Looking Ahead: Why I’m Still Here

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I was a teenager when I discovered AfterEllen. I remember hungrily devouring the site with one ear cocked, listening for my parents lest they catch me visiting a lesbian website. There were questions I didn’t want to answer yet, questions whose answers could potentially have terrifying consequences for many parts of my life. After reading articles, I wiped the browser history and cleared the cache. It was my secret oasis of queer community at a time when there was no other around me.

via Getty

via Getty

 

I was alone and knew it: with only 1 percent of the adult population identifying as lesbian and no other out lesbians at my high school, this was the only link I had to “my” people: the people who loved the same way I did, who dreamed the same dreams of happiness and fulfillment.

Those were the early years of both the site and lesbian representation in the entertainment industry, when the only lesbians I could name were Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. Lang, Melissa Ferrick, Ani DiFranco and Martina Navratilova, because those were pretty much the only out famous lesbians, period. When AfterEllen reported on a lesbian guest character on a show, I scrambled to watch in secrecy so my parents wouldn’t notice. I taped movies off the TV to watch later based on AfterEllen’s reviews. Sarah Warn’s blog wasn’t even a year old and I was already a dedicated reader. I needed to see people like me depicted on screen, to feel that I wasn’t alone, but it was so rare at the time that I needed someone or something to flag those rare appearances for me.

Years went by and the site changed. It grew in response to reader input and the personalities of the contributors. There were Vlogs and webisodes and celesbians and shipping. AfterEllen became well known enough that actresses actually read the site to see what was being said about them and their shows, a development I once would have never believed possible. The entertainment industry landscape began to change, and I fully believe it was in part because of the spotlight that AfterEllen put on lesbian visibility. The site’s tagline was “Visibility matters,” and truer words could not have been chosen. Lesbians went from being titillating sweeps week phenomena or one-offs killed in the space of a single episode to well-rounded characters integral to multi-season plots. They were less often the crazy bisexual femme fatale and more often the doctor, police officer, teenager, or warrior. Sometimes they were even the lead character. Actresses began to come out, too, and athletes and musicians. From my initial six, there’s now a whole community of out female celebrities. We’ve somehow become “trendy.”

What distinguished AfterEllen — apart, of course, from being the only entertainment industry-centric lesbian website at the time — was its playfulness and sense of community. It was one giant family that spanned the globe. Episode recaps by titans like Heather Hogan kept readers engaged and interacting. Dara Nai’s L Word sock puppets and Brunch with Bridget drew enthusiastic, dedicated audiences. There was a warmth of style coupled with a common sense of community that proudly said, “We have carved this niche for ourselves and it is ours and we love it.” Those were the golden years.

I don’t like to write in the first person. It makes me uncomfortable. I’m generally not important enough for people to want to hear my opinions, so I prefer the relatively sterile analysis of facts and figures, but I can tell this story because it’s not my story at all: it’s almost everyone’s story. We all somehow found our way to this site and having found it, held onto it like a life raft in the ocean. For women coming out, it was a beacon of hope that they weren’t alone. For women who were already out, it was a good place to chat, gossip and make friends. Some women found partners and wives on the site. At the heart of it, it was OURS, even when readers started finding new sites (can we admit Autostraddle exists now?) and stopped coming, like the stuffed bear that you grew up with that’s at your parents’ house: even if you no longer want to play with it, you feel nostalgia that it’s there. It’s comforting. It’s part of your history.

I know how many people were hurt over Evolve Media’s decision to reduce resources to AfterEllen and cut Trish Bendix as the full-time editor. It’s a huge blow to the queer female community whose magnitude literally cannot be calculated. The loss is staggering. The Morning Brew alerted readers to new developments; upcoming queer movies, interviews by celesbians, tidbits from the news, etc. Trish was the only journalist standing on the red carpet just to speak on behalf of the queer female community. It’s a huge void that cannot be entirely filled for now, and it’s one of many canaries in the mineshaft for niche news sites.

But for me personally, I can’t quit AfterEllen. I’ve been here too long and it means too much to me. There’s a legacy here that I believe is worth fighting for. Things will be different. Many of AfterEllen’s best writers are leaving, and we won’t be out on the red carpet anymore. Interviews will dry up and maybe there will be no Morning Brew. In fact, I have no idea how often content will be updated or what it will look like because part of that will depend on the writers who choose to stay. Maybe I’m the last lightkeeper of an abandoned lighthouse, but I feel there’s still so much to be done here. There are stories to be told. There is a history to uphold. AfterEllen will still be a place young women find through Google as they grapple with their sexuality, and I don’t want them to wonder why the site lies forlorn and rue that they arrived a little too late.

So I’m staying and fighting for this site, but I understand those who aren’t. I want to keep writing; I don’t want to leave. Because at a time when print and online media outlets are going into decline, this queer female-centric visibility is going to matter more than ever. We need to keep fighting for it on as many sites as we can. And I want to be part of that.

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