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“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,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, 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.”
Hefner, who died Wednesday at 91 of natural causes, has been praised in some circles for his early and steadfast support of LGBTQ causes. In 1955, he published a story by Charles Beaumont that envisioned a world where gay people were the majority; after facing pushback, Hefner said: “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society, then the reverse was wrong, too.” Several magazines had previously rejected the story.
Hefner also wrote a Playboy editorial in 2012 advocating for same-sex marriage. “No one should have to subjugate their religious freedom, and no one should have their personal freedoms infringed,” he wrote in his conclusion. “This is America and we must protect the rights of all Americans.”
More broadly, however, commentators have noted Hefner’s more controversial legacy, particularly — as Ellis notes in her statement — when it comes to his magazine’s impact on women’s rights and representation. In one interview with Vanity Fair, journalist John Heilpern noted that feminists believe Playboy treats women as objects. Hefner’s response? “They are objects.”