Surviving the boom and bust of queer media

When I was young and confused, walking through a drugstore or bookstore, I’d come across the magazine section and notice a few titles that looked a little different from the rest. There was Out, which looked a lot like GQ, and there was The Advocate, which reminded me of a trashier Time. I knew, though, that they were not for me—or, at least, that I had no business looking at them more closely. In the early aughts, I simply did not want to be caught glancing at their covers, let alone leafing through their pages.

Growing up in rural Ontario, my glimpses of Jake Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell were a revelatory recasting of men as sexually desirable. These magazines were mostly identical to the others on the shelves, except that they seemed unafraid to train the male gaze, so to speak, on itself. Simply the way these (often straight) celebrities were photographed cast them in a different light, suggesting to me, however fleetingly, that those impulses I felt were not unusual, not dangerous. In fact, there they were, my feelings represented to the left of Vogue and Entertainment Weekly. To pick up an issue may not have been an option, but I took an odd comfort knowing those magazines were there.

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Soon enough, I encountered queer media as it existed online. I realized that I could read or look at whatever I wanted without worrying so much about how I would be perceived. It’s impossible to overstate the significance of online queer media for young people in particular, given the opportunity (along with the knowledge of how to delete your browsing history) to explore your identity without the physical evidence of a magazine or a book. Moreover, in the late aughts, it was magical to learn about the wider world of queer culture. I was exposed for the first time to pansexuality and Dan Savage and queer fan-fiction. I knew that Out, The Advocate, Queerty, The Backlot, fab, and others had fairly popular websites, but on the vast expanse of online writing I felt like I had stumbled on a hidden trove of crucial information, held by a secret community.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that we tie what we consume to our identities. This is most obvious when it comes to fandom, where one’s love of a text or a song is so overwhelming that a sense of ownership develops, and it feels like a part of you. That connection has even more gravity for those who rely on something in media for a chance to see themselves represented. The same is true for magazines. They are ours.

Over the last decade or so, the sense I had of a magical, private culture has been mainstreamed. This is, of course, mostly a good thing, as queer voices have been heard on a larger scale and more openly than ever before. Big companies like BuzzFeed, HuffPost, NBC News, and The New York Times have created LGBTQ+ sections; Condé Nast debuted Them in 2017, and Grindr, the gay dating app, launched its own digital publication, INTO.

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But queer media was also about mining for profits. As gay culture became more widely accepted in the United States, particularly with the passage of same-sex marriage in 2015, producers and advertisers grew more comfortable being associated with queer stories. Soon, that media became exploitable—there was money to be made now that this niche community was palatable as a targeted demographic. Sponsorships appeared (FX’s American Horror Story and Halo Top Ice Cream quickly came onboard for INTO), partnerships formed (Them had advertising partnerships with Google, Lyft, and Burberry before it launched), and influencers cashed in—sometimes at launches that also featured “integrated media,” VIPs, and PR agencies. Enticed by the idea that these media spaces had queer interests as their primary driving force, it was easy enough to forget about the economics. We gave them our clicks, our eyeballs on their ads, generated their revenue, and shared their work. For a while, the digital era felt like queer media’s saving grace.

 

As a writer starting out in this era, mostly freelancing wherever I could in print or, more likely, online, I have discovered that there is a marked difference in how I approach queer sites. This has only become clearer with time, as I have come to notice how my tone shifts depending on who I imagine myself to be writing for. As a queer writer contributing to a queer outlet, it feels liberating—the experience takes on a “for us, by us” ethos. I can make certain assumptions about my readership—in the Times, for instance, I’d probably have to explain what a twink is; not for a queer audience. There’s comfort to be found in shared knowledge, even as there is a variety of perspectives within the community.

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But the boom of queer media didn’t last long. In recent months, several outlets have either suffered severe losses or layoffs; others have been shuttered completely. In January, Grindr closed INTO, in a classic pivot to video, laying off their entire editorial and social media staff. Soon after, BuzzFeed announced mass layoffs, many of whom covered LGBTQ+ stories. Them recently went through a significant staff change-over, losing its editor last summer. A replacement was named in January amid Condé Nast’s restructuring.

These decisions seemed to say to queer people that we had our chance, and we blew it—we weren’t profitable enough. Outpourings of grief have appeared on social media and on queer sites. “Marginalized editors and writers are yet again left in precarious financial situations, wondering whether our work has any value to anyone at all,” Lara Witt wrote for Wear Your Voice, a feminist publication focused on social justice.

The cutbacks also expose the inherently tense relationship between queerness and a media environment driven by profits. Queer media has long been defined by its anti-normative defiance and advocacy-focused content. That makes it hard to scale up, even in the context of legacy magazines that cover LGBTQ+ subjects with a “by us, for everyone” mindset. As Trish Bendix wrote for BuzzFeed News, “for LGBT media, money is a necessary evil.”

 

Some niche outlets have managed to find methods of survival. Autostraddle, the largest independent site for queer women and nonbinary folks, just celebrated its tenth anniversary. Heather Hogan, Autostraddle’s managing editor, told me that their membership model (which ranges from $5 to $25 per month) is their primary revenue stream, which they supplement with merchandise designed in-house, a yearly weeklong camping trip for queer folks, and some advertising. “It takes all of those revenue streams functioning at full capacity for us to stay in business,” she said. “It’s the same thing as being on a tight budget in your life, you’re really asking yourself if each little thing is something you can afford.”

Hogan began writing for queer outlets, starting with AfterEllen, when she was growing up in rural Georgia, feeling isolated and eager to connect. Autostraddle’s independence, she said, helps enable an intimate connection with readers. “One reason our merch sells well,” Hogan says, “is because it’s full of inside jokes. There’s just a closer community within independent media.”

It’s that feeling of kinship delivered by queer media that has sustained it, through each tumultuous period of publishing precarity—every time, through force of will. The complicated, confusing, distressing era of digital media we find ourselves in today is having an impact on everyone, and it’s worth recognizing that marginalized voices are always the hardest hit. Hogan is determined to keep Autostraddle going: “I feel like I’m part of something really special, and I think that’s why our readers are willing to invest in us, because they also feel like they’re part of something really special.”

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Jake Pitre is a freelance writer and academic living in Ottawa, Ontario. His work has appeared in The Globe & Mail, Pitchfork, Lapham's Quarterly, Buzzfeed News, Catapult, and elsewhere.