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“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

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