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 and PlanetOut, online life has always had a strong LGBTQ component that sometimes preceded wider adoption of a new technology.

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.)

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.

Hobbyist ad for the New York–area Backroom BBS.

Courtesy of Raymond Cha

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.”

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, 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.

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.

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 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 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, existed as the first online dating site, but offered a more real-time and forward-looking experience, with the same sort of browsing and chat mechanisms familiar to OkCupid users today. “With 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 competitor PlanetOut in 1995, which merged with 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.