A year after I came out of the closet, I got a job at Next Magazine, a weekly gay nightlife magazine -- or "fag rag" -- in New York City, and it changed my life forever.
I was a late bloomer; my younger brother came out of the closet at the tender age of 16, throwing me back into hiding for fear of what it might do to my father's health. Sure, my sexual orientation had been no secret to anyone who had admired my favorite yellow Capri shorts in high school -- including my parents -- but all the way through college graduation it was my most treasured secret.
The year following graduation was a bit of a lost one as I tried to finally come to terms with my new identity. But nothing really clicked until I got a job at Next Magazine. Adrift in New York City working odd temp jobs in tightly controlled government offices, my outlet was the only website that wasn't blocked on my computer: Craigslist. It was there, in a fit of boredom, that I came across the internship at Next. I applied, interviewed and was hired by a an adventurous, game-for-anything editor who would soon become my best friend.
Suddenly, my world had direction. My week quickly filled with "assignments" for Next that doubled as daily lessons in gay life. I started to let people call me Benji. I finally got comfortable letting people kiss me "hello" on the cheek. I learned how to make friends with gay men instead of just sleeping with them.
My internship soon turned into a full-time job, and I discovered the exquisite joys that come with a low-paying editorial position: access to everything and paying for nothing. We closed down parties at Opaline, Boysroom and mr.Black as often as they were shut down by police. We spent our Mondays at high-ticketed benefits getting drunk with gay millionaires, and our Tuesdays at lavish film premieres where we did shots of tequila and made fun of celebrities like they were old friends. We'd start our nights with the suits at Therapy and end them with the sluts at Sugarland. And I documented it all for Next Magazine.
Then the economy collapsed. We learned to be frugal in an industry that didn't know how not to spend money and watched as our competition crumbled around us. The job became an exercise in problem solving. We redesigned and resized and did our best to understand our role within the community. I learned the power of "less is more." And then it happened: It was my turn to be editor-in-chief. After only four years in New York -- and five of being out of the closet -- I was running the only gay publication in arguably the gayest city in the world. I still roll my eyes anytime someone refers to me as the Anna Wintour of the gays.
All jokes aside, by this time I had no delusions about what Next Magazine was. Next was the kind of publication usually found crumpled up on the floor. You are more likely to flip through it while on the toilet than on the subway. New Yorkers rarely admit to reading Next, let alone liking it. But I was OK with all of this, because I knew that when someone did leaf through Next, they would find a certain comfort in seeing their friends in Shot in the Dark or finding out that their favorite Sunday tea dance was still happening this week. We might not have been loved, but we were reliable -- and we had a job to do.
We had survived the worst of the recession, one that had claimed esteemed national publications, so we were going to deliver the best damn fag rag in the world. Together with my amazing staff, we poured all of our ideas, creativity and energy into pushing the boundaries of what Next could be. We created a much-overdue Web presence, teaching ourselves back-end programing in our spare time. We did our best to connect with readers around the world on social media. And we attempted to be a magazine for the entire gay community at a time where the gay population in New York was more fragmented than ever. Next had always been and continues to be a voice for as many subcultures within the larger gay sphere as possible. Bears had their own blogs, rich gays their own private clubs, and gay hipsters their own neighborhoods, but Next would be a place that connected them all. Gay New Yorkers might never step in the LGBT Center, but they'd all leaf through a Next Magazine at least once in their life -- even if it was because there was nothing else to read in their Fire Island share. Maybe they would learn something new, maybe they wouldn't, but they would know that a gay community still existed, and it was still celebrated every Friday in our newest issue.
During my time at Next, I always tried to think of myself as an outsider, someone not belonging to any one subculture or community, an outside observer approaching each new event or activity with an open mind and a sense of curiosity. And it was this philosophy that helped me fall in love with my city and myself. I danced in the rain with the boys of Jackson Heights during Queen Pride and got comfortable in my underwear -- and less -- at secret loft parties run by Daniel Nardicio. While hunting for an open bar at the very first Spank party, I discovered why DJs and their music bring people together. I got involved in LGBT philanthropy through my friends at the Stonewall Community Foundation and discovered that there were a multitude of challenges still facing my community beyond just monied causes like marriage equality. Even my most masculine of teammates couldn't help but get comfortable with their flamboyant side while playing in the New York Gay Football League, and loyal colleagues, past and present, taught me the value of teamwork and trust. Promoters and bar owners like Mark Nelson, Chip Duckett, Bob Pontarelli and John Blair showed me why nightlife has always been so central to gay life, and that continuing that legacy is a great and important honor. Even Next's contentious advertisers taught me a thing or two about loyalty, professionalism and, above all, patience.
I learned that gay history was my history and found the inherent value of sitting and listening to the stories of oral historians like Johnny Dynell, Michael Musto, Stanley Stellar and Robert Richards. Afterall, Next Magazine is part of that history too, a living archive of a community that hasn't done the best job of writing down its milestones and its heroes. And Next still stands as a testament to our community, despite whatever new disease or act of violence attempts to tear us to pieces. For me Next has become that safe place for all of gay New York to celebrate ourselves for being ourselves -- even if ourselves looks best in a string bikini on the cover.
Yesterday was my last day at Next Magazine after spending the better part of my 20s at the publication. I am leaving just shy of my 30th birthday to explore other opportunities that await me in the world of freelance writing. Friends and family continue to ask me if I am sad about leaving, given that the job grew to be much more than a job. The answer is a resolute "no." The lessons I learned from Next will be something I will build the rest of my life upon. I couldn't have asked for a better education. After all, I had the best teachers.