Bisexual visibility in DIVA: 1994-2017
Charlotte Dingle takes a look a bisexual visibility in DIVA over the decades – the good, the bad and the ugly
“I really don’t understand why you expect/seek acceptance from us when you’re not a lesbian,” says a reader’s letter in a mid-90s issue of DIVA. “We have fought long and hard to gain acceptance, both from within ourselves and from other gay women, and we don’t give that up to outsiders easily.” Another letter insists: “I read DIVA because I’m an out and proud lesbian/dyke, not a fashionable wannabe. [Just as] I used to go to Pride every year for gay Pride, not to support any other cause.” Yet another correspondent snaps: “You can’t become a lesbian when it is convenient. Lesbians are born. It’s an identity that goes beyond sex. It is a state of mind, not some sort of perversion to tell your male sexual partner to get him off.”
No prizes for guessing which group of people they’re talking about. We’ll draw a veil over the bisexual correspondent who later sent a letter which (I assume) was written in response, asking “Why are all lesbians ugly?” Hmm, that’s not quite the way to deal with it...
Anyway, I spent a fascinating day at DIVA’s offices going through its archives to see just how much had changed in the magazine’s representation of – and society’s attitudes to – the bi community over the last 23 years. I had forgotten how DIFFERENT Ani DiFranco looked with that hair! And OMG, kd Lang and Cindy Crawford and that barber’s chair!
But I digress. In the 90s when DIVA began, its “bisexual”-oriented articles overwhelmingly had headlines such as “I’m not a lesbian but... Straight women who dilly dally”, “Confessions of an ex-heterosexual” and “All in the family: What do you call a lesbian who sleeps with men? Straight? Bisexual? Hasbian?” etc, etc. The dialogue of these pieces was of course very clearly either/or – you’re straight or you’re a lesbian. If any emotion or behaviour which fell between those labels occurred, genuine bisexuality just wasn’t really an identity option. It was a piece of frivolity designed to shock, titillate, experiment or manipulate.
On to the noughties and things were on the up. I mean, DIVA’s “Top 100 Lesbians” list seemed a bit unfair on bisexuals. And don’t even get me started on the writer who described The Hunger as a “lesbian horror film”. However, slowly but surely, more and more talented bisexual writers and engaging bisexual content emerged from the woodwork, in spite of a continued (albeit smaller) stream of vitriol from angry readers. There were many high points for me from here on in. Hell, Debbie Harry even came out as bi in a DIVA exclusive. One issue, a bi poly writer explained that poly and bi aren’t mutually exclusive... and on the next page was a piece about Iris Murdoch’s bisexuality. “Bisexuality in The L Word” was given a sensible, thorough analysis. DIVA had some shrewd bi celebs gracing its platform, with Björk telling us that “choosing between men and women is like choosing between cake and ice cream” and Susan Sontag exclaiming that the fact she’d had “girlfriends as well as boyfriends is something [she] never thought [she’d] have to say”. There was a wicked piece on “genderblind speed dating”. Bliss and more bliss.
There were still too many other let-downs, however, with headlines that automatically put my head in my hands and made it want to stay there. “What’s up with the identity formerly known as lesbian?” “Anne Heche was a thorn in Ellen’s side.” “The straight girls who do girls (and why they don’t do lesbians).” And most of the time, “lesbian” was still the accepted “blanket” term for all readers. Including all over the cover. However... The term “lesbian and bisexual” made its way further into DIVA after the noughties, as did the term LGBT. The issue of representation of bi women on television was addressed. Readers were told where to find the best bi meet-ups and resources. One writer shared “Why I am an out bi role model at work”. Bi women in the closet were given advice for coming out (and told not to worry if it was safer to stay in to family and friends, but urged to seek confidential support). More and more bisexual ads crept into the personals column. DIVA was genuinely becoming the safe space for bisexuals I’d always hoped it would be and it couldn’t have happened sooner. I bought my first DIVA aged 14 in 1998 and it stood with me through thick and thin: bullying and heartache, self-doubt and self-pity. Now I could trust it even further.
In 2015, DIVA boasted six cover stories about bisexuality and in 2016 five. These all had inspiring and/or fighting titles: “Being bi in long-term relationship”; “How to be a good bi ally”; “Bi women on TV: why it’s death by erasure for bisexual characters”; “We don’t exist to sell sexy: bi commodification in a straight world”... The repeated word “LESBIAN” is now less evident on the cover every issue. Gone is the glut of ex-straight dialogue, hopefully forever. Unfortunately, the language in the magazine still slips into “lesbian” for shorthand sometimes, but that’s improving. And things are only set to get better, by the looks of it.
It’s natural to make comparisons here between the lesbian-bi debate and the tensions between some second-wave lesbian feminists and the trans community. Yet again, a misplaced “purism” about gender has created harsh divisions between communities which should be supporting one another. “You’re not a real lesbian?” “You’re not a real woman?” No wonder the bisexual and trans communities have always been natural allies, in the face of such similar lines in idiocy. No wonder DIVA tries its hardest to champion trans and non-binary rights as well as bi rights. Let’s not forget that the wonderful Del LaGrace Volcano graced its pages long before most people even knew what non-binary was. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finish reading the fantastic feature on trans feminism on page 42 of DIVA’s March issue...
This article first appeared in April 2017 issue of DIVA magazine.
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