Looking Back on Hollywood's Pioneering LGBTQ Collective: "They'd Call Us the Lavender Mafia"

Looking Back on 'Out There' Collective- "They'd Call Us the Lavender Mafia"  -Out Magazine in 1996- Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Dan Jinks

Producers Nina Jacobson and Bruce Cohen reflect on the trailblazing 'Out There' alliance they founded in 1995 that paved the way for gay activism in Hollywood.

Nina Jacobson was still early in her tenure at Universal when she turned to her colleague Josh Donen and awkwardly blurted out some version of "I just want you to know that I'm not the straightest person in the world."

The Crazy Rich Asians producer was far too embarrassed to even utter the word "lesbian," she acknowledges now, nearly three decades later. "And then I asked, 'Do you think the bosses know?' And Josh was like, 'Oh, Nina, I think at this point it's safe to assume everybody knows.' And I go, 'Oh, really? OK, fantastic.' "

And that was it. Jacobson was "out."

Both the vocabulary and comfort level would arrive in the half-decade that followed, culminating in 1995, when she and Milk producer Bruce Cohen founded Out There, a grassroots collective of openly gay 20- and 30-something producers, executives and Hollywood reps. The goal was simple: to cultivate a community of budding industry activists who could pool their connections and resources to help bring attention and support to the work of major organizations like GLAAD and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Later, they'd [call us] the lavender mafia or the velvet mafia, but at that point we felt very much like a small group of pioneers," says Cohen, who would meet his longtime producing partner Dan Jinks through the group.

"At the time, I think we all felt, like, 'How can we be helpful beyond just writing checks?' because most of us weren't people with deep pockets back then," says Jinks, who hosted Out There's first major event at his L.A. home, which featured a guest list of more than 80 people — a who's who of gay Hollywood and the leaders of the major queer organizations. A smaller contingent, which also included Carla Hacken, Jonathan King and UTA's Brian Swardstrom, then president of Banner Entertainment, would become the group's steering committee, meeting monthly to generate ideas for fundraisers, panels and PSAs.

By early 1996, the group caught the attention of editors at the magazine Out, who asked the steering committee to pose for a spread highlighting its work. But not every member was ready for that kind of attention 25 years ago. Sure, Hollywood was accepting, but what about everybody else? "I'll be honest, we all had to take a moment to say, 'OK, we're out, but are we putting-our-faces-in-a-national-magazine out?' " says Jinks, who was among the 13 who ultimately decided he was.

Ryan Murphy would join the group a little later, relishing the opportunity to gather regularly in living rooms and office courtyards with others who were navigating the same path he was. By that time, he had become intensely focused on pushing to include heretofore nonexistent gay characters and plotlines onscreen, and he remembers leaning heavily on the Out There community for support. "I think because all of us had grown up with the AIDS crisis and had lived our lives in so much fear, we were at the point where we weren't willing to give in," he says.

Director Paris Barclay's only regret is that the group disbanded as quickly as it did (sometime in the late '90s, though nobody seems to remember exactly when). He can't help but imagine the power those same people — now Oscar winners and agency partners — could have had all these years later, even if the needs have shifted. "If we were getting together today, we'd be looking at issues like transphobia and teen suicide," says Barclay, adding wistfully, "Maybe we should get the band back together."

But by the late 1990s, the industry's population of out gays and lesbians had exploded, and the committee — all busy in their respective careers — simply wasn't equipped to keep up. "It was a really happy moment when we realized there are too many gay people in Hollywood, there are too many gay organizations working in Hollywood, and there are too many connections happening organically that we helped [facilitate] that we weren't needed anymore," says Cohen. "Like, our work was done."

This story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.