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This Is What 25 Years Of Lesbian Culture In Print Looks Like

Happy anniversary, Curve Magazine.

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Curve Magazine knew that lesbians were cool well before their current renaissance in mainstream media — that is, before Orange is the New Black, and even before The L Word. Founded by then 22 year-old Frances “Franco” Stevens in 1990, Curve was formerly called Deneuve, before cinema icon Catherine Deneuve legally forbade the mag from using that name after filing a lawsuit for “trademark infringement” in 1995. Curve is America’s only newsstand magazine by and for lesbians, and it celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Stevens told BuzzFeed that she “started Curve to connect lesbians, unite our community and dispel stereotypes.” At that time, achieving lesbian visibility in the mainstream was secondary to the primary concern of putting the lesbian community — and particularly lesbian culture — first. “Striving to unite our community was at the forefront of our mission,” Stevens said, in noting that fostering pride was writ large on the agenda. “We highlighted the similarities and the diversity within our community. We portrayed a wide range of women donning all types of clothes, hair and personal styles; artists, healers and women working in all kinds of professions.”

Reflecting on her twenty year ownership of Curve, Stevens strongly believes the magazine’s presence in lesbian culture, and the visibility it helped promote in print media, have helped ameliorate both internalized and external homophobia. “I remember when women were clearly excluded from our community for wearing makeup, growing their hair long or having children. These things seem so obvious today but were radical within our culture 25 years ago,” Stevens said.

Curve’s editor-in-chief at the time, queer writer and activist Diane Anderson-Minshall, echoed Stevens’ sentiments about the cultural impact Curve had not just on the community but in the mainstream as well. “It wouldn’t be too much [of a] hyperbole to say that in the 1990s and 2000s there wasn't a lesbian celebrity, media figure, TV series, politician, or athlete who wasn’t in some way boosted by Curve, if not actually made by Curve,” Anderson-Minshall, who took up the editor position after reading the first issue of Curve (then Deneuve) in 1990, said. “Would The L Word have been as popular without us putting its stars on our cover a dozen times over the years? Hell no,” she contended. “Lesbians would not have jumped on a premium cable channel to watch (mostly femme) actresses without us validating it constantly. Showtime told us as much, thank you. And we didn’t do it for the ads.” Speaking to Stevens’ point about connecting lesbians across America and around the world, she said, “We did it to get the word out and to do the same thing our readers wanted to do with The L Word: analyze it to death, learn more about the women behind it, bitch and moan about the things we didn’t like, and celebrate everything else about it.”

Curve didn’t try to create a culture of respect for lesbians; we demanded it,” Anderson-Minshall noted. “And look around now, this world is so different and untethered from 1990. It may still be a world with a lot of issues for queer women (from bi erasure to butch phobia) but it’s one in which more people believe we should have rights, including marriage and parenting, than those that don’t. Curve is a big part of that.”

Curve, in fact, has been a perennial leader when it comes to culture, discussing a range of issues, from discrimination in the workplace to the gender of children’s toys, well before these issues became popular in the mainstream — lest people think the magazine is solely comprised of pages upon pages of scissoring techniques and labris art. (NB: There has never been an article dedicated to scissoring.) Before the marriage equality movement picked up steam, there’s an article about negotiating partner benefits in the workplace, in the December 1993 issue. Before You’ve Got Mail and GamerGate, Curve was writing about cybersex — in 1995. Before a new study, just out last month, reported on the “epidemic” of pregnancies within the queer community, Curve wrote about it over a decade ago, in 2003. And, before contemporary fashion became saturated with “dapper” this and “tomboy” that, Curve had a feature on gender queer fashion in Brooklyn, titled “Tomboys Rule Brooklyn” in the September 1996 issue.

The same is true of the celebrities they have touted — Hollywood A-listers, straight, gay, or other, like Glenn Close, Ally Sheedy, Gillian Anderson, Jane Lynch and Lily Tomlin, have not shied away from appearing on the magazine’s cover. Before OITNB made her an international sex symbol, Ruby Rose graced the cover in April 2011. Before Lost Girl and The Fosters became television hits, their stars were on the cover of Curve. And, notoriously, Michelle Rodriguez played the covergirl in May 2007, and then threatened to sue the magazine for “outing” her.

At the same time, Target Cue managing partner and LGBT public relations expert Cathy Renna explained, Curve elevated and honored integral members of its community. “[On] the covers were activists, early groundbreakers like Linda Villarosa and Tegan and Sara,” she said in an interview with BuzzFeed. She recalled “charging to [the now defunct] Lambda Rising LGBT bookstore in Washington DC as a new activist whenever the latest issue came out” because the magazine was a portal into her community. “From the beginning, the magazine was not only a reflection of the issues (and gossip about who may be a dyke!) but the true diversity of the lesbian and bisexual — and increasingly — transgender communities of women who had few other places to see themselves.”

In 2010, Silke Bader, owner of Avalon Media, and publisher of Australia’s lesbian magazine, LOTL (aka “Lesbians on the Loose”), purchased Curve from Frances Stevens, who sold the magazine because of personal health reasons, but primarily because the global financial crisis rendered Curve struggling to keep alive. In her editor’s letter of the 2010 September issue, shortly before selling to Bader, Stevens suggested that the magazine would fold without financial support: “I admit the horrible truth: without your help, in the form of a subscription or even an outright gift or donation” it was doubtable the magazine would make it through the year.

Bader asked Merryn Johns, editor-in-chief of LOTL, to take over the reins of Curve, and did some necessary but difficult downsizing to enable the publication to survive the recession: budget and staff cuts, plus the closing of the San Francisco office. The challenge Curve faced was not just surviving the recession, but maintaining its relevance in a world where ‘lesbian’ was becoming more and more mainstream, and magazine subscriptions were rapidly declining as content became free.

“It has been my personal mission,” Johns said in an interview with BuzzFeed, “to turn Curve into a valued space where lesbians can shut out the noise of other media and be inspired to create their best lives according to their own identities and aspirations. I wanted to address two things simultaneously: the need for community power to achieve LGBT equality through a shared vision (for example, marriage equality), but also the fracturing of our community through queer politics, and in some cases erasure of lesbian identity. Add to this cultural change the proliferation of digital and social media where you can select your identity, gender, and preferences for information and visibility — we had a tough task ahead of us. In addition to overhauling the website, establishing a social media presence, and launching a digital edition, we had to ask, 'What would now be the role of the print magazine?'”

In Johns’s view, print still leads. It is not only the most expensive incarnation of the publication, but its space is finite and therefore more exclusive.

Creating content to mirror and represent the diversity in the queer women’s community meant including features on bisexual women, trans women (who didn’t identify as straight), and cisgender queer women. It also meant creating a real culture of visibility for women of all shapes, sizes, colors and ethnicities. Former managing editor Rachel Shatto, who was with Curve from 2007 through 2013, said that her proudest moment at Curve was the creation of the annual Body Issue, where, she told BuzzFeed, “we challenged beauty standards by featuring queer women of a huge variety of shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and gender expressions. I’ve never been more moved by the response we received from any other issue,” she said. “A good friend told me about an acquaintance who picked up a copy of our 2013 issue and began crying in the store as she looked through the pages. She had never seen her body represented in a magazine before, and here it was, in her favorite publication, being celebrated.”

Johns agrees that visibility is key, adding that Curve’s editorial calendar is very attentive to representing diversity: its first issue of 2014 featured genderqueer porn star Jiz Lee on the cover while the equivalent for 2015 featured octogenarian Edie Windsor.

Each cover, she feels, projects a stereotype-shattering platform of visibility for lesbians and queer women into mainstream. And while the acceleration of the news cycle no longer means that magazines can function as journals of record, they still reflect milestones. “When I began in LGBT media twenty years ago, its role was to provide a community space from which to protest about the rights we didn’t have, and sometimes to perpetuate our place at the margins of society. I wanted to use media to push us onto the mainstage of culture and to change this narrative of exclusion.”

In May 2010, country singing star Chely Wright came out on the cover of Curve. “Today, she’d be less likely to do that. Coming out narratives mostly happen in social and viral media now. Magazines can tell other stories. Lesbians coming out, getting married, having babies, transitioning to another gender — in the past, all of these were scandalous. Now it’s just life. Lesbians are not a novelty or a niche any more; they are in the game — and mostly changing it,” Johns said.

Read more stories from Lesbian History Week

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