The Advocate’s first female editor-in-chief, Judy Wieder, chronicles her fascinating life — which included time as a folk singer, disco songwriter, and hair band journalist — in Random Events Tend to Cluster.
BY TRACY E. GILCHRIST
With a career that includes gigs and jobs as far-flung as folk singer, gold-record winning songwriter of the disco era; journalist and confidant to ‘80s hair bands; creator of the first magazine for black teens that saw her breaking bread with the Jackson family; and the first female editor-in-chief of The Advocate, it may seem as though Judy Wieder’s many incarnations were purely accidental.
But in Wieder’s new memoir, Random Events Tend To Cluster, a pointed pattern of firsts emerges and showcases a pioneer infiltrating some deeply-held male terrain. The book also places Wieder’s life squarely in the center of historical events, including the Vietnam War, the AIDS epidemic, and 9/11, occurrences that shaped all who lived through them.
A memoir eight years in the making, Random Events Tend to Cluster spans Wieder’s life beginning with her childhood in Los Angeles through to Barack Obama’s election, her marriage to her wife, and Proposition 8. The pages between brim with lively anecdotes and memories that take the reader into spaces populated with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary, the adolescent, burgeoning megastar Michael Jackson, Poison frontman Bret Michaels, and LGBT icons George Michael, Melissa Etheridge, and Rosie O’Donnell, to name a few.
Although Wieder aptly explains the physics principle of clustering that informed the title of her book in its preface, there’s a sense when reading that all of the events that occurred in Wieder’s life that took her from L.A. to Berkeley to Greenwich Village to a kibbutz in Israel, occurred as though it was all perhaps cosmically ordained.
“I think there’s been seeds of that for probably at least twenty years—based on the fact that there was so many diverse things that I’ve done that don’t really line up to how other people approach a career,” Wieder told The Advocate. “But the thing is — it just never happened to me that way. That’s pretty obvious, that there’s a way that things that I have participated in have common threads, but they certainly were not planned. And a lot of the jobs or work I’ve done have both a sensational and historic aspect of them.”
Each chapter of Wieder’s detailed memoir relates an influential period in her life that coincides with a historical event that changed the course of history on macro and micro levels. Her chapter on traipsing off to Israel during college coincides with the apex of the civil rights movement in 1964; her days as an erstwhile folk singer in Greenwich Village bump up against the Vietnam War, while her time as a rock journalist sharing a tour bus with Poison, bisects the AIDS epidemic, making for a visceral read for all who survived that time period.
The juxtaposition of Wieder, one of the lone female rock reporters (who was not quite publicly out at the time), schooling the uber-heteronormative Michaels and the Poison boys on not just halting the use of the word “faggot” but also encouraging them to steer clear of gay-bashing queer men, juxtaposed with the reality of her two childhood friends (twin boys) succumbing to AIDS at the same time, makes for gut-wrenching, important reading.
“It was very crazy to sit on that bus with these young guys and have them say ‘faggot’ every two seconds. I was like, ‘Why do you want to use that word all the time?’” Wieder said. “But I could only go so far with my questioning because, of course, they would immediately become uncomfortable—the way anybody carrying around a lot of homophobic b.s. based on absolutely nothing does. Things start to just fall apart for them as they talk, and they get very anxious.”
The AIDS epidemic pushed Wieder toward the closet door that she eventually burst through as editor for the gay men’s magazine Genre, which led to her position at The Advocate.
“When the boys died (her childhood friends), I went through a mourning for a few years. I realized that I could not sit there anymore without at least challenging [the rock bands]. So, I did.”
To evince the immediacy of her personal story combined with the universal reach of historical events, Wieder chose to keep the reader in the present tense, peppering the narrative with pitch-perfect dialogue she said she was able to access from years of note-taking, which naturally began with her work as a journalist.
The randomness of her career trajectory is apparent; churning out hits for venerable artists including The Fifth Dimension and writing the disco hit “Star Love;” launching the black teen magazine Right On!; composing pieces about heavy hitters like Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row for rock mags; and becoming the first female editor-in-chief of the storied Advocate at the zenith of the celebrity coming out explosion in the ‘90s, when content about women in LGBT publishing did not necessarily equate to newsstand gold.
Still, Wieder’s editorial hand moved women and the issues affecting them further into the conversation at The Advocate. She created an important breast cancer issue that bombed, the varied reasons for which she parses out in the book in a chapter that might feel fresh to female editors and writers across all publications. If reaching a female audience with the issues that affected them proved difficult, so did courting celebrities who might have been on the precipice of coming out.
Although The Advocate had become the publication of record for LGBT people, gatekeepers to celebrities like publicists and managers saw it as the “gay” magazine and often nixed Wieder’s interview inquiries with the slamming down of a phone (back when one could effectively hang up on someone). k.d. Lang and a few others had come out by the time Wieder began working for The Advocate, but others were pushed to take control of the narrative and head to the magazine when tabloids threatened to out them.
“Usually the circumstances were that they were being outed anyway, so the star said, ‘Fuck it. I know my story and I know it best.’ And that’s how we could talk to them because they were being outed in the National Enquirer and they didn’t want to come that way,” Wieder said. “Amanda Bearse (of Married with Children) was somebody who came out in the Advocate when I first started working there because she was about to be outed; there were several people like that.”
As chronicled in Random Events Tend to Cluster, Wieder went on to become the editorial director when the company that owned The Advocate bought Out, a contentious acquisition at the time. Along the way, Wieder oversaw the issue of The Advocate that covered Matthew Shepard’s execution; she persisted until she finally got an in-depth interview with Ellen DeGeneres that delved far deeper than Time’s “Yep, I’m Gay” issue, and she was the one Rosie O’Donnell called when she was ready to come out.
“I was doing my job,” Wieder said of attempts to speak with O’Donnell before she came out. “And when she did [come out], it eventually paid off. She eventually picked The Advocate and me. It took time… Fear is a big thing.”
Wieder’s memoir relates her time at the magazine and her decision to leave around the time of the internet media boom and closes a few short years after, when Californians narrowly voted against marriage equality. Laying low at the time allowed Wieder to work through her notes, not only the events of her own life but the historical moments that united, and divided, the nation.
“You don’t ever really know where you’re going while you’re going,” Wieder said. “There were so many people, jobs, and places that led me to the right place. You’re in the cluster [of random events], so you can’t yet know everything.”