The Narcissist Issue

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The first of its kind, HX Magazine paved the way for a new generation of gay publishing. As gay communities pulled themselves from the wreckage of the first wave of AIDS, HX stepped into the scene to breath new life into New York City. Like a breath of fresh air, the magazine held a mirror to the gay city to breath new life into club life and the sex scene.

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the glossy fag rag. As it marks the happy occasion, HX marches forward to new horizons by starting a Philadelphia edition. If you’re not lucky enough to live in New York or Phillie, never fear, we hear the company’s looking to expand for national domination.

For this installment of The Narcissist Issue, we sat down with HX founder Matthew Bank in his spacious Chelsea office to chat about the magazine’s humble origins, the evolution of New York’s nightlife, how that modern day narcissist: the Chelsea boy, and why the so-called post-gay movement may be just a dream.

QT: Gay publishing was not something you always intended to do, right? You’ve gone to school for a number of things, graphic design is one of them.

MB: My undergraduate degree is in a thing called visual and environmental studies. I went to Harvard, which is a liberal arts school, so it wasn’t really professional training for anything. After graduation I moved to New York. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was able to do relatively rudimentary graphic design, so I started doing it freelance to make money while I was in school.

QT: You ended up meeting [a party promoter] named Marc Berkley through ACT UP…

MB: Yes. Marc was always complaining that there wasn’t anywhere to get decent information about what was going on in New York. I was in my early 20s and wanted to go out to a million parties and have fun, but there was absolutely nowhere to get that information. If you wanted to go to a fun club night and you didn’t know where it was, there was no way to find out. You had to know somebody who knew where it was, or you had to go to a club night. [When you left] there were about ten people on the sidewalk handing out flyers for all the other club nights that you might want to go to, but it was almost like secret, because if you didn’t go to one of the club nights that people considered hot enough to hand their flyers out at, you would never find out where the other club nights were.

QT: There were two things happening at that time [the late eighties]. One was that people in New York were still reeling from AIDS, and also Chelsea was beginning to boom.

MB: Chelsea was just starting to become a viable gay neighborhood. During the eighties and maybe the seventies, there were one or two gay bars on 8th Avenue in Chelsea, but once you got above 14th street, you didn’t have a gay neighborhood. It was just sort of a poor neighborhood. People really started moving into the neighborhood [in the late eighties]. Gentrification moves a little bit slowly, and gay people started moving into the neighborhood enough that all the store fronts started to turn into gay friendly sort of things.

QT: Do you think there was a lot of interplay between the development of HX and Chelsea?

MB: I think the timing was right for us to be part of the Chelsea flowering. Since Marc and I both lived in Chelsea and the office was in my apartment, and after that, the first office was on 21st between 5th and 6th, we always focused on Chelsea a lot because that’s where we were.

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QT: Worldwide there’s the image of the New York Chelsea boy: sort of a muscle boy… HX has been criticized in the past for feeding into that, but I think maybe it fueled it. Do you think the magazine would have been different had you guys been based in the East Village, or was this a specific aesthetic [in which you were interested]?

MB: We put stuff on the cover that we could get; that we felt would be popular. From the very beginning when we had a picture of a “Chelsea Boy” type or a hot guy with muscles with his shirt off, those magazines would get picked up a lot faster than all the others. So, I don’t think we created that preference, that aesthetic. Those people existed when we started publishing. There were circuit parties already existing, there were plenty of people shaving their chests and going to the gym before we published. So, I really think that, if anything, you could say that we reflected the times, rather than creating that aesthetic.

I do think that we had an impact on nightlife in New York. Once a year had gone by and HX was established enough that we listed every party… It became easier for people to promote parties and start new things, and I think that people started doing parties, doing club nights, doing things that were more easily advertisable, that would appeal to people flipping through the pages of the magazine. I think that it probably made certain people think, “Wow, I can do a club night now.”

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QT: Do you think it lifted the collective spirit?

MB: I think so. I never felt that there was a feeling in New York like there had been in San Francisco. I spent three months there in 1987. I rented an apartment in The Castro and it really felt like the entire neighborhood was about to die and everyone was depressed. Every other house had a stoop sale going on and everyone walking down the street looked sick.

I never felt that way in New York, even at that time, partially because there are so many more people in New York, and gay people in New York are spread out over so many different neighborhoods that…I didn’t walk around with that heavy heart feeling or look around and feel that way, because in Chelsea [while] there were a lot of gay people, it was probably 80% straight. There are certain areas in the Castro that were probably 95% gay. Straight people just didn’t live there, that I know of. You never saw a straight person on the street. In New York, it’s more integrated.

QT: You’ve seen the gay communities of New York go through a lot of different stages and eras, how do you feel about where we stand now? Do you think we’re going in the right direction? Do you think politically we’re going in the right direction?

MB: I’ve been surprised and disappointed over the past 15 years over the way politics has gone in New York. I’m constantly surprised by how conservative New York State is, about how many conservative ideas really take hold in New York. It embarrassed me to be from New York when every state in the Northeast had a gay rights law and New York didn’t have one, but I think that the gay community is pretty healthy. I’m excited that the LGBT Center was able to raise a huge amount of money and renovate the building and start providing all sorts of services they didn’t have before. We have in New York such a great variety of people and such a great variety of things to do. I’m thrilled to live here and I think that things are getting better.

QT: HX Media has HX Magazine, you’ve got The New York Blade, you’ve got The Gay Life Expo, The Gay Erotic Expo, but there’s also the “rise” of the “post-gay” movement, people a little closer to the right, who don’t want to make being gay part of their identity. What would you have to say about that if they said HX Media fueled some sort of isolation?

MB: I think every individual can choose how he or she wants to lead his or her lives. If men want to have sex with men, relationships with men, and be, for all intent and purposes, gay men, but don’t want to associate with other gay men, or don’t want to associate themselves with gay male culture, that’s fine. I have nothing against that. I think that the idea of a “post-gay” movement was a little bit of hype, because that would be like saying that the whole gay movement is sort of over, there’s something after that, people aren’t gay anymore, there’s something else. But, you know, people are still gay, and each person has to a certain extent their own relationship with what you may call the gay culture: the dominant gay culture.