After AfterEllen: On The Future Of The Queer Community On The Internet

How can queer women’s media make it?

by Riese Bernard

This week, AfterEllen’s Editor-in-Chief, Trish Bendix, announced that the pioneering site, which had spent 14 years as the web’s foremost authority on LGBT women’s pop culture, would be shutting down. The lesbian internet wept and raged, and had existential and literal questions about the world and capitalism and power and the future of queer community and safe spaces.

If you’re not a gay lady, it’s possible you’ve never heard of AfterEllen, or the site I run, Autostraddle, which apparently is the last big web-first lesbian magazine standing. So, quickly: In 2002, a whip-smart Harvard grad and Expedia employee named Sarah Warn started a lesbian entertainment website to talk about the three or four lesbian entertainment stories that occurred every blue moon. She named it after Ellen Degeneres, intended as a tribute to the then-shunned star whom she feared the queer world would one day forget.

AE began as a hobby but soon gained a cult following, enabling Warn to do it full-time. When The L Word premiered in 2004, coinciding with the advent of accessible wireless high-speed internet, AfterEllen quickly became THE cultural hub of lesbian life online. Warn and her partner launched a brother site, AfterElton, smashed them together under their company Erosion Media LLC, and then sold both sites to Logo/MTV in 2006.

Viacom-owned Logo was a new gay-oriented cable network that appreciated its lady-led property, even airing AfterEllen’s video blogs on their channel after-hours. Viacom gave AE the access and the money it needed to grow, and it did. By 2009, Sarah left, and another editor, Karman Kregloe, took over. Trish Bendix who'd been writing for the site for ten years, was at the helm in 2014, when Viacom put AfterEllen up for sale. It was bought by Evolve Media, where it was brought under the aegis of the woman-focused TotallyHer, which intended to take up the challenge of making the site profitable within two years. They failed.

So here we are now, with a lot of people wondering: If AfterEllen couldn’t make it, how can any queer women’s media “make it”?

AfterEllen’s folding proves what I’ve long suspected, which is that running queer women’s media on advertising revenue alone may indeed be a hopeless endeavor. “At MTV, we consistently had advertisers wanting to advertise to gay men (on AfterElton),” Sarah Warn tweeted on September 20th, “but not lesbians, and I developed a theory that stereotypes work FOR gay men as consumers (travelers, affluent) & AGAINST lesbians (no $$, don’t care about clothes, etc.)”

While gay men are viewed as a rapt, monied market for expensive watches, luxury vacations, and very fancy pants, gay women have never quite achieved that cachet, no matter how many glamorous lesbian celebrities slip into the mainstream. As mainstream acceptance increases, however, queer-owned-and-operated media and spaces are struggling and closing. The rise of LGBT verticals on mainstream sites like Buzzfeed and HuffPo have done irreparable damage to sites like AfterEllen and Autostraddle, as well as indie publications for gay men and women alike, which formerly were the only reliable source of gay news. With SEO-optimization and big social media teams, their stories are now the first to pop up, not ours. Many fear queer-specific spaces will become obsolete in this new era. I disagree with my whole heart.

Autostraddle launched in 2009, headed up by me and my then-girlfriend, designer Alex Vega. The team was basically my group of friends, who I’d mostly met through my personal blog and L Word recaps (for now-defunct fansite The L Word Online, as well as a video series on Showtime’s YouTube channel). I was inspired by Jane, Sassy, The Awl, Nerve, Bitch, Bust, and Jezebel. I wanted a site for LGBTQ women that went beyond entertainment, covering a breadth of topics similar to a traditional women’s magazine. We had a slow and often painful start. For the first few years, our site regularly crashed, sometimes for days at a time, and we almost quit every few weeks. Most everybody worked for free. I worked 80 hours a week and hustled for donations. We sacrificed our social lives, sanity, health, financial stability, and pride. We stuck with it because we loved our work and we loved our readers, and they supported us enthusiastically. We had no business experience or ad sales team, but imagined ad money would pour in once we got the traffic numbers or maybe an experienced ad salesperson. We were wrong.

We’ve since blown through ad salespeople and ad networks with what began as earnest optimism and eventually became grizzled pessimism. We’ve been a part of ad networks including Say Media, Google, BuySellAds, and the Gay Ad Network. We’ve had young gay men, power lesbians, and old straight men try to sell ads for us. We’ve partnered with other LGBTQ sites and other ad firms. Our most successful relationship was with Target 10, an LGBT-focused agency that brought us every campaign they could and were an actual joy to work with. Generally, though, every new person we worked with came back to us with the same sad story: They’d never had a harder time selling a property than ours. Granted, we refused intrusive ads and only agreed to shill products we genuinely believed in. We also write a lot about sex, which is apparently okay for straight women but when gay women do it, it’s gross, and advertisers hate it. Our ad revenue has slid down a slope more slippery than the worst same-sex marriage doomsday scenario, but we also learned early on not to rely on it. The companies that have gambled on us have seen incredible results—even our most anti-capitalist readers are always stoked to see advertisers investing in Autostraddle and enthusiastically consume sponsored content. Still, at its peak, ad income was 15 percent of our revenue. Now it’s about 5 percent.

Two ad types run on sites like ours: direct sale and network ads. The former brings in better money—designed by/with and paid directly from the brand or its agent. When no direct sale ads have been sold, network ads feed into those empty spots. Those can be audience-specific ads sold in bulk through a network for a low CPM, or cookie-driven ads personalized by your browsing history. After snatching up AfterEllen, TotallyHer approached us about joining their network. They wanted to sell AE as part of a big gay bundle to advertisers. Coming off five years of ad-people serving us nonstop false hope, we negotiated the contract offered to a shred of its former self: We wouldn’t run intrusive ads, set a minimum $1 CPM, denied exclusivity, and maintained our right to negotiate our own direct sales. Our independence and lack of corporate support, previously a thorn in our poor sides, benefited us here. We had an option AE didn’t have. We encouraged TotallyHer to reach out to other niche queer sites, like ElixHer and VillageQ, to add to their network. I’m not sure if they ever did.

We witnessed, over the next two years, TotallyHer drown AE in intrusive ads, hoping the formula that worked for their other women’s sites would work for AE. I guess it didn’t. Simultaneously, even big online media with deep, venture-capital-infused pockets were struggling to generate ad revenue. Indie sites like The Toast decided to quit while they were ahead, while big online media player Buzzfeed decided to shift its revenue-generating efforts to video; indie publications signed on to the retooled Medium network, and legacy publications began demanding dollars from ad-blocking readers. Facebook and Google, meanwhile, grow richer and richer.

But many of the same things that make our community so unattractive to advertisers are the things that make our community so singularly capable of supporting their own.

The very first lesbian magazine,Vice Versa, debuted in 1947 and was surreptitiously hand-typed by “Lisa Ben” at her office job. She used carbon paper to make multiple copies and would distribute it for free to her friends, encouraging them to pass on their copy to another lesbian upon completion. Vice Versa shuttered when Ben got a new job without access to a typewriter and carbon paper. Profit wasn’t the point; community was.The Ladder came next, published by “homophile” activist group The Daughters of Bilitis, and ran from 1956-1972. It was a lifeline for its readers, but it never turned a profit. They floated for a while on a $100k grant, and closed in 1972 with then-editor Barbara Grier later noting, “no woman ever made a dime for her work, and some … worked themselves into a state of mental and physical decline on behalf of the magazine.”

We’ve lost so many magazines over the years, hundreds of them really, like The Lesbian Tide ('71-'80), The Furies (’72-’73), DYKE: A Quarterly (’75-’78), Azalea (’77-’83), Heresies (’77-’93), Hot Wire (’84-’94), Common Lives/Lesbian Lives (’81-’96), On Our Backs (’84-’06) and Girlfriends (’93-’06). OUT Magazine once devoted equal attention to gay and lesbian issues, but eventually shifted entirely towards men. Logo did the same when it sold AfterEllen. Somewhere in there, Showtime launched and folded the website OurChart. Earlier this year, Advocate “sister” site SheWired announced it had never profited as a stand-alone site and would become a tag on CherryGrrl and PrettyQueer folded, VelvetPark ceased printing magazines and now posts online a few times a month. Some incredible print publications remain, like Curve Magazine, GO Magazine, ElixHer and The Lesbian Connection, but none are surviving solely on ad income. And while Autostraddle remains in operation and everybody who works here is paid, everybody is also desperately underpaid and we still lack basic support staff (I still do the accounting, for example) that big media takes for granted. We scrape by. We don’t have an app, we don’t do video or Snapchat, there’s no social media strategist, no podcast network, no ad team. We work 12 hour days. Writing is my number one skill and passion, but there are months when all I have time for is the business part, and that sucks.

The queer women’s community has long prioritized community over financial stability, but there has to be a way to maintain both, as Olivia Travel has done. What TotallyHer doesn’t understand about AfterEllen and sites like it is that community comes first, and that it is many queers' only source of community.

It is our duty to find a way to maintain those communities without sacrificing that same community’s financial health, and clearly nobody else is gonna do that for us.

The Autostraddle team is my family, and our readers are my extended family. We hang out on our own website, that’s how cool we are. Because it’s reader-generated revenue that keeps this ship afloat, we are beholden to them, not advertisers. Our radical politics, aggressive inclusivity, and over-processed touchy-feely devotion to emotional processing might not impress big companies, but it does create loyal fans who will fight fiercely to keep their safe spaces alive.

In July 2014, we launched A+, a paid subscription program. We initially dealt with backlash that made me seriously consider jumping into Lake Tahoe, but over time, people understood its necessity. So we have that, and we have affiliate marketing—linking to products we discuss (books, clothes, under-the-bed restraint systems, Bikini Zone). We sell a lot of merchandise, too. But A-Camp, an idea I had to bring the web community into 3-D, was our biggest game-changer. Once or twice a year we put together a massive event—a camp/conference hybrid for queer women, trans and non-binary folks featuring workshops, panels, crafts, performances, intensives, dance parties, meet-ups, games and so much more. The staff are Autostraddle writers and artists, and our guest talent has included Cameron Esposito, Jasika Nicole, Hannah Hart, Julie Goldman, Deanne Smith, Lauren Morelli, Julia Nunes and Jenny Owen Youngs. A-Camp is thriving. I love it. But it’s a trade-off: A-Camp requires an enormous staff and immobilizes the website for several weeks every year. It’s also a weird arrangement, the website relying so heavily on A-Camp for its financial survival… but without an influx of ad money, that won’t change anytime soon.

When Alex and I signed a contract with TotallyHer, it was with a kind of resignation, but also hope; maybe the only way to make big mainstream money was to put big mainstream straight white cis men in charge of finding said money. They had a solid track record and expertise. Maybe the master’s tools could build us a little yurt outside their house. And honestly, we were a little bit right. Even after their 50 percent commission, and even with all our restrictions, the TotallyHer ad network generated more revenue for us than any other ad network has. It was good enough for us, but it wasn’t enough to support AE.

Meanwhile, AfterEllen’s folding has shocked our community into action. Internet-savvy queers in their 20s through their 40s grew up on AfterEllen, after all, myself included. AE was the first site to hold media creators accountable for their representation of queer characters. AE was a refuge. AE is important. Donations and A+ subscriptions have been rolling in since the announcement, and a fundraiser launched to support Trish Bendix—who is being denied her severance package for using honest straightforward language on The Advocate, a public forum, to explain AfterEllen’s fate instead of using the obfuscating PR-friendly language TotallyHer chose to employ when they sent an actual straight white cis man onto AfterEllen to assure readers rumors of their demise were overstated—promises to send any money raised over the required amount to Autostraddle. We’re establishing a relationship with the library-nerd-friendly Riot Ad Network, and hoping to soon formalize and publicize our already-utilized policy of offering reduced ad rates to queer and female-owned businesses who need the publicity.

AfterEllen's folding isn't an exception to the rule, it is the rule. Survivors are the actual rarity, and I never thought we'd be one of them.

“AfterEllen is just one of the homes lesbian, bisexual and queer women will have lost in the last decade. It was a refuge, a community, a virtual church for so many,” Trish Bendix wrote on her Tumblr. “I’m not sure that some people outside of us can really ever understand that.”

The Autostraddle Senior Staff Team, from left to right: Managing Editor Rachel Kincaid, Executive Editor Laneia Jones, Senior Editor Yvonne Marquez, Senior Editor Heather Hogan, Editor-in-Chief/CEO/CFO Riese Bernard and Design/Business Director Sarah Sarwar