The first gay publication I ever bought was an Exit newspaper. It was also, come to think of it, my very first contact of any kind with the gay world; long before the clubs and the friends and, of course, my first boyfriend.
I remember sweating and blushing deeply as I walked to the till to pay; the tabloid folded and obscured under the one or two other innocuous magazines in my grip, the newsprint rubbing off on my sweaty hands. It was both traumatic as well as immensely liberating.
I imagine that similar scenarios have been repeated thousands of times throughout the 21 years of Exit’s history. It hasn’t much changed since then, something I’ve berated it for, but Exit undeniably remains an integral part of gay life in South Africa. Today there are still teenagers – and perhaps even men in their fifties and sixties – who will be walking to a CNA or Exclusive Books till with trepidation – clutching their very first copy of Exit.
In the month of its 200th issue, I sat down with Exit’s current editor and owner, Durban-born Gavin Hayward, at a coffee shop in Norwood to find out more about the man behind the country’s oldest gay publication.
What did you do before taking over Exit? I don’t think most people know much about you…
I was teaching for 17 years before I got involved with Exit. I was a lecturer – head of the English department of a teacher’s training institution up north. I resigned after there were too many political protests on campus.
And how did you end up buying the newspaper in the first place?
Well, I was looking for something to do and the daughter of the then editor [Gerry Davidson] was a colleague and she suggested I buy it. She said, “You’re gay and you can write…” That was in 1995. Gerry had bought Exit for R10 000 and she sold it to me for R75 000! I used my teacher’s pension. She said that she was just tired of it. Six months later she started Gay SA – another publication. I never forgave her for that…
What was the hardest thing about taking it over?
I’d been teaching in the bush for six years! I didn’t know Joburg, I didn’t know the clubs. I was an outsider. That was the hardest thing at the time. I had to get to know everything.
How would you describe Exit? What is its role in the gay community?
Well, you have to look at it historically. Once it was the only thing out there for the gay community. Especially the personals. But when I took it over the personals were fading… there was competition from the Internet. What I tried to do when I bought Exit was to get away from it being a white northern suburbs thing… And it’s still the first contact with the gay community for many people. It’s significant that it’s available in CNAs in obscure towns around the country…
How has it changed over the years?
I’ve made it more national. Then it used to be very Joburg-based. I made it monthly and I gave it a cover. It’s a bit of a hybrid between a newspaper and a magazine I suppose. But it has to be printed on newsprint – for budgetary reasons. I also created regular sections: entertainment, travel, books, health and so on…
Do you think Exit has become too complacent; in that it hasn’t really changed its format?
How can it change? It doesn’t have a big budget. I can’t employ a string of writers. And it’s virtually impossible to get advertising from corporate business… If we had that income, that would revolutionise it.
“…There are poofters everywhere! Twenty years ago we never knew about black lesbians. Today they are visible and very vocal!”
So you’ve never thought of going the route of a glossy magazine…
It’s always been a possibly but, as I said, it requires a large injection of funds. I’m not sure if we’ve missed the opportunity, but I don’t think I’m really interested in doing it. My expertise is in newspapers not magazines. My head is not there. It’s not who I am.
You’ve been running Exit since just after the 1994 elections. How has the gay community in the country changed since then?
When I was young, the first gay club I visited was in Durban. It was behind bars and you had to know someone to be let in. Since ’94, there are gay bars in the middle of suburban shopping centres – in full view with gay flags! It’s a stark contrast to how it used to be. Things are much more open now. Now Ramp Divas struggles to keep the straights out!
I think that a lot of younger guys have no idea how difficult it was to be gay in those days…
We have much more access to gay publications and websites from South Africa and abroad. People are asserting their rights now. They’re daring to be openly gay and fuck the rest! And not only in the Northern suburbs of Joburg; there are poofters everywhere! Twenty years ago we never knew about black lesbians. Today they are visible and very vocal!
Why do you think that Exit has continued to thrive?
At one point it was the only thing available and thereby established itself. The competition comes and goes. In fact I get adverts because we’re established and we’re known. I don’t need to employ an ad sales person. The advertisers contact me because it’s the first thing they think of.
Does it worry you that the ads for some of the “sleazier” establishments in Exit might turn off mainstream advertisers?
I feel sorry for them if they want to be prudes, Sex exists. It’s a South African prudishness.
But would you turn down ads from sex clubs and adult stores if a corporate advertiser asked you to?
I’d tell the corporate advertiser to get fucked. A lot of people like Exit the way it is. It has to reflect the gay community. I mean 1000 people pick it up at the Factory alone! By cutting out those advertisers, I’d be doing the community a disservice.
Have you ever had an issue with reporting negatively about one of your advertisers – a club for example?
It is a problem; for example, when a bouncer beats someone up. What I tend to do is to take up the issue directly with the owners of the club. I don’t have to publish the issues. I prefer to deal with it directly. I have some pull there…
Who reads Exit?
They range between 16 and 85. And all colours. I try to be affirmative of older gay people… black gay people and people with HIV. But there are no boundaries. There are the club queens who get it at the clubs. And the closeted guys tend to buy it at the CNA. A lot of subscribers are from outside the main cities where there is less access to gay life. We put out 20 000 issues a month – we sell half and give out the rest in clubs.
What do you enjoy most about being the editor?
It’s a fulfilling job. There’s creativity involved. It’s not a nine-to-five job so I don’t have to worry about wearing suits to the office. Also, I’ve had a lot of fun over the years – and I’ve met a lot of interesting and exciting people. There are also some perks: I never pay to go to clubs and get invited to lots of functions. They’re not great but they are there…
How much longer will you do it?
I’m not sure. We might need someone younger as an editor. I might take a back seat as publisher and not editor. I get a lot of support from my little known boyfriend Paul, so I can’t do it by myself. I’m also writing a book…
It’s autobiographical. It’s about all the ‘exits’ in my life. That’s what I’m calling the major developments in my life. Leaving school was one, so was coming out and growing up gay in