Four years ago Eboné Bell, a D.C.-based producer of events such as Capital Queer Prom, was frustrated with local LGBTQ publications. ”Every time I’d open one, I’d see nothing but white men,” she says. So Bell, then 29, began planning to launch her own magazine.
Her plans coincided with a serendipitous phone call from a woman in the D.C. lesbian community who told Bell she’d been seeing her at events and that she’d be great at running a publication. Her suggestion came with the offer to fund the first printing, and with that Tagg Magazine was born. ”I wanted to focus on lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, queer, and genderqueer people and people of color,” says Bell.
The inaugural issue of the local magazine featured Alicia Hardesty, of “Project Runway” fame, on the cover. Since then Bell has produced six full-color, glossy issues a year that she distributes for free around the D.C. metro area.
Before starting Tagg, Bell worked sales and web-development jobs. But even if she did have a traditional background in magazine publishing, it’s no small thing to launch a print product in an era when many media companies are shrinking their magazines and going online-only. When I ask Bell why she decided to do a print magazine, she laughs. ”Because I’m crazy. I just felt that there was still a market for people who appreciated picking up a publication and having something tangible to put on their coffee table or read on the Metro. I wanted to create a print publication that had evergreen content because we’re not newsy.”
Tagg, which is written by a cadre of volunteers, covers everything from D.C. queer nightlife to politics. About half of the writers on the masthead are people of color, and Tagg often addresses issues of race and identity. Recent pieces have been about the white-washing of the new Stonewall movie, profiteering at D.C.’s Black Pride and police violence against women of color.
While Bell is still Tagg’s only full-time staff person, she says she’s happy with its growth. “We started with 10 [pages]—it was like a booklet. And now we average anywhere from like 32 to 44. So I would say it’s definitely a healthy publication.”
Bell, who is black and identifies as lesbian, queer and genderqueer, is open about the ways racism and sexism have impacted her success. ”I have had to prove myself as a woman of color in a gay white male-dominated space,” she explains. “I don’t like to play the race card, but I’ve been in this body for so long that you know what you know and you feel it.”
The specific experiences with racism that Bell tells me about range from seeing comparable white-led projects receive more funding to weathering negative comments that her white partner receives about being in an interracial relationship. She’s also dealt with her share of microagressions. “I’ve had white women, when my partner introduces me to them, start [dropping their g’s]—like, ‘What’s goin’ on, man?’ and ‘How you doin’?’ One time I called out somebody. I asked her ‘Why all of a sudden are you talking like that? I don’t talk like that.’ She was completely taken aback.”
Bell also says she’s received pushback from people in the D.C. queer community for framing Tagg as a lesbian magazine. “I actually identify as all three things. I consider myself lesbian, I consider myself queer and I consider myself genderqueer. [But] sometimes I feel like the word ‘lesbian’ is becoming a negative term,” she notes.
Her approach has been to use “lesbian” as an inclusive term, but she’s now considering shifting the magazine’s tagline—”You’re It! Your Connection to the D.C. Lesbian Community”—to be more explicitly inclusive of all gender and sexualities. A podcast that she launched recently, “Tagg Nation,” uses the tagline, “Everything lesbian and queer under the rainbow,” and Bell says she may use it for the magazine as well. ”It’s unfortunate [that] when people see a certain [term] they automatically say ‘I’m not welcome.’ I would never ever say [somebody] isn’t welcome in any space that’s created by Tagg or by me,” says Bell. But she also acknowledges that the queer community is evolving and she’d like Tagg to evolve along with it.
As a chronicler of stories about LGBTQ people, Bell says she sees how much work the community has to do, particularly in the wake of the marriage equality win. “It’s time for the LGBTQ community to get on board with Black Lives Matter. At the end of the day sure I can marry my girlfriend, sure I can run a lesbian magazine, but I might still get followed in the store. I might still get the cops called on me.”
Bell has big plans for the future of Tagg: a larger audience, growing her base of over 100 mostly local advertisers and an expansion into new cities. She recently launched an edition in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, a gay-friendly coastal town just a few hours from D.C.
At the end of our interview Bell once again mentions how challenging her four-year journey has been. “It’s important that people know that this wasn’t easy, especially as a woman of color,” she says. ”You know the statement that black women have to work 10 times harder? It’s true.”