I grew up in a time and place—the Los Angeles suburbs of the 1980s—where LGBTQ culture was pretty much invisible in everyday life. The first out people I met were online. In fact, LGBTQ culture played a significant, though underreported, part in shaping the overall online culture. Since the early 1980s, there have been many LGBTQ spaces on the Net: newsgroups, bulletin board systems, or BBSs, mailing lists, social networks, chat rooms, and websites. But the very first LGBTQ Internet space, as far as I’ve been able to find, was the soc.motss newsgroup. And it hosted conversations that had never been seen before online—and that arguably remain in too short supply even today. (I’ll be frequently using “LGBTQ” as the best available catchall term, with the awareness that categories and nomenclature have gone through many evolutions since the early 1980s.)
In 1983 programmer Steve Dyer started a discussion forum called net.motss (later soc.motss) on the Usenet newsgroup system. Built in 1980 atop pre-Internet networks such as ARPANET and BITNET, Usenet allowed for creation of hierarchical categories of interest groups (comp.lang.java.help, rec.arts.books, etc.) and public threaded discussions within each group, in much the same way forums and comments work today. The abbreviation “motss” stood for “members of the same sex,” an unflashy acronym that would make it less of a potential target for censorship. University of Colorado–Boulder professor Amy Goodloe, who went on to start many lesbian Usenet groups as well as found and run lesbian.org in 1995, calls soc.motss the first explicitly LGBTQ newsgroup—and possibly the first explicitly LGBTQ international space of any kind.
And it was a prominent space: By the early 1990s, motss member and software engineer Brian Reid estimated that about 3 percent of all Usenet readers were reading soc.motss, which was an audience of about 83,000 people. (For comparison, 8 percent were reading the perennially popular alt.sex.)
Dyer, who died in 2010, was a Unix hacker who worked at BBN before becoming a private consultant. In the very first motss post on Oct. 7, 1983, Dyer set out the newsgroup’s aims: “to foster discussion on a wide variety of topics, such as health problems, parenting, relationships, clearances, job security and many others.” Dyer stressed that the forum would provide “a supportive environment” for gay USENET members: “Net.motss is emphatically NOT a newsgroup for the discussion of whether homosexuality is good or bad, natural or unnatural. Nor is it a place where conduct unsuitable for the net will be allowed or condoned.”
According to engineer Nelson Minar, who was active on soc.motss in the early 1990s, newsgroups of the 1980s and ’90s tended to have a slower pace of discussion. A day could pass before someone replied to a thread, and responses were frequently closer to mini-essays than short comments. That sort of belles-lettristic group dialogue allowed for a deeply nuanced and intellectual discussion of gay and lesbian issues.
Because of its international reach, soc.motss was less suitable for negotiating hookups than regional BBSs were. (One of soc.motss’ first posts was a man asking how to meet other gays without drugs or alcohol being involved.) The posters ranged in age from late teens to middle age, and a self-reported census in 1993 showed a quarter of them to be women.
Inevitably, much discussion centered on coming out, how to come out, and how to cope with the consequences. Political issues—from the Supreme Court’s 1986 sodomy decision in Bowers v. Hardwick to Orson Scott Card’s anti-gay writings to the legacy of Harvey Milk—evoked passionate debate. This was an a era when George Bush was calling for mandatory nationwide AIDS testing and when, according to Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, Ronald Reagan’s advisers felt that gays and drug users who contracted AIDS were “only getting what they justly deserve.” Online discussion became a necessary counter to AIDS hysteria and ignorance, where people could share their own stories and alternative news sources.
The motss community prized free expression. (Dyer summed up the predominant attitude when he recommended the transgressive trans writer Pat Califia: “[S]he states her positions unbowed by the neo-puritanical ravings of some members of the gay orthodoxy.”) Everything on Usenet was public and, early on, non-anonymous, since Usenet accounts were usually linked to a real identity associated with a university or corporation. So even posting to the group at all took a certain boldness and iconoclasm, personality traits that Minar correlates with the “dual minority” of being both queer and a computer nerd. Yet because all posts were public (and because newsreaders in the 1980s didn’t thread discussions, forcing you to browse through every post), many more people read than posted, so much of the impact of soc.motss was on a silent audience that never identified itself.