• Interviews

Frances Stevens is Still on a Mission

Frances “Franco” Stevens is the founder of the iconic lesbian Curve Magazine, which was launched in 1991 as Deneuve. As a broke young woman, who had been rejected by her family, when she came out as a lesbian and had briefly been homeless, Stevens did not take no for an answer when investors did not believe in her vision. She insisted the magazine would be a success. Thus, she maxed out a dozen credit cards and betted everything on horses to come up with the money to launch it. It was one of the first magazines to have the word ‘lesbian’ on the cover and as gay women responded passionately to her mission, the magazine became a big success and connected women all over the country.

After suffering a debilitating accident in 1997, Stevens has since relied on a wheelchair to get around. In 2010, she sold the magazine to Avalon Media, but in 2021 she re-acquired it and donated it to The Curve Foundation with its vision to “empower lesbian, queer women, trans women, and non-binary people to share culture and stories, connect with each other, and raise visibility.”

In 2020, Frances Stevens’ story was the focus of Jen Rainin and Rivkah Beth Medow’s documentary film Ahead of the Curve. We spoke to Frances Stevens about her mission, from her home in Oakland, California with her foster kittens and dog by her side.


You are the focus of the documentary Ahead of the Curve. But I wanted to start out by asking you if there were any comparable documentary films or feature films that were important and influential for you personally?

Few LGBTQ+ documentaries exist even today that center women’s stories. Most are about gay men. That was one of the reasons why the filmmakers felt it was important to make Ahead of the Curve as a nonfiction film. That said, there have been a few films that had an impact on me over the years. Paris is BurningHow to Survive a Plague, and The Times of Harvey Milk are all LGBTQ+ docs that influenced me, but they aren’t lesbian focused.


What was your reaction when your wife Jen Rainin and her partner Rivkah Beth Medow told you about the idea to direct the documentary about you?

I did not really want to do it. I am more like a behind the scenes kind of person. I thought: ‘Who is going to watch this? Why would anybody want to watch it?’ And I was also very private and some of the things that I have gone through are hard to talk about, so I was apprehensive. I ended up doing it because I trust Rivkah and Jen and because it is important to tell a lesbian story. They made me safe to talk about some of the more difficult things.

What was it like for you to retell your story to someone who was this important to you?

It was like opening your entire life to the person you love most. I tend to save everything and that ended up being very helpful for her in the making of the film. Part of the inspiration was when our kids were young, and they would go to bed and ask me to tell them stories about the times I went to gay pride, and it was really crazy or the time I won money on horses. So, my wife said that we must tell the story. She was making me watch a lot of documentaries to reinforce the idea that it would be a good idea. She actually started out by wanting to make a feature film – a dramatization – and then through the discovery of lesbian history, she thought that it needed to be a documentary in order to tell our story in a true and accurate light.

Making the film made us closer. It made me closer to both of them – and the other filmmakers as well. When I spoke about my disability, there were people watching and listening behind the lens too, and I feel much closer to them now too.

The story of the documentary shifted when you learned that the magazine might not survive. It became a film about the relevance of Curve’s mission today. What did you personally learn from making this film?

That happened three quarters of the way through filming. The whole story line changed. What I learned is that there are still a lot of people who embrace the word lesbian. The mission of the magazine is definitely not fulfilled. There is still a lot of work to do. There are still so many threats to our community and right now it seems we are at a tipping point with Roe v. Wade. In a way it seems like there is more visibility for LGBTQ+ people, yet those rights can be snapped away any minute. And when I talk about rights, I have to say that I am a cis-gendered white woman and live in a fairly liberal town in Oakland, California. There are a lot of like-minded people here, but how does the person of color who is LGBTQ+ and living in the middle of nowhere cope? They do not have the privilege that I have.

What are the challenges compared to when you started the magazine?

When we first started the magazine, the Internet was not a thing. The means of communication were not instant. We were not a daily paper and the only way for us to reach our community was literally to go from town to town in a van and hand out magazines and have house parties and go to radio stations and bookstores and night clubs and get the product in the hand of the people. I would find one woman and tell her to get all her friends together and for them to get all their friends and in today’s society, it just does not work like that. So, the challenges are much different. If something happens, how do we respond to that in a timely manner? How do we reach our community, so it is not watered down? And how are we inclusive? That is the big one? I think we talked about this in the film: About previously not being inclusive of the whole community and that has been a big change. With Curve, we were really fighting for lesbian rights in the beginning and now we are fighting for lesbians, trans-women, non-binary people and it is a very big shift.

The magazine was launched pre-Internet as you said. How significant was it for lesbian women to have a magazine like this to feel connected?

That is one thing I was really grateful for when the movie was made, because people came back to me and said: ‘Back in the time where I was coming out, this magazine literally saved my life.’ Even talking about it now, I get a little choked up because that is so powerful. To even remember that 30 years down the line: ‘This magazine saved my life. This magazine made me feel like I have a community. Like I was not alone and that I would eventually meet my people.’ Maybe these women lived in a community where they did not know another person like them.

In 2021, you created The Curve Foundation, a non-profit organization conceived to empower lesbians, queer women, trans women, and non-binary people of all races, ages and abilities. How do you go about this? And how is the work different from when you started out in the early 1990s?

We are going to carry on the original mission of the magazine and in fact, my wife and I bought back the magazine and we donated it to The Curve Foundation. One of our first projects is that we are archiving the entire catalog of issues of the iconic Deneuve/Curve magazines. We will have the full library to be searchable online and it will be free. We hope a lot of people can use that as reference. We have also launched the first Curve awards.

Speaking of that, you created a partnership with NLGJA: The Association of LQBTQ Journalists to create the Curve Award for Emerging Journalists focused on LGBTQ+ women’s stories. Why was this important for you?

Without them, who would be telling our stories in an authentic voice? Also, when I started the magazine, we had no money. So, although we were able to pay them, we could not pay them what they were worth – it was a labor of love. The opportunity to give back and to foster the next generation feels like my legacy will continue. 

What was your reaction when in 1995 Catherine Deneuve sued you and you had to re-title the magazine to Curve?

It was one of the most stressful times of my life. Besides losing a parent, I think it was the most stressful time of my life. My hair fell out and I was very adamant that we would save the magazine and it came to a point where I asked whether the community wanted it enough to support. I never asked anybody for money the entire time and when some of the local celebrity lesbians came together and said: ‘Let’s do this for the magazine’, it just gave me the push that I needed. But it did take its toll. It was exhausting financially, mentally and physically. We had five years of brand loyalty and then we had to change the name. I do think Curve is a much better name. People to this day don’t know that it was the same publication. We really only had a short time to publicize till we changed the name.

How did this experience affect you and your relationship to celebrity?

When we were changing the name, one of the names that was tossed around was Jane. But I thought: ‘Some famous Jane is going to come back and sue me.’ My experience with celebrities throughout the years is that some are very giving and some that just really do not want to do much.

Would you have done anything differently if you could go back and redo things?

Let’s see. I might have grabbed the domain name curve.com. I might have started the magazine out with the name Curve. I am not sure I would have tried to take on investors in the beginning. Nobody would give me money in the beginning and when you are told no a couple of times, you just figure out a way to do it without anybody else’s money. But whether I would change it or not, I would have to think about that.

In the late 1990s, I felt that we were beginning to get some traction in the lesbian community, and I think that it might have been at that point that I could have helped more people. It was a difficult time, but I was living in San Francisco, which was pretty much a lesbian Mecca at the time. I was feeling empowered by the artists and the activists that I knew, and I was trying to spread that globally and I think if I would have brought in some key partners at that point, we could have made even more of an impact. So maybe just that. I absolutely would have sold the magazine and I felt like at the time selling it to not a conglomerate was really important and selling it to a lesbian publisher was really important. I wasn’t physically able – and I still am not to run a business, so I guess that is it.