Hugh Hefner was often accused of being a misogynist who celebrated women as sex objects, but the publisher also has a surprising legacy as an outspoken advocate for civil, LGBTQ and women’s rights.
The Playboy founder, who died at the age of 91 on Wednesday, called himself a “human rights activist” in a 1994 interview with LGBTQ-interest magazine The Advocate — and many who knew his work would agree.
“I felt from a very early age that there were things in society that were wrong, and that I might play some small part in changing them,” Hefner told CBS in 2011.
The publishing legend spoke about how black and white performers took the stage in front of mixed race audiences at the Playboy Club long before they could elsewhere.
“Playboy was the first mainstream club, non-black club that actually put on stage black comedians,” Hefner said to CBS. “Even in Las Vegas, black performers that performed on, including Sammy Davis, who was a very close friend of mine, would appear on stage, but they couldn’t walk through the casino. They had to walk through the back entrance.”
“When we started franchising, when they refused our members, the black members, entrance, I said, ‘You can’t do that, these are members of our club.’ And we literally bought back the franchised clubs,” he said.
Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory revealed in an interview that Hefner provided $25,000 toward a reward that was later credited with pushing along a murder case of three young civil-rights workers in Mississippi.
The magazine also put a spotlight on civil rights issues: the publication’s first interview was with jazz musician Miles Davis, who discussed race’s affect on his fame to black journalist Alex Haley.
Playboy later went on to publish interviews with Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Hefner also donated generously to the Rainbow PUSH coalition spearheaded by Jesse Jackson.
The Playboy founder was also an advocate for gay rights. According to his candid interview with The Advocate, Hefner campaigned against the nation’s laws against sodomy and highlighted the AIDS crisis in the magazine through informative articles.
“The only thing ‘wrong’ with AIDS is the way our government responded to it. They are culpable on many, many levels,” he said. “I have chosen every aspect of human sexuality — and the discrimination that goes along with some of those aspects — as my major concern. Homosexuality and, later, the homophobia that surrounds the AIDS crisis are part of a much bigger picture for me.”
Hefner argued in 2012 that same-sex marriage was “a fight for all of our rights.”
“No one should have to subjugate their religious freedom, and no one should have their personal freedoms infringed,” he wrote in the magazine. “This is America and we must protect the rights of all Americans.”
In 1991, Hefner also published a photo series of model Caroline “Tula” Cossey after she was outed as a transgender woman by a tabloid.
Hefner also used Playboy as a vehicle for promoting women’s reproductive rights. The magazine came out in favor of abortion in 1965, eight years before Roe v. Wade made it legal, according to Broadly.
He later established a nonprofit foundation that supported the Kinsey Institute (which researches sexual health), rape crisis centers and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Hefner’s son Cooper, the chief creative officer of Playboy Enterprises, released a statement following news of his death that honored the powerful impact his father’s work had on the social perception of sexuality.
“My father lived an exceptional and impactful life as a media and cultural pioneer and a leading voice behind some of the most significant social and cultural movements of our time in advocating free speech, civil rights and sexual freedom. He defined a lifestyle and ethos that lie at the heart of the Playboy brand, one of the most recognizable and enduring in history,” the 26-year-old said.
Celebrities and other former Playboy cover models expressed their condolences and shared moving tributes to Hefner on social media.
Hefner peacefully passed away on Wednesday from natural causes at his home, The Playboy Mansion, surrounded by loved ones, according to a statement from the Playboy founder’s rep. He was 91.
He is survived by his wife Crystal Harris and four children.