Originally published on NPR's Code Switch blog. Read the original - with all of the photos - here.
Where a mainstream fashion magazine might do a special "black issue," like Italian Vogue back in 2008, or a black lifestyle magazine might run a queer feature, the perspective of queer black folks tends to occupy occasional outskirts in fashion and lifestyle glossies, never the mainstay.
The Tenth, a new print magazine by and for queer black men, now on its third issue, wants to help change that, at least from the POV of its founders. Its name is inspired by two sources: W.E.B. DuBois' early 20th-century concept of the Talented Tenth, a vanguard group of exceptionally gifted black people who would elevate the community as a whole, and the voguing practice of "getting your tens" — earning a perfect score from the judges at a ballroom competition.
Like its inspirations, The Tenth shows off queer black greatness across a wide variety of fields, ranging from interviews with new literary lions like Saeed Jones and Brontez Purnell to under-recognized but influential historical figures like photographer Alvin Baltrop and musician Robert Brewster.
The magazine began as a personal project between Khary Septh and Kyle Banks, who are boyfriends in real life. They wanted to create a photographic collage of a group of their queer black friends, all creative professionals working in various industries around New York City whose aesthetic influence, The Tenth's founders say, can be found everywhere from Beyonce's looks to FK Twig's moves. Septh and Banks wanted their collage to spotlight individuals whose influence is almost always behind the scenes, but they never thought it would go beyond the walls of their Brooklyn loft.
"But people were like, 'We've never experienced anything like this before,' so we were hoodwinked into starting [the magazine] from there," Banks recalled. It wasn't just about recognizing the individual work the people they photographed had done. It was about connecting them into a community. Soon, Septh and Banks asked Andre Verdun Jones, a longtime friend of Septh's, to join them. All three had years of working as cultural creators under their belts: Banks as a stage actor (most recently in The Lion King, both touring and on Broadway), Septh as a fashion designer and commercial art director, and Jones as a producer and filmmaker. But they wanted to do something that would put their talents to use in service of their community and their ideals.
The world of the magazine is not limited to queer black men. Septh says they want it to reflect "the multiplicity of our identities, the layers of our lives." You'll find stories and images of straight people, white people, trans people, and queer black women in its pages, like a feature called "Detroit Is the New Black" that anchors the current issue, which explores Detroit through the eyes of four young queer black women who are giving "Rock City" a renaissance made in their own image.
It might seem surprising that such an endeavor would begin in print, and indeed, Mused Magazine, another newer publication aimed at black gay men, is online-only. But a few other high-production, high-concept queer men's print magazines have debuted in the last few years, like Gayletter and Cakeboy. Although all three take a more intersectional approach than most old-guard gay men's mags, The Tenth is the only one explicitly by and for people of color.
Yet despite the similarity of their projects, The Tenth has been unable to match its peers in one crucial aspect: Advertising dollars. "As soon as we knock on the door, no one's home," said Jones, recalling fruitless attempts to convince fashion and lifestyle brands to invest in The Tenth. The magazine is produced largely as a labor of love, with a shoe-string budget raised from small events and the print-on-demand sales of their first two issues, which are $40 each.
"We were speaking with this hedge fund investor who just adores The Tenth, and he didn't understand why it was so hard to raise money for a print run," Banks said with a rueful laugh. "Twenty minutes into the conversation, I asked about being connected to some of his investors and his response was, 'Oh, they wouldn't get you.'"
Gayletter's Abiezer Benitez recalled similar experiences when he worked as art director at Uptown, a black women's magazine. "Every single woman was wearing designers every single day. A Vuitton bag and a Vuitton heel," Benitez said. Yet in his experience, the idea of getting those kinds of high-end advertisers in the magazine was a non-starter. "They think it's a 'misrepresentation' of their brands," Benitez said.
So far, for The Tenth, the one exception has been the gay-friendly hospitality brand Ace Hotel, whose Los Angeles venue hosted the January launch event for the new issue.
"Those guys have really shown up for us," Septh said. But even if it means funding their project solely from single-issue sales, he added, "We're never going to change our conversation, we're never going to humble ourselves, and we're never going to misrepresent our radical subversive philosophy."