When the Gay Association of South Africa (GASA) was formed in the early 1980’s, it immediately set up a newsletter for its members. Called Link/Skakel, this monthly newsletter was a humble A5 booklet.
Because I had the computer equipment, I became editor/compiler, with Alex Robbertze as able subeditor and assistant. Soon the booklet became so popular that after only six issues we took the bold step of changing it to a tabloid-size newspaper, mainly to be able to print photographs and to accommodate the growing number of advertisers.
Link/Skakel lasted for about four years, but when Gasa started to fall apart in the mid-1980’s, the decision was taken to stop publishing. To fill the void, seasoned journalist David Moolman stepped in, put up his own money and created Exit as an independent voice for the local gay community.
The name was selected because “coming out of the closet” had become a major worldwide movement in the 1980’s and the paper aimed to give directions.
I helped David wherever I could, especially with administration, distribution, mailing lists and smalls ads.
Twenty years ago, South Africans – and South African gays – were still in the dark ages. Socially there were a few bars where people could meet, a few disco clubs, a steam bath or two for the more adventurous, and that was about it.
Because of this, the paper’s smalls ads were hugely popular as a means of finding soulmates. Remember, this was a time when a letter in the mail was, for many, about the only available option to communicate with like-minded people.
I kept a record of the number of replies advertisers received. The average was about 20, but I remember that one advertiser, who said something about being extremely under-endowed, received a record 122 replies, most probably because he was pitied by the readers.
It was also often difficult to find proper local news items as many people didn’t want their names in print, and it was virtually impossible to find someone willing to have their picture published.
Moolman, himself for many years in the closet, respected people’s privacy. “Helping” celebrities to acknowledge their gayness was all the rage in America and England at the time. South Africa wasn’t yet ready for it.
One day Moolman got a call from one of the country’s then boxing champions, saying he wanted to meet him. The boxer said he and his long-term lover had just broken up and his ex was threatening to spill the beans about the whole affair to Exit, so he thought he’d better come and see us first.
The story didn’t appear. And even now, 20 years later, we’ll keep it at that.
When Moolman suddenly died of a heart attack, the heirs to his estate offered me all the rights to the publication.
I am still haunted by the front page headline that said something to the effect of “Aids Scare Overrated”.
Owning a gay newspaper in South Africa during the late 1980s wasn’t easy. Advertising was often difficult to come by, with only gay-owned companies supporting us. Even then we regularly had to design the ads ourselves.
Often these advertisers didn’t pay even after many requests, and bad debts remained a huge problem during the entire time I owed the company. Full-page ads, these days common in Exit, were hardly ever received.
National ad-agency-type advertising was virtually unheard of. No mainstream company wanted to be seen as taking the first step of talking to gay consumers. Even overseas publications had this problem, with only a few brand names advertising in gay magazines.
I ran the paper from my 12th floor flat in Hillbrow. Being the voice of a vibrant community gave me the opportunity to meet many people – some of them still close friends – and to participate in many events.
During my tenure we were in a constant battle with the then Publications Control Board – those censure board guys in Pretoria.
A number of issues were banned (and it is probably still illegal to have them in your possession), but fortunately the bans always came weeks after distribution.
With the newspaper on sale at quite a few bookshops, there were always tannies that complained to the board. I think they were either buying the magazine for themselves or finding it in their sons’ bedrooms. I remember one time I was summoned to explain to the board about something or other that appeared in the paper.
They were sitting around a table and one of them was casually paging through the offending issue. They had spotted the abbreviation FF in one of the smalls ads and they were debating among themselves what it could possibly stand for.
Eventually they settled for “double fellatio – both giving and receiving” and declared it OK. Apparently none of them knew anything about fist-fucking, so I just nodded and quietly chuckled. During the 1980s a new “gay disease” was discovered in America and eventually found its way here.
Although we started publishing safe sex guides and lists of symptoms, very little was known about this mysterious killer affecting – at that stage – mostly gay men.
This is where I, to my shame, made a crucial error. I am still haunted by the front page headline that said something to the effect of “Aids Scare Overrated”.
How wrong could I have been?
Eventually things got too much for me. I had to see to all the processes involved in producing a newspaper, from finding advertising to sourcing news, doing layout and organising distribution.
The paper wasn’t a cash cow and I had to do other jobs in between to survive. At the end of January 1990, I sold the paper to Gerry Davidson.
Two days later, on February 2, president FW de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and other freedom movements, setting the course for a political revolution that forever changed the life of South Africans in general and gays in particular.
So although I missed out on reporting on a new era of freedom, I’m proud to have been actively involved in establishing a vibrant voice for South Africa’s gay community that has endured for so long and has had such a positive influence on gay opinion in this country.
Editor of Exit until 1990
Article courtesy of Exit