Dirk Shafer: How One Obscure ‘Playgirl’ Model Ended Up Being One Of The Biggest Gay Icons Of The 1990s

Dirk Shafer may not have been very well known before he was picked to be Playgirl‘s Man of the Year in 1992, but the Illinois native ended up becoming one of the most influential members of the gay community of the decade.

Shafer died last week at age 52, with police finding him dead in his car a few blocks from his home in Los Angeles. The coroner’s office said Shafer is believed to have died from natural causes, a surprise to friends who knew Dirk as a fitness buff who still worked as a personal trainer and Pilates instructor.

Dirk Shafer was still relatively unknown beyond the largely female readers of Playgirl when, in 1992, he used the magazine as a platform to come out as gay. The announcement, which came as misinformation about the AIDS epidemic spawned new levels of homophobia, was hailed as an important moment.

Shafer would go on to use his fame to bring more gay voices to the entertainment industry. He wrote, directed, and starred in the 1995 mockumentary Man of the Year, which took a comical look at his process of coming out.

As New York Times film reviewer Stephen Holden wrote, the film did a great job of conveying the difficulties of being gay in the entertainment industry.

“On a deeper level, Man of the Year treats Mr. Shafer’s modeling experience as a metaphor for the way society pressures gay people to act straight. After watching Mr. Shafer wriggle uncomfortably inside the role he has agreed to play, it comes as a relief when he finally abandons it.”

Shafer later continued the work with the 2001 movie Circuit, which explored the gay party circuit.

Though Dirk Shafer was not the first gay actor or director in Hollywood, his movies were seen as an important contribution that paved the way for other movies exploring the gay community.

Now, years later, many still remember Dirk Shafer as a trailblazer for gays in the entertainment industry.

“I just hugged you a few days ago and you looked so happy and well,” remembered Wilson Cruz, an openly gay actor who appeared in My So Called Life. “I’ll miss your face, your energy, and your positive spirit. Thank you for all of your encouragement and the laughs, sweet man. I’ll never forget it or you.”

A memorial service will be Dirk Shafer to be held in West Hollywood, though a date has not yet been announced.

[Image via Twitter]