Website’s closure highlights disappearance of queer female spaces

LGBTQ women are losing both virtual and physical safe havens.

AfterEllen.com, a popular website catered towards queer women, has effectively shut down
AfterEllen.com, a popular website catered towards queer women, has effectively shut down

AfterEllen.com, a popular website marketed toward queer women, recently became the latest victim of an internet driven by market demand and mainstream tastes. The site’s closure comes as a harsh blow at a time when queer women increasingly feel that their spaces are being slowly eroded.

Founded in 2002 by writer Sarah Warn and acquired two years ago by Evolve Media, the site was one of the most well-known online hubs for queer issues. But — as with many spaces carved out for LGBTQ women — it failed to generate the revenue and appeal that its new corporate owners wanted. Last week, Evolve Media chose to fire AfterEllen’s editor-in-chief and limit all new content to freelance contributions, effectively shuttering the site.

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In a blog post entitled “Eulogy for the Living,” AfterEllen’s former Editor-in-Chief Trish Bendix broke the news of the site’s demise to readers. Citing AfterEllen’s corporate takeover two years ago, Bendix took aim at the company’s “mainly white heterosexual men” who had lost interest in funding the site once they realized it was less profitable than “moms and fashion.”

I will miss waking up every day to provide you with the Morning Brew, and editing the work of brilliant writers who never lacked in ideas and opinions and enthusiasm. I will miss the daily discussions about topics and issues so vital to our existence. I will miss being synonymous with a site that has been so much of my free time and personal life for almost 10 years because now I’m going to find out what I am without it, and you will, too.

The last thing I will leave you with is that we need to support one another, because support from anywhere else is not guaranteed. Support queer women, women of color, trans women — give other deserving women your money, your eyeballs, your attention. Donate to their Kickstarters, visit their websites, advertise in their pages, buy their albums, go see their films in theaters, purchase their novels, frequent their businesses.

Queer women are worthy. We are worthy.

I am sorry they would not let me post this on AfterEllen and hope that everyone who needs to find this explanation will.

Bendix’s post ignited a firestorm across the internet as queer women lamented the space AfterEllen would leave behind.

“If you were a queer woman who was at least partially conscious at some point in the past 20 years, chances are you read an article on AfterEllen,” wrote Heather Dockray for Mashable. There was also mourning over on Autostraddle, another queer website that served as one of AfterEllen’s main competitors. In a post acknowledging the site’s shuttering, Autostraddle senior editor Heather Hogan emphasized AfterEllen’s wide-ranging importance for a generation of queer women.

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“I met my future wife because of the Skins recaps I wrote on AfterEllen,” she wrote. “Countless lesbian and bisexual women have discovered their sexuality because of AfterEllen, have come out because of AfterEllen, have found community through AfterEllen — and for a very, very long time, it was the only website that held pop culture accountable.”

Since AfterEllen first launched, the options for those seeking queer media have changed dramatically. The number of mainstream outlets covering LGBTQ issues has expanded in recent years — sites like BuzzFeed, Mic, the Huffington Post, and, yes, ThinkProgress now all offer some measure of coverage specific to the queer community.

But even as media outlets expand their LGBTQ coverage, those sites can’t fill quite the same role as AfterEllen did. AfterEllen was a space just for queer women — a site where queer women wrote about issues that queer women care about. From an entire vertical devoted to Kristen Stewart to acknowledgement of even the briefest of queer female cameos in films, the website served as an up-to-date and active resource for LGBTQ women. Without these kind of dedicated corners of the internet, an already-marginalized faction of the queer community gets left behind.

AfterEllen’s fate is eerily reminiscent of a pattern queer women have grown familiar with: the disappearance of spaces they once relied on.

Over the course of the past two decades, establishments that cater to queer women have been vanishing with increasing regularity. Lesbian bars and clubs across the country have slowly shuttered, bowing to the pressures of gentrifying neighborhoods and steep rent hikes along with dwindling patrons. Bars catering to queer men, on the other hand, have fared much better in gentrifying cities like D.C. and New York because they’re able to appeal to a wider clientele, including heterosexual women.

Phase 1, a now-closed location claiming to be the oldest continually-operated lesbian bar in the United States. CREDIT: Washington City Paper
Phase 1, a now-closed location claiming to be the oldest continually-operated lesbian bar in the United States. CREDIT: Washington City Paper

Appeal isn’t the only issue for queer female haunts. Locations also suffer from the wage gap. Heterosexual and queer men alike out-earn queer women, enabling them to spend more and keep their preferred hangout spaces open. Queer women earn less and spend less — a discrepancy that becomes even starker when they are in same-sex relationships. As a consequence, lesbian bars take a hit in revenue. And given the narrowed customer pool they have to begin with, that’s more than many of these establishments can afford.

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As Jen Jack Gieseking noted in the Huffington Post in 2014, even major cities typically hold no more than one lesbian bar. In recent years, even that statistic has been threatened. In 2014, the Lexington Club, San Francisco’s only lesbian bar, closed after rising rent in a gentrifying neighborhood proved too expensive. Phase 1, a D.C. relic that has long claimed to be the oldest continually-operated lesbian bar in the United States, closed its doors at the beginning of this year following several closures and re-openings. And Northampton, Massachusetts — which may be the most lesbian-friendly city in the country — bid goodbye to its only lesbian nightclub, Diva’s, just a few months ago.

You could argue that a dwindling number of lesbian-specific spaces makes sense in a world where queerness is increasingly embraced. Prior to the closure of Diva’s, a local publication pondered what the club’s future might be in the “new era of queerness” — one that encourages progressive ways of thinking about sexuality and gender, while bowing to the fluid nature of romantic attraction.

Indeed, the closure of lesbian bars can be partly attributed to more diverse options elsewhere. Many frequenters of D.C.’s Phase 1, for example, have found viable alternatives in other other places closer to their homes and, at times, easier on their wallets. Nellie’s, an active gay bar in a gentrified neighborhood which charges no cover, hosts a monthly masculine-of-center happy hour for queer women, while groups like The Coven host regular events that attract large crowds — oftentimes at bars that typically cater to cisgender and heterosexual patrons.

The same trends seem to replicate themselves online. Queer women can find all of their news in one place on sites like Buzzfeed, which reduces traffic to more singularly-focused hubs like AfterEllen.

Queer women may not necessarily prefer mainstream news sites and straight bars to their own niche spaces. In both cases, these choices seem mostly to be made based on convenience. But if virtual and physical spaces that attract a broader audience still offer something for queer women, the incentive for keeping niche options around dwindles — even though, as the backlash to AfterEllen’s closure clearly shows, those options are still sorely needed.

In taking advantage of the growing options in a more accepting society, LGBTQ women are unwittingly jeopardizing the spaces they treasure.

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“Some of my people are now everyone’s people, and that’s part of the problem,” Slate’s Christina Cauterucci wrote regarding the website’s closure and the shrinking number of spaces for queer women in her city, D.C. “My heart aches for the days when I wished queer D.C. women had more options…Every time a lesbian bar, business, or blog shutters, a small part of me blames myself.”