Creating Representation

By Giving List Women   |   May 20, 2024
(Photo by Barak Shrama Photography)

In 1990, Franco Stevens founded Curve magazine, the best-selling lesbian magazine in the U.S. for the last three decades. The publication was the first of its kind and played a crucial role in creating visibility for lesbian and queer women at a time when representation was notably lacking. The publication was a platform for queer women’s voices, stories, and experiences to be shared and celebrated, as well as a space to create community.

The magazine is now a publication of The Curve Foundation, co-founded by Stevens, which will secure its continued publication and house an archive of its stories and impact. The Foundation also empowers lesbian and queer women by providing financial support, resources, and opportunities. The publication’s history has been captured in the 2020 documentary film Ahead of the Curve.

Stevens built Curve on the idea that storytelling not only is transformational but can also save people’s lives – especially when the rights of women and members of the LGBTQ+ community continue to be under attack. To ensure that the stories of lesbian and queer women continue to be told and shared, The Curve Foundation and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists present the Curve Award for Emerging Journalists.

Stevens has served on the board of directors for GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ media advocacy group, and was a founding board member of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. She has also been inducted into the NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists Hall of Fame.

Giving List Women: What inspired you to launch a magazine for women in the LGBTQ+ community?

Franco Stevens: Well, they say that necessity is the mother of invention. So, I’m an early-20-something baby lesbian coming out in San Francisco. I had been married to a man at the time when I realized that I was gay. And I was an unhoused person when I got divorced, and I really wanted to work at the gay bookstore. I thought once I work at San Francisco’s gay bookstore, I’m going to find community everywhere. But even in a place like San Francisco, even working at what’s possibly the gayest bookstore in the country, I felt like I wasn’t finding my community. I didn’t see representation of myself.

I remember women would come into the bookstore and ask for a lesbian magazine because there were only men’s magazines. And eventually one day I went, “You know what? I need to start this magazine.” I was 22 years old at the time. I had no idea what it would take to create a magazine, but I knew that I wanted it to be color and glossy and professional and something that you could leave on your coffee table and your mom would walk by and you wouldn’t be embarrassed by it. I wanted it to showcase the beauty of our community and the women making a difference.

And those women might be the first out politician, but they might be people doing regular jobs that are making a difference in their world. So, I put up a sign in the entrance to the bookstore that just said, “Writers and photographers wanted for a new lesbian magazine,” and I got 300 calls in a month, so I knew I was onto something.

Some of those women stayed involved with the magazine for 30 years. So, I can’t say that I started Curve magazine by myself, but I had this vision that we needed to take pride in ourselves because nobody else would do it. Nobody seemed to care about lesbian or queer women.

I wanted to put “lesbian” on the front cover of the magazine because I felt like there was no greater visibility than seeing that in print and seeing it on the cover. And people told me, “That’s a crazy idea.  You won’t get funding; you won’t get bookstores to carry it.” And I found that no banks would give me money, and neither would any well-to-do lesbians that I reached out to.

GLW: So what did you do?

FS: I did the only thing that I knew how to do, which was get a bunch of credit cards, cash out, and go to the horse races. And “luck” was on my side, or God must be a lesbian or something, because everything that happened that day at the track was like I had insider information. At the end of the day, I had enough money to print three issues of the magazine, and the first edition sold out nationwide in two weeks. Of course, getting it into bookstores and getting it into people’s hands is totally another story, because like I said, there were so many challenges.

GLW:Do you still feel that’s true today – that nobody cares about lesbians or queer women?

FS: Sometimes I wonder. I mean, so little funding is devoted to gay people, and then there’s no accurate demographics on how much money is given to lesbian causes because nobody keeps track of that kind of stuff.

GLW: Can you talk about where LGBTQ+ and general gender equity intersect?

FS: First and foremost, I represent the women in my community. These are women. I don’t want to get off on a tangent, but I see trans women as women. I see all non-binary people as having a place in the women’s community. And a lot of people have trouble with that. And I know it’s a huge debate, and I think women should fund – if they just come into a bunch of money – they should look at: where is society going? How are people presenting? How are women presenting themselves? How are they? Gender is a very important subject in general in these times. I think gender is one of the most important conversations we can have. And the queer women’s community is overlooked, underserved. There is a higher rate of suicide there because they don’t see a lot of positive role models. And The Curve Foundation is really trying to change that to create community, to meet people where they are, to uplift each other by telling our stories. No one should have to face the kind of – I don’t want to say judgment – but I helped.

GLW: Could you point to some change or impact that has resulted from your work through Curve magazine or The Curve Foundation?

FS: I can’t tell you how many women have come up to me and said, “You have literally saved my life. The magazine was there for me when I felt at my lowest, and I didn’t know if I could go on through breast cancer or through feeling completely isolated in the world that I live in.” I felt this sense of connection, and that’s the mission that we took from Curve magazine and continue through The Curve Foundation. It is my life’s goal to give visibility to a community that is so underfunded and so forgotten and yet so diverse.

And to me, I am a huge believer in the power of storytelling. And I think as humans, what we most crave is to be seen. And when someone can pick up that magazine or watch your film or see your work and feel, “Oh, wow, they see me – like I exist.” And I think that’s really powerful.