Celebrating AfterEllen.com’s 10-Year Anniversary: Catching up with founder Sarah Warn


We’re celebrating AfterEllen.com’s 10-year anniversary this week, and today we talk to the site’s founder and original Editor-in-Chief, Sarah Warn. Sarah tells us what inspired her to launch the site a decade ago, weighs in on the most notable changes she’s observed since then and fills us in on her latest endeavors, including building mobile games with lesbian/bi characters. Old habits die hard!

(left to right) Sarah Warn, Lori Grant, and their nieces Kyra, Madeline and Gabrielle 

AfterEllen.com: You launched the site 10 years ago this week. Was there any single pop culture incident that inspired you to create AfterEllen.com? What were you doing at the time career-wise?

Sarah Warn:
I created AfterEllen.com one weekend after an acquaintance I met at a party suggested I do something with all the random lesbian TV factoids I was boring her with. At the time, I was running Expedia.com’s search engine marketing program, and for the first few years, this was just a hobby I did on nights and weekends. But it finally got too big to run on the side, even with [my partner] Lori doing all the finances and you, Michael Jensen (Michael co-founded AfterElton with me, and basically took it over three months after it launched because I realized I sucked at writing for gay men, and didn’t have the time, anyway), ScribeGrrrl and Malinda Lo on board. So I quit my day job to run the AEs full-time, and a year later they were acquired by Logo.

Three things really motivated me to start AfterEllen: the fact that it was so difficult to find any information on lesbian/bi TV and movie characters online and in entertainment magazines; the sexism within the LGBT press online and offline, which  translated to covering gay men far more than gay women; and the desire to do something with all the useless trivia I had in my head about queer women in entertainment.

It was a strange, limbo-y time for queer entertainment. Ellen DeGeneres‘s sitcom had just been canceled, and she was in that Hollywood pariah stage where she couldn’t get any work, but at the same time, The L Word was just being announced, Melissa Etheridge was out and doing well, and there were some good movies with lesbian themes in the works. 

As for the name of the site, I just thought it would be a nice way to honor the significance of her coming-out on the show and in real life. I had no way of knowing at the time that Ellen would have this big comeback and become a much bigger star, that was just luck. 

AfterEllen.com in 2002

AE: What were you were watching back in 2002? Were there any particular shows or films that you thought were making a positive difference? Were there any specific networks or individuals who were on your s–t list at the time?

SW: I was really inspired by what was happening on Once and Again and Relativity, both underrated shows which featured lesbian/bi characters played by Evan Rachel Wood and Lisa Edelstein, respectively. Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a big influence, of course, and I was also intrigued by what was happening on All My Children and ER at the time.

Evan Rachel Wood and Mischa Barton in Once and Again

The pregnant lesbian storyline was frustrating me, as was the lesbian/bi woman-as-killer theme that was so popular in movies at the time. Fortunately, the latter trend has died down a bit.

AE: What do you think have been the biggest/most important changes that you’ve seen take place over the last 10 years in terms of how lesbians/bi women are represented in pop culture? Anything surprise you for the better (or the worse)?

The persistence of the pregnant lesbian storyline has surprised (and annoyed) me a little, although I think TV writers are finally starting to think outside the box a little when it comes to adult lesbian characters. 

The portrayal of bisexuality has improved a lot. Where it once used to signify a dangerous or unstable character, there are now bi characters like Brittany on Glee, whose sexuality is just not a big deal. Bi women are still too often stereotyped as promiscuous or untrustworthy, though, and I hope this changes over time.

One of the most positive changes I’ve seen has been the increase in the number of prominent lesbian/bi characters who are women of color, like Kalinda on The Good Wife, Santana on Glee, Emily on Pretty Little Liars, and Callie on Grey’s Anatomy. When I started AfterEllen.com, the few few lesbian/bi characters on TV and in popular movies were all played by white women; women of color were always relegated to minor roles with no lines, with a few notable exceptions (Dark Angel, ER).  

Jessica Capshaw and Sara Ramirez in Grey’s Anatomy

I think The L Word deserves some of the credit for this improvement, because although it wasn’t as widely watched as a broadcast network show, it really put lesbians on the mainstream press radar, and definitely pushed the envelope on what it means/looks like to be gay or bi.

The number of actors and musicians who are out now is really amazing, too, even if it’s still a potentially career-limiting decision. In 2002 I could name on one hand the number of prominent out actresses; in 2012, the plethora of out women in leading and supporting roles — like Portia de RossiSarah Paulson (who was terrific in Game Change), Jane Lynch, Wanda Sykes, Kirsten Vangsness, Jasika Nicole, Rachel Maddow, and of course, Ellen — is somewhat taken for granted, which is a remarkable change.

Other than k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge, there weren’t a lot of out mainstream musicians in 2002, and now there are too many to count — including (finally) a country star. The internet deserves a lot of the credit for this, since it’s lessened the stranglehold the music labels have over musicians, and created so many new opportunities for musicians and bands to be discovered.

The internet has really changed the landscape for queer entertainment in general. It’s allowed audiences to find great gay characters on international shows like Skins and Hand Aufs Herz, as well as to learn about out gay/bi celebrities, athletes and musicians in other countries. It’s also provided a platform for queer filmmakers, actors, comedians, or just interesting lesbian/bi women with strong opinions to entertain the masses via video blogs, web series, and streamed indie films.

Ten years ago you really only had what the Hollywood movie and TV studios decided to give you, unless you were willing to work really hard to find alternatives — and there’s only so many times you can watch Desert Hearts!

AE: What are you watching on TV these days? What shows or celebrities do you think are helping lesbian/bi representation in pop culture most right now?

: Lori and I spend a lot of time with our three nieces, two of whom are teenagers (14 and 17), so we watch a lot of teen shows like Glee and Pretty Little Liars. Our nieces are very girly, boy-crazy straight girls (this is how they identify currently, anyway, and yes, we’ve expressed our disappointment in their lifestyle choice) [laughs], and it’s great to see what a non-issue the gay characters and themes are for them. But I think having gay characters on these shows, plus the visibility of women like Ellen, is one of the reasons they’re so unfazed by issues of sexuality. Having awesome gay aunts who spoil them doesn’t hurt, either!

Bianca Lawson and Shay Mitchelle in Pretty Little Liars

When we don’t have the nieces, we’re watching shows like Homeland, Happy Endings, Fringe, Nikita, Downton Abbey, In Plain Sight, and Rizzoli and Isles. Basically, well-written shows with strong female leads. [laughs]

AE: What projects are you working on these days?

When I’m not playing Eve Online or Mass Effect 3, I’m working with Operation Military Family, a start-up that’s launching a web and mobile app to help veterans, and building mobile games on the side. The first few games I’m making are for children, inspired by my 3-year-old nephew’s love of iPad games, but ultimately I’d like to create one for adults (or at least, non-toddlers) with lesbian/bi characters. There are virtually no iTunes or Android games with lesbian themes or characters, and while that’s not surprising given that many iPhone games don’t even have characters, let alone ones where their sexual orientation would come up, I think it would be nice to have one or two where the character you’re playing just happens to be a lesbian. 

Gaming in general is still where TV and film was 10 years ago – male dominated and largely devoid of gay characters or themes (with some notable exceptions, like the Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Sims, and Fable games) and I’d like to do my part to help change that. 

You can follow Sarah on Twitter at @sarahwarn and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sarahwarn.  

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