Last December, comedian Rhea Butcher tweeted at the 17-year-old lesbian pop culture website AfterEllen: “You don’t represent me or my friends and your website is a sham.” Butcher, who identifies as both nonbinary and lesbian, continued: “You’re not a lesbian/bisexual website, you’re a TERF website.”
That week marked a peak in the controversy long swirling around the site, pitting communities of queer women against each other over gender inclusivity. In one camp stood transgender-inclusive queers for whom “lesbian” or “dyke” can be claimed by trans women and nonbinary people, as well as trans men who feel a strong connection to the lesbian community. The other, increasingly vocal camp are “gender critical” biology essentialists who believe that only cisgender women can identify as lesbian, and that trans people are in some way trying to “trick” those women. Members of this latter camp are often referred to as Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), which some people claim is a slur used to discredit them.
AfterEllen was once a behemoth in the queer media space, focusing on lesbian and bisexual women’s representation in film and television, but it has recently moved into a new sphere. These days, the site runs articles about the vagaries of “girl dick” (in other words, the genitals of some trans women), claims that young cisgender lesbians are being bullied online for not wanting to have sex with trans women, and makes calls to separate the “L” from the larger LGBTQ+ initialism out of a desire to no longer be associated with trans people. The new AfterEllen has made its stance crystal clear: Trans people are not welcome.
By the end of 2018, a coalition of editors from a newer crop of arguably more popular outlets for queer women, including Autostraddle, Tagg Magazine, Curve, and DapperQ, authored an open letter slamming the “message these so-called lesbian publications are sending to trans women and to young lesbians — including trans lesbians — and we want to make it clear this is not in our name.” Though it didn’t call out AfterEllen by name, DIVA editor Carrie Lyell told The Advocate that the site’s “writers and editors are certainly among those we are referring to.”
So why has all of lesbian media banded together to denounce one little website — one that is arguably unheard of in broader media circles? In order to understand why AfterEllen’s anti-trans shift is igniting LGBTQ+ outrage now, it’s important to look back at what it used to be and the place it once held in queer women’s hearts.
After Ellen, Before The L Word
AfterEllen launched in 2002, born into a vastly different online landscape than the one that exists today when Wikipedia was brand new and Facebook didn’t even exist. People were still trying out this new thing called Friendster, and YouTube was a far-off dream.
In this much quieter world, queer women still had to search for each other (and themselves) at bars, lesbian bookstores, music festivals, and through personals in print magazines like Lesbian Connection and On Our Backs. It had only been five years since Ellen DeGeneres took the bold, terrifying, and temporarily career-destabilizing step of coming out as a lesbian when AfterEllen founder Sarah Warn defiantly named the site in DeGeneres’s honor, “because at that time we thought she’d never work again.” It quickly became more than just reading material; it became a fully interactive, bustling community. “The forums were important to a lot of people,” former AfterEllen managing editor Dana Piccoli says. “We didn’t really have social media, but there were these message boards. It was a really important resource.”
The site was fueled by a growing queer fandom over the emergence of LGBTQ+ characters on TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as a thirst for “celesbians,” or celebrity lesbians. The masthead shifted around, but the editors and contributors remained beloved by readers. Warn stepped down after seven years and handed control to Karman Kregloe in 2009. Trish Bendix, who later became editor in chief, started as a freelance music columnist in 2006. Pre-L Word, lesbians in pop culture were so scarce that the AfterEllen staff became community celebrities in their own right. “Back in the day, AfterEllen writers like Scribegrrrl and Grace Chu were like rock stars,” Piccoli says. “When they went to events people would flock to them and want their autographs.”
Warn remembers the site’s vloggers having the most fans. AfterEllen wasn’t just covering TV shows; it was also hosting early web series-style shows that often stood at the intersection of comedy, talk show, and intimate queer gossip session. Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon co-hosted AfterEllen’s Big Gay Vlog alongside Julie Goldman around the time that both were cast members on Logo’s Big Gay Sketch Show. Liz Feldman hosted AfterEllen’s This Just Out before going on to create NBC’s One Big Happy and write for shows like 2 Broke Girls and Hot in Cleveland.
“The great thing about AfterEllen,” Warn says, “was the ability to give this visibility to actors, directors, makeup artists, and all of these queer women in Hollywood who just weren’t getting visibility. They weren’t getting written about in TV Guide.”
In the years before openly queer women could break through Hollywood discrimination, AfterEllen was a training ground for talent. And while Warn is careful to emphasize that she was rarely given access to celebrities — including struggling to get interviews with the L Word cast — some celebs went out of their way to support the site. “One of the celebrities who was supportive was Sarah Paulson. She was one of the few out or quasi-out women who was taking that stance back when it really wasn’t popular to be,” Warn remembers. Marlee Matlin also granted interviews to AfterEllen, and musicians like Tegan and Sara were “supportive from the start.”
The AfterEllen forums offered queer women an anonymous way to communicate with each other, too. Writer Dorothy Snarker recalled the message boards being “one of the few ways to interact with other gay women online that wasn't just a dating site.” She posted so frequently on the boards that Warn reached out and asked her to write for the site regularly. She did, daily, for years — writing recaps of TV shows with prominent queer women characters, interviewing celebrities, and reviewing films.
“If you wanted to find out if a character on TV or in a movie was a lesbian, AfterEllen was the only place,” says Riese Bernard, one of the founders of Autostraddle. She was about 24 and interning at the now-defunct website Nerve when she discovered AfterEllen. “I used it a lot for reference because Sarah Warn had cataloged like, everything,” Bernard says. “They had this incredibly detailed timeline of lesbian kisses on television; it was almost like its own lesbian pop culture Wikipedia.”
Are We Still Lesbians If We Aren’t All Women?
Culturally, AfterEllen evolved along with lesbianism at-large. What was initially branded as a capital-L lesbian publication expanded to become more queer, as the lesbian community itself saw internal identity shifts increase — more trans men, lesbian trans women, people opting out of gender altogether or identifying somewhere along a spectrum. As fewer people identified as women in what was traditionally a women’s community, AfterEllen had to redefine its voice and audience.
But a division had followed these changes, beginning most saliently years earlier with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a longstanding destination event that saw queer women traveling across the country every summer since 1976. A trans woman named Nancy Burkholder was ejected from the festival in 1991 for appearing to be “still a man,” despite attending and volunteering at the festival in previous years.
By the time it closed down permanently in 2015, “Michfest” had become shorthand for trans exclusion. Meanwhile, anti-LGBTQ+ evangelical Christian groups — pivoting after losing the marriage battle in 2015 — began pushing out the trans-woman-as-predator myth and writing it into model legislation for bathroom bills around the country.
Rising trans visibility seemed to ignite the passions of prominent lesbians like Cathy Brennan, a lawyer who launched numerous blogs (Gender Identity Watch, Pretendbians) devoted to railing against trans people. Brennan’s followers — along with anti-trans doxxing website Kiwi Farms — increased online harassment of trans people to its current peak.
By 2018, the TERF Movement had reached its tipping point. In July, a group of lesbians charged the front of the London Pride march with banners reading “Lesbian Erasure” and “Lesbian = Female Homosexual.” The protesters yelled “dykes not dicks” and “lesbian not queer,” then laid down on the road and refused to move. In a video posted by a group called “Get The L Out,” one woman said, “A man who says he’s a lesbian is a rapist. Transgenderism is destroying lesbians’ bodies.”
Lesbian Media's Fate
In 2016, a slew of headlines proclaimed that AfterEllen was shuttering. The Daily Beast asked whether it portended “the end of lesbian media,” The Advocate warned that the website would be “run by straight men,” and The Cut said the website’s death was a sign that “Queer Women Are Losing Their Havens Online.” AfterEllen’s latest parent company denied the reports.
By this point, the website had changed hands several times over the years. Warn initially owned AfterEllen and its men’s-focused brother site AfterElton, but sold both properties to Viacom’s LGBTQ division Logo in 2006. Eight years later, Logo sold AfterEllen to Evolve Media, then known for men’s lifestyle site CraveOnline and product reviews-driven site TotalBeauty. Emrah Kovacoglu — the straight male general manager of Evolve Media’s TotallyHer brand division — called reports of the site’s closure “false” and encouraged readers to continue posting on AfterEllen’s discussion forums. And so they did: 325 biting comments below Kovacoglu’s post excoriated Evolve Media as only a vast national community of pissed-off queer women could.
“I will tell you right now,” freelancer Erin Faith posted, “I will never write another thing for AfterEllen as long as it’s run by a straight white dude who [couldn’t] literally give two fucks about the queer community and I'm willing to bet I am not the only [one] who feels that way.” The uprising — and the death rumors — began when the company laid off its final employee, then editor in chief Trish Bendix, in September 2016 and said it would not replace her. (Full disclosure: I recently worked with Bendix at the LGBTQ+ news site INTO). She went public with a Tumblr post titled, “Eulogy for the Living.”
“AfterEllen as we know it will be effectively shutting down as of Friday,” Bendix wrote. “Evolve has decided to keep the site and its archives alive for now, with a promise of periodically publishing freelance pieces in the future. I am not sure what that will look like.” Evolve Media did not respond to multiple attempts for comment on this story. She also described Evolve as being made up largely of businessmen with little connection to the lesbian community. Within days, headlines blared that AfterEllen had fired the last lesbian standing and that straight, white men were now solely in charge of one of media’s few lesbian outlets.
In a post attempting to shut down the “false rumor” of the site’s closure, Kovacoglu actually did little to contradict Bendix’s narrative. He cited financial problems relating to “franchises” and the “advertiser base” that didn’t “justify continuing to invest” in having a single remaining staff member. Former contributor Ali Davis says Evolve told her she was welcome to remain as a freelancer. “I responded saying I wasn't comfortable doing that. I believe all but one of the AfterEllen writers did the same,” Davis says. “Evolve was a dude-run company that seemed to think a queer culture site for women was the same as a mommy blog or a beer aficionado site — all just fodder to be monetized for them. They didn't seem to see the point of having a lesbian or bi editor with her hand on the tiller.”
Evolve hired a new editor to oversee AfterEllen, Memoree Joelle, in November 2016. She faced a nearly impossible task: regain the trust of queer women after they had collectively decided to turn their backs on the brand. But Joelle was also part of that community. “I read AfterEllen off and on when I was younger, mostly during my coming out years in the early days of the site,” the longtime freelance writer and editor says. “I remember reading the forums, as it was the only place I knew at the time to talk to other lesbians and learn about their experiences.”
Joelle says her vision for AfterEllen is similar to what Warn originally intended: to fill a gap in lesbian media representation. “Lesbians are still very much underrepresented,” she defends. “I think there is a lot of focus right now on [queerness] and gender [identity], and good for them — but lesbians deserve a site that caters to them specifically, too.” When asked about the recent controversy and the readers who accuse AfterEllen of being a “TERF website,” Joelle simply says, “I thank them for the surge in traffic and hope they find peace.”
It’s hard to discern which is more painful for the former AfterEllen community: watching the website veer into transphobia, seeing the archives and the work of some contributors disappear overnight, or witnessing their bylines simply changed to “staff” with no reasoning offered. Joelle suggests it was part of a companywide sweep not specific to AfterEllen, but Davis suspects otherwise. “It's a punitive thing when you tangle with AfterEllen’s Twitter,” she says, “or publicly take issue with their current editorial direction. I'm assuming that my content will disappear after this article goes up.”
The Struggles of Scarcity
On Dec. 2, the AfterEllen Twitter account tweeted a video by lesbian YouTuber Arielle Scarcella titled, “Dear Trans Women, Stop Pushing ‘Girl Dick’ On Lesbians.” In the video, she reads out-of-context tweets and Tumblr posts that appear to suggest that cisgender women who don’t want to have sex with trans women are transphobic. Scarcella, whose channel has drawn over 137 million views, often features trans people in her videos. But for much of 2018, she posted videos with titles like, “I Won’t Apologize for Being Transphobic.”
“Far from being violent predators, trans women are the ones who get killed and raped when we go on dates. It’s not funny. It’s scary as fuck,” says Rachel Morgan, a queer trans woman who agreed to speak under a pseudonym. Data backs this up: According to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 47 percent of trans Americans have experienced sexual assault, and over half have been the victim of intimate partner violence. Trans women of color made up the majority of anti-LGBTQ+ hate homicides in 2017, according to the National Coalition for Anti-Violence Programs. “A lot of trans women probably don’t speak up because they know how vitriolic, violent, and unreasonable this crew can be,” Morgan says. “You don’t want to get a big-ass target painted on your back and fight some TERF shadow warriors on the internet.”
Morgan was the only queer trans woman who agreed to speak about the AfterEllen debacle. Those who declined cited concerns that doing so would invite attention from transphobic extremists. She says trans women talk to each other about these issues all the time, but speaking out, in general, is hard.
“All that said, I’ve had a host of great relationships with lesbians,” Morgan shares. “There are a lot of people out there that want to push back against trans women, that don’t view us as fully human and don’t want to share space with us. But I still think that most people aren’t like that; most people are chill.”
The letter from the editors of Autostraddle, DIVA, and other lesbian media outlets was heartening to Morgan because it showed that most of the community is willing to protect trans women and have their backs. “It’s easy to lose faith when you see constant shit questioning your validity as a human being,” she says.
Cis lesbians like Bendix worry about how scary and upsetting it must be for trans women to read the new AfterEllen. “I just find [the transphobia] really disheartening, Bendix says. She believes that if she had to analyze why some lesbians are growing increasingly transphobic, it could be because they “feel so marginalized that they have to focus on a group of people they feel are taking their power away, which for some reason they are convinced are trans women.”
Snarker says AfterEllen has transformed into a flat-out anti-trans website that “appeals to the most openly bigoted and separatist in our community,” which is a travesty for LGBTQ+ media. “It's fine to want a place of one's own. We all do, but we can't find it by espousing hatred, spreading misinformation, or promoting discrimination against other marginalized groups.”
When asked if she believes trans people should be welcome in the lesbian community, Joelle offers a generalized statement. “I think people form and solidify their own unique communities. We all see the world very differently, and simply should respect each other’s existence and boundaries,” she says. “I think we would be better off — no matter our sexual orientation or identity — if we would do less demanding of which communities should embrace us, and more time asking what we can do for our chosen community.”
The lesbian community knows the struggle of scarcity. For decades, resources and money have been geared largely toward gay men with lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people left behind. “It used to drive me nuts how the gay publications like Out and The Advocate gave lesbians short shrift, and almost everything was about gay men,” Warn says. “You really couldn’t find anything out about lesbians. I think that’s changed somewhat, but not nearly enough.”
AfterEllen’s financial crumbling in 2016 was yet another example of how advertisers don’t even seem to be able to conceptualize what lies beyond the gay male market. “The consulting firm told us that when companies have LGBT budgets, a lot of the money goes towards Pride and the rest goes to advertising towards gay men,” Piccoli says.
As lesbian bars and bookstores shuttered around the nation, and even traditions like Michfest disappeared, some lesbians see their entire culture disappearing.
“For such a long time, cis lesbians and queer women have dealt with the misogyny of the LGBT community,” Bendix says. “And some of those cis women see the trans tipping point, the raising of the platform, and visibility of trans women, as some kind of replacement — some kind of exaltation that lesbians don’t get.”
Trans people, of course, also know scarcity well. It took decades before trans people were truly recognized as part of the larger gay community, beyond token inclusion. If a scarcity mindset divides cis lesbians from trans lesbians, both groups would be better served by banding together for strength in numbers. “In this industry, I see how much of a struggle it is for queer women’s media to get advertising dollars,” Piccoli says. “We’re bankrolling ourselves. We’re paying for web series to get produced, we’re funding our own comic books and books, we’re footing the bill because we don’t see anyone else trying to pay us.”
One former Evolve Media executive, who asked not to be quoted by name, says that getting advertising for AfterEllen was incredibly difficult. She recalls approaching advertisers that “we knew had an LGBT budget,” only to discover their dollars were allocated for gay men only. Similarly, advertisers looking to reach the general women’s market would simply remove AfterEllen from their lists, she says. It was as if lesbians somehow didn’t qualify as women or as gay.
Since AfterEllen’s emergence in 2002, lesbian, queer, and trans women have cleared many hurdles in terms of opportunity and representation. Like the site’s namesake, they have begun to come out of exile. In the conclusion of Bendix’s 2016 Tumblr eulogy, she offered words of advice for the splintered community: “The last thing I will leave you with is that we need to support one another because support from anywhere else is not guaranteed.” The message was clear: there is little investment in the women — cis or trans — of the queer community, so sticking together is necessary.
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