Masculinity Isn’t Just for Cis, Straight Guys—and Men’s Mags Are Finally Catching On

Publications like "GQ" and "MEL" are expanding their definition of "men's content."

It’s not every day that a prominent men’s magazine includes a nonbinary, trans masculine actor in its centerfold, so when Billions star Asia Kate Dillon popped up front and center in GQ’s recently unveiled “New Masculinity” issue, my queer heart started racing with glee. Queer women and gender-nonconforming people have toyed with masculine presentation—sporting short haircuts, wearing “men’s” clothing, adopting “butch” mannerisms—for centuries. Seeing that legacy reflected by contemporary LGBTQ celebrities in a mainstream mag that’s prominently on display in shops, in airports, and on little screens nationwide was thrilling.

GQ’s November issue is the first of its kind for the publication, which dates all the way back to the 1930s, when it was still widely known as Gentleman’s Quarterly. In his letter that opens it, editor in chief Will Welch writes about why he felt the need to put together an entire issue dedicated to the idea of a “New Masculinity.” He recalls a female friend responding to the news that he’d be helming the mag with trepidation, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which went viral in 2017:

She was right, of course. It was and is a precarious moment. …So the essential question that the team and I have been confronting during our first year in this new era at GQ is: How do you make a so-called men’s magazine in the thick of what has justifiably become the Shut Up and Listen moment?

GQ
Pharrell on the cover of GQ’s “New Masculinity” issue.

GQ’s inaugural “New Masculinity” issue includes interviews with LGBTQ celebrities like Dillon, Big Mouth’s Jaboukie Young-White, stand-up comic Hannah Gadsby of Nanette fame, EJ Johnson, and filthy living legend John Waters. Writer Samuel Hine penned a package about the “glorious now” of men wearing makeup, complete with interviews and tips from the likes of Billy Idol, K-pop star Jackson Wang, and more.

On the cover is Pharrell, styled in a sweeping, brightly colored cape-slash-puffer coat. It’s reminiscent of Billy Porter’s many red-carpet cape lewks, though a bit more “masc” (we are talking about a puffer coat, after all). Still, it made one CNN Business reporter wonder if GQ is “still a men’s magazine,” and pose that exact question to Welch. His response: Its readers are anyone with “an interest in seeing the world through a filter of stylishness.”

To Welch’s credit, the choice to include a nonbinary person, a black gay man, and a masculine-of-center lesbian in a meditation on masculinity doesn’t come off as performative or opportunistic. In a time when other men’s mags like Esquire have come under fire for examining what it means to be a “man” in America through the lens of a white, cisgender, heterosexual 17-year-old (during Black History Month, no less), GQ’s editorial decision seems like an appropriate response to a shifting culture. A “Shut Up and Listen” moment, indeed.

GQ isn’t the first men’s mag to reimagine masculinity, a concept that many women and LGBTQ people often associate with deep-rooted, generations-spanning toxicity. Other prominent publications have expanded their definition of “men’s content” to include LGBTQ men and masculine-of-center people.

In 2015, Men’s Health profiled Aydian Dowling—an influencer, fitness enthusiast, and transgender man—in its annual “Real Guys, Real Issue.” Dowling had competed with other hunky men to become the mag’s 2015 Ultimate Guy. Though his bid was ultimately unsuccessful, his appearance on its cover—a year after Laverne Cox became the first transgender person in history to cover Time magazine—marked a turning point for trans representation in men’s media.

An illustration from MEL’s “About” page.

Smaller outlets like MEL magazine, Dollar Shave Club’s digital editorial platform, are also shaking things up. Back in 2017, The New York Times’ Amanda Hess deemed it “the rare men’s magazine that has taken upon itself to investigate masculinity, not enforce it.” At MEL, articles like “Getting to the Bottom of Bottom Culture” are right at home alongside deep dives into the prevalence of “ass-eating” among straight men. Pieces addressing LGBTQ issues or centering on queer men aren’t relegated to a separate vertical—or worse, hidden in another section of a newsstand. They mesh seamlessly with the bulk of MEL’s content.

I bring up Men’s Health, MEL, and other men’s-interest publications not to diminish the validity of GQ’s “New Masculinity” issue. On the contrary, GQ’s decades-long history—and its parent company, New York’s iconic Condé Nast, which owns other prestigious titles like Vogue, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair—makes it a piece of legacy media. That means the magazine’s editorial choices aren’t just indicative of shifts in popular culture; they’re emblematic of changing attitudes in publishing, an industry that has long been (and arguably still is) dominated by white, cisgender, heterosexual men.

Perhaps GQ said it best with one of its November issue’s headlines: “Masculinity Is Changing—and Change Is Good.”

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella