Regular readers of Venus magazine got a shock when they picked up the January issue.
Instead of the usual rabble-rousing stories for African American gays and lesbians, they found a cover photograph of editor and publisher Charlene Cothran with the headline: 'Redeemed! 10 Ways to Get Out of 'The Life' if You Want Out!' Overnight, and without warning, the country's leading publication for the black queer community had gone straight.
For the past 13 years, Venus has been one of the only national magazines to cover gay and lesbian issues with a specific focus on African American lesbians. Cothran, a dynamic and outspoken gay rights activist, founded the magazine in Atlanta and built the independent publication to a national circulation of about 35,000.
Thanks in large part to Cothran's unflagging dedication, Venus had become a key voice for black gays and lesbians. 'It was a staple,' says the Reverend Irene Monroe, who used to write a spirituality column for Venus. 'It was the first and only gay magazine owned and operated by a black queer person. It was a very important vehicle.'
But then Cothran made her startling revelation: 'I have recently experienced the power of change that came over me once I completely surrendered to the teachings of Jesus Christ,' she wrote in the magazine. 'As a believer of the word of God, I fully accept and have always known that same-sex relationships are not what God intended for us.'
While the sudden editorial change at Venus has largely been ignored by mainstream media outlets, the news dropped like a bombshell in the tightly knit black GLBT community and on like-minded websites, where Cothran was charged with betraying her readers and the cause. 'It's huge,' Monroe says. 'It is the talk throughout the chitlin' circuit.'
Conservative evangelicals, on the other hand, are ecstatic. In late June, a long profile of Cothran, 'A Lesbian's Deliverance,' ran on evangelist Pat Robertson's 700 Club television show (complete with a special prayer from Robertson for gay audience members).
Cothran's reversal is especially devastating given the relatively conservative religious upbringing of many black gays and lesbians. One of the core functions of Venus, in fact, was to offer hope to out African Americans, who often feel 'excommunicated by our church community,' says Monroe. As a spirituality columnist, she received 50 to 75 letters a month from readers struggling with their faith. 'The very thing she asked me to do,' Monroe says of Cothran, 'was to speak about religion in an affirmative way that doesn't violate African Americans and gays.'
Accordingly, black lesbians have reacted to the switch with a decidedly religious bent.
'She's our sister and we hold her up in prayer,' says Sylvia Rhue, director of religious affairs for the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization focused on gay issues. 'She's on her spiritual journey. I just wish she weren't making herself a stumbling block for others on their spiritual journeys.' Rhue's organization is collaborating with others to respond to Cothran's 700 Club spot with a YouTube video featuring religious leaders.
Cothran says she grew up in a conservative, religious home where homosexuality was frowned upon. During 30 years of gay-rights activism, Cothran told Utne, 'I always had a belief system that being gay was wrong. I just pushed it away. But that little voice became a little louder. When you get older, you begin to pay more attention to what happens after this mortal life than to this gay pride event today.'
Some of her critics, including Monroe, claim that Cothran is simply selling out her struggling publication to moneyed conservative interests. Cothran denies doing so and says that after she changed her magazine's mission, all her advertisers dropped their advertising immediately, and she stopped pursuing a big deal she was working on with Subaru.
Her readers are coming along for the ride, Cothran claims. Out of 'several thousand' subscribers (Cothran won't release her exact circulation), only 20 canceled, she says. 'African American gays understand exactly where I am. They have been raised just like I was, in the church. They just pushed away the truth.'
All the more reason to counter Cothran's message, says Rhue: 'You can't cure something that isn't sick.'
In the meantime, Cothran is praying for a miracle. Literally.
'I stood to lose everything,' she says. 'My income and livelihood, my friends, my whole life. I gave up everything.' As for financing for her new magazine, she's 'waiting for God to show me how he plans to do this,' she says. Appearing on the 700 Club, which claims to reach 1.5 billion people a year, won't hurt.