Money is an ideology. It has value because we believe it does. Similarly, consumer confidence—the quintessential barometer for investors—holds incredible sway in the success of a business or product. And for a business or product to even attract investors, belief in its viability is key.
For some time now, the mainstream has recognized the economic value of niche markets, from the African-American market, which is projected to have a buying power of $1.7 trillion in 2017, to the multi-billion dollar plus-size clothing market. Women, ironically, were once believed to be a minority niche market, but are now recognized as the holders of the purse strings. “If the consumer economy had a sex, it would be female,” touted the author of a 2015 Forbes article.
Oddly lesbians—who are, yes, women—are not considered a part of this major consumer market. In fact, marketers seem to believe that the estimated 5.1 million LGBT women living in America today are not a viable consumer group. This oversight is nothing less than lesbian erasure. And this oversight has had consequences on the lesbian community and lesbian culture, as evidenced by the recent fate of lesbian culture and media website AfterEllen.
As a number of websites have lamented, the closure of AfterEllen is another slap in the face to the collective lesbian and queer women’s community. No one can deny the critical importance of space—physical or virtual—for both community and culture building. As a contributor to the site for four years, I am particularly heartbroken.
Readers were first notified of the news in September, when AfterEllen suspended operations after 14 years and fired its longtime editor Trish Bendix. After Bendix wrote a passionate open letter explaining the situation to the site’s many readers, the news provoked waves of controversy and sadness throughout the LGBT community. AfterEllen’s website had enviable numbers and was considered by peers and rivals to lead the way in lesbian media—both print and digital. In an interview with Quartz, former editor-in-chief Karman Kregloe said that AfterEllen averaged 1.25 million readers a month. Earlier this year, Evolve Media’s cofounder and president Brian Fitzgerald said in an interview with AdExchanger that the 2015 audit found that AfterEllen “grew traffic 48% within one year, and revenue by more than 100%.” (Evolve Media purchased AfterEllen two years ago from Viacom.)
How is it then that just months later, Evolve could claim that the site was not profitable enough to continue publishing regularly or to afford Bendix’s salary?
In a public post responding to Bendix, Emrah Kovacoglu, the general manager of AfterEllen’s parent company, TotallyHer Media (a subsidiary of Evolve), also cited lack of financial investment. AfterEllen failed to acquire “enough advertiser support to justify continuing to invest at the same levels,” he wrote. Likewise, Fitzgerald said in an email to the Advocate, “This decision is one that we regretfully had to make based on the financial performance of the site”—a statement that seems to contradict what he told AdExchanger earlier in the year.
Fitzgerald and Kovacoglu are adamant that although they have fired all full-time staff, AfterEllen is not dead. They claim that the site will keep publishing freelance pieces occasionally and keep its archives online and available. Yet they appear blissfully ignorant of how journalism in the digital age works. If you kill the editor, the rest of the site wanders aimlessly. Not only that, but the lesbian and queer women’s community speaks from the margins and has learned to fight together in solidarity out of necessity. No writer with a conscience would dare continue to contribute to AfterEllen after what transpired there; doing so would be profoundly unethical. This is especially true because AfterEllen’s readership craves authentic content produced by lesbian and queer women. If the comment section of Kovacoglu’s first and only post on the site are any indication, the readers are not buying what the men of Evolve Media are trying to sell us.
Still, the tragic demise of AfterEllen’s digital presence belies a larger point about the lesbian community’s under-appreciated market share. Within the umbrella community, the 2015 buying power of LGBT Americans was estimated at $917 billion. Nearly three quarters of that community is considered brand loyal and a major source of “word-of-mouth marketing”—just ask Subaru, whose creative director of the brand’s ad agency once said of lesbians: “These women were practically commercials for Subaru.”
More specifically, lesbians earn more than straight women—the Center for American Progress, citing Williams Institute data, notes that “lesbian and bisexual women earn the same or sometimes more than heterosexual women.” We are also more likely to hold a passport that indicates a “proclivity for international travel,” as well as more discretionary funds for travel, according to Samantha Allen at the Daily Beast.
These statistics are surprising given that investors don’t doubt the marketability of women generally. This hypocrisy was scrutinized in a series of tweets by AfterEllen’s founder Sarah Warn after the news of AfterEllen’s closure became public. “Data has shown for yrs that we make more money than straight women, but advertisers persist in believing we’re not worth marketing to,” she wrote in one tweet. “At MTV [whose parent company Viacom owned AfterEllen prior to Evolve Media], we constantly had advertisers wanting to advertise to gay men (on AfterElton) but not to lesbians, and I developed a theory,” she continued in two consecutive tweets, “that stereotypes work FOR gay men as consumers (travelers, affluent) & AGAINST lesbians (no $$, don’t care about clothes, etc.).”
In email communication with Quartz, Bendix herself pondered this hypocrisy in investor interest given that AfterEllen had readership views considered “desirable to advertisers looking to reach the LGBT community, or just women.” Her comments reflect a pervasive form of sexism that lesbian consumers face in society: “Were we also given the opportunity in the world of more general women’s advertising—we buy the same things other women do—I believe there would be more opportunities,” she noted.
“In my opinion,” she continued, “lesbians and bi women are still not valued in the LGBT ad space like they should be. I’ve had to explain many times—as has Karman [Kregloe, AfterEllen’s former editor-in-chief] and Sarah [Warn]—that just because something is ‘gay’ doesn’t mean it would be a fit on AfterEllen.”
The problem, former AfterEllen editor Kregloe told Quartz, is that brands do not know how to market to lesbians and queer women because they don’t see us as women. “I suspect that the people who think we are not profitable don’t really perceive lesbians as women,” Kregloe wrote. “If they did, they would try to sell us all the products that are marketed to (presumably) heterosexual women. Lesbians buy tampons, face lotion, shampoo. Maybe it’s most accurate to say that they just don’t think of us at all.”
Consequently, marketers revert to the vantage point of the male gaze or dismiss lesbians as a market altogether. “Part of the issue is we’re, as lesbians, expected to love and appreciate anything gay given to us at all, even if it’s something male-focused,” Bendix said. “That is quite antithetical to who we are, which is why I have so appreciated when brands wanted to work on something that had to do with ‘strong women’ or ‘women making things happen.’ Those appeal way more to our readers than a TV show about gay men.”
And it’s beginning to look like a seemingly inescapable cycle. In a series of Facebook messages, Warn, who has spent 18 years working in digital marketing in addition to her time running AfterEllen, elaborates that media portrayals of lesbian and queer women negatively affected how lesbians are perceived in culture, particularly as consumers. “Over the last decade or so, TV and movies have begun to portray some lesbians as wealthy businesswoman, for example, or moms, or both,” she began, “but for decades prior we’ve generally been portrayed by the media as scared teenagers or angry outsiders who are often just getting by financially, or too busy protesting something to spend money on things like toothpaste, nice clothes, or a mortgage (when we weren’t being portrayed as deviants or criminals). Years of that kind of repeated stereotyping has had a mostly negative effect on how Americans perceive lesbian/bi women, including advertisers. This is one of the reasons ‘visibility matters’ was the original slogan of the site.”
Ultimately, the fundamental issue that drives the closing of our spaces and erasure of our culture is money. Couple this with a particular form of sexism—aimed specifically at lesbian and queer women—and you end up with a devastating lack of capital. We are not seen as women and so are not valued as a part of that major consumer market; we are also not gay men, and do not have the same consumer interest as gay men. This belief guides investor interest—or lack thereof—and perpetuates the historic, vicious cycle of lesbian erasure.