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Roxy Bour­dil­lon looks back at 23 years of lez/ bi progress

Ah, the 90s; the era of dou­ble denim, the Macarena and £1 mood rings that changed colour to re­flect how sweaty your soul was. It was the decade that “les­bian chic” of­fi­cially be­came a thing and when the first is­sue of DIVA came out in April 1994 (pun to­tally in­tended), there was some­thing sap­phic in the air.

Madonna had just re­leased her dis­creetly-ti­tled cof­fee ta­ble book, Sex, a raunch­fest of soft­core sado­masochism and same-sex sen­su­al­ity. (It’s a real page-turner, but you might want to slip it down the back of the sofa if your nan pops round for a cuppa and a Hob­nob.) Singer KD Lang and su­per­model Cindy Craw­ford had posed as a butch­femme cou­ple with a shav­ing fetish on the cover of Van­ity Fair and, here in Blighty, 1994 marked not only the birth of DIVA, but also the first pre-wa­ter­shed les­bian kiss on TV, when Brook­side’s Beth and Mar­garet locked lips.

But be­ing vis­i­ble isn’t the same as hav­ing power. The very phrase “les­bian chic” sug­gests a dis­pos­able fash­ion fad; “Hey con­sumer, why not ac­ces­sorise your out­fit with a

Gucci back­pack and a tro­phy dyke?” It’s util­ity chic with added hand­hold­ing and just as much com­fort­able footwear. And al­though Anna Friel play­ing soa­p­land’s first les­bian was a land­mark mo­ment, she was killed off within a year of com­ing out, prov­ing that TV’S Bury Your Gays epi­demic is noth­ing new.

While mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles hailed the rise of sap­phic chic, we still didn’t have equal rights. In­stead of same-sex mar­riage and adop­tion rights, we had dis­crim­i­na­tion and hate crime. We were good enough to tit­il­late the public, but not wor­thy of the same ba­sic lib­er­ties most peo­ple take for granted. In truth, ho­mo­pho­bia was more preva­lent than women wear­ing plaid over­alls be­cause Vogue told them lez­za­luxe was all the rage.

Fast-for­ward to the 00s and faux les­bian­ism was rife. Rus­sian girl band TATU’S sole PR strat­egy was to dress like school­girls and lez it up for the cam­era, de­spite the fact that one of the singers was straight. This staged les­bian eroti­cism was the mu­sic in­dus­try equiv­a­lent of two women neck­ing on to get slack-jawed blokes to pay for their drinks. Brit­ney, Madonna and Christina pulled a sim­i­lar trick with their three-way snog at the 2003 VMAS, and in 2008 Katy Perry’s sugar- coated sug­ges­tive­ness made her an overnight sen­sa­tion when she sang about kiss­ing a girl and – oh, how edgy – lik­ing it.

More re­cently, in the video for Can’t Re­mem­ber To For­get You, Shakira and Ri­hanna writhed about in bed and stroked each other’s thighs provoca­tively, but once again it was pure straight male fan­tasy. They even took turns singing the line, “I’d do any­thing for that boy,” in case we were in any

doubt about who this dis­play was re­ally for. Now, I have no prob­lem with em­pow­ered straight women fondling each other – hell, that’s how some of the best les­bians I know started out – but when it’s all so patently aimed at turn­ing men on, I can’t help but feel dis­ap­pointed.

On the plus side, at least we’re see­ing our sex­u­al­i­ties rep­re­sented more fre­quently. Last year, Juno Daw­son be­came Glam­our’s first trans­gen­der colum­nist and in 2014, Cos­mopoli­tan pub­lished an on­line sap­phic sex guide, “28 Mind- Blow­ing Les­bian Sex Po­si­tions”. It was well-in­ten­tioned but who were they kid­ding? You’d have to be Stretch Arm­strong to pull off “The Erotic May­pole”. Why so much hair-pulling? And what self-re­spect­ing cou­ple wears match­ing flo­ral gar­lands to make love? Ac­tu­ally, that last one does sound kind of fun…

The in­crease in queer rep­re­sen­ta­tion is ex­cit­ing, but it doesn’t sig­nify to­tal ac­cep­tance. The same me­dia that de­clared us the height of fash­ion in the 90s went ra­bid for an out­ing, and not the fun kind to IKEA. It was the tabloid equiv­a­lent of drag­ging some­one into the town square and shov­ing them in the stocks to sling hor­ri­ble, ho­mo­pho­bic mud at them.

In 1994, to avoid be­ing outed, co­me­dian Sandi Toksvig went public about her sex­u­al­ity in an in­ter­view with the Sun­day Times. Far from be­ing praised for her “les­bian chic”, she re­ceived mul­ti­ple death threats and had to go into hid­ing for two weeks. She later re­vealed on Desert Is­land Discs, “I was ter­ri­fied that I had done a ter­ri­ble thing to my chil­dren. It was truly, gen­uinely fright­en­ing.” In 2003, broad­caster Clare Bald­ing’s sex­u­al­ity was ex­posed by the Mail On Sun­day. Nearly 10 years af­ter the Sandi scan­dal and the tabloids were still sali­vat­ing.

Now let’s look at one of the most fa­mous com­ing- out sto­ries, that of co­me­dian, ac­tress and our right­ful leader, Ellen De­generes. Af­ter years of bat­ting away ques­tions about her per­sonal life with the ex­per­tise of a pro ten­nis player, in 1997 she came out in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with Time mag­a­zine. Peo­ple lost their prover­bial. When the char­ac­ter she played on her self-ti­tled sit­com came out shortly af­ter, the show was axed within a year. You know the say­ing; if you can’t bury the gays, can­cel their sit­coms.

The case of Ellen il­lus­trates how dam­ag­ing re­veal­ing your sex­u­al­ity could be to your public im­age, but it also shows how far we’ve come. In 2017, Ellen is back on top as reign­ing queen, not only of the les­bians but of the TV talk show, with 66 mil­lion Twitter fol­low­ers and le­gions of loyal fans. Last year, Obama awarded her the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Freedom, ac­knowl­edg­ing how her per­sonal brav­ery and un­fail­ing warmth and hu­mour helped change public per­cep­tions.

In the old days, gay and bi peo­ple hid their sex­u­al­ity, but now some straight, fame- hun­gry fe­male celebs pre­tend to be bi in ex­change for col­umn inches and cold, hard cash. Take re­al­ity TV stars du jour Jemma Lucy and Chantelle Con­nelly. They’ve be­haved like the typ­i­cal new cou­ple – pub­lish­ing nude pho­to­shoots on­line and shar­ing ro­man­tic naked self­ies on Snapchat. Ah, young love. Al­though Jemma is bi, Chantelle has since con­firmed on so­cial me­dia that their whole re­la­tion­ship was faked, declar­ing, “I ain’t a les­bian,” adding a few heart­felt pound- sign emo­jis. Gay stars used to have beards to con­ceal their sex­u­al­ity in public. Now straight ones have les­bian beards – bean­ies? – to at­tract rather than de­flect me­dia at­ten­tion. I get that a girl’s gotta make a liv­ing, but does she have to ex­ploit queer fe­male sex­u­al­ity to do it?

An­other ex­am­ple of the ca­sual com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of our iden­ti­ties is when glossy mags and smug straight women on Twitter gig­gle over their “girl crushes”. This brand of lezzy-lite al­lows het­ero­sex­ual women to play with the fash­ion­able side of les­bian­ism that’s at­trac­tive to men with­out the stigma of ac­tu­ally be­ing gay or bi. Ok straights, we get it; we’re cool and ex­otic and you want some of our mys­tique to make you seem more in­ter­est­ing. But lis­ten up ladies, it’s not a real crush un­less you’re lim­ber­ing up for some Erotic May­pole ac­tion.

And then there’s the dis­turb­ing way the gut­ter press start lick­ing their chops when they dis­cover that a crim­i­nal hap­pens to be LGBT. If a mur­derer is also les­bian or bi­sex­ual, it be­comes a key part of the nar­ra­tive, de­spite be­ing com­pletely ir­rel­e­vant. When I was outed to my adorable 90-year- old granny (I can’t blame the tabloids for this one, it was my mum who blew my cover), she was se­ri­ously con­cerned be­cause she’d read so much about les­bian se­rial killers. I ad­vised her to can­cel her sub­scrip­tion to the Daily Mail, but to keep me away from sharp ob­jects just to be on the safe side.

Of course, we can’t dis­cuss les­bians in the me­dia with­out tak­ing a mo­ment to swoon over the dearly de­parted L Word. How­ever much the theme song grated and Jenny got right on your tits, it was truly spe­cial to have our own glo­ri­ously gay drama, featuring ac­tual LGBT peo­ple in the cast and crew. Since then we’ve binge- watched our way through shows like Lip Ser­vice, Or­ange Is The New Black and Went­worth. With so much more rep­re­sen­ta­tion on TV than in 1994, it’s easy to think every­thing’s rosy, but the re­al­ity isn’t quite so sim­ple. While it’s bet­ter for white, able- bod­ied peo­ple, there’s still nowhere near enough rep­re­sen­ta­tion for peo­ple of colour, dis­abled, bi, trans and non- bi­nary folk. And yes, there are more queer women on TV than there were in the 90s and 00s, but 2016 was a low point as we were killed off in droves. Is it re­ally so hard to come up with a sto­ry­line for a gay char­ac­ter apart from “tor­tured com­ing out, fleet­ing mo­ment of hap­pi­ness, sud­den and point­less death”? All these sub- stan­dard on- screen por­tray­als make it more im­por­tant than ever that we tell our own sto­ries in queer web- based dra­mas like Dif­fer­ent For Girls and Her Story.

So much has changed since 1994 and yet noth­ing has changed at all – dis­crim­i­na­tion is still rife and hate crime is on the rise, only now there are some who see our sex­u­al­ity as some­thing to be cashed in on. But it’s our birth­day so let’s try and be pos­i­tive. Over the last 23 years, things have def­i­nitely im­proved and DIVA’S been here to doc­u­ment it all. Just think of all the celebs who came out last year – Amandla Sten­berg, Lau­ren Jau­regui and Saara Aalto, to name but a few. And if you still need cheer­ing up, go and watch the Youtube video of Kris­ten Ste­wart host­ing Satur­day Night Live and telling Don­ald Trump, “I’m like, soooo gay, dude”. It’s guar­an­teed to make you like, soooo happy, dude.

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