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.

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
The FidoNet logo, by John Madil.

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

In the first part of my history of early online LGBTQ spaces, I focused on the newsgroup soc.motss and the singular group of people it drew together. But to get to soc.motss, you had to have access to a Usenet news server, which was unavailable to those without an academic or institutional connection in the 1980s and early ’90s. During the same period, other LGBTQ spaces came into existence that linked together online and offline life in a way that anticipated today’s social networking. From primitive dial-up BBSs to AOL (aka “GayOL”) to dating sites like gay.com and PlanetOut, online life has always had a strong LGBTQ component that sometimes preceded wider adoption of a new technology.

David Auerbach David Auerbach

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

In the 1980s, the major online spaces outside of the proto-Internet were bulletin board systems, or BBSs: local or regional dial-up networks—often running on a single computer, or a handful of them—operated mostly by hobbyists and enthusiasts. In 1984, hacker/skateboarder/anarchist/artist Tom Jennings created FidoNet, a homespun alternative to ARPANET that connected BBSs together—40,000 of them by the mid-1990s. (In 1988, Jennings also started Homocore, one of the earliest queercore zines.)

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
A typical BBS menu screen, circa 1990.

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

While many computer-oriented BBSs attracted an audience of software pirates, porn sharers, and would-be hackers, a significant number of BBSs for gay men also sprung up. Mark, a gay rights activist since the 1970s, told me that he discovered a gay BBS called the Backroom in the 1980s via an ad in the back of the New York Advertising and Communications Network newsletter. Interactions were limited by the sheer slowness of the network. Typical BBSs offered all-text forum discussion, legal and illegal file sharing, and chat rooms, all at excruciatingly low bandwidth: 300, then 1,200, then 2,400 baud—for reference, 300 baud is roughly the speed of a fast typist. Dial-up BBSing, in Mark’s words, was “extraordinarily time-consuming—it was like reading a teletype machine”; it wouldn’t be conducive to expansive discussion and chats until modem speeds improved.

Courtesy of Raymond Cha
Hobbyist ad for the New York–area Backroom BBS.

Courtesy of Raymond Cha

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Gay BBSs like the Backroom and Doug’s Den were not functionally different from others, but the discussion was different: “popular places to go, cruising areas, political stuff, people trying to sell things,” according to Mark. Unlike on Usenet, the vast majority of users on BBSs were anonymous; there was no requirement nor much interest in people identifying themselves. It was, for Mark, “ a new space that would eventually develop into something, but I had no idea what.” And unlike soc.motss, where a great proportion of the posters were out, Mark recalls that many of the men he spoke to were not.

BBS users had to be somewhat tech-savvy, but the friendlier services of AOL and CompuServe, which offered community forums, chat rooms, and their own curated content, lowered the bar to getting online. As a large audience of less technical gays and lesbians got online, “everything exploded,” Mark says.

In chat rooms, “the overall nerd vibe was quite lower as well,” says Raymond Cha, editor of the gay-nerd publication FAQNP. AOL allowed and even encouraged the creation of gay-themed chat rooms by topic and region; by 1999, an estimated third of so-called GayOL’s chat rooms were LGBTQ. Not that AOL ever talked about it. As a sign-of-the-times Salon article from 1999 put it, “Commenting on how gay customers are using the service to score is probably beyond the scope of even the most progressive corporate culture.”