At the Clexacon Women’s Media Conference in Las Vegas, Franco Stevens asks the attendees who have gathered for a panel about Curve, the groundbreaking magazine she founded in 1990, how they would describe themselves for a scene in “Ahead of the Curve.” Few use the word “lesbian,” which she once proudly put right alongside the magazine title at a time when doing so meant it wouldn’t be stocked at certain retailers, when so many see their sexuality as far more complicated and feel comfortable now describing themselves in the most specific terms, a notion that doesn’t confuse Stevens exactly coming from an older generation, but puts her out of step with the times when she sees the value of having a unifying descriptor for a community to rally behind.
When “Ahead of the Curve” is directed by Stevens’ wife Jen Rainin, one suspects there is a little bit of staged naivete and earnest conversations for the benefit of the cameras in order to set up what becomes a history of Curve with a look towards its future, but the slight awkwardness of having a few exposed bricks at the film’s foundation quickly wears away to reveal the very real crossroads that Stevens encounters for the LGBTQ community at large as she considers the best way forward for the magazine, which like any print publication has fallen on hard times. Stevens is in a peculiar position, having sold off her stake in Curve in 2010, yet appears to keep a cordial relationship with its current editor Silke Bader and knows her legacy is tied to the magazine.
As the print publication is under increasing pressure to fold, Stevens is seen taking it upon herself to reimagine Curve, consulting not with media experts, but as she did when starting the magazine, voices from the community that she finds exciting, only now instead of looking in the immediate area around her home in San Francisco, she pursues TED Talk speakers in Toronto and beat poets in Philadelphia she sees online. True to the film’s title, the structure actually allows one to imagine what Curve could become while reflecting on what it’s been, a once-vital publication that has seen its necessity erode when gay culture has increasingly found its way into the mainstream, and Rainin is smart to actively engage both audiences who surely waited for the magazine to hit their mailbox and those for whom e-mail may already be passé, showcasing emerging voices from the queer community while vibrantly recalling just how much resistance there was to have a platform to speak only 30 years ago.
Stevens and her colleagues entertainingly describe just how difficult it was to break into the marketplace independently when advertisers and celebrities weren’t interested in appearing in their pages, but found freedom to portray the gay experience with the diversity they saw in it, afforded by the many gambles taken by its founder who was driven into homelessness after her husband outed her to her family and worked her way up from A Different Light bookstore in the Castro to having a magazine appear there. (Quite literally, Stevens gives good advice on picking horses, as she had to learn in order to pay for an early subscription boost.)
Now more than a few of the obstacles encountered by Stevens personally and Curve, initially called Deneuve (until a lawsuit by the actress who didn’t want to be associated with a gay brand), might seem unfathomable, but “Ahead of the Curve” recognizes that greater acceptance and a larger number of platforms has had some drawbacks in decentralizing the conversations around issues specific to the queer experience and reducing their intensity. “Ahead of the Curve” admirably pulls the focus back to show that while the form these conversations have changed, the need for it remains ongoing within the community as well as for people such as Stevens who can imagine it happening on a larger scale both in terms of the boldness of ideas and their amplification, and rather than acting merely as a celebration of the past, it holds out hope that the party, bringing together the variety of people that implies, is far from over.