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Early LGBTQ Digital Communities

Topical Overview

From the earliest platforms onward, LGBTQ individuals have been building community online. The earliest non-governmental format to see wide adoption was the Bulletin Board System, or BBS. Functionally, BBSes acted as servers individuals could dial into via modem, offering access to a variety of features, including messaging and synchronous chat, libraries of documents and files, and multiplayer games. The first BBS was created in 1978 and their numbers grew throughout the 1980s to the mid-1990s, when their technological capabilities were eclipsed by the World Wide Web.

The second major early non-commercial platform of note, Usenet, was launched not long after the first BBS in 1979. Usenet hosted a system of distributed discussion groups, or newsgroups, accessible via a networked connection. Initially, Usenet was distributed primarily via host servers connected to ARPANET, but quickly became accessible through a variety of different kinds of connections. However, unlike a centralized network, newsgroup propagation was spread unevenly throughout the network, as some host servers restricted what newsgroups they collected messages from. Much like the BBS, Usenet saw a gradual decline in regular usage throughout the mid-2000s, as existing users moved to primarily communicating via social network sites and were not replaced by new users.

Though both of these platforms are now mostly frequented by niche users, they represent some of the earliest examples of how digital communications was uniquely suited to serve the needs of LGBT individuals. Both the BBS and the Usenet newsgroup allowed users to asynchronously communicate in relative anonymity across wide geographic distances, often at speeds that well outpaced the postal office. This was particularly important for users looking to share important information or organize activism, as what could have previously taken weeks could now happen in days or even hours. For individuals who weren’t yet out or who had limited access to other LGBTQ individuals locally, communicating via BBS or Usenet offered an important source of socializing and support. However, the presence of LGBT users and topics also raised new questions about just what it meant to contribute to a new digital public sphere.

Key Terms and Concepts

See Glossary for a list of topic-related definitions.

Selected Primary Sources

  • Digital Exhibit: LGBT Bulletin Board Systems (BBS): Includes a brief overview of the BBS’s history and impact, as well as information of some prominent LGBT BBSes such as GenderNet, GLIB, The Backroom, and Multicom-4.

  • Digital Exhibit: LGBT Newsgroups on Usenet: Includes a brief overview of Usenet’s history and impact, as well as information on important LGBT Usenet newsgroups like soc.motss, alt.transgendered, soc.support.transgendered, and soc.support.youth.gay-lesbian-bi.

  • Smith, Kennedy. “Computer bulletin boards: Getting yourself online” (August 25, 1989), The Washington Blade: Article explaining the basics of accessing and using a BBS aimed specifically at potential gay and lesbian users.

  • Gay Fairfax, Episode #26: Includes a segment (1:50 to 14:05) on using gay and lesbian BBS the Gay & Lesbian Information Bureau (GLIB), including a demonstration of the board’s different features, given by sysop Jon Larimore.

  • Life on the Internet: Internetworking:” Episode of Life on the Internet, a 1996 13-part PBS television series covering aspects of the Internet, focused specifically on Usenet, mostly referred to in the episode as “newsgroups."

  • soc-motss.org: Archived copy of the website for soc.motss, including an archive of postings and copies of the FAQ.

  • Laermer, Richard. Get on With It: The Gay and Lesbian Guide to Getting Online (1997): One of several gay and lesbian-specific Internet “guidebooks” published during the mid to late 1990s.

Discussion Questions

  • What were the specific advantages of digital communication for LGBTQ individuals during this historical period? What were major barriers to participation?

  • What were the different affordances of print and digital media at the time, and how did these differences influence the ways individuals communicated?

  • Based on the readings and primary sources, what legal and social challenges did LGBTQ users face to establishing a presence, especially on Usenet?

Classroom Activity

BBS Exploration: Using this guide prepared by journalist and sysop Benji Edwards, use SyncTerm to log onto The Cave BBS or another BBS of your choice - whatever the instructor chooses, students should either all explore the same BBS or be assigned different BBSes. Also, prior to their exploration, the instructor should discuss good etiquette for entering the BBS space as a guest. The instructor may also take on the role of the explorer on the shared screen, but allow students to guide how and where they go.

As students explore the BBS, they should take note of different things they see and encounter, their affective reactions, and any questions that arise as part of the experience. This may be done as an in-class activity or before class. 

Following exploration they should discuss in pairs: What was using the BBS like and what kind of content did they encounter? What did they find particularly interesting or challenging about the experience? Lastly, what similarities and differences did the BBS have from a modern social platform? Once they've finished discussion, have them discuss each question all together.

Suggested Readings and Resources

Early Computer Communication

LGBTQ-specific Readings