‘The sex-toy stuff would not fly today’ – the mag that gripped ‘lesbian mecca’ San Francisco

Show caption ‘For the first time in my life, I was sexually free’ …Stevens and staff had a polishing pop-up business at the Dykes on Bikes festival. Photograph: Frankly Speaking Films / Together Films Film ‘The sex-toy stuff would not fly today’ – the mag that gripped ‘lesbian mecca’ San Francisco Three decades ago, Franco Stevens turned a win at the horses into a glossy lesbian mag. As Curve’s astonishing story hits cinemas, she relives a heady time of sex clubs, ‘leather days’ and topless staff Rebecca Nicholson Wed 26 May 2021 06.00 BST Share on Facebook

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In 1991, Franco Stevens was 23, broke and working in an LGBT bookshop in San Francisco. She thought the world needed a glossy lesbian magazine, but she didn’t have the money to launch one. So she took out 12 credit cards, borrowed the maximum on each, then gambled it all on a horse race. The horse came in. She took the money and put it on another horse, which also won, and then another, which did the same. With her winnings, she set up Deneuve.

“I almost felt like, ‘Well, if this is meant to be, it will happen’,” she says, from her home in the city’s Bay area. She lives with her wife, their two sons of college age, and a younger boy whom they call “a son of the heart”, who splits his time between their house and “his biological home”. Stevens is in her 50s, bright and sharp, and seems like the kind of person who quietly gets a lot of things done. “I mean, I wasn’t going into it completely blind. I grew up with horse racing, so I know this business from a different angle.” Plus she had the recklessness of youth. “I just felt like, I’ve lived in my car, I’ve had nothing to eat – if it’s meant to be, it will be. And my bankruptcy would be off my record by the time I was 30. So it seemed like everything lined up.”

The first issue of Deneuve appeared in April/May 1991. Early editions featured scene reports, lesbian fashion shoots, fiction, reviews, personal ads and “news, rumors and tidbits from the lesbian nation”. It became Curve in 1996 after the French film star Catherine Deneuve sued them for trademark infringement, though Stevens always denied it had been named after her. The magazine almost buckled under the cost, and, with the stress of it all, Stevens’ hair began to fall out. Eventually, she changed the name. “When I got that summons for the lawsuit, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a joke, right? What?’ Catherine Deneuve is suing us? It’s crazy.” How does she feel towards her now? Stevens is tactful. “I’m not a great fan.”

Curve has weathered plenty of storms, and now exists as a philanthropic foundation and online archive, with Stevens undecided about whether it can return in print. It has been a remarkable 30 years, which are now the subject of Ahead of the Curve, a documentary co-directed by Rivkah Beth Medow and Jen Rainin, who is Stevens’ wife. While it is the story of Stevens and her magazine, it is also a portrait of how life has changed for LGBTQ+ people since the early 90s. “Just as I felt it important to create the magazine to serve the community, Jen and Rivka thought it was important to make the film to serve the community.”

When staff came back from festivals where you didn’t have to wear clothes, I’d say: ‘Can you just keep a bra on?’

The project evolved even as it was being shot. On camera, Stevens learns that Curve, under the ownership of a different publisher, is struggling and may be forced to close. It was supposed to be the final scene of the film, but it ended up being the first: it set Stevens off on a journey to find out what a queer audience wants and needs from an inclusive publication in the modern age. It is a wonder the story hasn’t been told until now. Does she think there is a lack of documented history when it comes to queer women? “Oh, 100%,” she says. Why does she think that is? “First of all, we’re women. Second of all, we’re queer. People are not telling our stories.”

‘We have arrived’ … rock star Melissa Etheridge starred on the cover in 1993

They are missing out, if some of these stories are anything to go by. Stevens’ win on the horses funded the early days of the magazine, but it wasn’t enough to sustain it for long. There was a trip to a loan shark to pay staff wages, and the time Stevens realised that there was money to be made in a pop-up business polishing the motorbikes that arrived daily in the Castro, the city’s gay district.

“Some of the office shenanigans didn’t make it into the movie,” she says, tantalisingly. Like what? “OK, so shenanigans, for real? I was on the road a lot. Once I came back from the Book Fair in Chicago, walked into my office, and there was a stack of Polaroids on my desk. Apparently, there was a ‘leather day’ at the office when I was gone, and they were all posed on my desk, scantily clad in leather attire. When some of the staff came back from festivals where clothing was optional, I’d be like, ‘Can you just keep a bra on or something?” She smiles. “There was definitely some sex-toy stuff that would not fly today.”

Before Stevens arrived in San Francisco, she had been an army wife, married to a man in the military. When she realised she was gay and left him, her family refused to support her (though their relationship improved with time). She ended up living in her car. Younger queer people might be surprised at how different life sounds for gay women in San Francisco during the late 80s and early 90s. “It was the first time in my life I was sexually free. San Francisco was a lesbian mecca. There were sex clubs for women, where you could just go and either watch or partake, and men were not allowed in. When I was homeless, I would sometimes sleep at a friend’s house. And there were four different roommates there, and honestly, I shared a bed with them all, I think.”

However, there was a darker side to this sexual idyll. “San Francisco was very accepting but only in certain areas. And, even in those areas, it was very dangerous. They used to have this big Halloween party in the Castro. That was our time, the queers’ big night out.” One year, she was walking past the house with the four roommates to pick up her friends. “Somebody in a sheet with eyes cut out, like a ghost, walked by and hit the person in front of me over the head with a baseball bat, and shouted a gay slur. That was a reminder that, even though we have this little 10-block radius, we’re not safe.”

Out and about … Franco Stevens interviews women at the Michfest festival

In the early days, few advertisers would pay for ads and no celebrities would give an interview. After two years, in 1993, the out musician Melissa Etheridge appeared on the cover. “I owe her so much gratitude,” says Stevens. “To me, she was a humongous celebrity. And for her to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that. Come to my show.’ We were like, ‘We have arrived!’” These days, there are far more celebrities who will talk about their queerness publicly. “For young people to see queer celebrities be out, it’s so validating. When celebrities are out, not only does it affect queer people, but the mainstream acceptance goes up so much.”

But the fight is not over, she warns. “Here in the States, we have active government trying to repeal rights that we have. With Trump in office, he was pushing the country towards a very conservative angle, where, if you are not a heterosexual, white person, you are to be feared and hated. Even now, there are a lot of anti-trans bills being battled.” She mentions Arkansas, where legislation banning gender-affirming treatment for transgender people under the age of 18 was passed, as well as the struggle over including LGBTQ+ history in schools. “There is a battle over having those rights expanded versus states wanting to repeal them. Because God forbid we should teach our kids to be whoever they are.”

Stevens, centre, at a Dyke March in 2019

Stevens recently bought Curve back from the Australian publisher that owned it for a time, and established the Curve Foundation, “to continue with the mission of the magazine”. There are two initial projects. The first is to build an online archive of every issue. The second is a financial award to support emerging queer women journalists in the US. After 30 years, they are still helping people to tell their stories. But will we ever see the likes of Curve again? “Well,” Stevens smiles. “You might.”

• Ahead of the Curve is in UK cinemas and available digitally from 4 June. You can also Host a Screening.