Christine Burns delves into the DIVA archive and finds trans inclusion is not just a current trend
BY CHRISTINE BURNS
The question of whether lesbians support or despise trans people has become a hot issue of late. It’s a topic that was forced to the front of the LGBTQI news agenda in July 2018, when a group of women famously laid down in front of the Pride In London parade claiming that they wanted to “Get the ‘L’ out” (of LGBTQI).
In the weeks that followed, Pride marches, LGBTQI publications and organisations around the country countered that message with impassioned support for trans people and a volley of alternative slogans. My local Pride was led by women holding a large banner proclaiming “Manchester Lesbians Stand By Your Trans”.
The “Get the L out” persuasion seemed to be heavily outnumbered — even accounting for the number of famous straight people boosting their messages — but the thing that makes this question complicated is that there is certainly no lack of history in terms of hostile views from some quarters, just as straight feminists had once been very antagonistic towards lesbians. Equally, looking back on accounts from the 1970s and early 80s, there have also been examples of genuine support and community too.
Personally, I’ve concluded over the last 30 to 40 years that it’s a lottery. Lesbian women are as varied in their feelings about trans people as anyone else. Judge people by their behaviours, not by their label. So, when DIVA invited me to write about their coverage of trans issues for the magazine’s 25th anniversary, I gladly accepted the commission but had no preconceptions of what I might find.
But first, how do you tackle 25 years of journalism when so much has happened in that time? Thankfully DIVA assigned a staff writer, Emily Eaton, to help find some relevant early cuttings for me. And what a treasure trove she unearthed. I was amazed by just how much trans and non-binary related material there was.
DIVA’s first editor, Frances Williams, was at the helm for just three years — from Issue 1 in April 1994 until handing over to Gillian Rodgerson in 1997. Almost straight away her magazine was tackling topics of joint lesbian and trans concern. In Issue 3, for instance, a feature about life in the Czech Republic tackled the shameful history of coercing lesbians to become men during the communist years.
Others have written about this kind of practice, similar to what also happens in Iran with gay men, but the thing that stood out for me was that the writer pinned the blame in the right place: on straight culture. “Some people assumed that if you desired women then you must really want to be a man,” it read. To me, as a trans woman, that’s the same as some folk saying that if you want to be a woman it’s because you want to have sex with men. It’s our common experience of straight non-trans people’s toxic naivety and it warmed my heart to see that the very first cutting I read covered an experience that we have in common.
Much of that early coverage — at least four or five mentions a year — seemed (to me) to approach gender-related issues by focussing on the contested margin between how far you can push masculinity as butch expression or drag, versus those (assigned female) who simply identify as men. With the exception of a feature with Kate Bornstein in Issue 4, on the launch of her book Gender Outlaw, trans women didn’t feature very much.
I can see the sense in the butch and trans man angle, as a lesbian-eye view on a boundary that is home to so much controversy. This is the line where people nowadays protest that maybe young dykes are being whisked off to be “transed” at the first sign of gender non-conformity (honestly, they’re not). A bit of me thrills at the way that the magazine was navigating all around this question.
Gillian Rodgerson, editor from 1997 until 2004, doesn’t think there was a specific rationale though. “There was no particularly conscious plan to our coverage of trans people in DIVA, at least not when I was the editor. I saw the magazine’s purpose as reporting on news and cultural events of interest to lesbians and bi women, publishing features that would entertain and/ or educate our readers, and, perhaps most important, making our readers feel happy and positive about their bodies and their sexual choices.
“I am fascinated by the ways that people perform their identities, so articles exploring that were interesting to me. I don’t believe that butch dykes are being forced or even encouraged to transition by some kind of social pressure. Certainly, the physical means to transition are more available now than they once were, so it is possible for more people to do it, but nobody transitions on a whim or because of fashion. That’s ridiculous. Transitioning may be liberating, but it also requires tremendous courage and strength of character, so it’s not a decision that anyone makes overnight.”
There was an interview in Issue 6 with the celebrated “male impersonator”, “man for a day” teacher and drag king Diane Torr. “Women have a curiosity about the sense of entitlement and privilege immediately granted to a man, just by virtue of his gender”, she said, adding, “contemporary cross dressing is no longer seen as the outward sign of identity. It is now fashionably understood as a way of ‘performing gender’, as a demonstration of the arbitrary nature of gender roles.”
This was bang on point for a magazine born to ride the wave of so-called “lesbian chic” and wrestle it back from the hands of straight media producers, who had a more commodified and lipsticked idea of what a lesbian was. Torr’s workshops invited women to take up various stereotypes of male gender performance. “The male facade gave these women a license to be ‘bad girls’, to enjoy the privilege of treating everyone like dirt while still occupying the centre of attention”. Reading this made me aware of how much there was in common between Torr and the teachings of the aforementioned Kate Bornstein.
This was content that both cisgender lesbians and trans people could happily sing along with. I’m in awe of the subtle way that the magazine could introduce readers to this material without appearing to lecture on what I firmly believe to be common ground.
This is not to say the magazine was averse to talking about actual trans lives. There were features with young FTMs — people unmistakably over the frontier between butch and man. Things like this and an amazing set of Loren Cameron’s photographs of muscled and oiled trans men in Issue 18 periodically drove some readers to query why a lesbian magazine should be devoting space to actual men. It was clearly a fine line for a 90s lesbian readership. My view is that a good magazine stretches and expands reader horizons.
Writers were asking hard questions too. Reviewing Zachary Nataf’s book Lesbians Talk Transgender, Julia Brosnan highlighted a hot issue even today. “If you discover your female lover was once a man, does this mean you’re no longer a lesbian?”. Even more scarily: “Will lesbians cease to exist?”. That was 1996 and it amazes me that some people are still treating those questions as unresolved 23 years later.
The following issue, in April 1996, saw Helen Sandler grappling with the challenges when one lesbian in your social circle goes abroad and comes back as a heterosexual man — a question further confounded when the writer attended a party in her best androgynous outfit and found herself mistaken for said man. These writings speak to fears about identity and resentments about trans “taking away our lovely lesbians”.
In 2004, Gillian Rodgerson handed the reins to DIVA’s longest serving editor to date, Jane Czyzselska, who steered the magazine all the way through to 2017. Jane had been an enthusiastic writer about trans, intersex and related topics for years already, pitching to cover the First International Transgender Film Festival in 1997, featuring a Native American Two Spirit performer Aiyanna Maracle, and later interviewing people like Jenny Roberts, a trans lesbian who co-founded and ran the famous Libertas bookshop in York for many years.
“I remember personally very much wanting to write about trans issues in DIVA from as early as I can remember,” Jane reflects. “Gillian Rodgerson was very receptive to that. And there was never any reason to justify why or anything… I was aware of the discussions then – as now – that some lesbians were saying ‘we’re losing our butches’ and I always argued with people and said that’s not the right way to look at it.”
Jane was also responsible for bringing more actual trans writers into the fold, including Paris Lees, Freiya Benson, Juno Roche and Jane Fae. The arrival of such contributors helped end any trans woman deficit the magazine might previously have had.
Was there anything Jane regrets? “I just wish we’d maybe done more sooner and had more trans lesbians writing about their own experiences, rather than having cis lesbians writing about them”. But she’s proud too: “The thing I’m very proud of is the time when we stood up to be counted. There was a particular letter [critical of trans women] that was written and signed by a bunch of people in the Observer in 2015. We made a very categorical editorial statement in support of trans people — trans women in particular. I was very pleased that we did that. I think it underpinned what we’d been thinking but had never maybe made completely explicit. Everyone I ever worked with on the DIVA team was totally pro-trans, without exception.”
And the evidence suggests that this has always been the case.
Christine Burns MBE is an author, activist and editor of Trans Britain. @christineburns
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This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of DIVA