How gay community and the interwebs are enjoying a more than civil union
Many a late night was spent AltaVistaing, typing in letters, words, phrases. What was I searching for? Resonance? Connection? Community? Luv? Similar seekers in the ether? "Lesbian Web pages." "Dyke Austin." "Queer Texas."
Two important things happened in the mid-Nineties: I came out, and so did the Internet.
As Web ubiquity and gay cultural acceptance have each evolved in the 16 years hence, their realities, in my mind, are forever interfused. The rise of the Internet kick-started a coalescence of worldwide queer community. My personal coming out experience was certainly enhanced by the emergence of online communities – as were the experiences, connections, livelihoods, and survival of queers across the globe. And that's still true for so many people.
"There are still places that exist where you can be fired for being gay. It boggles my mind," says Trish Bendix, 26, Chicago freelance writer, blog editor of Logo/MTV's AfterEllen.com, and panel moderator for SXSW Interactive's Engaging the Queer Community, the first concertedly LGBT-themed panel ever at SXSW Interactive.
"One of the best things about the Web," Bendix continues, "[is that] people who aren't completely out to everyone in their lives – maybe because they live in a small town or don't know any other lesbians or gay people – can find community on the Web.
"Women post on our forums saying, 'I just came out!' And they automatically find support on a website," she says. "Just like any other small niche community – just to find someone, it doesn't matter where they live, to find community out there, is so key in the gay community."
Fellow panelist, ex-Austinite/current-Chicagoan, and performance art personality Fausto Fernós, 38, co-hosts, along with his partner, Marc Felion, the supersuccessful Feast of Fun (née Feast of Fools) daily LGBT podcast. And if you think that's a mouthful, you should hear how he claims to have invented podcasting: "I'm like Al Gore with the Internet; I invented podcasting!"
Dislodging his tongue from his cheek, he clarifies, "When we started, you could count how many podcasters there were on your two hands. We were really inspired by The View and Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect. We wanted to create similar roundtable programming to discuss topics, news, and ideas of interest to an LGBT audience."
The team's first podcast was aired in February 2005. "We were discovering what the medium was capable of and what we were capable of doing with it," says Fernós.
"Podcasting is so interactive and intimate," he continues. "Thousands of people download our show every single day and listen to it consciously and intentionally in the privacy of their own iPhone, iPod, or MP3 player. Because of that, they feel they have an intimate connection with us and our guests."
This intimacy, Fernós has found, creates a bond with the audience that encourages listeners to engage with the show and with each other. "The audience communicates through our website, through our call-in shows, through Twitter and our Facebook page, allowing a real high level of interaction.
"With technology like Twitter, podcasting, YouTube, and of course blogs," he contends, "queer people are allowed to interact on a much more intimate and immediate level. As a result, we're starting to see a change in activism."
Bendix also sees this as the conduit for larger social concerns. "Someone from Bitch just interviewed me about the word 'lesbian': Has it lost its meaning? People aren't calling themselves lesbians anymore. It's probably true with the younger generation – we aren't into the word – but at the same time, when you go online, the only way to find like-minded people is to type the word." Generations of identity are boiled down to a keyword? It's incredibly difficult to have theories espousing nonlabels in a verbally driven environment. Bendix has found that this semantic shift highlights another generational rift between LGBT women. "Older women complain about younger women only being 'involved' or 'active' through the Internet –that we waste all our time online. They say we are lazy."
I defend my younger sisters by suggesting that these women (of my generation and older) are perhaps the lazy ones, because if they spent more time online, they might be aware of the societal juggernaut that is Join the Impact, the Web-based activist hub started by a 26-year-old lesbian to protest the passing of California's Propositon 8. Within a week of the site's founding, this grassroots Web phenom spawned one of the largest rallies across the country (and beyond) that the LGBT community had ever seen.
"The rise of groups like Join the Impact and the National Equality March came out of the Internet," says Fernós. "In fact, Cleve Jones announced the march on our program."
"Gay online presence should inspire people to act locally," says Bendix, "to get people to come out and do things for causes – not necessarily just political. That whole cliché of starting in your own backyard is true. Post to meet people locally; find community where you live. In my ideal world, [all of this Web connecting would result in] making those connections in real life."
Fernós sees larger implications for the gay Web's presence in the general media landscape. "We're at a real crossroads right now," he says, "What do we traditionally define as mainstream? Making money, being connected to traditional entities, institutions, publicists, agents, ad agencies. Window Media [the recently dissolved newspaper group that held many gay papers, including the Washington Blade] had money. Out magazine had a lot of money. You're seeing gay and lesbian magazines and newspapers folding. But you're also seeing gay bloggers, YouTubers, etc., creating very good careers for themselves based solely on their online presence."
He lists some of the main players in the blog scene: "Andy Towle of Towleroad, Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend, Joe Jervis of Joe. My. God. A lot of the great content that's being consumed is created by personalities and very opinionated individuals. But our community needs journalism. We need investigation. We need people who can ask some pretty hard questions. This is the crossroads: Making it possible for trained, connected individuals to make a successful move online and be able to pay for their bills.
"At the same time," he says, "the promise is that there are more voices, more choices. There are teenagers getting millions of views on YouTube. 'Why should I audition on American Idol when I can be the next Adam Lambert from my YouTube channel?'" he imagines them asking. "It's all very humbling and inspiring, but it's also unnerving, because someone like you," he says, addressing me, personally, "who puts a lot of heart and soul and energy into creating intelligent content ... and then somebody farting gets more interest. Does that devalue you?"
"No, I have absolutely no problem with that," I tell him. I say fart away!
"But I think a lot of journalists and a lot of writers do feel devalued," says Fernós. "And the lesson here is that you can't be a size queen in this field."
"I'm hoping," says Bendix, "that our panel attracts people who are gay or queer and who work for Yahoo or CNN or wherever – that they come and share ideas based on working in the mainstream to engage queers who don't necessarily investigate other publications."
"The true capital of the Internet," says Fernós, "is conversation. But what does that really mean? Does that mean coercing someone to do what you want them to do: 'Buy this product!' or 'Click on this site!'? Or does it mean giving up your ego and allowing somebody else's content [to take] center stage? Or does it mean a fusion of ideas where your ideas might be compromised, but you benefit from the wisdom and insight of others?" He reiterates, "It's humbling, but also very encouraging."
Fausto Fernós will be podcasting from his mother's living room in Austin, Texas, throughout SXSW and wishes to interview interesting queers. He can be heard, read, and reached at www.feastoffun.com.
Bendix, Fernós, and fellow panelists Sinclair Sexsmith of the Sugarbutch Chronicles and Bil Browning from the Bilerico Project will host a Queer Blogger Tweetup at Oilcan Harry's (211 W. Fourth) on Sunday, March 14, 9pm.
Engaging the Queer Community
Saturday, March 13, 3:30pm, ACC 9ABC