THE first time I encountered checkboxes on a standardized test, I hesitated. There were four options: white, black, Asian or other. As a Korean adoptee with Caucasian parents, I was sure I wasn’t black but wavered between the other three choices. When I consulted my teacher, she told me I was Asian. I was a conformist kid, and I dutifully checked the box.
Years later, I’m still no raging radical and look back on the experience as more annoying than traumatic. But my quiet distaste for checkboxes endures. So, when I bought Other, I had high hopes it would rouse my inner dissident. Seduced by its cover lines and Rock-the-Vote-like logo, complete with checkbox and check mark, I thought Other might be the perfect pop-culture and politics magazine for people like me, who don’t fit neatly into categories.
Other certainly tries hard to be the kind of edgy magazine appropriate for its “outcast” readers. It has the right pedigree, headquartered on Castro Street, in San Francisco’s famed gay district. A nonprofit, it receives much of its funding from the Institute for Unpopular Culture, a San Francisco-based arts foundation with the tongue-in-cheek acronym IFUC. The few ads that Other runs are decidedly nonmainstream, including independent book presses, underground music stores and the Bisexual Resource Center.
Its leadership is equally unconventional. The magazine’s publisher, Charlie Anders, is transgender, a cross-dresser who wears a candy-red slip dress in her staff photo. Other’s editor, Annalee Newitz, is a bespectacled, bisexual media nerd who also works for San Francisco’s alt-weekly, The Bay Guardian. Both were fixtures in the city’s alternative scene when they founded Other in 2002. “Our original idea was a general interest magazine that would speak to people who weren’t represented by the mainstream media,” said Anders. “Like a New Yorker for freaks.”
Parts of Other are more aggressively subversive than others. The magazine follows a conventional layout, organizing its mix of journalism, fiction, poetry, cartoons and original art in a way similar to most magazines. In the February 2004 issue, topics range from the politics of marijuana legalization to punk rock to B-list celebrities such as Brittany Murphy. Though these subjects can be found in numerous magazines, Other gives them a decidedly different treatment, with all the writers speaking from the perspective of outsiders. Often, they insert themselves into their stories and explain how their subjects reacted to their otherness. It’s a voyeuristic and occasionally hilarious approach.
Take, for example, Other’s interview with Ed Rosenthal, a famous marijuana-legalization activist. Representing Other is Lynnee Breedlove, a San Francisco-based queer activist and punk rocker. Breedlove is equal parts enthusiasm and incompetence. She repeatedly wrestles the spotlight away from Rosenthal to talk at length about her own drug use, sexual history and politics. The result is an interview that conspicuously defies traditional categories, both in style and content.
Similarly, the writer of the Brittany Murphy interview, which takes place at a press junket promoting Murphy’s movie “Uptown Girls,” focuses on Murphy’s dramatic weight loss and the “dry humping” abilities of her male costars. The piece ends up being about the writer, a self-described “unemployed manicdepressive loser.”
These two articles are the most amusing, but self-deprecating humor runs throughout the magazine. The editors indulge in word play, too, cranking out titillating headlines full of double entendres. A fiction piece about a man farting at a municipal hearing is called “New World Odor.” The editors’ note is headlined, “She’s Got Balls.” While the phrase ostensibly refers to the chorus of an AC/DC song, invoked to celebrate strong, feisty women, the editors take the joke one step further. Other, they claim, is just like a woman with balls: “… all [our] articles and art and design and poetry and comics, are kind of like a woman demonstrating she’s tough by lifting her lacy panties and showing off a pair of lovely, girly testicles.”
At times I wished the arguments in Other were less flip and more thought-out. A few pieces tested my type-A personality to the limit, such as a comic strip called “Walking George Potato!” in which a tater tot and a chickpea ride a pogo stick through twenty-nine frames sans dialogue. Don’t even get me started on the pictogram “Organized Crime in Canada, 2003,” which, as far as I could tell, was a spoof on the Canadian equivalent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
So, I felt slightly disgruntled at the end of the February issue, cheered only by the nine pieces of art featuring naked or half-naked people. Other’s bold covers had led me to believe we were going to go out and attack the status quo. I was expecting a full-on revolution. However, with the exception of a piece by Anders, “The Boundary Police,” that rails against people who impose labels on others, it failed to take a stand. “The bottom line is that we’re trying to be fun and playful, to be readable and not preach too much,” Anders said. “We know we’re not Pravda.”
Indeed, Other is nothing like a Bolshevik newspaper, although its quirky, low-budget design may conjure up visions of one. The $5 cover price doesn’t buy much color or gloss— Other is black-and-white except for its cover, with no hint of shine. At forty-eight pages, measuring eight-by-ten inches, it’s shorter in height and length than most magazines. However, graphics adorn nearly every page, imparting a sense of added value. The magazine is incredibly sturdy, with a cardboard cover that gives it a book-like feel. Subscribers no doubt appreciate the craftsmanship, since they have to wait four months between issues on Other’s current thrice-yearly schedule.
The most revolutionary part of Other may ultimately not be its content, but the way in which it creates a community. It brings together people who wouldn’t necessarily mix with each other, such as libertarians, biracial people and drag queens. Outside the confines of the print version of the magazine, readers can interact in online forums, in the Other Weblog and at Anders’ bicoastal spoken word variety show, “Writers with Drinks.”
In spirit, Other is closer to a sit-in than an uprising. There’s certainly room for growth— the publication is barely a year old—and its mission of being “pro-queer, pro-feminist, proworker rights, anti-corporate, anti-racism, and anti-globalization” is huge. It fills a void between Bitch and Punk Planet. It just needs to become more effective in dealing with the wide world it covers. Anders says that in the next year she plans to speed up the magazine’s production schedule, attract more advertisers and increase the page count. All of this would help. I just hope that she keeps using headlines like “Uterus Shopping on Ebay.”