HOW DIVA HELPED HEATHER PEACE ACCEPT HERSELF
“DIVA told me it was normal to be gay”
I’ve been thinking back to what it was like as a 19- yearold Catholic girl getting together with a woman in 1994, the same year DIVA hit newsstands. I’ve been thinking about the things that were really important to me at that time. The things that helped me feel like I was not so different to everyone else. That was important to me then. I didn’t like to stand out from the crowd... unless I was on stage.
My upbringing had conditioned me, I think, to feel funny about sex. It wasn’t my parents’ fault. It was Catholicism. I went to an all- girls Catholic school where a message was read out by our headmistress, from the bishop of our diocese, which forbade any students to raise money for Comic Relief because the charity provided condoms to Third World countries. When Aids was at its height. Yep. No sex without the possibility of procreation. Even if that sex could ultimately kill you. So you can see where my headspace was.
When you’re brought up to view sex as something dirty unless it’s within a marriage, and you are meant to be a virgin before you get married, it can be hard to shake that off and feel liberated by your sexuality. But when I got together with my first girlfriend at drama school I did feel liberated. High as a kite. Excited and completely intoxicated both by her and how being with her made me feel. I suddenly understood what I had read about love and how I’d seen it portrayed on screen. I became tongue- tied and said stupid things. I burnt up, and had hot flushes that would culminate in a beetroot red face whenever she was around. The slightest brush of her hand on mine would make butterflies in my stomach so intense I’d feel like I might be sick. Nope, I had never experienced feeling like this. And certainly never with a boy.
I spent 18 months with my first girlfriend before she broke my heart and left me for someone else. It was a heartbreak that I honestly didn’t ever think would go away. In between the panic attacks it caused and the sabotage of my final year at drama school, I now had to face the question, “Am I a lesbian?” Once
a model student, I now turned up late, hungover and lacking sleep. I was shocking in rehearsals for our final performance. It sounds strange but I’d led myself to believe that I was just infatuated with her. Just her. Nothing to do with her gender. I, now single and heartbroken, had to work out what I was going to do. I knew I couldn’t go back to having boyfriends. Although, I did try – briefly. It was never going to be the same after her. It just wasn’t.
The thing was, I didn’t really know any other lesbians. I had gay men in my life. I lived with one and also hung out with a gay guy in my year at drama school. But no lesbians. It wasn’t like I could just pop into a bar in Manchester and make friends. I didn’t use the internet. Nobody did. There were no smartphones with apps, or websites giving you information when you typed in a few search words. At this point in my life it would be another year till I even got a pager. Not a phone. A pager. I’m laughing as I type this... it’s just another world, isn’t it? So how could I read about women like me? Or see pictures of women like me?
That’s where this magazine, DIVA, played such a huge part in making me and other newly- out lesbians feel like they weren’t completely alone. Well... DIVA magazine and the kd Lang concert I went to in 1996, where half the audience were lesbian and I just pondered (awe- struck) at where they’d all come from and where they hid the rest of the time. But it was the magazine, primarily.
I found out about London Pride (as it was known back then) from DIVA magazine. Where and when to meet in order to start the march that would have me blowing my whistle furiously, with closely- cropped hair and clothes not dissimilar to those worn by All Saints back in the day. That year, we marched past the Houses of Parliament in protest over Section 28. DIVA magazine taught me about the politics I should have a view on. I was pretty clueless before. I didn’t even know what Section 28 was. Why would I? It hadn’t affected me, or so I believed. It showed me there were other, more informed women than me out there fighting to make changes that were ultimately going to affect me. My life. It had listings at the back: club nights, places I could go out and feel like I was part of a majority for a few hours. Quite often I made a few straight college friends come to the weekly girls’ club night in Manchester called Follies.
But aside from the politics, DIVA magazine gave me a sense of normality. Fashion, music, hobbies and – although they were few and far between at the time – role models. I even read the horoscopes. They were nice. They used the correct gender. June might be the month I meet my dream woman.
I found buying the magazine very embarrassing. It was always on the top shelf next to the soft porn. And you always got a look from the shop assistant when you went to pay. But it was worth it. I’d read every word of that issue cover- to- cover. I’d keep them in a pile in my room in month order so I could browse them again whenever I wanted.
My only annoyance with DIVA was the adverts for dildos. They were near the back and the reason I’d be embarrassed if, after I’d come out to my parents, my mum was to browse through an issue. And she did. She’d read it over a cup of tea when she came to visit me. But then that just harks back to how I had probably always felt about sex and the Catholic thing, especially as mum was Catholic. I’d feel the same when she came to the Candy Bar in Brighton with me. I loved that they opened in the day, for coffee. All civilised, like. I liked to try and show that where I hung out was the same as everywhere else. Just a bar. Nice and airy and light. I did snatch the drinks menu out of her hand, though, when I saw the shot list. It mainly consisted of things like slippery nipples, orgasms and some others that were completely made up for them to be able to write sex words on a menu. It’s so strange to think of myself as that prudish. But all that aside, I do think there’s something about us having this magazine as “ours” and yet feeling pleased when our nearest and dearest take an interest and have a read. They’re reading about what matters to us. They’re reading about what affects our lives.
Congratulations, DIVA magazine, on your 250th issue. Thank you, DIVA team, for keeping it alive and still printing issues although it’s an expensive business. It means other newlyout lesbians and bi women can keep their copies to browse. Even though they have the internet, it’s nice to have a hard copy lying around. Maybe their mum might just pick it up and have a read. Oh, and thanks for the columnist job! At 19, I could never have imagined it.
I was single and heartbroken but I knew I couldn’t go back to having boyfriends