When Sarah Warn founded AfterEllen.com in 2002, there had never been a lesbian sex scene on broadcast television. The site’s namesake, Ellen DeGeneres, and Portia de Rossi hadn’t started dating yet. And The L Word — still, perhaps, the most important title in the lesbian pop culture canon — hadn’t even aired.
“At the time, there were so few lesbian and bisexual women on TV that you could literally count the number,” Warn told BuzzFeed News.
She started AfterEllen as a place to write about the representation of queer women on our screens. It was a hobby, at first, but over the next 14 years it became one of only a shrinking number of publications produced by, for, and about queer women. By the time Warn left AfterEllen in 2009, it was owned by Logo, Viacom’s LGBT wing. In 2014, the site was acquired by Evolve Media. According to then Editor-in-Chief Trish Bendix, Evolve gave AE two fiscal years to profit alongside the company’s roster of women and mom-focused publications.
That deadline came in September along with an announcement from Bendix — she was let go and AfterEllen, at least as we’d known it, was no more. Bendix got the news in a phone call from Evolve manager Emrah Kovacoglu. “He said, ‘We can’t find the money for the LGBT sites, we want to put our efforts into growing the moms and fashion space where the money is,’” said Bendix. After Bendix announced the news in a Tumblr post, Kovacoglu countered with his own post on AfterEllen, titled “False Rumor: We Are Not Shutting Down!” While the site is still up, it appears to have become a shell of its former self, home to a few uninspired listicles. (Kovacoglu and Evolve have not responded to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment.)
AfterEllen faithfully chronicled the massive changes in how queer women are represented in pop culture, but there’s one thing that hasn’t changed. Advertisers still aren’t interested in selling stuff to lesbians.
Warn witnessed this herself while courting advertisers for AfterEllen along with other Logo sites like AfterElton (now known as The Backlot). “The Logo reps consistently tried to sell to both gay men and lesbians, but advertisers almost always only wanted to market their products to gay men,” she said. This was despite the traffic for AfterEllen being consistently high, especially given the lack of competing sites for queer women at the time. The fact that AfterEllen was pulling in 1.5 million readers by the time Warn left didn’t seem to matter.
"When you have the stereotypes and the data, the stereotypes won.”
Gay men are stereotyped as an advertiser’s dream. Think of Will & Grace — the sort of gay men that sip vintage wine, their feet up on the reclaimed wood coffee table in their apartment in Manhattan, or San Francisco, or LA. They have theater tickets tucked away in their designer wallets and have plans to go island-hopping in Greece next month. They’ve got double income, no kids, and hit the clubs every weekend.
No one, however, seems to have assumed the same of queer women. Rather than the cosmopolitan socialite, lesbians are stereotyped as angry and introverted homebodies. We’d rather put on our Birkenstocks to pick up some kitty litter than go to a bar. We’re too busy protesting this or that to buy stuff we don’t need. We don’t wear makeup, we don’t shave our legs, we’re iffy on bras. So what the hell can you sell us?
Those are the stereotypes that have endured. They’re the stereotypes that have made it easy for advertisers to avoid thinking about queer women at all.
“I think the data didn’t fit their preconceptions about the demographic,” said Warn. “It came down to stereotypes: The gay stereotypes for gay men worked for them as consumers but worked against us for consumers. When you have the stereotypes and the data, the stereotypes won.”
The relatively little market research done on LGBT consumers paints a rosy picture compared to straight people. Nielsen Media Research’s 2015 LGBT consumer report found that households with at least one LGBT-identifying person spend more in some very attractive areas. LGBT households, for example, spend 48% more on wine and 35% more on liquor than non-LGBT households. They also spend more on pet care (38% more), electronics (43%), and men’s toiletries (32%). In other words, the nonessentials. They’re the sort of products that require discretionary income, something that research has indicated queer people have a growing amount to throw around. Bloomberg reported that LGBT Americans had a combined buying power of $917 billion in 2015, up 3.7% from the year before. Some research has claimed that coupled gay men bring in more income than straight households. A study from 2015 found that gay women earn 9% more than heterosexual women.
These numbers, however, are pretty contentious. LGBT market research seldom separates men from women, or accounts for other factors like race or education. The “T” in LGBT is also all but ignored, lumped in as if trans people aren’t four times more likely to live in poverty. The same research that found lesbians win in the workforce found gay men are penalized on income by 11% compared to straight men. Then there’s the fact that in many states, employment discrimination for LGBT people is still perfectly legal.
Yet the myth of gay affluence has lingered in the minds of marketers — just not for women.
AfterEllen is not the first, and surely won’t be the last, publication centered on queer women to suffer from lack of ad revenue. Although seeing queer couples in ads is more common than ever — and frankly expected for brands who want to prove their progressive credentials — it’s men who’ve had the lion’s share of representation. There’s a long history of coded messages in advertising — involving buff men and tongue-in-cheek phrasing — meant to subtly appeal to queer men. And when it comes to prominent LGBT marketing, that’s also the demographic one of the trailblazers found their success with.
Absolut vodka started marketing to gay customers in the early '80s, long before anyone else dared to. It started with ads placed in LGBT magazines The Advocate and After Dark. Like other early ads targeting gay consumers, the messages were subtle — tagline and rainbow hues tipped off LGBT people but went over the heads of everyone else. Absolut was also among the first to put those messages into mainstream publications, instead of just gay media. Eventually, the brand supported LGBT advocacy groups, held events in gay bars, and sponsored RuPaul’s Drag Race.
These days, Absolut’s queer ads don’t bother with being subtle: There are rainbow bottles galore, and taglines like “Absolut Pride.” You’d also be hard-pressed to find a Pride event without their name on the sponsor list.
Absolut hasn’t totally ignored queer women (take this adorable lesbian marriage proposal video, for example), but most of those LGBT ads have either been gender-neutral or explicitly shown images of men. That’s generally been the case for many brands, according to Todd Evans, the president and CEO of Rivendell, which tags itself as “the gay media company.”
Rivendell represents some 95% of queer and HIV/AIDS media in the US, including Curve, the top-selling lesbian magazine in America. Evans has been with Rivendell since 1992, and in all that time the lack of interest in queer women has remained a pet peeve.
“Women often get overlooked, and this is in the whole history and our company started in 1979,” he said. That disinterest can kill publications, AfterEllen certainly not being the first. Evans said that when he started there were about 20 lesbian-focused publications. “I think today we’re down to five.”
He remembers a cosmetics company that was convinced that lesbians don’t wear makeup. “I couldn’t even get the company who had Ellen as their spokesperson to advertise in Curve,” he said. Rivendell has just launched a postcard campaign reminding brands that they may be missing the “L” in LGBT.
A cosmetics company was convinced that lesbians don't wear makeup.
There are notable exceptions, however. Back in the mid ’90s, Subaru was struggling to sell its cars. Rather than try to appeal to everyone, the company attempted to figure out which niche groups were already loyal. According to Priceonomics, they found that among outdoorsy types and teachers, those niche groups also included lesbians.
But this was a different time, when mainstream advertising for queer people was almost unheard of. A groundbreaking 1994 ad from Ikea featuring a gay couple led to boycotts and an unfounded bomb threat. Despite the risk and the potential for backlash, Subaru went for it.
Ultimately, the carmaker found success with ads with coded messages for queer women — things that flew right over the heads of straight customers. Ads had license plates that said “P-TOWN,” in reference to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and “Xena LVR,” a nod to Xena: Warrior Princess, a show that’s made more than one woman realize their queerness. Other ads featured celesbians like tennis player Martina Navratilova. They also put their ad dollars into media LGBT people were actually consuming, like The Advocate and Out, and appeared in The L Word as the sponsor of fictional tennis star Dana Fairbanks. On top of that, Subaru went beyond messaging and was the first car company to extend benefits to same-sex partners.
Although lesbians clearly had an affinity for Subaru before the brand realized it, it’s the work the company itself put in that cemented themselves as the lesbian car. Now, the brand is up there with U-Hauling and snapbacks on the list of lesbian inside jokes.
Subaru also demonstrates why it’s a mistake for brands to overlook lesbians — we’re a fiercely loyal bunch. Research shows that queer women will stick with brands known to be queer-friendly.
An LGBT community survey released by Community Marketing & Insights this year showed queer women consciously choose to purchase from brands that have displayed genuine support for queer and trans people. Those brands included Target, which took a stand on gender-neutral bathrooms, and Wells Fargo, which released a heartwarming ad in 2015 featuring a lesbian couple adopting a child. Subaru and Home Depot also made the top 10.
Queer women are also relatively cheap to reach — running a campaign in publications like AfterEllen or Curve costs less than big glossies like The Advocate or Out, which are primarily read by gay men.
But then there’s the tricky question of how. With queer women remaining such an apparent flannel-clad mystery, and most market research skewing toward gay men, where do advertisers even begin? Not pandering is a good place to start, says Jenn T. Grace, a communications expert who teaches straight people how to market to LGBT communities.
“If you want to be reaching queer women, you can’t just try to put stock models into an ad and pretend that it’s intended for queer women but use the same messaging that you’d use for your straight ad,” she said.
Brands also need to show up. It’s not good enough to put a lesbian couple in an ad but then fail to support LGBT employees or events like pride celebrations. Absolut vodka and Subaru were advertising with queer messaging in queer publications when no one else would.
“There a lot of brands I am die-hard loyal to because I’ve seen them at events,” said Grace. She says there are companies she feels she can trust thanks to their LGBT marketing. “When I go to a Marriott, I know I won’t have to worry about being discriminated against, I know the person behind the desk won’t ask me and my wife if we want two beds.”
Since a site as frequently visited as AfterEllen can be nearly wiped out by a lack of ad revenue — even though queer women are clearly loyal to brands they believe in — virtual queer spaces are struggling to survive. It may be left to queer women themselves to keep our cultural hubs afloat.
Riese Bernard runs Autostraddle.com, which is now, for all intents and purposes, the only remaining major online-only publication for queer women. For her, the fall of AfterEllen was proof that advertisers aren’t going to save us.
“It did feel to me like the ultimate proof that queer women’s media cannot be supported by advertising, full stop,” she said.
When Autostraddle launched in 2009, Bernard figured the ads would come along as the website grew. “From the start, there was something that was working against us. At first we thought it was our lack of experience, our lack of connections, our lack of traffic,” she said. “Maybe our traffic wasn’t high enough and once we fixed that the money would come in. Then we did, and the money didn’t come in.”
At first, they thought it might be because the site talked about sex, but seeing AfterEllen’s struggles made it clear the old stereotypes were at work.
“When they picture a stereotypical lesbian, they think hairy armpits and Birkenstocks, and that’s not very marketable.”
“When you think about the stereotypical gay men, you think of an affluent, dress really well, lives in a loft with his fancy boyfriend,” said Bernard. “When they picture a stereotypical lesbian, they think hairy armpits and Birkenstocks, and that’s not very marketable.”
Through volunteer ad sales staff and eventually joining an ad network, Autostraddle did some campaigns from the likes of O.B. tampons, the WNBA and the movie Pariah. But after wasted hours courting brands who just turned them down, Autostraddle has said fuck it, we’ll do this ourselves.
Now, the vast majority of the site’s revenue comes from merch sales, premium subscription memberships, and A-Camp, a series of camping excursions for queer women. Autostraddle now even makes more money from affiliate advertising — links to products that give the site a cut of sales — than from traditional ads.
Autostraddle readers are so supportive that Bernard says people will sometimes just send them spare cash when they have it. We’re willing to do what we can to protect our own. Because as much as the stereotypes about lesbians have worked against the us, there’s one that’s true: We stick together.
And that’s the final message Bendix had in her Tumblr post to AfterEllen readers. For all we’ve lost, we can’t expect anyone but ourselves to keep the pillars of our community alive.
“The last thing I will leave you with is that we need to support one another, because support from anywhere else is not guaranteed. Support queer women, women of color, trans women — give other deserving women your money, your eyeballs, your attention. Donate to their Kickstarters, visit their websites, advertise in their pages, buy their albums, go see their films in theaters, purchase their novels, frequent their businesses.”
Queer women today are more visible than ever. But that’s still no substitute for spaces like AfterEllen we can truly call our own. Without the money — whether from advertisers or the audience itself — to keep those spaces alive, parts of the queer community die with them.
“There is less a need for queer-only spaces, because they’re not the only place to see queer people or see queer people represented,” said Bernard. “But people who say those spaces aren’t necessary anymore are just ridiculous.”