Sarah Pettit ’88, who was active in the gay and lesbian community while at Yale and later founded Out Magazine, died Jan. 22 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was 36.
Friends and members of the gay and lesbian community recalled Pettit and her legacy, which included getting sexual orientation added to the University’s anti-discrimination policy. Pettit co-founded Out magazine and later worked at Newsweek magazine.
Out co-founder Michael Goff described Pettit as “a hard-core lesbian feminist, mixed in with Tina Brown, that somehow came out as a nice person.”
Pettit’s wide-ranging influence is still felt in the world of gay and lesbian publications by students and fellow writers alike, Goff said.
“All through her life from when she was at Yale and before, she was an activist focused on the different images and getting things out there,” Goff said. “The world has changed dramatically in 10 years, and Sarah was one of the leading lesbian figures in that. She nurtured other writers. It’s not just what she accomplished, but what was accomplished by the people she inspired.”
While at Yale, Pettit was co-director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Cooperative, or LGBT.
Pettit’s friend Roxana Tynan ’88 attributed her inspiration and activism in part to the Yale community of gay and lesbian students.
“It was notable that when we got to Yale in 1984 that there were a lot of other gay students and bisexual students,” Tynan said. “There was definitely a community here, and I do think that there was a more out and gay community than there was at other Ivies. It was an attraction; it was the community of students that helped foster and encourage her activism.”
Pettit’s work in lesbian and gay issues had a hand in changing Yale as an institution, and the perception of the community of gay and lesbian students, said Jonathan D. Katz, executive coordinator of the Larry Kramer Initiative, a grant for gay and lesbian studies.
“Her institutional role is very significant for lesbian, gay, bi and transsexual protection,” Katz said. “She began a conversation that is continuing today.”
Current LGBT members said they felt indebted to her work.
“We don’t have to worry about whether Yale’s anti-discrimination policy includes sexual orientation because of her,” LGBT coordinator-at-large Alyssa Rosenberg ’06 said. “And while a written policy doesn’t always guarantee equal treatment for queer students on campus, it’s important for Yale to have a policy we can try to hold them to when queer issues do surface here.”
After graduating from Yale, Pettit worked for OutWeek, a small gay and lesbian publication in New York City. In 1992, she and Goff founded Out Magazine, the first successful mainstream magazine for gay and lesbian life and culture.
“Sarah Pettit was a brilliant person to work with and was very strong with her convictions,” Goff said. “More than any of us involved in gay publishing — Sarah saw the connections between the cultural and political. Sarah somehow encompassed the glamour — of running a major magazine in New York and the fierce tenacity of a street activist.”
Because of a conflict of management at Out, Pettit was forced to resign when the magazine moved away from lesbian issues, said friend Judy Wieder, editorial director of Liberation Publications Inc., Media. LPI Media owns Out and the Advocate, another gay and lesbian magazine Wieder edited while Pettit was at Out.
“She was fired in a ridiculous and unfair manner,” Wieder said. “She was trying to keep some lesbian coverage, not boost it up like people are saying now. There was a change in direction at Out. She was not pushing for more lesbian coverage; she was just pushing back.”
After leaving Out, Pettit eventually became senior editor of the arts and entertainment section at Newsweek, praised just as she was at other publications for her tenacity and vision.
Yale is currently accepting donations for a fund that will be named for Pettit, though its use has not yet been decided, Katz said.
“The fund will be used for support of activities to honor her legacy,” Katz said. “It is already in place with donations from friends and fans from all over the world who have contacted us to make her legacy continue at Yale.”