By Seth Tamarkin, Contributing Writer
On September 27, 2017, Hugh Hefner, the infamous founder of Playboy, died in the Playboy Mansion at 91 years old. Mere minutes after his death, an outpouring of articles on his legacy flooded social media and newspapers alike and, unsurprisingly, the reactions were divisive.
Many criticized his publication as exploitative and sexist, yet other outlets went as far to label him a feminist hero. The only designation that no one was disagreeing with was, oddly enough, his status as a civil rights icon.
At first glance, it sounds ridiculous that Hugh Hefner, the kingpin of smut magazines, would share the same prestigious label as figures such as Jesse Jackson, Dick Gregory, or Martin Luther King Jr. However, when he wasn’t throwing outrageous parties at the Playboy Mansion, Hefner made sure his magazine would serve as a platform for the oppressed in the country.
It’s no coincidence that all three of the aforementioned civil rights icons had Hugh Hefner to thank for some of their early successes. Just recently, civil rights activist and Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson wrote a whole essay for Variety on Hefner’s activism.
“He helped Dr. King make payroll” Jackson wrote, “He held fundraisers at the [Playboy] mansion for the Urban League, the NAACP and Operation Breadbasket, the economic arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference… Every step of the way, Hef was there.” Dick Gregory, the legendary comedian and activist who also passed away this year, had even stronger words of support for Hugh Hefner.
In the early ‘60s, no mainstream club would dare allow a Black person to step foot in their club, let alone perform comedy sets. Yet, Hefner invited him to do his routine at the Playboy clubs.
According to a Hollywood Reporter article on the comedian, Gregory noted that if Hefner never “had the guts back then” to hire Black comics like himself, then they “would be in some pot, roasting in debt, knowing [they] were never going to make it.”
In addition to helping desegregate the country, Hefner made sure his magazine held favorable views on topics such as gay marriage, transgender people, and abortion decades before they were taken seriously.
PEOPLE reported that during the AIDS crisis, Hefner stood up to Ronald Reagan’s homophobic administration publicly, stating that “The only thing ‘wrong’ with AIDS is the way our government responded to it.They are culpable on many, many levels,” and even published informative articles on AIDS since the government would refuse to do so.
Furthermore, in early 1992, Hefner printed a photo series of a transgender model after a tabloid outed her secret.
To understand how progressive that was, just take a look at the current trouble facing transgender people today, nearly 25 years later.
Just last week, Slate reported the Attorney General of the United States ordered the Department of Justice to reclassify the Civil Rights Act so transgender people are not protected under it. With such blatant attacks on their rights in 2017, it’s pretty impressive that Hefner was so openly pro-LGBTQ rights in a time period where even Hillary Clinton was anti-gay marriage and transgender rights.
Hugh Hefner will always remain a debated figure. His magazine has been virulently criticized for decades as a hub for sexism.
Yet despite the many condemnations, his death has revealed the life of a man who, while controversial in his own right, spent years championing civil rights causes and should at least be partly remembered for his activism.