Eboné Bell

Be the Leader,
Be the Footprint

Eboné Bell and Merryn Johns chat about
the importance of LGBTQ media.

Lesbian magazines have historically been self-created, collective visions on the margins of a larger media space. The first American lesbian publication was a newsletter titled Vice Versa (1947-1948) which was privately distributed in Los Angeles. This was followed by The Ladder (1950-1972), Lesbian News (1975-), still publishing, and Sinister Wisdom (1976-), a journal available to and supported by subscribers. While the 1970s saw a proliferation of lesbian publications, mainly periodicals and newsletters that came out of the lesbian-feminist and separatist movements, only one seemed clearly aimed at Black women: the short-lived Pearl Diver, out of Oregon (1977-1978). On Our Backs (1984-2006) was somewhat diverse, but it was essentially S/M erotica. Curve, in 1990, was the first lesbian mainstream magazine that marketed itself to all queer women via mainstream distribution. But Tagg magazine, founded by Eboné Bell in Washington D.C. 10 years ago is likely the first lesbian magazine for Black queer women to be widely available. What does it mean — and feel like — to start a publication for queer women as a Black queer woman? This is my conversation, as a white queer editor, with Bell, a Black queer editor and fellow traveler in the small but rapidly evolving world of lesbian media.

Merryn Johns: Eboné, when did you start Tagg and what was the lightbulb moment that such a publication needed to exist?

Eboné Bell: Tagg officially launched in September 2012 and earlier that year something hit me. I’ve always seen the publications in the Washington D.C. area as very white, gay male heavy. I’ve always had that in the back of my mind and so I started working on a plan to do Tagg. A woman in Great Falls, Virginia called me and said, “I don’t know you but I think you’d be great to run a lesbian magazine.” I was like, “Are you kidding me, I’ve been working on this.” And she said, “I want to support you in this.” And so I left my nice cushy job to start Tagg and something I really believe in and that is: telling our stories. I often joke and say it’s my job to tell every queer woman’s story that I can in the world. It’s great to think about legacy. I think about 10 years from now and some young, queer person picking up one of our issues or going onto the site and seeing the people who went before them, seeing the stories and how inspirational that would be. What I hope is the same feeling when I saw The Ladder. I hoped that Tagg would do the same thing. The first issue came out September 2012 and we hit the ground running. We started off local but a few years later we wound up a national publication with subscribers across the country.

You celebrated your tenth anniversary last year. How did it feel to survive that long?

Eboné Bell: [Laughs] First and foremost I’m laughing because you used the word ‘survive’. That’s exactly how I felt! It is super-rewarding, though. It also allowed me to look back at all that I’ve accomplished, personally, and all that my team has accomplished. I remember doing an interview with one of our writers because we did a piece in the magazine on the 10th anniversary about the journey, and letting people know it’s been great but also there have been some tough times too. I remember there were moments I cried to her on the phone. I think it’s really great to look back at everything that we’ve been through and to show our resilience, in general over ten years but especially during the pandemic. I think it says a lot about us, and the team that I have now.

In terms of the women who went before you who inspired you, was Franco (Frances Stevens) one of them?

Eboné Bell: Of course Franco, for sure. Absolutely loved Ahead of the Curve documentary. I remember watching Ahead of the Curve and getting really emotional because I saw the hard work, the first couple of years when you’re doing it yourself and you’re like, Am I going to make it? It spoke to my very inner soul and so absolutely Franco and Curve. Tagg wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for publications like Curve.

What were some of the other influences?

Eboné Bell: Honestly, the Black women in my life. They have been super-encouraging: I mean my mom, my aunt, my friends, the people who have always supported me. And Black women who have come before me, especially masculine-of-center women because it’s a little bit different how we grow up. The Black women in my life have shown me what’s possible, they’ve handed me the baton, and I’ve been able to move onto greater things because of them.

Was it a conscious objective of yours to push open a space for queer women of color in LGBTQ media?

Eboné Bell: I absolutely went into it like that because I had to. Any hesitation or any sort of down talk to myself wasn’t an option. I already knew I was going to have a tough hill to climb but I also knew I had to come in fully, unapologetically me. That’s exactly what I committed myself to anytime I walked into a room especially when I am representing Tagg magazine. I don’t care how you identify, or your race: I believe that when you are unapologetically you people will gravitate to you because they see how you are, genuinely. It was very important for me to step into that. And I wanted to show other young Black queer women what was possible. It’s not an ego thing; it’s more that I know how important representation and visibility is. If that means I have to get cuts and bruises along the way so people coming after me have it a little bit easier, then let’s do it.

We’re both editors of magazines for queer women. That job is about content selection: what’s in, what’s out, what we need to see. Historically, Black queer women have not been at the top of content selection in mainstream media. How does it feel to be in that position with Tagg and is it power, or responsibility that you feel—how would you describe it?

Eboné Bell: It’s a little bit of pressure especially if you are the first of your kind, in any sort of way. I know that my publication wasn’t the first for lesbians and queer women of color, but I’ve got to figure out if I’m the first (or one of the first) Black queer woman magazine owner.

I think you might be!

Eboné Bell: I think so, and I think because there is a lot of ‘first,’ there is pressure to get it right, there is pressure to make sure we represent our community as best as possible. We have so much diversity in our community, so the first thing that comes to my mind is pressure because you never want to get it wrong, you want everyone to love it… but I also feel like it is rewarding, it’s rewarding to sit there with my team and say, ‘What are we going to come up with, what are people talking about, what are the stories people are going to gravitate towards, and how are we going to make a difference?’ I wouldn’t say power; I’ve heard ‘power lesbian.’ I’m trying to think of another word…

Stress? [Laughs]

Eboné Bell: [Laughs] Stress… I would say it makes me feel like a real leader in this community. I think that’s the best way to say it. It makes me feel like a trailblazer, like a leader in the community. My goal is to be the footprint and make some sort of difference personally and professionally. I hope that’s what Tagg’s done and continues to do.

You came into publishing around the time we had a major paradigm shift. From ‘newsstand racism’ — the idea that readers would not buy a magazine if the cover featured a person of color to the ‘debate’ over how to include trans voices in lesbian media… all this rapidly changed. Did you make any discoveries, any choices that pushed boundaries, that moved readers along?

Eboné Bell: You bring up a good point about content. We have gotten a little bit more radical, a little bit more brave in our content, and even more inclusive. I think that everyone should be able to look at the things they can improve on, for example I think there should be more trans writers at publications. It is an ongoing intentional action for me. As things start to change more within our community, changing terminologies, we have to change with the times. Why would we not do that? And we talk about being inclusive, we have to put our money where our mouth is. In the pandemic we had to for the first time ever skip our Pride issue. And then I thought, should we skip Summer. And then whole Black Lives Matter movement, we reached the height of it with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and it was a time when we saw everyone get involved and I said, ‘We have to put something out to show that Tagg is listening and we have a voice and even if you don’t believe that Black LGBTQ lives matter, we’re going to show you why they do.’ We had a whole issue called Black LGBTQ Lives Matter, addressing some of those issues. And I think we’ve done a good job continuing to have a perspective on issues such as trans intimacy, and interracial parenting, which are things we usually don’t talk about. I think it’s important we have content that is different from everyone else but is content our readers actually want.

So in this digital age you are not chasing clicks, and with all the free content streaming on platforms like Instagram and TikTok you still feel there is a role Tagg has to lead, inform and enlighten readers?

Eboné Bell: Absolutely. I think whether we want to or not LGBTQ publishers automatically become activists without really trying—activists and truth tellers because we are bringing attention to issues happening in our community because sometimes others don’t do it. There are things that aren’t talked about in the mainstream that are hurting our community, or helping our community—either way.

With the recent attack on journalists from the Republican party, and this view that somehow the media is elitist and monolithic, do you feel that every issue of Tagg you put out is therefore a political act?

Eboné Bell: I remember in an interview years ago I said, ‘Any time I leave the house it’s a political act.’ So I guess I would say the same thing for Tagg magazine. And I guess it’s a political act because I know how I present to this world. I’m not a stereotypical person. I am out of the box: I am a masculine-of-center woman, I am a Black woman at that; I’m queer; and I’m unapologetic. I walk through this world like I don’t care. Get used to it. This is who I am. So that’s what I mean by political act. Just my existence is showing I am not the norm. If I’m a political act then the magazine is one as well.

Anything this discussion has raised for you that you would like to elaborate on or add?

Eboné Bell: I can’t say enough how much I need the community to support our LGBTQ media. I know I can speak for all of us when I say we work very hard to serve the community and you can support us in different ways. It doesn’t have to always be money. It can be as easy as liking us on social media. If we have thousands more followers in a month we can go back to our advertisers and say, ‘Hey, you might want to get in on this.’ There’s so many ways you can show support, whether it’s sharing stories or telling people about the publication or the websites.

I still remember the 3am nights when Curve was on deadline. Readers don’t get to see behind the scenes of a queer women’s magazine, website or business; it is an ecosystem and often a very small, diverse team who works hard, like a family-run business.

Eboné Bell: It’s super important that we continue to support LGBTQ businesses. And I’m going to go even further to say support Black queer-owned businesses. Not just the magazine, but other ones. It’s just statistically known that Black-owned businesses get less capital and less investments and support just because of the people behind them. I would encourage people to be very intentional to support the community because we need it more than ever to keep us thriving. Not just owners and editors, but the whole team — writers, designers, the events team. And there’s a whole community out there that benefits from Tagg.

Visit Tagg Magazine. Follow Tagg on social media at @taggmagazine