Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Hugh Hefner, gay rights champion?

New doc examines the Playboy founder's commitment to progressive social causes, including gay rights

Hugh Hefner. Credit:

When the name Hugh Hefner is mentioned, certain images immediately spring to mind. The legendary hedonist and founder of Playboy magazine will, of course, always be tied to that publication’s brand. You can see him sitting amid an ocean of scantily clad young women, all of them wearing bunny ears. He’s in his night robe, chomping on a pipe. The image has been repeated so many times, it’s burned into our collective memory.

While Hefner frequently evoked the ire of feminist critics over the years — especially during the heated porn wars of the ’70s and ’80s — a new documentary presents “The Hef” in a new and often surprising light.

In Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, Oscar-winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman reveals that there’s much more to the man than just someone who peddled naughty pictures of naked gals. The film carefully documents how Hefner gave millions of dollars to help bankroll feminist legal fights, fought against segregation in the southern US and championed gay-themed stories long before Stonewall.

Berman says she first met Hefner when she was working on a documentary on jazz legend Artie Shaw. “He loves jazz, so he had a real interest in what I was doing. Something that struck me was that people seemed to know Hugh for only one thing. They didn’t know about all of these other good things he’d done. I wanted to draw attention to this side of him.”

“I’ve known Brigitte for a number of years,” Hefner says, on the line from his California mansion. “There have been a number of documentaries made about me, but I said yes to Brigitte because her approach was a fresh one. It’s unlike any that’s been done before — it reveals a side of me that has less to do with my lifestyle and more to my commitment with social change.”

Queers will find intrigue in an anecdote about Hefner’s insistence on publishing a gay-themed story in 1955, at the very height of the Cold War and anti-communist and homophobic hysteria. Charles Beaumont had written a sci-fi short story titled “The Crooked Man,” in which the hetero-homo roles were cleverly reversed. He described a world dominated by homosexuals, in which heterosexuals had to lie about who and what they were and meet in seedy underground clubs. (Beaumont wrote several episodes of cult TV series The Twilight Zone — fans will recognize his style and its connection to that show.) It’s a unique story that proved too much for the editorial board of Esquire, who rejected it outright.

Hefner picked it up and ran with it, much to the dismay of many of his readers, some of who responded with angry letters. “It prompted mixed reaction at the time because it was not clearly understood. We printed a response in the magazine in which we said that in addition to thinking it was a strong work of fiction, we thought the message was an important one: that if it’s wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society, then the reverse was wrong too. Beaumont was a great writer. It was Ray Bradbury who had first brought him to my attention.”

There are other tall-but-true tales as well. In the ’60s, with Playboy‘s popularity spreading, the company sold franchises across the country so people could open Playboy nightclubs. But Hefner was aghast to learn that some of those Playboy clubs in the southern states were segregated. He returned to the clubs, bought back the franchise rights at his own expense and then immediately racially integrated them. “I couldn’t stand the idea that Playboy would be associated with the continuation of racial segregation,” he says now.

Throughout the ’50s, Hefner published numerous stories by then-blacklisted writers, those targeted by Joseph McCarthy and others during the ideological witch-hunts — a move that prompted Ronald Reagan to write to Hefner and urge him to stop employing such scribes. “I still have the letter. I had it framed and put up on my wall.”

Hefner says he’s still surprised when critics accuse him of being an arch sexist. “I’m so blindsided [that] the more conservative feminists attacked me. I didn’t know what that was all about. Most of the early lower-court cases involving birth control and abortion were funded by the Playboy Foundation…. I thought we were always fighting the good fight on the same side.”

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel opens on Friday, Aug 6 in Toronto; Aug 13 in Montreal, Edmonton and Calgary; and Aug 20 in Vancouver.

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Watch the trailer below: