Digital Queers: How Computers Transformed LGBTQ Life in the United States
Initial advertisement for GenderNet, the first Bulletin Board System specifically for transgender individuals. Originally published in TV-TS Tapestry, no. 42 (1984), courtesy of the Digital Transgender Archive.
Much discussion of modern social justice movements in popular media focuses on the role of social media as organizer and catalyst. Twitter is credited as a key organizing platform in both the Arab Spring protests and Black Lives Matter, for example, which found popular adoption during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of Michael Brown. And increasingly, both historians and the general public view such digital communication as important archival material: for example, six days after the protests started, software developer Ed Summers began collecting an archive of all tweets mentioning “Ferguson.”
Yet while social movements’ use of digital tools seems to be a modern phenomenon, the importance of digital communications to understanding movement organizing predates the rise of social media. As historian Ian Milligan has argued, any attempt to seriously study historical events like 9/11 or the dot-com bubble and subsequent crash without using born-digital materials, such as email, digital photographs, and web archives, would “either be impossible or poorly done.” And, of course, these new documents also call for new methods of analysis. Building on Milligan, I argue born-digital materials are particularly important for studying LGBTQ history since 1980. LGBTQ individuals, particularly those working in technical fields, quickly recognized digital communications’ value. Communicating via computer reduced the risk of outing or retaliation, and the technology allowed those without a local queer community to stay connected. Moreover, content produced and circulated via computer didn’t require the approval of a publisher or distributor, and its reach was limited only by one’s ability to access a computer and modem. These features were especially important for transgender individuals and organizations, who used digital tools to organize and connect at a previously impossible scale and speed.
The bulletin board system (BBS) was a key platform for LGBTQ users. Functionally, a BBS was a server that allowed users with the required equipment—a microcomputer, modem, and an open phone line—to dial in. Once logged in, users could access a variety of features, including forums, chat rooms, games, and file libraries. Though the first BBS launched in 1978, they really began taking off in the mid-1980s. The first edition of the Gay and Lesbian BBS List, first published on August 20, 1988, and circulated monthly via Usenet until 1999, included 199 boards. For questioning users or those not yet out, the BBS offered a safe space for anonymous discussion and exploration. While some had national reach, most BBSes were primarily used by individuals within their area code. As such, they had deep connections to their local communities, facilitating everything from hosting fundraisers to a platform for political organizing.
Political activists also recognized their usefulness by the mid-1980s, when AIDS-focused BBSes were launched. In the early 1990s, as grassroots organization ACT UP was organizing kiss-ins and other protests to draw attention to government inaction on HIV/AIDS, individuals like Sister Mary Elizabeth, Ben Gardiner, and Kiyoshi Kuromiya were using their respective BBSes to circulate key information to persons living with AIDS (PWAs), their caregivers, and allied medical professionals. And as I argue in The Two Revolutions, the contemporary transgender movement simply wouldn’t be possible without digital communications, which allowed individuals and community groups to connect rapidly and on a large scale. These shifts didn’t come without consequences, however: while trans early adopters of digital technology emphasized its cyberutopian potential, widespread adoption ultimately re-entrenched the dominance of white, middle-class individuals within the transgender movement. Moreover, it also drove increasing disinvestment in the national and regional support groups that funded and fueled it.
That widespread adoption came not with the BBS, which remained a relatively niche technology even within the community, but with the World Wide Web. By 1994, the World Wide Web had a variety of technical advantages compared to a BBS, including ease of use and always-on persistence. Its wider reach also allowed niche terminology like “cisgender” to reach a larger audience and see increasing usage throughout the mid-2000s. The web’s impact was transformative for transgender organizations. Prior to the web, information largely circulated through the existing newsletter exchange network amongst smaller groups and through works published by non-profits like the American Educational Gender Information Service (AEGIS) or community presses like Creative Design Services. However, all of these small operations had limited financial and monetary resources—most newsletter editors were volunteers who could put in upwards of 100 hours to complete a single issue.
Digital publishing presented a variety of advantages for these organizations. In her 2017 essay about the internet’s impact on her work, long-time trans activist Dallas Denny vividly described how the advent of the internet “really changed everything” for AEGIS. Previously, much of her work as AEGIS’s sole staff involved a variety of procedural tasks like returning phone calls, mailing out information packets and other materials, or physically hauling AEGIS’s informational inventory to conferences and talks. Yet once AEGIS’s work moved online in 2000, there was “no need to wait for days to receive information, no need to limit the amount of information provided, no real need to maintain an office in which to process transactions. There are no bills for printing or photocopy expenses and no need for paid staff or volunteers, except as required to keep the website running.” In her view, “the advantages of this no-rent, no-electric-bill, no-typewriter-ribbons-or-printer-cartridges, no-postage-stamps, no-salaries, no-need-to-sell-things-or-solicit-money model were obvious as early as 1994; no nonprofit could afford to ignore them—although many did.”
Small regional trans groups similarly embraced the website. Most relied on free, ad-supporting services like Geocities, which aimed to make website creation accessible to individuals with a variety of technological skill levels. While some of these sites could be little more than “brochureware,” others offered a variety of information and resources, including access to a monthly newsletter. Moreover, they allowed such cash-strapped groups, whose advertising budgets were often limited to the occasional listing in the alternative weekly’s classifieds page, access to a mass audience. Lastly, being able to post an email address, as opposed to a hotline number, meant questioning information seekers could remain safely anonymous when they reached out—unlike an answering machine, there was less chance the message might be intercepted by another member of the household.
The number of group sites, however, was dwarfed by the explosion in personal homepages. The largest unofficial directory of trans homepages, maintained by Portuguese crossdresser Susana Marques, served as a key hub of connection with the wider trans web. The site, which Marques regularly updated from around 1998 through 2007, included member sites from at least sixty-two countries, though most sites were created by individuals living in North America and Europe. In 2001, she listed 2,771 trans-related home pages within Geocities’ LGBTQ-focused WestHollywood “neighborhood” alone. The sheer size and variety of the directory gave users, particularly those not connected to an existing community organization, a sense of membership and belonging.
Functionally, personal homepages were the antecedent to early social media profiles, establishing common norms such as graphical personalization, photo sharing, and parasocial sharing. For trans creators, having access to a platform they controlled allowed them far more freedom to explore their self-presentation beyond the limited generic conventions of written memoirs or the producer-controlled, adversarial format of talk shows like The Phil Donahue Show or The Sally Jessy Raphael Show. On their homepages, creators discussed what being trans meant to them alongside any number of other interests. Moreover, as a hypertext document, the homepage could change alongside its creator to reflect their own shifting self-identification.
Yet as the reference to social media suggests, the homepage’s popularity reflected a shift away from seeing trans identity as deeply connected to the wider movement and toward understanding it as movement-independent self-identification. This was particularly true for trans youth, who were almost entirely shut out of movement organizations. As I’ve written elsewhere, digital communications were essential to the emergence of trans youth as a demographic category. Even if a trans teen wasn’t able to be out in their day-to-day life, they could create a homepage that more accurately represented their identity and interests—which then became a springboard for networking with other youth in similar situations.
Beyond just the format’s wider impact, digital communication is one of the few types of archival records from this period written by trans youth. When they explore these homepages and other digital documents, queer and trans youth can claim a place within their community’s history. In my class on trans social movements’ history at Gonzaga University, students explore an archived directory of trans youth homepages catalogued by the Wayback Machine. In their research, they discovered one of these homepage creators, Jennifer, had started as a freshman at Gonzaga in 2000. In that moment, their perspective shifted from seeing individuals within the archive as historical actors whose lives had few intersections with their own to approaching the topic with a sense of historical wonder: what had it been like for this student to be a trans young person in 2000? How would the university and its institutions react then as compared to now?
Jennifer’s presence in the archive and my students’ reaction to her page points to the importance of such born-digital archives for contemporary queer history. Without her homepage and others like it, it’s easy to frame transgender identity, particularly among youth, as a contemporary “fad.” Moreover, studying such sources alongside pre-digital archival materials not only highlights how digital technology transformed movement building for LGBTQ individuals, but also offers fertile ground for imagining new activist possibilities at a critical historical moment.
Avery Dame-Griff is a Lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at Gonzaga University. He founded and serves as primary curator of the Queer Digital History Project, an independent community history project cataloging and archiving pre-2010 LGBTQ spaces online. His forthcoming book, The Two Revolutions: A History of the Transgender Internet, tracks how the Internet transformed transgender political organizing from the 1980s to the contemporary moment. It will be available in August 2023 from NYU Press.
 Axel Bruns, Tim Highfield, and Jean Burgess, “The Arab Spring and Social Media Audiences: English and Arabic Twitter Users and Their Networks,” American Behavioral Scientist, 57 (June 2013), 871–98; Rashawn Ray et al., “Ferguson and the Death of Michael Brown on Twitter: #BlackLivesMatter, #TCOT, and the Evolution of Collective Identities,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40 (no. 11, 2017), 1797–813.
 Ian Milligan, “How Can We Be Ready to Study History in the Age of Abundance? A Response,” American Historical Review, 125 (Oct. 2020), 1347–49, esp. 1347.
 Kevin Driscoll, “Social Media’s Dial-Up Ancestor: The Bulletin Board System,” IEEE Spectrum: Technology, Engineering, and Science News, Oct. 24, 2016.
 Avery Dame-Griff, The Two Revolutions: A History of the Transgender Internet (2023).
 Dallas Denny, “The Impact of Emerging Technologies on One Transgender Organization” (Unpublished Paper, 1998).
 Zizi Papacharissi, “The Presentation of Self in Virtual Life: Characteristics of Personal Home Pages,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 79 (Sept. 2002), 643–60.