Homogrown in Music City

by Troy Masters
Associate Publisher & Co-founder of New York's Gay City News

Being raised in Nashville’s music scene was great preparation for this New York life and career track.  Nashville is a town where people believe in themselves enough to risk everything and step onto a stage hoping to shine before millions of people.  That takes a great deal of self belief and an enormous streak of entrepreneurial gamble. 

You are rich one minute then broke the next.  You can be a has been and suddenly vogue again.  It’s much more competitive, snarky and scheming than it appears to be and living in all that as a child gives you enough spunk to believe in the impossible. Or, at least, that you should defy the odds.

Growing up in Nashville is something I’m really proud of now but as a child I really didn’t appreciate it. I grew up as the son of a feast then famine country music artist in the middle of Nashville’s 1970s music industry explosion. It really was a world not at all unlike Robert Altman’s Nashville.

I was a different kind of kid.  I would come home from school and my parents would be blasting Bluegrass on the stereo and I would switch it to Barbara Streisand or some Broadway musical.  I would watch Lost in Space everyday rather than play with the neighborhood kids.

I experienced all the pain and loneliness of an  “Am I alone?” gay kid growing up in Southern suburbia.  Thank God for Dr. Smith and Will Robinson. I never questioned that I was gay. My God, my room was decorated with every David Cassidy poster ever published.

I assumed everyone knew I was gay because it appeared to be a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” life. My grandmother doted on me and said many times “You shoulda been the girl and Tammy (my sister) shoulda been the boy!”  My father employed a blind, very effeminate Drummer (“Blind Jack”), an endless source of gossip about whom my uncle said “He’s just like Troy!” 

I noticed that all my male cousins were constantly asked about “the girls” but they curiously never asked the same question of me.  Instead they would all ask me if I enjoyed working at Opryland. Somehow it was okay that when all the male family members gathered in one room I joined the women in the other room—the women knew why I joined and the men all knew why I went.

My younger sister was cool, though;  when I was a junior in high-school she brought a Time magazine because the cover was about gays.  It changed my life.  I came out to her the next week...under cover of darkness in a movie theater;  we had gone to see the ultra-gay movie “Car Wash.”

Somehow, still, they were all totally grossed out when I came out of the closet and it took me many years to recover my relationships with my family.   I realize now I am as much to blame for that as they were.  But, it really was my coming out process that took me away from Nashville.

I went to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, dabbled around in various grad programs and then traveled the country for work and settled in New York City.  I was instantly strengthened by something about New York, made many whacky friends very quickly and just accidentally found myself plugged in.

I will never forget the moment I decided to just stay in New York...I was driving a rental car around Manhattan late at night when I found myself on Fifth Avenue around Central Park...from there you can see all the way downtown and all I saw were Green traffic lights—I turned to my boyfriend at the time and said ‘this is home now.”

Soon after I arrived in New York in 1988 my life’s mission quickly took shape.  The AIDS crisis was in full force and while working at for a major magazine in the marketing department I realized I was dealing with a Holocaust while all my coworkers were either making fun of it, were afraid of it or were just plain indifferent and unaware.  There was something about that situation that I could not bare, even though I was making real money and had a safe position. Late 80s corporate New York still valued the closet too much and AIDS made the closet psychically lethal.

And so I quit.

I joined other talented media professionals who had similar reactions to corporate life and we created a magazine called OutWeek.  Every issue that hit the streets was a major community event.  The magazine was fiery, angry, full of news, authoritative, demanded respect for us and required readers participate in calls to action.

It facilitated the rise of ACT-UP and there political stand we took then that revolutionized the gay rights movement.  We were on the cutting edges of the civil rights movement and really felt we were shaping our movement. But AIDS and a lack of profit ended OutWeek when an investor became ill.

A wealthy friend requested that I hold a meeting of key OutWeek staff members to join me in a new start up we called QW. What we produced was an instant local New York community hit, the first glossy gay news magazine in America and the first such product to garner national ads.

After a year we had to shut that effort down because my friend also became ill and it was no longer possible for him to finance it. After letting go of our staff of 23 people and settling our books I took care of him and his partner until they died. During this same period of time nearly all of my closest friends in New York died. It was very bleak.

No other publisher took my place and New York was without a significant gay press.

Two years later, a friend in Moscow who had been a fellow staff member at OutWeek wrote an email introducing me to Beth Stroud, encouraging me to get up off my ass and use my contacts to start another effort.  Beth and I joined forces and produced a twice monthly newspaper called Lesbian and Gay New York (LGNY);  to my astonishment it was an instant hit. The advertising base expanded significantly.

After one year, Beth stunned me and left the paper to become an Episcopal Priestess, famously being excommunicated a few years later in what was an enormous news story.  A newspaper is worthless without a visionary editor and I decided to recruit the writer who had contributed the most interesting article to LGNY.  Paul Schindler joined me in 1997 as editor and for the next 7 years we turned LGNY into a must read.

Then 9/11.  It was impossible to continue with out business model.  We had no investors and operated only on the strength of advertising.  After 9/11 there was a long advertising drought and we honestly were eating beans.  We were lucky to get the next issue out.

At that time Paul and  I chose to change the name of the publication to Gay City News and to join a larger family of newspapers.  My friend John Sutter owned The Villager and Downtown Express and he was looking to expand.  The move provided us with a steadier home and better financial position, more expandability and options.

Gay City News is New York City’s newspaper of record for the gay community, is a must read among the community policy wonks and politicians, is a bellwether now even among mainstream, heterosexual politicians and community leaders.  I am blessed to have given birth to something that has flourished in so many ways.

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