“Chaos Confusion & Delusion:” 20 Years of Queer Journalism with Fusion Magazine

Graphic by Hannah Clotz

Twenty years ago, Kate Common, Mandy Jenkins and Marie Ho got together to create Fusion Magazine. This spring marks the twentieth anniversary of Fusion’s founding. Fusion remains the region’s only student magazine focusing on LGBTQ+ issues. It was created with a mission to bring LGBTQ+ issues from all around Northeast Ohio to create impactful journalism. 

After twenty years, more than 30 print magazines and hundreds of web stories, Fusion maintains the goal to promote equality and community. 

“Here was this way we can develop a publication that has high quality journalism about these issues, and so that felt really impactful,” said Kate Common, one of Fusion’s founders and its first advisor. “It’s a publication that is specifically made by Kent, where students can feel like there is a community here.”

Evan Bailey, Fusion advisor from 2005 to 2010, and current professor of advertising at Kent State, felt similarly, “I think this magazine had a ton of potential, not only to help give a voice to LGBTQ+ issues, but also to kind of examine those issues around campus.”

All of this started in the spring semester of 2003 with Kate Common, Mandy Jenkins and Marie Ho. Common had graduated from Kent State in 2002 with a degree in graphic design and was working for Kent State’s Student Media, running ad production for the publications. At this time, different states were passing marriage equality. Kent State had been considering offering partner benefits to domestic partners, or LGBTQ+ partners, but it was voted down. 

“I was married to my partner at the time. And my colleague in the business office was married to his wife and she had full benefits,” Common said. “It was so inequitable, being side by side. Everybody was really upset about it.”

She described the experience of watching from the sidelines as Massachusetts passed gay marriage. “And then we’re seeing what’s happening in the administration at Kent at that time. And in many ways, I felt really powerless. I remember being really upset about this.”

This led Common to think about the lack of an LGBTQ+ publication at Kent State. Lori Cantor, the director of Student Media at the time, had told her, “well there’s no reason why we couldn’t have an LGBTQ+ focused publication.” Thus the origin of Fusion was born.

The formation was fairly simple; they needed an advisor, a student editor and staff. Common already knew Jenkins and Ho from working together in Student Media.

“When Lori Cantor and I first envisioned starting Fusion, I think Lori recommended that Mandy would be a great first editor, and Marie, a good first photography editor; so they became involved early on,” wrote Common.

Once the seed of the publication being possible was planted, the three founders took the idea and ran with it. Common took the role of staff advisor and design production manager while Jenkins and Ho began the content development and editorial process.

“Starting the magazine, I think, gave voice to a sense of empowerment for myself after experiencing that loss of community and rejection,” said Common.

Common also detailed the eagerness people had to work on the magazine. “We had no issues in terms of administration. It just seemed like there was a positive energy around the publication, at least, you know, while I was there. I know in some ways, it was sort of taking a stand against what the broader administration had done. Not having domestic partnership, but they didn’t have a role in saying what we could or couldn’t do.”

The first print issue of Fusion was published in fall 2003. Due to the limited budget, it was a small black and white square. It was distributed around campus and beyond.

“Just opening those [boxes] up and getting the real magazine out and thinking, ‘oh, my God, this, this is real, we just produced an LGBTQ+ magazine,” Common remembered.“It sort of took your breath away to think that this happened just like that.”

It was all truly possible because of Jenkins, who was a successful editor at the time for student media, and she spearheaded it from the beginning. “Mandy was just a superb editor. And so there wasn’t really a lot to manage there. And it seemed like, once we had the initial funding, and the approval, the magazine just sort of took off,” Common said.

Bailey took over as editor following Common’s departure not long after. He started because of his friendship with Common. “They [Mandy, Kate and Marie] were just doing such fantastic work,” he said, “and I thought it was so interesting.” 

This was during very formative years for Fusion. Bailey noted it as a time when the magazine began to be absorbed and embraced by Student Media. “If somebody starts a new project, it’s not going to be instant, but I felt like it had a lot of promise,” Bailey said. One of his goals was to make Fusion a fixture that was maybe even a little bigger than just Kent State.

“I think Fusion has a bit of a history with reaching out to people who were known enough on campus, but maybe weren’t journalism students,” described Adam Griffiths, Fusion editor from 2007 to 2010 who worked with Bailey, “so that the perspectives and the way we were telling stories were coming from outside. We needed to make sure we were capturing the campus and the region at large.”

It was important for Fusion to move outside of the Kent area. There was a distinct lack of other LGBTQ+ news outlets. Griffiths explained his shock that more publications like Fusion didn’t exist at other universities. This provided an environment for Fusion to grow into something much larger.

“I saw a magazine that was an opportunity for me to flex all the things I cared about, you know, being gay and loving media,” Griffiths said, “then Evan [Bailey] was the advisor at the time and it really clicked and I just thought there was a lot of potential of where we could take Fusion at the time.”

Bailey felt the same way and held the belief it was important for students in a great Student Media operation to have the freedom to do what they wanted. “He [Griffiths] was just so driven and so smart. I basically was there as sort of a sounding board and just encouraged him to do his thing. He was going to do what he wanted and really pushed the envelope. I think he helped push the magazine quite a bit in my opinion,” he said.

Griffiths thought Fusion deserved to, and could, thrive more with the opportunities and management longer-standing Student Media publications had. “So we had a smaller budget and it was probably a less formal operation,” he said, “but it [LGBTQ+ topics] was in the news again, in a way that I think the issues were interesting beyond just LGBTQ+ people and that’s sort of what I tried to do. LGBT media was very much in the broader news at the time.”

The goal was for Fusion to become more of a general interest magazine for more people to pick it up. “I think my number one goal was to make it more of an approachable publication for someone who thought of it as just a gay thing,” Griffiths said.

All of this is not to say that Fusion did not experience any push back. “This is a magazine that printers refused to print,” Bailey explained. “We didn’t necessarily always feel support from every person I met on campus for this magazine.”

Three printers refused to print Fusion because it contained the word ‘fuck’. “Now how many publications crossed the printer with that word in it? More than you’d probably think. That stood out to me and I guess it sort of galvanized part of the reason that I was involved with it. There is still work to be done,” Bailey said.

Griffiths described how he took ownership of Fusion’s ‘that gay magazine’ catchphrase, because that’s what it was referred to on campus. “I was like, that’s sort of empowering, and from a brand recognition perspective, if people are just going to refer to us as that, might as well make ourselves discoverable,” he said. “To that end though, it’s very much a dated concept in the evolution of the queer space overall.”

Fusion has never been afraid to face issues head on and be at the forefront of change. Griffiths noted the changes in Fusion’s content over the years. At the time from 2006 to 2010, there wasn’t the space for awareness of identity to become a core part of the conversation. “It has been interesting to see the coverage really fleshed out to really encapsulate the spectrum.” 

It was important for not just the readers, but for people working on the magazine, to learn this style of journalism in the right way. “So much of it is done without sensitivity, without education, and without attention. There’s a skill to covering these issues and knowing how to listen,” noted Griffiths.

Stephen Francis, art director from 2019 to 2020, agreed with this sentiment, “the ability to take on sensitive topics was so important, because a lot of stuff that we were covering was genuinely pretty risky, it gave me the ability to not be afraid to design in a very flaming way.”

Fusion has continued to do important work and impact a number of editors to hold the position. “I learned the most I’ve ever learned about completing a project, that is very honestly hard to do. It’s not easy to publish a magazine,” said Simon Husted, Fusion editor from 2011 to 2012. “I learned how to work with a team of people with multiple skills and multiple weaknesses.” It was important for him to be the type of leader to elevate people. And ultimately, he “wanted these pieces to be amazing. I want the whole magazine to be amazing.”

One of the main reasons Fusion became so successful was its focus on local stories, and not just broad national news. “No, let’s find a local person to help tell their story that spreads into this national issue,” said Husted.

This is a trend that stayed consistent. “Fusion is addressing particularly things in the Kent, Akron and sometimes beyond area, which do have really large LGBTQ+ populations,” discussed Angie Molina, Fusion editor from 2020 to 2021. “There’s a benefit to having hyperlocal news, because you can get more connected to the community that’s in your area, especially since news nowadays is very broad in general. It’s for the students, for people, to get involved in what we would call queer culture.”

Francis described the same effect. “I think it’s great to have something gay and out in the public eye. These stories that really need to be told. I really think that was sort of the real connection that I needed to see, in order to realize that if these people’s stories aren’t being told, they get lost,” he said, “and I think that’s where the biggest problem is, if their stories aren’t being told, how are people going to even be able to bring themselves into that, like, into their own shoes and sort of see their side of the story?”

Brooke DiDonato, Fusion’s photo editor from 2011 to 2012, talked about the experience of working with Husted. “We just jived. It was so fun to make. That’s how it was, we just like got shit done. It was really really fun to work for him. It took up a lot of time honestly, it was super stressful. I probably wouldn’t have done it another year if it weren’t for Simon. I think it felt like we were tag-teaming it, which was super good.”

The content Fusion publishes is what creates its success. Husted recalled how it wasn’t just the people on staff that made the magazine special, it was more so the content they produced and how it was something to be proud of.

“The work itself is just great. Doing this type of work and being around these people is actually more exciting. Taking the photos is great too, but it’s not the root of why I’m enjoying it,” said DiDonato, “I’m all team Fusion. I never was interested in even going to another magazine after I worked there, they didn’t steal my heart the same way. And the people, I really loved everyone.”

Fusion’s importance to the community has not been lost on any editor. “An LGBT media organization is huge, because there are so many people who need to be reaffirmed that they’re not weird, that they’re not strange,” explained Husted. “They are who they are, and they shouldn’t feel that they must change the way they are to appease their environment.”

For DiDonato, this struck true on a personal level. “I felt really supported by people and I just felt comfortable coming out. I met other queer people. The stories we created were also, obviously, of great importance, but that’s the thing that I left with.”

One of the most impactful editors of Fusion was MJ Eckhouse. He held the position from 2016 to 2018. He turned the magazine into a strong activist for the LGBTQ+ community. Eckhouse died unexpectedly in October 2020 and Fusion pushes to remember his legacy. 

Ella Abbott, Fusion editor from 2018 to 2019, worked closely with Eckhouse, first as staff writer then as managing editor before taking over the editor position after Eckhouse’s graduation. Abbott attributed her work for Fusion being fully influenced by Eckhouse after they met in a reporting class where he recruited her.

“A lot of it was just MJ asking me to do something and me going ‘yeah, sure, that’s fine,’” said Abbott. “He and I worked well together and we sort of established a partnership and until he left there was no reason for me to leave.”

Eckhouse was always on the forefront of activism. “He knew the politics, he knew the community. He was just always in the thick of it,” Abbott described. “He was transgender and bisexual. He had been fighting the good fight for a long time before he got to Fusion.”

As editor, Eckhouse moved in a political direction, with a more hard-news focus than there had been in previous years, which “rubbed some people the wrong way,” Abbott said. “They liked the more artsy fun magazine and his [Eckhouse’s] first cover was about police brutality. He really wanted to see the magazine tell stories that weren’t as fun, but were important. And I think he rallied a team of people that also really believed in that mission.” 

Eckhouse and Abbott had a similar message they wanted readers to leave with. “You go into Fusion and you know, these are going to be stories about me and my friends and my community. And hopefully you learned something that you didn’t know before.”

The magazine leaves a lasting impact for everyone a part of it and everyone who reads it. Francis described the feeling after publishing the spring 2020 issue during the height of COVID, “I think that was honestly the peak of Fusion in that moment, I feel like we were kind of building up by working with each other.”

Molina added to this, “I loved the culture that was created.” She described the importance of having a group of people to unite with during the pandemic and the familial bonds that were created. “I feel like it was both the busiest time of my life, but also the most fun, I had so much fun,” she said.

“Chaos, confusion and delusion are like the first words that come to my head,” Francis said about his experience. “I had no idea what I was doing, but it was literally so much fun.”

This impact has not been lost over the years. “It’s been so promising to see the advancement of everything that has happened since I spent a few years working on this tiny gay magazine in Ohio,” Griffiths noted. “I’ve always seen Fusion as a thing, when I’ve checked in on it, that seems to be very responsive to the moment and I think as long as it continues to be that, it is so valuable and so important.”

Common reflected back on the past twenty years of Fusion, “oh my God, this thing has lived on way beyond what we could have imagined. And it’s really had a lasting impact.”

The future is never set in stone, but one thing will always remain: Fusion will be a voice for the LGBTQ+ community and not shy away from hard hitting news or controversial topics. Fusion will stay Northeast Ohio’s advocate for queer issues.

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