As DIVA celebrates its 25th birthday, Georgina Turner reflects on how much – and how little – has changed since the magazine was first published in 1994

Words Georgina Turner

For the queer community in Britain, the 1990s was a decade inflected by Section 28 – pearl-clutching horror at the notion that school children might think being gay was okay, a Tory councillor (William Brownhill) speaking openly about killing “filthy queers”. 

Strange to talk about it as a different time now that we’ve got schools cancelling LGBTQI inclusive education thanks to protests from religious parents, and a Tory MP (Andrea Leadsom) describing inclusive teaching as exposure, but much has changed. A tame kiss between two female soap characters isn’t FRONT PAGE NEWS! anymore, for a start. 

Though it feels like there is a concerted effort by some in Westminster to drag us back several decades or more, social attitudes have progressed. In the late 1980s, 64% of the British public thought that homosexuality was “always wrong”; in 2013, when attitudes to sexual identities were last reported by NatCen, that was down to 22%. It’s hard to imagine that downward trajectory won’t continue. 

When DIVA launched in 1994, I was only 13, and I had no idea that I was a lesbian. I did know, mind you, that my sister’s frequent attempts to convince me that I was (which she made a habit of saving for big family occasions) made my cheeks burn red with fear, confusion, shame, and anger. 

Over the past couple of years in my research, I’ve been speaking to people who read DIVA in the 1990s, and it wasn’t surprising to find that virtually everyone talked about the trepidation with which they picked up the magazine and carried it to the till.

Who might see you there, in WHSmith? What would the cashier say? Was your bag big enough to hide it in? Where would you put it when you got home? During the course of our conversation, one reader asked me to place face-down the old issues I had brought with me as aide-mémoires, so great was the sense of anxiety these 20-year-old cover images still provoked. 

DIVA was urgently wanted, though – a number of lesbian, and lesbian and gay, magazines launched in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but none of them had the kind of distribution network that DIVA was able to borrow from its brother publication, Gay Times. Every single one of the 8,000 copies printed of the first issue sold out.

There was at the time such a taste for women-loving women in the mainstream media that you could have been forgiven for thinking lesbians were indeed everywhere, but so-called “lesbian chic” had all the authenticity of a JK Rowling tweet about Dolores Umbridge’s secret life of lesbian bottoming. 

The buzz about lesbians made it easier for DIVA to get attention in the mainstream press, but the point was that it was by, for, and about queer women. Readers would write to the founding editor, Frances Williams, and describe their joy at finding out that there genuinely were other women like them.

Women I’ve spoken to remembered turning first to the personal ads just to see if there were other queer women nearby – some of them still blanched at the idea of actually responding to an ad, but they felt reassured, at the time, to think of other women out there, not far away, also handing over £2 for their monthly fix of lez/bi culture. 

Again, how times have changed! Dial-a-Diva met its demise a few years ago, after a period when the internet, and then social media, shook everything up: suddenly we all could escape the confines of the village or town in which we might still feel like the only gay, and connect with others around the world. 

These days the idea of buying a magazine for LBT women may not be so scary as it was for some of us in the 1990s. Maybe it seems strange to people who’ve grown up in a digital world, or who have experienced minimal anxiety about their sexual identity.

Even as I imagined being asked to leave home if my parents found out I was a lesbian (for some reason always imagining I would pack my belongings into a bindle, wandering along the side of the road like a sad cartoon character), I would flick through DIVA and wonder who it was for – a woman far more cultured than I was at 18, I thought. Half the women in it were dead! 

But I look back now and realise that DIVA was as much a part of my growing confidence as the queer club nights and the snogs and the alcopops. Half the women in it were dead – Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Lister – but reading DIVA made me realise that lesbians and bisexual women had actually existed in every time and place – they had always been here, and they had survived, and I would too.

Our 25th birthday issue, shot by Linda Blacker

Read more from Georgina in the special 25th birthday issue of DIVA, on sale now at the links below. It’s pretty badass, if we do say so ourselves.

Georgina Turner is a lecturer in media at the University of Liverpool. Her book, Lesbian Magazine Discourse: Constructing A Subculture, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020. If you would be interested in speaking to her about reading DIVA in the 1990s and 2000s, you can find her on Twitter @intweed. // //

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