The new issue of Health, or Self, I forget which, has a lesbian on the cover (trainer Jillian Michaels, looking as femmey as can be), a lesbian on the back cover (Ellen DeGeneres in her groundbreaking but now ubiquitous Cover Girl makeup ads) and mention of “partner” instead of boyfriend or husband at least once inside. I get Google Alerts, which tells me when and where the word lesbian appears online each day. I got 52 alerts this morning, and while a good number of them were about Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman's lesbian sex scene in Black Swan, many are on the same old things lesbians wanted to know 10, 20, 30 years ago—coming out, finding or losing a girlfriend, having kids or dealing with an intolerant parent. Since I'm on the road, going from town to town interviewing eco-warriers for my other blog, I have a lot of time on my hands. Yesterday, since we are stuck in Washington while our tow bar gets fixed, I spent four hours downloading my favorite songs from third grade. Think Olivia Newton John, ELO, Dr. Hook. A surprising number of my favorite songs from when I was 9 were about prostitution (think “Hot Child in the City”). Go figure.
But since downloading music can only get so far, and greening the planet is rather thinky work, I do spend time pondering my career, the world, the state of women's lives these days. Yes, I'm aware it's a midlife crisis, but since I'm not running a magazine I now have free time to think. And think I do.
In 1986, the year I graduated high school, I wanted to be Helen Gurley Brown, the infamous editor who turned Cosmopolitan into a women's bible of sexual liberation. (Brown, who ran Cosmo for 32 years, is an oft-overlooked and unsung feminist icon who told women they could have it all, love, sex and money, while other feminists like Betty Friedan argued we couldn't.) I thought I'd do a couple of years as a world-traveling AP reporter (maybe hang out in a war zone or break a couple of big stories—you know, the stuff the Pulitzer people like, the Deep Throat scoop I had always dreamed of) and then I'd move into magazine publishing, rising up the ranks quickly to work below Ms. Brown and eventually take her place at the helm of Cosmopolitan. I had been in love with Cosmo since I was 10 years old, the year I went straight from reading Tiger Beat and Teen Beat to Cosmopolitan (skipping Seventeen and teen mags altogether).
After two years of newspaper reporting (there were no Deep Throats or war zones, though I chased a few ambulances and knew all I could about local political machinations), I was ready for my glossy magazine moment. Then I came out and was told there were no lesbian or bisexual women in publishing and no magazines that cared about lesbians and by being out, I'd doom my career. Of course, there were lesbians—1987 was the year Ingrid Sischy took over Interview, but I didn't see the magazine until I moved to New York that next year. After I sent her flowers and begged for a job then, Helen Gurley Brown sent me an encouraging note that I still have framed (though she didn't hire me).
Somewhere between New York and New Orleans, sometime in 1989 or 1990, I realized I couldn't separate my sexual orientation from my work; even though I didn't know whether I was a lesbian-identified bisexual or a bisexual-identified lesbian or (my new favorite word at the time) queer, I knew it wasn't a phase, and I knew wanted to speak to women like me. I still wanted to read (and write) about how to have better orgasms and get ahead in my career (for Cosmo girls, the two occasionally overlapped) and sometimes serious issues like cancer or women who had been kidnapped by traffickers, but I wanted to have my life represented in all of it. How hard was it to include “boyfriend and girlfriend” or “he or she” in the “Are you a Kitten or a Cougar” survey? To mention women get battered by their wives, too? Just a few nods to my life was all I wanted.
So I helped lead the way in lesbian magazine publishing, often to the dismay of my family and friends who often told me I was “good enough” to write for real magazines. Last year, when I stopped being Curve's editor in chief, one of my dearest lesbian friends said to me, “You're a great writer and editor, now you can do mainstream stuff and get some real attention.” And I realized that even now, even in the mind of a 40-year old lesbian, maybe in the mind of the public, lesbian magazines are considered inferior. Sometimes even lesbians treat lesbian magazines like a back up prom date; use only if the “real” thing isn't available.
So I'm pondering this because Jillian is on the cover, Ellen on the back and still I don't see my life inside this magazine. Even now that I'm married to a man, albeit a man who used to be a lesbian woman, and can be (mis)identified by non-queer folks as “straight,” even now, my ideas, my needs, just don't show up in these magazines, even when there's a lesbian on both the covers. I feel like 17 years after I started Girlfriends magazine, calling it Playboy for lesbians but secretly wishing it were Cosmo for lesbians, 17 years later, queer female journalists, lesbian readers and lesbian magazines overall are still separate but equal, even when it comes to surveys about our orgasms.
You know, a few years after I started Girlfriends magazine, my partner sent Helen Gurly Brown a giant poster of Girlfriends' latest cover, which featured Skin, the bald, black British queer lead singer of the hard rocking band Skunk Anansie. Skin was sexy, young, edgy cool, in-your-face queer and everything I admired at that age. By then I had resigned myself to knowing as a lesbian I'd have a separate but (hopefully) equal path. I could be Skin (or at least write about her) instead of becoming a Cosmo girl. But I still admired Brown more than anything and when she sent the Girlfriends cover poster back to me, having signed it with a note that said “Very good job, Diane!” I actually wept. I still cherish that poster from 1995 and that note from 1987, and I wonder what Brown would do for lesbians if she were still running Cosmopolitan today.
Either way, Skin and I are both 42 years old now, much different girls than we were in the early '90s, and Helen Gurley Brown—the woman who so impacted my coming of age—didn't become Cosmopolitan's editor in chief until she was 43. I don't know what that means, but it gives me hope.