If the editors of the Atlantic Monthly got high and decided to start a revolution, they might come up with something like Other magazine. Then again, it’s quite possible that only Charlie Anders and Annalee Newitz could’ve conceived of such a thing.
BY CAMILLE DODERO
CHARLIE ANDERS is one striking woman, if the images posted on her various Web sites are any indication. The stylish publisher of Other magazine is long and lean: slim legs, trim torso, sinewy arms. Prone to wearing fabulous dresses and intricate costumes, she looks as adorable in a slinky cherry-red dress as she does decked out as Wonder Woman or dolled up in strappy heels and a knee-length number made entirely of yellow caution tape. Her facial features are narrow and angular, resembling those of a young Matthew Modine. In other words, the Connecticut native is a damn good-looking woman, especially for someone born, as she herself has been known to explain, "a genetic male."
Anders — who sometimes introduces herself as Charlie Girl — is transgender, a cross-dresser who wears women’s clothing and exudes more feminine attributes than masculine ones. But such gender expression doesn’t conform to traditional male and female categories, and so she has mostly invented her own descriptions. A prolific short-story scribe, sometime satirist, and occasional journalist, Anders is described as a "harmful eccentric, a sheep in women’s clothing, and a bastion of the moral non sequitur" in the author identification of a book review she wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. "If Charlie Anders were a flavor of ice cream, she’d be pistachio fudge swirl with pink marshmallows," reads a bio appearing on the online "journal of subversive writing" Suspect Thoughts. And last year, Anders released a how-to-manual-cum-manifesto on transvestitism called The Lazy Crossdresser (Greenery Press), a designation she uses to delineate someone like herself who, as she explains on www.lazycrossdresser.tv, "does the minimum necessary to look stunning."
Even in a world where a presidential candidate seeking the Democratic nomination can advocate same-sex marriage in a nationally televised debate and include "transgender people" in that endorsement, mainstream American culture doesn’t represent, understand, or even know how to classify nontraditional lifestyles like Anders’s. Of course, the transgendered aren’t the only ones whose identities don’t conform to social constructs — biracial people and progressive political thinkers are just a few of the others who aren’t conventionally classifiable, either. It was this recognition that inspired Anders and her partner of three-plus years — writer, San Francisco Bay Guardian culture editor, and syndicated columnist Annalee Newitz — to establish Other magazine, a bicoastal publication launched in Cambridge earlier this year and founded to give voice to "people who defy categories."
Published three times a year, Other is a journal of dissident nonfiction, transgressive fiction, freethinking comic art, and experimental poetry. Anders calls it "the New Yorker for freaks." The magazine’s unifying principle? According to Other’s guidelines for contributors, each piece questions "the idea that your identity and tastes are as simple as checkboxes on a questionnaire."
"We try to have a really strong set of anchor pieces," says Newitz, on the phone from her home in San Francisco. "Pieces that you would find if all the editors of the Atlantic [Monthly] got high one night and decided, ‘Let’s start a revolution.’ And they were all like, ‘All right, we’re going to do well-researched articles on genital-mutilation surgeries and not do another article on, I don’t know, quilting.’ " The result of such brainstorming certainly wouldn’t be like anything else on the newsstands. But it might just be something like Other.
I’m the stomach and she’s the brain," says Anders of her and Newitz’s relationship to Other. "Maybe I’m even the intestines." Anders is saying that she makes Other work in terms of publishing mechanics — distribution, fundraising, finances — while Newitz generates most of the ideas, recruits contributors, and edits the articles.
Although Other was born in Cambridge a little less than a year ago, the magazine was actually conceived in San Francisco over a year before that, when Anders and Newitz were discussing how none of their favorite literary magazines actually reflected their own lives. "We read Harper’s magazine, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and we felt those kinds of magazines are great," explains Newitz. "But their audience doesn’t include us. It doesn’t include most of the people we know — it’s basically aimed at middle-class white people in urban areas." And so they envisioned starting a general-interest alternative magazine that would "talk to people who’re poor, or people of color, or queers, or people who like alternative culture. And who aren’t necessarily married — or at least married in the conventional sense. Something that would be like the New Yorker, but for all the people who feel left out of the New Yorker."
The couple already had extensive writing and editing experience. In 1992, Newitz helped create Bad Subjects, a Web ’zine dealing with pop culture that she describes as somewhat "academic-y and pretentious." She’d also freelanced regularly for years, writing mostly about technology, pop culture, and sex for periodicals like Salon, Wired, and Nerve, and eventually became culture editor of the Bay Guardian. For her part, Anders had worked for two years as editor of Anything That Moves, a bisexual progressive quarterly based in San Francisco that ceased publication in 2002. To benefit the magazine, she’d also been producing literary events called Writers with Drinks — bibulous, variety-show-style readings that brought together authors from disparate literary genres like science fiction, erotica, slam poetry, and romance writing together for one night to share the stage. "Ideally, [Writers with Drinks] would show how all these different genres have a lot in common, how each one is really using words to try to evoke a response, but at the same time, celebrate the differences between them."
When Anything That Moves went under, Anders wanted to find another project for Writers with Drinks to support. That project became Other — a name chosen to represent people whose lives or identities weren’t easily defined by the ironclad classifications on, say, a census form, people who couldn’t easily answer inquiries like, "Are you male?" "Female?" "Democrat?" "Republican?" "Married?" "Single?" "Gay?" "Straight?" "Bi?" "African-American?" "Caucasian?" "Latino?" Newitz and Anders wanted to reach the sorts of folks who’d always find themselves choosing "Other." And so the magazine’s logo became a checked box.
Although the print industry was in decline, Anders saw the downturn as an opportunity. "My theory was that maybe during an economic meltdown is when people have the ability to start a really interesting magazine," she explains. "Because first of all, there’s a lot of unemployed people to work on it — and so many people are unemployed, they have a little bit more time to sit down and read magazines." Plus, Anders adds, when economic times are tough, people are pissed. "They’re a little bit more upset and dissatisfied. I guess it’s a bonus for a magazine like ours, if it’s an economic downturn and a really right-wing administration."
The pair was about to move across the country to Cambridge — Newitz had been invited to study at MIT as a Knight science-journalism fellow — but just before they left San Francisco, they put the word out that they wanted to start an alternative magazine for people who didn’t feel represented in the mainstream media, and held an open meeting for potential contributors. "A whole bunch of libertarian hackers showed up," recalls Newitz. "And really pissed-off mixed-race people and gender queers and people who were cartoonists, but wanted to do realistic cartoons. It was all these people who felt like they were doing really interesting work, and no one wanted to listen to them because they didn’t fit into a category. These were people who’re like, ‘Well, I’m black, but I like to date white people, what does that make me?’ Or ‘I’m a libertarian, but I am not in favor of big business, where does that put me?’ "
In mainstream American culture, nowhere. "For example, say I’m a bisexual," Newitz continues. "And someone else says, ‘Oh, you’re a lesbian,’ or ‘You’re just lying to yourself — c’mon, you haven’t dated a man in so long.’ Or what about someone who is black? I was talking to this African-American woman who is writing a piece for us, and she was saying that she went to private school with a variety of people who would say, ‘You’re black, you should think a certain way. You should vote a certain way, you should support certain politicians.’ And she’s like, ‘No, I want to be able to say, I’m black, but so what, I’m other things, I’m a writer, I’m bi.’ "
Newitz sees this as the beauty of Other. "That’s really what it means to check the ‘other’ box on a form. It means getting the choice to be something different."
OTHER ISN’T SIMPLY about being left of center. If it were, Newitz never would’ve penned a rant for the second issue called "Why NPR Is Evil." In the two-page spread, Newitz railed against how "NPR is the wholesome choice, like oatmeal instead of sugar cereal" and how it’s become default cocktail talk for lefties. "People cite NPR with a fervor and sincerity that reminds me of the way my uptight Southern grandmother might talk about underwear," she wrote. Religiously subscribing to any one medium or channel, insists Newitz, becomes a variation of Big Brother, no matter how innocuous it may seem. Other isn’t about subscribing to anything blindly. It’s about criticizing the tenets of knee-jerk liberalism, casting light on the nuances of reform thought, and recognizing that there’s more than one way to think and live left of the majority.
Although Other specifically wants to embrace the marginalized subcultures of "genderqueers, radical geeks, mixed-race people, progressive shit-disturbers, and anyone else whose voice isn’t heard elsewhere," one doesn’t have to fall precisely into any of those groups to relate to the idea of thinking outside the box. Indeed, the most recent issue of Other, published last month, includes first-person testimonials from former dyke tykes and fag hags, each describing his or her recovery from addiction to queerness despite being straight; a darkly humorous comic mocking hypocrites; and a transcript of long-time queer activist and Tribe 8 lead singer Lynn Breedlove bickering with medical-marijuana martyr Ed Rosenthal.
In the past, Other has published harangues like "Reclaiming the Suits," in which Stephen Duncombe berated leisurewear for fostering social self-delusion. Running shoes "are the SUV [sic] of footwear. The promise of every SUV is that you could be doing something else. Except for the kids, the job, the mortgage and the spouse, you could be, would be, on safari. The same goes for running shoes. Who runs in them? Not many of us. But the sneaker beguiles us into thinking we could." There’s even poetry by Michelle Tea — a Chelsea native and author of The Chelsea Whistle (Seal Press, 2002) — called "The Beautiful," an ode to America that addresses the country as if it’s an emotionally disconnected crush.
oh america i love you.i just want togo on a date with youand you won’t even give me the time of daystuck up bitchthink you’re too good for meamericai could have anyonecanada, londonamsterdamIs in love with meBut it’s you i want,america ...
fuck youamericayou’re just so emotionally unavailableyou act likeit’s everyone else’sfault, you’re areally badcommunicatorand you haveserious boundary issues.i think you’re really fucked upamerica.
The creative freedom fostered by such breadth is a writer’s dream — except that Other doesn’t pay its contributors. "When you’re making a living by freelancing the same thing over and over again, you wind up not being able to write about certain things," says Other contributing editor Greg Dicum, who also writes for Harper’s and the New York Times Magazine and who contributed a rumination on the blurring distinction of racial identity in modern-day, melting-pot America for Other’s first issue. "Anywhere else, you’d have less control over your work and your vision, and it’d end up rewritten in the magazine’s collective voice."
But for all its ire, Other doesn’t take itself too seriously: the magazine’s scope is broad enough to include a well-placed poop joke. In the first issue, there’s a one-page comic called "Crap," drawn by Shannon Wheeler, about exactly that: the art of defecation. Then there’s "I Am Bill’s Butt," a short piece written by erotica author Bill Brent. "I have two melon-shaped halves. At the bottom of the cleft that separates them is Bill’s anus. The anus is held tight by a band of muscle called the sphincter, also known as the ‘winky-woo.’ It’s a good thing that the winky-woo is tight, or humans would shit all over themselves constantly."
DESPITE THE best of intentions, Other couldn’t define itself so ambiguously forever. "[The tagline] ‘For people who defy categories’ seemed a little redundant," admits Anders. "We sort of felt that it confused people — like we were only appealing to people who couldn’t fit into any conceivable category or something like that."
Such vagueness also became a logistical marketing and distribution problem, something Newitz says the staff had to confront. "How can we set it up so that we can defy categories, but at least be categorizable so that the poor person in the bookstore who’s unpacking these at one in the morning doesn’t tear their hair out?"
So Other recently modified its tagline to "Pop culture and politics for the new outcasts." Other also had to poll its readership, so it could try to lure potential advertisers with information on what sorts of outcasts they’d actually be reaching. Apparently, Other draws the young, bookish, drinking, smoking outsider, according to its advertising-rate card: "Our readers are 26 to 35 years old, make $50,000 per year, are college educated, buy six books per month ... spend $50 per week on alcohol, 22 percent of our readers smoke cigarettes."
These days, Anders and Newitz are back in the Bay Area — they returned to the West Coast in June, after Newitz finished her year at MIT. But the magazine still has a handful of contributors here in Boston, and around 70 percent of its subscribers live in the area.
At the end of its first year, Other has a distribution of 3000 copies. It expanded from two distributors to four, sits on the shelves at Tower Records, and appears in approximately 200 stores nationally, in places like Alabama, Nebraska, and Iowa — places Newitz thinks really need it. "I have a friend who went into a wedding in Idaho," says Newitz. "She went into the one alternative record store, and there was a big display of Other magazine. And that’s totally what we want. Because in a place like San Francisco or Boston or New York, it’s a lot easier to be an outcast and find other people like you who aren’t going to make fun of you and who are going to love you and validate you. But if you’re in Idaho, you need a magazine like this. Otherwise you feel so alone."
The question is, will the ideas that are at the core of Other ever become a part of the mainstream? "Maybe someday. Maybe we’re just way ahead of our time," Anders jokes. "Tomorrow’s controversies today."
"Writers with Drinks," featuring mystery writer Jeremiah Healy, comedian Tissa Hami, poet Raquel Evita Seidel, and fiction writer Lise Haines, will be held on December 4, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the Lizard Lounge, in Cambridge. Cover is $3 to $5 and benefits Other magazine. For information, visit www.writerswithdrinks.com or www.othermag.org. Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]phx.com