From a lesbian-loving lesbian to AfterEllen: Please don’t break my heart

Guest writer Caitlin Logan shares her thoughts and feelings on AfterEllen’s worrying proximity to anti-trans politics.

Some controversy has arisen lately around AfterEllen, “the pop culture site that plays for your team”. The site was taken over by a new company and fell victim to significant disinvestment earlier last year, leading to a slightly acrimonious parting of ways with the then editor and a number of staff writers. The site was pronounced dead, only to jump out of its grave and deny that it had ever lost consciousness.

Now with a new Editor-in-Chief, it seems as though AfterEllen has adopted a new ideology too. Attention was called to the fact that the new Editor, Memoree Joelle, signed, promoted and commented in support of a petition to “drop the L” from ‘LGBT’, which explains in its first paragraph that the petition was set up following a lack of response to an earlier petition to “drop the T” from ‘LGBT’. The petition is addressed to HRC, GLAAD, NCLR, Lambda Legal, The Advocate, and HuffPo Gay Voices.

The second paragraph elaborates: “The addition of T to the LGBT has resulted in Lesbians being silenced and threatened, all women and girls to be at risk for our safety, and our interests to take a backseat to those of transgenderist males who co-opt our name and culture.”

Who knew a single letter could have such apocalyptic consequences?

I was around 15 the first time I visited AfterEllen. It was there I learned that the woman from Ally McBeal – who I’d been crushing on since before I knew that endlessly scrolling through images of beautiful women was kind of gay – was a lesbian.

Not only that, but she was in a relationship with Ellen DeGeneres. A real life, adorable, lesbian power couple. It’s a lot more than generations before me were afforded, and it felt like a pretty big deal to me too.

Therein lies the perfection of the name “AfterEllen”, which went on to offer me treasure troves of information and representation that I would otherwise have struggled to find. Whenever a celebrity came out, or sort of came out, or there was a lesbian or bisexual character in a TV show, or there were two women in a TV show who occasionally looked each other in the face, I learned about it from AfterEllen.

I was around 15 the first time I visited AfterEllen. It was there I learned that the woman from Ally McBeal – who I’d been crushing on since before I knew that endlessly scrolling through images of beautiful women was kind of gay – was a lesbian.

I watched a whole host of obscenely bad movies recommended by AfterEllen – and I relished them. I discovered bands that I now love and have seen live because of AfterEllen. I watched vlogs of real, queer, lady people making fun of The L Word or having pillow fights or interviewing people I’d occasionally even heard of.

I was made all warm and fuzzy inside by being told “You’re so Gay!” and pointed at by a rainbow light sabre. All on AfterEllen, before “YouTuber” was a term in everyday use.

And, in spite or because of my overwhelming social awkwardness, I spoke to people in the forums, connecting with people from across the world. At one point I even made it to a first date – the two of us living within an hour’s distance from each other in Scotland, both finding a sense of community on an American website. For us, it never went any further, but I’m sure there are a few real love stories which emerged from the pages of AfterEllen.

I also sought some fairly serious life advice on there, reassured by the knowledge that the people responding would at least understand the whole ‘girl liking girls’ thing. Having a place like that to reach out, even anonymously and through the ether, was worth more than I can explain.

The reason I am writing all of this now, as with most extended expressions of nostalgia, is that things have changed, and I find myself saddened and confused by the developments.

Much discussion has arisen out of the new direction AfterEllen seems to be taking, from which the editor has concluded that perhaps she shouldn’t have signed that petition but that she objected to the word “transphobia” being unduly bandied about. One might ask where the term transphobia would be appropriate if “transgenderist males” doesn’t quite cut it. Let’s just be honest; if you don’t think this is transphobia, you don’t think transphobia is a thing.

If you’re not already aware, this whole fiasco is part of a wider trend in which a particular strand of radical feminism has set itself against moves towards trans and bisexual equality and inclusion.

One reason given for this is the ‘erasure’ of lesbians – the idea being that terms such as “queer”, often used as a more general, inclusive term, erase the specific experiences, culture and politics of lesbians, who are women exclusively attracted to other women.

One might ask where the term transphobia would be appropriate if “transgenderist males” doesn’t quite cut it. Let’s just be honest; if you don’t think this is transphobia, you don’t think transphobia is a thing.

Others take the argument further, to suggest (as above) that accepting trans women as women is a threat to lesbians because this undermines women-only spaces, meant for “real” women.

In case we thought the whole AfterEllen/petition business had really been a major lapse in judgement on the part of the editor, both Joelle’s Twitter (now set to private) and the official AfterEllen Twitter went on to post tweets and re-tweets which only served to reinforce their perceived alignment with this ideology.

When one of the (lesbian) editors of AfterEllens biggest competitor, Autostraddle, tweeted “Yelling “lesbophobia!” when someone says “queer” is like yelling “war on Christmas!” when someone says “happy holidays.” Come on, y’all”, the AfterEllen Twitter responded “oh, agreed. It’s like yelling “biphobia!” and “transphobia!” when someone says lesbian.”

It would be bizarre if someone yelled either of those things upon hearing the word “lesbian”. I’m just not convinced that’s quite the common occurrence it’s being conveyed as, at least not without several significant steps in between. There is a fairly big difference between saying “lesbians” and saying “lesbians. P.S. Not transgenderist males”.

AfterEllen recently re-weeted an article by the editor of Curve magazine in which bisexual women were at once told to stop complaining about not being included in the magazine’s tagline and accused of having a humanities degree for mentioning it in the first place. Damn those modern educational institutions, giving people ideas beyond their station.

And just to drive the point home, AfterEllen re-tweeted another article (which it called “a great read”) on the erasure of lesbians in queer spaces, which includes this interesting series of scare quotes:

“It seems the burden of “queering” “identity” always falls on women in particular. For example, why is it usually women’s bathrooms that are turned into “all-gender”/“inclusive” bathrooms, while men’s rooms remain unchanged?”

This is followed up with expressions of concern over women-only services being forced to open themselves to trans women, and a quote from Sheila Jeffreys for good measure. If you’re not one of those bisexual humanities scholars we were worried about two minutes ago, you might not know Sheila Jeffreys has made a living out of intellectualising the denial of trans people’s rights by framing them as conflicting with feminist theories of gender. This is important, because it’s actually what lies at the core of much of the debate around this subject.

It feels like AfterEllen has positively latched onto the idea that lesbians are being falsely accused of bigotry left, right and centre, without much regard to whether they might be promoting some pretty harmful ideas in the process.

For her first “Letter from the Editor” of 2017, Joelle wrote of the need to end infighting under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, which she sees as being fuelled by “immediate labelling with names like “biphobia” “lesbophobia” “transphobia” “TERF” [Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist] and countless others.”

This echoes, or at least clarifies, the sentiments within her choice to post a particular video to the site a few weeks earlier of Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria. Joelle explained that the video provides warning to the LGBTQ+ community of “our biggest obstacle”. “Nope, it’s not the alt-right”, it’s “political correctness”.

It feels like AfterEllen has positively latched on to the idea that lesbians are being falsely accused of bigotry left, right and centre, without much regard to whether they might be promoting some pretty harmful ideas in the process.

Can we all take a moment to mentally zoom into that last sentence several times for dramatic effect?

The problem with this ‘logic’ is that people have a wonderful knack of only thinking political correctness has “gone mad” when the issues being raised don’t revolve around them. I won’t deny that there are people on the internet under every demographic and worldview imaginable who will respond in the extreme to minor details. I just don’t think this should be what the editor of an LGBTQ+ website, aimed at promoting positive representation, should be focussing on as “our biggest obstacle”. If infighting is a problem, this isn’t the solution.

In the midst of all this, I’ve seen people commend AfterEllen for finally representing lesbians (funny, I thought they had been doing that all along). I’ve seen people say that if you’re on a lesbian site, you should show the respect of pretending to be a lesbian even if you’re bisexual.

Then, I read this comment: “It is called Afterellen not Afterqueer or AfterLaverne”, referencing the trans actress Laverne Cox. You really have to wonder, when a lesbian reworks a homophobic mantra (“It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”) to fit their transphobia, has all appreciation of irony been lost?

The sad fact is that AfterEllen has legitimised these attitudes by becoming enamoured with a narrative that frames those under the LGBTQ+ umbrella as the problem, as opposed to the patriarchal, heteronormative society in which we’re all getting a fairly raw deal.  

As a lesbian-loving lesbian (who is also not trans – worth pointing out because some lesbians are), I am personally dismayed by the impulse to build up walls and to treat other minorities as though they were our enemy.

It’s indisputable that spaces like AfterEllen are needed, and that much more could and should be offered in the way of online and (a girl can dream) real life provision for LGBTQ+ women. 

It’s telling that the reason given for the administrative changes to AfterEllen was a lack of income from advertising. The founder of AfterEllen, Sarah Warn, revealed that during her tenure, advertisers were much more eager to advertise on the men’s version of the site, AfterElton, than on AfterEllen. Pointing out that data has shown that gay women in America earn more on average than straight women, Warn argued that these advertising choices were based on stereotypes working against lesbians.

Lesbians and bisexual women undoubtedly experience unique forms of oppression, resulting from a combination of sexual orientation and gender. From being hyper-sexualised in the media, to being leered at by straight men, to finding a consumerist “gay scene” entirely catered to gay men. This is before you even take into account the additional issues experienced by bisexual women – but that’s a story for another day.

It’s almost as if sexism and misogyny existed in the wider society and in LGBTQ+ spaces.

They do, and that’s why, when lesbians speak of lesbophobia and erasure of lesbians, the claim can’t be dismissed. The problem is that the opportunity to talk about this issue in a sincere and nuanced way is being undermined by the determination of a small minority to co-opt the term as synonymous for their own transphobia.

That isn’t fair on trans people and it also isn’t fair on other lesbians who want to seek greater representation without having their very identity mired in someone else’s divisive vision of what it means to be a “real” lesbian, or even a real feminist.

In Memoree Joelle’s Letter from the Editor, she argued that “we can’t throw around abstract language like “be more inclusive” which I see frequently online. That isn’t a precise goal. That’s a vague philosophy, and while it sounds nice, it doesn’t hold water when it comes to concrete actions”.

It’s almost as if sexism and misogyny existed in the wider society and in LGBTQ+ spaces.

I disagree. While words are never enough, they’re also an essential first step. As a writer, I would not expect to need to say this to anyone who has chosen a life of writing, but the power of words can be immense.

As someone whose life was genuinely made easier during a sometimes difficult time by the existence of AfterEllen – a place of words, of representation, of simply saying “this is us” – I know first-hand the strength of collectively voicing our support for inclusion and respect.

The idea that we should turn that power around and make others, particularly those who are marginalised and often ostracised in the wider society, feel excluded or, worse, denied at their very core, is unfathomable. And if we don’t speak out when we see that happening, we only enable it to continue.

In some ways, this has been a love letter, in others a goodbye note, but mostly it’s a call to those who do feel the worth of inclusivity to continue to create spaces where the lost or discarded can find a home, and move on from those which would rather put up the shutters than open the doors.

Follow Caitlin on Twitter (@_CaitLogan)

4 thoughts on “From a lesbian-loving lesbian to AfterEllen: Please don’t break my heart

  1. Excellent piece! I’ve been going to afterellen since 2004 and I went through everything you wrote about. It was such an important place for me and the first place that felt like home on the internet. These latest developments have been very upsetting. I’m someone who’s been known to complain when it feels like articles on various sites go out of their way to avoid using the word lesbian, and defend my identity which I’m proud of, but these people yelling about lesbophobia right now are bigots doing harm, not good.


  2. What this article doesn’t touch on is the reality that the trans, lesbian, and bisexual communities are different communities with differing needs. Trans women have gender dysphoria, bisexuals mostly all settle down with men, etc. It’s not fair to equate lesbians wanting their own space with biphobia and transphobia. Actually queer women’s websites are in fact lesbophobic. I list many actual examples in the post below and I’m not even lesbian identified. They print dozens of articles about transphobic and biphobic lesbians but there is a whole phenomena of lesbians (some who are not even radfems), getting threatened and sexually harassed by trans activists and this is willfully ignored by people like this author and the queer media- There are too many examples to count, these aren’t isolated incidences. There are also important issues like the growing number of detranstioned lesbians that are no-platformed on queer sites because it offends trans people. These people are treated like garbage by the trans community and like a dirty little secret by the liberal “queer media.” I’m sorry but this author has a Pollyanna view of reality that ignores some really important facts.

    And I bet my reasonable comment gets deleted because “queer sites” are all about thought policing.

    “Lesbophobia in Queer Culture and Why Queer Websites Like Autostraddle and AfterEllen Enable it”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is great. I recently stumbled upon a extremely hateful AfterEllen article and made the gigantic mistake of reading the comments (okay, and arguing in the comments) which only made the whole thing 1000x worse. I’m glad to hear their readership is way down. It’s not the same site I read circa 2010ish. The aggression these lesbians use to defend their tranaphobia to other lesbians is jawdropping.


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