We’ve Forgotten That LGBTQ Nerds Helped Create Online Life as We Know It

Decoding the tech world.
Aug. 21 2014 12:07 PM

When AOL Was GayOL

How LGBTQ nerds helped create online life as we know it.

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Around this time as well, dial-up providers began offering tentative Internet access through email and telnet. The spread of Internet access enabled interservice communication across providers. Even if your provider didn’t support Usenet, you could still subscribe to mailing lists on email, such as “the mother of lesbian lists” Sappho, founded by Jean Marie Diaz in 1987. Amy Goodloe, who ran many LGBTQ-oriented lists and later founded www.lesbian.org, says that discussion-oriented mailing lists were particularly popular in the lesbian community; by 1997, she says, “there were some 46 email lists for lesbians.” While gay male spaces rarely attracted women, lesbian spaces frequently felt the need to limit participation exclusively to women. “That policy prompted the Great Trans Debates and the Great Bi Debates every six months or so,” Goodloe recalls, “as everyone weighed in with their opinions of who counted as a ‘woman’ and whether bisexuals should be allowed in ‘lesbian only’ space.” There was also alt.shoe.lesbians, a Usenet group that was started as a nonsensical joke by two guys in 1996, then discovered and colonized by a small lesbian community a month later.

David Auerbach David Auerbach

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer based in New York. His website is http://davidauerba.ch.

Gay spaces frequently cross-pollinated with other areas of geek culture. Multi-user dungeons, or MUDs, were an early form of online communal role-playing and collective storytelling, easily customized based on your own interests. And while a good deal of the fantasy was G-rated, it was not uncommon for users to engage in role-playing cybersex in private chat. Sophie, who was in college in the 1990s, created her own MOOs, or object-oriented MUDs, which allowed greater customization by players. “My MOOs were always terribly queer, in part because I’d been frustrated on other MOOs,” she says. The combination of role-playing and cybersex allowed participants to act in the guise of a fantasy character. Even on MUDs that didn’t advertise themselves as queer, cybersex “was often at least a bit queer, because you so often didn’t really know the gender of the person you were having cybersex with, even if the sex you were simulating was straight—which it wasn’t, necessarily,” Sophie says. “It was all rather furtive.”

On the political side of the LGBTQ online spectrum, Tom Rielly and Karen Wickre founded Digital Queers, an explicitly activist email group, in 1992. Where other progressive groups of the time generally just distributed information, Digital Queers actually did grass-roots organizing and upgraded the IT of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force through a donation campaign. Their online organizing anticipated the 1998 formation of progressive advocacy group MoveOn, which organized similar grass-roots campaigns around specific issues.

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But the technological turning point came in the mid-’90s, when Internet access increasingly became part of American life outside of universities and corporations. Less computer-savvy people were no longer limited by the services provided by AOL but could participate on websites built by amateurs just by browsing to a URL. AOL tried to preserve its “walled garden” approach, enticing users to stay within its own network rather than enter the wilds of the Internet, but that inevitably failed because it could never keep up with the spontaneous, decentralized generation of content on the Net.

From online chat it was a short step to social networking. Erich Nagler chronicled the progression of gay social networks from AOL to gay.com to Manhunt in his piece “My Life Cruising Online.” His adventures read as pretty typical, until you remember he’s writing about the 1990s, before anyone had heard of Google. Mark Elderkin happened to purchase gay.com in 1994 as a personal website, only to find that he attracted a huge audience of people looking for online information; by 1996, he had relaunched the site as a chat/dating service. At that time, match.com existed as the first online dating site, but gay.com offered a more real-time and forward-looking experience, with the same sort of browsing and chat mechanisms familiar to OkCupid users today. “With gay.com messenger,” Nagler writes, “I could swiftly click on guys who popped up to see their photos, profile and stats, and decide off the bat whether I was aroused.” (Digital Queers founder Tom Rielly founded gay.com competitor PlanetOut in 1995, which merged with gay.com in 2000.)

In the 2000s, OkCupid and Craigslist came on the scene and, by being explicitly inclusive of gay and lesbian dating, gradually superseded these older sites. But their forerunners deserve to be remembered as pioneering markers of a time when the world was distinctly more unwelcoming to the LGBTQ community—and how that hostility itself drove the creation of these sites and spaces, part of what Cha calls “the parallel mainstreaming of queers, nerds, and queer nerds.” Hooking up was part of the social scene, then as now, but so was simply making contact with other people that society marginalized. Those needs sped the adoption and development of online social life as we know it today.

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