On Tuesday afternoon, the queer internet found out it was losing one of its precious few bright stars. The editor in chief of AfterEllen, a 14-year-old news and entertainment site for queer women, announced in an emotional Tumblr post that the site was “effectively shutting down.” After Friday, Trish Bendix wrote, the site will no longer have an editorial staff. AfterEllen’s owners have left open the possibility of publishing freelance work but have carefully avoided saying anything concrete about the site’s future.
Both Bendix’s post and a statement from AfterEllen owner TotallyHer Media agree that the site’s closure is a consequence of lackluster ad sales. “Here are the facts: Evolve Media purchased AfterEllen from Viacom two years ago,” Bendix wrote. “They 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. And, yes, ‘they’ are mainly white heterosexual men.” Bendix told me in a phone interview that TotallyHer, which manages Evolve Media’s several dozen women-focused sites, intends to put more money toward their “mom and fashion” brands.
Emrah Kovacoglu, TotallyHer’s general manager, puts it like this: “Evolve Media acquired AfterEllen.com from Viacom in October 2014 and proceeded to up the investment in the site by creating new features, franchises, and content to grow the site and its advertiser base. Unfortunately, those efforts did not result in increased audience or enough advertiser support to justify continuing to invest at the same levels.” In his statement, Kovacoglu denied that AfterEllen is “shutting down,” since the company will keep the site’s archives and forums on the internet. But Bendix confirms that there are no writers or editors left on full- or part-time staff, and the company has put forth no plan for how the site will continue to function. Right now, AfterEllen publishes six to 11 posts a day, five days a week. Bendix suspects that her current freelancers and contributors won’t want to offer their services to a new management that’s shown no confidence in the site’s worth.
In the days since Bendix made the announcement on her Tumblr, several news sites have picked it up. According to Bendix, the higher-ups at TotallyHer wouldn’t let her post a goodbye note on AfterEllen, and they aren’t happy that she’s spoken to other media outlets about it. Her last day was supposed to be Friday, but now they’ve told her she’s fired immediately, without the three weeks’ severance she was promised. “I think they’re shocked by how much attention this has received,” Bendix told me. “They had no idea how much this site means to people,” in part because their other sites focus on “fashion and beauty and dogs—they’re not about something people need so badly.”
No matter what the owners decide to salvage from the site’s remains, the reduction of AfterEllen to a storage locker for old content is a major loss for a lesbian culture that’s desperately grasping for air as its physical and virtual spaces dissolve, one by one, into the void. In a new media that houses more queer voices than ever, publications and verticals purportedly dedicated to LGBTQ stories still often default to subjects that apply and appeal to gay men: gay male celebrities, gay male cultural icons, men’s fashion, and shirtless dudes. (Not that we can’t enjoy shirtless dudes. We do! But, you know, everything in moderation.)
Bendix thinks this dynamic created some of AfterEllen’s advertising woes. “AfterEllen was competing with LGBT outlets or verticals that included men. We had great traffic, great content, but when advertisers are thinking about who to give their money to, they’re thinking, ‘Let’s give it to gay men—they like fashion; they have money; they like entertainment,” she told me. “They think lesbians are all sitting at home with their cats. There’s a stereotype that lesbians are cheap.” AfterEllen’s founder, Sarah Warn, remarked on Twitter on Wednesday that advertisers constantly want to put their ads in front of gay men, but not gay women, because stereotypes work for the former and against the latter. Here, homophobia and misogyny work together to doubly screw us over: We don’t make as much money as men do (though we do make more than straight women), and we’re punished for it in a dearth of advertising that kills our cultural outlets.
Unlike the vast majority of gay media outlets, for its entire lifespan—nearly a decade and a half, born in the internet’s adolescence—AfterEllen was wholly dedicated to gay, bisexual, and queer women. As such, little slipped past its gaze. There were painstaking updates on the whereabouts, career moves, and rumored love interests of minor queer celebrities like Clea Duvall, Hannah Hart, and Heather Matarazzo. For big guns like Kristen Stewart, Tegan and Sara, and the site’s namesake, there were entire verticals. The site’s writers reviewed queer artists’ music and books, made notes on queer representation in advertising, kept track of obscure queer web series we’d never find on our own. If there was a new lesbian character—or even a lesbian scene!—in a TV show or film, AfterEllen let us know so we could scramble to watch a clip. AfterEllen profiled the political power lesbians we wanted to drool over, shouted out the work of queer activists like Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza, and made sure stories of LBTQ women weren’t left out of the narrative of major events that affected the gays, like the June massacre at Pulse in Orlando. “I often joke that I’m the one asking ‘the lesbian questions’ in a room full of journalists or reporters or critics that aren’t looking for the answers that I am, that we as a community deserve,” wrote Bendix in Wednesday’s Tumblr post.
These are the subjects and angles I want to read that wouldn’t necessarily find a home at a big catch-all gay media outlet or a mainstream site’s LGBTQ vertical. AfterEllen also functioned as a handy aggregator for all the tiny queer news tidbits I didn’t happen to spot on my own. Maybe Evan Rachel Wood was quoted in an Us Weekly piece. Maybe a lesbian author gave an interview to a literary magazine, or Wanda Sykes tweeted something amazingly gay. Maybe Megan Rapinoe did a thing—anything, anything at all. These things—who might be gay, who’s not a dyke to our great dismay, who’s dating whom—probably wouldn’t show up on my social feeds because my straight friends and co-workers don’t care so much about such relatively inconsequential happenings. But I care, because these are my people. AfterEllen gave my people an internet home.
Of course, some of my people are now everyone’s people, and that’s part of the problem. Lesbians and queer women are more visible than ever in mainstream culture; nowadays, everyone’s got a crush on Kate McKinnon. As I wrote in Slate’s adoring tribute to the comedy star in July, AfterEllen was one of the first sizable outlets to feature her work. Today, we don’t need to visit a lesbian site to see lesbian comedians like McKinnon. It’s a cruel paradox that increased queer representation has quickened the demise of so many institutions that helped us get there.
Niche coverage isn’t just important for today’s lesbians who want to see their lives and interests reflected in the media they consume. It also functions as an archive of our culture, a time capsule for posterity. How will our stories be told once all the sites for queer women fold? Who, if anyone, will tell them? Where will newborn queers go to obsessively catch up on the past several years of lesbian fixations, scandals, and conversations? Who will tabulate our census when there’s no central database?
Virtual spaces are essential for these reasons, and they bear notable similarities to physical ones. Just like gay media spaces, physical gay spaces that claim no gender affiliation still almost always skew heavily male, and women-centered spaces are vanishing faster than we can mourn them. AfterEllen’s shuttering comes in a few-year span that’s seen an alarming number of lesbian bars close, including the Lexington in San Francisco, Sisters in Philadelphia, and Rubyfruit Jungle in New Orleans, leaving entire regions without any lesbian bars. Last year, Phase One—D.C.’s only lesbian bar and the oldest continuously operating one in the nation—shut down. It was the first lesbian bar I ever visited; many years later, my partner and I shared our first kiss there. The end of the Phase hit me hard.
A couple of weeks ago, I was having dinner with my partner and a few gay men when the conversation turned to a new D.C. bar, the Dirty Goose, one of four or five new gay male bars that have opened up in the District (a city already teeming with gay male gathering spaces) in the past two years. “I really hope it succeeds, because we need more options here,” one of the men said.
My heart aches for the days when I wished queer D.C. women had more options. I so regret any time I spent agitating for better options, and hipper options, and more convenient options. I spent so much time scoffing at the Phase’s treacherous construction, outdated design, subpar sound system, and out-of-the-way location, when I should have been thanking the gods of Bilitis we had any option at all. I should have gone to the Phase more often. I should have spent more money there instead of at bars that didn’t need to charge a cover to keep opportunistic homophobes out. I should have thrown my monthly dance parties there instead of at cooler, more centrally located straight bars. Every time a lesbian bar, business, or blog shutters, a small part of me blames myself.
That’s how I feel today, thinking about AfterEllen. And others in queer media are already sounding a warning call. Mary Emily O’Hara, the Daily Dot’s LGBT reporter who was herself laid off last Friday, called the collapse of queer women–focused media “the real lezpocalypse.” AfteEllen’s main competitor, Autostraddle—now the only bigtime queer women’s news outlet, as far as I know—posted a shocked dispatch about AfterEllen’s closure on Wednesday. At the end of it, Autostraddle’s editor in chief encouraged readers to donate to Autostraddle, buy its merchandise, share its content, become a paid subscriber, and attend its live events because its advertising revenue has dropped every year for the past five. Like AfterEllen, she wrote, “we’re often on the brink of not existing anymore … it’s always a struggle.”
In some ways, Autostraddle seems better suited than AfterEllen to the contemporary directions of queer culture and the internet. It offers much more pointed social commentary, extensive incorporation of trans and genderqueer issues and identities, self-referential lols, and just-for-fun topics, like crafts and food, that aren’t explicitly related to queerdom. Autostraddle has also succeeded in translating its online community to IRL community, through an annual summer camp and regular reader-hosted events (brunches, barbecues) in cities all over the country.
But AfterEllen was a necessary, one-of-a-kind cultural nexus on the internet—and more than that, it was a game-changing pioneer that continues to shape our understanding of lesbian culture. One of my favorite pieces I’ve written at Slate, an exploration of the “slutty power lesbian” aesthetic, was almost entirely informed by the AfterEllen archives, and I’m hardly the first queer writer to rely on those resources.. Bendix acknowledged as much in her Tumblr goodbye: “We are frequently cited, linked to, asked for comment and utilized as a resource for those who find us to be the only place that has, for so long, been the authority on ourselves.”
The authority on ourselves. To have ourselves, or someone like us, be the authority on ourselves is a simple goal, and yet, in today’s environment of queer mainstreamification and media outlet upheavals, it’s remarkably difficult to achieve. Culture is a feedback loop: It needs rich inputs to get dynamic outputs. Without diverse and attentive responses to lesbian culture, that vital, sustaining force will idle and fade. We need more authorities on ourselves to stave off cultural stagnation. We deserve nothing less.