Lesbian bars have been closing for years. Lesbian websites may not be far behind.
On Tuesday, AfterEllen editor-in-chief Trish Bendix announced on her Tumblr that the 14-year-old site for lesbian and bisexual women “will be effectively shutting down as of Friday.” She added that Evolve Media, which bought AfterEllen from Viacom in 2014, “found we are not as profitable as moms and fashion,” and decided to shutter the site save for a “promise of periodically publishing publishing freelance pieces in the future.”
On Wednesday, Emrah Kovacoglu, a manager from Evolve Media’s TotallyHer brand, called Bendix’s post a “false rumor” and said they would “continue to work with our freelancers and contributors” to cover LGBT issues. But between the lines of Kovacoglu’s post, his message is clear: The archives will be left up, sure, but the editor-in-chief is getting the boot, and investment will not continue “at the same levels.”
Now reports are emerging that Bendix was denied her severance. Evolve Media, which also publishes sites like Momtastic and The Fashion Spot, did not immediately return a voicemail left by The Daily Beast.
The imminent loss of AfterEllen—at least as we know it—leaves queer women with just one major website devoted to them: Autostraddle, an independent outlet that uses a premium membership program to stay afloat. Even then, as Autostraddle senior editor Heather Hogan wrote candidly on Tuesday, “We’re often on the brink of not existing anymore.”
So why is it so hard to keep a queer women’s website in business? After all, a not insignificant number of women are something other than straight.
A 2015 study from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 7 percent of millennials identify as LGBT. A full 14 percent of millennial women, in particular, reported being sexually attracted to someone of the same gender, which even includes 8 percent of women who don’t explicitly identify as bi or lesbian. There’s clearly a sizable population that might be interested in guides to flirting with other women or lists of lesbian sex scenes or an interview with Tig Notaro—all of which can be found on AfterEllen.
Turning that population into ad revenue, however, appears to be a different story.
In his “false rumor” post, Kovacoglu admitted that AfterEllen did not have “enough advertiser support to justify continuing to invest at the same levels.” Autostraddle’s editor-in-chief Marie Lyn Bernard, known as Riese to the community, acknowledged Tuesday that "the percentage of our revenue generated from advertising income has been in decline" since 2011 and the "actual amount of advertising-generated income" has been falling since 2013, hence the site's premium membership program. And as LGBT site The Advocate noted after Bendix’s announcement, The Advocate's lesbian-focused sister site SheWired stopped operating as “a stand-alone business” this February for “similar reasons.”
In a series of tweets on Tuesday night, AfterEllen founder Sarah Warn laid the blame squarely at the feet of advertisers.
Warn continued: “At MTV, we constantly had advertisers wanting to advertise to gay men (on AfterElton), but not lesbians, and I developed a theory that stereotypes work for gay men as consumers (travelers, affluent) and against lesbians (no money, don’t care about clothes, etc.). I had hoped time and data would change minds, but [it] still seems the same.”
Warn is right: Lesbians do make more money than straight women—but, of course, still less than men. Market research also suggests that gay men and lesbians are also more likely to be current U.S. passport holders, suggesting a proclivity for international travel.
And if you want proof that lesbians respond to advertising, look no further than the beloved Subaru. The current association between lesbians and the Subaru brand is so strong that it led to the portmanteau “lesbauru,” but it was not always thus.
As Alex Mayyasi detailed in a recent Priceonomics feature, Subaru began targeting gay publications in 1996, first stumbling in its approach but ultimately learning that lesbians loved subtle in-jokes in TV ads, like license plates that referenced Xena: Warrior Princess. Today Subaru is easily the top choice for lesbian carbuyers, and the automaker has reaped the rewards. As Mayyasi reported, lesbians played a pivotal role in helping Subaru turn “flat sales into steady growth.”
“In a sense, all Subaru did was notice a group of customers and create ads for them,” Mayyasi wrote. “But that was a big deal. Subaru’s ad campaign acknowledged a group that often felt unwelcome and invisible.”
After AfterEllen, it’s hard not to feel like advertisers are missing out on a group that still feels “unwelcome and invisible” in 2016. As former Daily Dot LGBT reporter Mary Emily O’Hara observed on Twitter, advertisers who didn’t target AfterEllen readers may have missed their chance to become “the next Subaru.” Other lesbian and bisexual women working in media have been expressing a similar sentiment on social media in the wake of Bendix’s announcement.
Queer women may not be an enormous audience, but they are not a small one, either. And they may not have as much money as men but, as Subaru has shown, they more than make up for their lower incomes with loyalty.
Come Friday, AfterEllen may be all but dead, but one hopes some lessons will be learned from its passing before all the lesbian websites are gone, too.
Update 9/23/16 10:00 AM: This post was updated to reflect Mary Lyn Bernard's corrected timeline for the decline in Autostraddle's advertising income.