It’s a website, but for many of us, it was also a lifeline
January of 2009 was really, really cold in Montana, the kind when the snow is so frozen it flows like powdered sugar in the frigid bursts of wind, when your eyelashes freeze together if you stay out for too long.
I had just moved to the state capital, Helena, to cover the Montana Legislature for my master’s thesis project, and I was not thrilled. I’d lived in Helena before, during college, and knew the city and I just didn’t jive. It was small, hard to meet people my age, and not a great place to be anything other than hetero, cisgendered, and white.
It didn’t help my disposition that I had to move away from Missoula, a bigger, more progressive city, where I was going to school along with my girlfriend (who is now my wife).
Helena represented being closeted through the bulk of college, a place with strict borders and consequences for being different. I’d been abandoned by friends after they found out I’m gay, and the college had little-to-no LGBTQIA visibility or support. To best sum it up, it was a place where I got a Hastings membership and sweated while the cashier rung up my L Word DVD rentals, hoping he wouldn’t see what it was, what I was.
During those long winter nights when the sun set at 4 p.m., I would spend my time under blankets at my rental, alone for the most part, save for my 14-pound laptop whirring and warming as I typed my loneliness into comments on AfterEllen, a website dedicated to lesbian and bisexual women’s interests. The tagline says it’s a site that “plays for your team,” a phrase many-a-queer who lived through less accepting times would immediately recognize as a safe place.
AfterEllen was an oasis after a hard day in a world that said repeatedly it didn’t care about me or my second-class concerns, where other queer women reached out through the Internet, connecting and supporting and laughing and crying about all the ills and goods of the world.
Sure, most of the articles I read were recaps of shows with queer characters, or just the whiff of queer characters, but the tone of those recaps were everything. I spent almost zero time watching Pretty Little Liars, but I read Heather Hogan’s recaps religiously, her humanistic insights giving an otherwise silly show a sense of depth I needed.
Dorothy Snarker, a fantastic voice, wrote about the lesbian subtext in ‘Rizzoli and Isles’ in a way that made me understand why I felt compelled to watch such shitty television dramas — it was because there was almost no queer representation anywhere. We were holding onto the subtext — eye contact! touching! talking! — because we were starved to see ourselves anywhere other than in the sin pile, the dirty pile, the second-class citizen pile.
Luckily, those subtext pieces weren’t necessary as time went on. AfterEllen suddenly had many shows to choose from with queer representation, and I would read those recaps as a treat to myself after all my work was done.
This isn’t to say AfterEllen was without its problems. I had to step away for long periods when the discussions in the comment section would get particularly anti-bisexual, or when my favorite writers left the site.
As my own writing career has grown, I can’t forget the places and people who gave me the OK to just be, that said “we see you, we appreciate you, and we are you.” There are so many others who feel just like I do, who flock to places with supportive and safe communities and pay for the privilege.
But like The Toast, another popular site with a cozy commenting community that recently shut down, AfterEllen is over. The site’s last day is Friday, after its parent company Evolve decided it wasn’t making enough profit.
It’s an absolute blow to the queer community when spaces like this are erased, especially a place with a 14-year history. When the site opened in 2002, I was a junior in high school, terrified of even saying the word “lesbian,” let alone talking to other people about it.
We’ve made social and legal strides in LGBTQIA acceptance, and I hope with all my heart it is easier for kids now than it was for me. But this means it’s up to people like us — the people who came before, who know how bad it can be — to keep safe places on the Internet, to hold onto them with both hands for the sake of those who will come later, those scared kids and adults who are confronting truths about themselves and need validation that they are not alone.
The queer/bisexual/lesbian market is huge, and we’re dedicated as fuck (see SIX SEASONS OF RECAPPING LESBIAN SUBTEXT IN ONE TERRIBLE SHOW). If we love you, we LOVE you. We will give you our queer money and I promise it spends just like the straight kind.
AfterEllen played an integral role in my self-confidence, and frankly, my survival. I will never be able to thank everyone who got brave for those of us who were too scared, who wrote themselves and their hearts out on the Internet, who gave of themselves so I could have something to hold onto.
Keep them alive to keep us alive.