remembering the golden age of the queer internet
In the pre-social media age a whole world of sites served as an entry point into identity and sexual discovery, a gathering place for queer young people who were closeted, feeling trapped in rural areas, or just looking to chat.
Back in 2004, Sophie Schmieg was one of only a few out trans teens living in Germany, as far as she knew. “Most trans people, especially trans women, were double my age,” she says, and the queer communities available weren’t always welcoming to younger trans people. “The worst were trans people who were telling us that we're too young to transition.”
Sophie knew how to code, so she found a cheap server and domain and put together a simple website with forum software, where she and other trans teens could connect. “These were the dark times,” as she describes, the pre-Tumblr era when non-binary genders and identity weren’t acknowledged in online communities the way they are now, and she had to hack into the forum software to add four gender options instead of just two.
Sophie made tons of new friends on the site, and she was able to connect with other trans youth who were also in search of community. “I was hanging out there pretty much daily,” she says. Young-t.com, as the site was called, eventually went dormant when Sophie started college, and like many online relics of the early aughts, was “lost to bit rot”. Still, she recalls the online community she created was a “great resource” that helped her feel less alone.
"Before Tumblr’s 2007 launch, smaller niche communities, forums and message boards were part of a golden age of early aughts queer internet."
Queer millennials who grew up with internet access might point to Tumblr as the true birthplace of queer internet culture. At its peak, the site was a hub of queer discourse and theory that shaped the language and labelling practices used to define queer identities and non-heteronormative gender expressions, online and off. The so-called gayest generation ever helped bring discussions about issues like asexuality and bi-phobia from Tumblr into mainstream culture, and many remember the site as an early entry point into identity and sexual discovery, a gathering place for queer young people who were closeted, feeling trapped in rural areas, or just looking to chat.
Though Tumblr is certainly the most visible manifestation of a collective queer internet culture, it’s far from the only online community to shape queer people’s understanding of ourselves and each other. Before Tumblr’s 2007 launch, smaller niche communities, forums and message boards were part of a golden age of early aughts queer internet. Anyone who came out or questioned their sexuality before Tumblr, and any queer woman in particular, might’ve found thriving queer and lesbian communities on sites like LiveJournal, Open Diary, Gaydar Girls, Kitten Board, or the now heavily rebranded gUrl.com.
“I met lots of friends on Livejournal that I still talk to,” says Marie, who’s 33 and lives in New York City. “I almost had my first date off of idategirls.livejournal.com.” B, who lives in Minneapolis, remembers meeting a group of fellow “baby queers” on Open Diary who eventually helped her come out. “I was writing about questioning my sexuality and they gave me advice through the comments section,” B says. “Before that, I was in an MSN group of teenagers who felt out of place.” B’s online group of queer friends “were much more welcoming than my small town, and they just showed me that [being queer] was a possibility in the world.”
Jessi Norman, 28, credits her queer awakening to The L Word recaps and queer news updates she found on AfterEllen, one of the earliest and largest websites for lesbian and bi women. It’s also where she met her first girlfriend. “I'm from Alabama so I had no knowledge of queer culture really,” she says. “The site changed that, and I was able to see so many types of people that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise at that time.” AfterEllen has since undergone a massive and heartbreaking rebranding, and while Jessi doesn’t approve of the site’s more recent, blatantly transphobic messaging, the site as she remembers it meant a lot to her at the time. “It was a huge influence in me coming out.”
"The early aughts internet was a safe space before “safe space” became a loaded, political term."
Fan fiction groups and gaming communities were also popular online hangouts for queer and questioning young people looking for a safe, affirming, and anonymous space to explore their imaginations and fantasies. Al, a 28-year-old in Chicago, was part of “a gay Neopets guild” as a tween during the early 00s -- an online community of Neopets fans with a shared interest in caring for their virtual pets, and happened to overwhelmingly identify as queer.
“I remember that we had to write in ‘code’. We would send each other our AIM (instant messaging service) names, but you couldn’t type it out, so you had to share that in weird ways (x’s between each letter, etc). And when the rainbow colour of the Neopets came out I remember that being very exciting,” Al says. “I definitely remember telling some other person that my female pets were dating each other and that I had a crush on a girl in my class.”
As Teresa Navarro writes about her own experience in the Neopets guild of the early 2000s, part of the appeal of this and similar online communities was their impermanence and anonymity. The early aughts internet was a safe space before “safe space” became a loaded, political term. “It has always been easier for me to admit things online instead of in person. Even if I know the person in real life, it’s easier to tell them something through message instead of face to face. There is a shield of being able to think and write before you post or send something that is comforting for when you’re about to admit something nerve-wracking,” Teresa writes. “Being on online sites with communities like this made it feel like we had some kind of power that we didn’t know that we had.”
"For young people living in rural areas, in poverty, or without a safe and supportive family structure, growing up queer can be an isolating experience, and access to virtual communities of peers can be life-saving."
Most relics of the early aughts internet faded away as Tumblr became the new home of queer internet culture, but more young people than ever are now openly identifying as queer, subverting mainstream online spaces and gaining greater visibility. Queer young people are now occupying larger social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Even dating apps like Bumble and Tinder provide opportunities to meet a potential hookup or new friends, and many millennial queers have likely searched for friends, dates, or both on OKCupid. Still, the culture and aesthetic of 2000s queer internet stays alive on smaller sites like Wattpad, informed by the very queer tradition of internet fanfiction, along with Autostraddle and TrevorSpace -- smaller-scale sites with community forums, message boards, and niche content that reflects the influence of early queer internet spaces.
Twitter and Instagram may offer a wealth of aspirational content from conventionally attractive queer celebrities and influencers, safe and intimate online communities for queer young people can still be powerful, affirming spaces. Though some queer identities have become a greater and more accepted part of mainstream culture than they were during the early days of the internet, being a queer kid can get lonely. For young people living in rural areas, in poverty, or without a safe and supportive family structure, growing up queer can be an isolating experience, and access to virtual communities of peers can be life-saving.
In a pre-social media era, the internet didn’t keep receipts or screenshots, and though nothing can ever truly be erased from the internet, part of the beauty and power of early 2000s queer internet was that it wasn’t meant to exist forever. It gave queer young people the power to define themselves and shape their narratives through a new visual and cultural language, and most importantly, to find each other.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.