Identity

What the Closure of Lesbian Website AfterEllen Means for Queer Culture

The changing nature of what it means to be queer today is contributing to the decline of LGBTQ media.

by Shahirah Majumdar
Sep 26 2016, 9:35pm

The logo of recently shuttered lesbian-focused website AfterEllen

Last Friday, a firestorm broke out on the lesbian internet when it was announced that AfterEllen, the 14-year-old pop culture site run by and for queer women, was folding. Editor-in-chief Trish Bendix took to her personal Tumblr to announce the news after parent company Evolve Media wouldn't allow the post on the site itself. After purchasing the site from Viacom two years ago, Evolve "gave us two fiscal years to become their LGBT property and profit in that space, and they found we are not as profitable as moms and fashion," Bendix wrote.

AfterEllen was a first-of-its-kind publication, a home for a generation of lesbians seeking to find themselves celebrated, represented, and understood online. Analysis, grief, and rage poured forth as soon as the closure was announced, as queer women sought to contextualize the closure within the rapid decline of lesbian-focused bars, bookstores, and publications in recent years.

"The site meant a lot to a lot of people," former staff editor Dana Piccoli told me. "It had a reach that was unprecedented." It's survived by just one major website for queer women, Autostraddle, and a host of smaller sites that Piccoli said lack the same pull.

While Bendix's post-mortem identified inept corporate management and marketing as direct causes of the site's death (and Piccoli believes that sexist stereotypes about lesbians and economic gender inequality help explain it, too,) it's also clear that cultural shifts in the way queer people consume media—stemming from the changing ways in which young queer people self-identity, and the ways they may reject the notion of monolithic queer media altogether—contributed to its decline.

Today, queerness is mainstream. Fifty-five percent of Americans now support gay marriage, and just 48 percent of Generation Z (those between the ages of 13 and 20) self-identify as heterosexual. And as a result, publications and spaces that once served as hubs for the LGBTQ community increasingly find their existence under the gun, with lesbian spaces disproportionately affected.

But the rise of niche, queer content in mainstream venues like the New York Times, Buzzfeed, VICE, and others also factor into what Dr. Arlene Stein, a professor of Sociology at Rutgers who studies gender, sexuality, and American culture, calls "the incredible shrinking lesbian world," by making institutions like AfterEllen or local lesbian bars "less crucial."

"In the not so distant past," Dr. Stein told me, "in order to find information about lesbian lives, you'd have to consult community publications, which were sometimes mimeographed and circulated by hand." Today, that same information is easily available online, discussed in classrooms, and generally woven into the fabric of young lives in ways that it wasn't in decades prior.

Thus, lesbian bars give way to queer nights at non-queer bars. Feminist bookstores bite the dust, while Goodreads offers user-curated "Lesbian Book Lists" one can purchase in a click. And queer women increasingly see themselves represented and celebrated in mainstream entertainment, taking home four Emmys this year.

Paradoxically, with all this queerness in vogue, only 1.3 percent of women actually identify as lesbian, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services' National Health Statistics Reports, while 17.4 percent have had same-sex sexual contact.

"To some, the term lesbian is very passé," said Dr. Stein. "Queer is current, new, sexy. In the past, if you were a woman who was attracted to other women, lesbian was the only label open to you. Now you can call yourself queer, bisexual, trans. There's a proliferation of different labels."

A Google Books N-Gram search for the term "lesbian" shows a deep decline in its use in literature since 1999 (which, coincidentally, happens to be Lilith Fair's final tour year.) Experts who spoke with VICE say this linguistic shift may also mark a change in attitude: Queer youth are not only rejecting the unifying ideology implied by the label "lesbian"; they're moving away from sexual orientation as marker of identity altogether.

"It's just another characteristic that makes them unique, another part of the mosaic," Dr. Ritch Savin-Williams, an expert on teen sexuality and author of The New Gay Teenager, told VICE. With queer acceptance leading to a decline of "the stressful stigmas of same-sex sexuality," queer-specific advice and resources can now be identity-agnostic. Thus, the audience for lesbian websites shrinks as queer teen girls learn to cope with the vagaries of life and love without relying on niche content.

"If they're worried about being rejected by a young woman, they just go to their best friends," Dr. Savin-Williams said. "Once you take sexuality out of the problem, you're left with, 'How do you deal with rejection?'"

He also finds that queer youth themselves don't want to be marked as categorically different. He's had to do away with a "check this box" approach to defining gender and sexuality on questionnaires, instead allowing lab participants to write out their sexuality and its expression in their own words.

"Young people don't like categorical things because they're mainstream," he says. "What's so great about 'genderqueer' as a term is that adults have no idea what it means. You can make it mean almost anything. On a Kinsey scale, you don't know if they're a 0 or a 6."

That rings true to Kim Katrin Milan, a co-owner of Toronto's Glad Day Book Shop, the world's oldest-surviving LGBTQ bookstore, and co-founder of The People Project, a movement of queer and trans folk of color. As a queer femme, Milan often felt that she had to "prove" herself to the lesbian community. Finally, after marrying a trans man, she left the label behind. "Queerness means that I fit in always," Milan told VICE. "It's an identification that allows me more autonomy."

Milan pays her respects to AfterEllen as one of the first sites that helped her to "piece together and figure out what our history is," but she also says that change is necessary as the queer community grows and evolves.

"Just because something has come to an end, that doesn't mean it hasn't been successful," she says. "It's totally OK to serve a community really, really well for a period of time, and know when it's time to bow out. People perceive a threat coming in, but it's that our family is growing up."

Shahirah Majumdar is a writer living in Chicago.