IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Playboy Founder Hugh Hefner: An Early Proponent of LGBTQ Rights

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, undoubtedly a controversial figure, was also an early supporter of gay rights.
Image: Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner
Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner poses for a portrait at the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles on July 27, 2010.Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The death of Playboy magazine founder and sexual revolution icon Hugh Hefner, 91, has brought his complicated legacy to the fore, particularly in regards to his treatment of women and his stance on LGBTQ rights.

In 1955, two years after Playboy's launch, Hefner famously made the bold decision to publish a short story called "The Crooked Man," about a dystopian future in which heterosexuals were oppressed by homosexuals. The story had previously been rejected by Esquire, and it caused a firestorm of controversy after hitting the stands.

Hefner stood firm, saying, "If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society, then the reverse was wrong, too."

This, in addition to his early support for same-sex marriage, his outspokenness on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the '80s and his inclusion of an openly transgender model in his publication constitute a strong case for Hefner being ahead of his time on LGBTQ rights, and he has been eulogized as such since his passing.

But Steven Watts, the author of "Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream," a biography on the late publishing tycoon, said the evolution of Hefner's views on LGBTQ people followed a more traditional path than some suggest.

"Part of Hefner's crusade was to build up American men who he thought had been pushed down in the culture, and as a result he was concerned that American men were becoming feminized," Watts said of Hefner's views in the early days of Playboy. "He wasn't exactly in that period a crusader for gay rights."

Wyatt went on to say, however, that Hefner did indeed eventually fold gay men into his vision of sexual liberation, but that, like many Americans, "he followed a trajectory."

Still, many of Hefner's comments on LGBTQ people over the years stand out as particularly progressive for his era. In a 1994 interview with The Advocate, for example, former editor-in-chief Jeff Yarbrough was caught off guard by Hefner's recognition of the oppression gays and lesbians faced.

After Yarbrough expressed his surprise that Hefner was invested in these issues, Hefner explained that he began investing in gay rights early in his career.

“When I was creating the Playboy Philosophy, which was in the early ‘60s, and then formed the Playboy Foundation, one of the first real challenges that we spent our money on and editorialized about was the censoring of personal mail. And the victims by and large were gay men,” Hefner said. “We were involved in a series of cases and got some gay people out of prison.”

Image: Playboy Publisher Hugh Hefner
Hefner in 1963.Bettmann / Bettmann Archive via Getty

In that same interview with The Advocate, Hefner strongly condemned the government's response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. “The only thing ‘wrong’ with AIDS is the way our government responded to it. They are culpable on many, many levels," he said.

Critics of Hefner, however, say he built his enterprise on the objectification of women. Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of national LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, said she is dismayed to see Hefner portrayed as an advocate of the community.

"It's alarming how media is attempting to paint Hugh Hefner as a pioneer or social justice activist, because nothing could be further from reality," she said in a statement. "Hefner was a not a visionary. He was a misogynist who built an empire on sexualizing women and mainstreaming stereotypes that caused irreparable damage to women's rights and our entire culture."

For Wyatt, Hefner was a pioneer not just of the sexual revolution, but of the consumer revolution that followed World War II.

"'Playboy was really about the good life," he said. "It was an advice book to young men on leading the good life, and that was not only about sex, but also nice clothing and nice restaurants and apartments and sports cars and all those accouterments of that period."

As for criticisms of Hefner's views on women, Wyatt said he believes they are largely based on stereotypes of Hefner "being a sexist pig."

While the iconic Playboy founder's legacy may be complex, Wyatt shared a belief most would agree with: "Hefner will be remembered as a controversial figure," he said.

Follow NBC Out on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram