and relationships," said Phil Picardi, Teen Vogue's digital editorial director. "Rather than assume our readers are hooking up with or dating men, we use gender neutral pronouns in almost all contexts. Our readers have appreciated the shift, and often help police our language to be more inclusive via social media and [website] comments, which we welcome."

But meshing LGBTQ people into Teen Vogue's overall magazine without pigeonholing their identities is a larger challenge. "It's important for us to avoid the sandboxing effect of limiting queer people to just speak about their queer identities," Picardi said. "We have included LGBTQ people in stories that celebrate their accomplishments and lend them a platform beyond their sexual or gender identity, whether that's being more inclusive in our portfolios of young designers, say, or young feminists, or the cool new 'It' people you need to know."

The shift isn't limited to magazine websites: LGBTQ folks are visible throughout the pages of Seventeen. In 2014, the magazine dropped the "Guys" from its "Love & Guys" section, and has since made an effort to use general neutral terms when discussing relationships, subbing in "your crush" or "bae" for traditional, gendered terms.

"We want Seventeen to be a magazine where all girls feel represented and included, regardless of their sexual identities," said Joey Bartolomeo Seventeen's executive editor. "We always knew that not all of our readers were into guys, which was reaffirmed when a study came out earlier this year saying that only 48 percent of Gen Z-ers consider themselves exclusively heterosexual." Bartolomeo also noted that readers may have LGBTQ parents and friends or be dating queer teens, which Seventeen accounts for as editors continue weaving LGBTQ topics into the magazine in an organic, helpful way.

Though such shifts represent a step forward for LGBTQ diversity in print, Ellis spoke to ongoing challenges magazines face in trying to keep up with the shifting digital world, and the fact that LGBTQ representation must go beyond the content they produce into the staff of newsrooms who make it. "To improve LGBTQ representation, magazines can ensure that they're hiring a diverse staff, commit to raising the profile of important issues and notable LGBTQ people, and continue to educate themselves on how to report on LGBTQ issues," Ellis said. "Making sure that stories are inclusive of the rich diversity of the LGBTQ community is also key. While representation of LGBTQ people has increased significantly, coverage still largely focuses on gay and lesbian white people—leaving out a wide array of others in the LGBTQ community and its vast intersections."

While mainstream magazines still have many more improvements to make, progress is evident in pages dotted with LGBTQ faces and voices, inspiring momentum throughout the media for better and more comprehensive representation. "I hope for both our present and our future that somewhere there's a teenager who picks up a copy of Teen Vogue, opens it up, and can see themselves positively represented, and feel affirmation in that recognition," Picardi said. "And I hope that feeling gives them the courage to live their most authentic lives."

Follow Melissa Kravitz on Twitter.

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