Cyber race – online services for lesbians and gay men – The Year in the Arts 1996

Steve Friess

As lesbians and gay men logged on-line in 1996, more services than ever before were there to greet them

When PlanetOut landed on the Internet map last September, it was merely the noisiest, best-funded splashdown in a banner year for gay cyberspace. “This was the year the Internet went mainstream as a medium and the gay and lesbian market on-line is an enormous part of that,” says Tom Rielly, the computer visionary behind PlanetOut who convinced a host of investors to give him $3 million to create the on-line service.

Rielly pitched the project to corporate executives at America Online, the venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital, and several other investors. His goal was to create a slick on-line hangout where gay men and lesbians could organize, socialize, advertise, and shop. PlanetOut, Rielly vowed, would be gay cyberspace’s brand name.

With this vision – not to mention demographic research and a series of clever interactive demonstrations – Rielly enticed the big-money investors to back his gay on-line revolution. It was the first time venture capital was ever acquired to start up a gay project in any industry.

Yet in 1996 the idea seemed natural. “We make investments for only one reason,” says Mike Moritz, a partner at Sequoia Capital. “We think we can make a lot of money. We’re very unsentimental and unemotional about it. If you look at the trend of acceptance of gays and lesbians in mainstream America, it’s hard not to conclude that it’s an irreversible tide.”

For Rielly, however, there is an emotional connection. By the time the 32-year-old approached his financial backers, he was known in digital circles for both his marketing work at various Silicon Valley companies and his fusion of technology with gay activism. In 1992 Rielly cofounded Digital Queers, an organization that raises money to buy computers and software for lesbian and gay nonprofit groups. DQ volunteers also teach members of those groups how to use the technology.

Four years later Rielly insisted that the queer on-line market thirsted for more. “I brought gays and lesbians on-line,” Rielly told his funders. “Now what are they going to find when they get there?”

In pursuit of large-scale name recognition, Rielly took the $3 million his pitch earned him and placed PlanetOut on three different on-line systems: AOL, the Microsoft Network, and the World Wide Web. But despite this vast exposure PlanetOut’s success remains unclear. Rielly reports about 125,000 “unique persons” – Netspeak for individual pairs of eyeballs – visiting the site, but most concede that the technology doesn’t yet provide for accurate auditing. And even though PlanetOut may represent the hippest, most lavish gay on-line venture ever, it’s not the only service of its kind. In fact, an estimated 3,500 gay-related on-line entities exist, a figure that grows by 50 each day. That number includes anything from local Internet service providers to Web home pages to electronic-mail marketing endeavors.

What’s more, in order to prove to investors the enormity of the gay and lesbian on-line market in 1996, Rielly pointed to the overwhelming success of AOL’s 5-year-old Gay and Lesbian Community Forum. The GLCF was the first gay area on a national service, and it ranks as AOL’s most popular attraction in surveys. “GLCF really opened the doors for us,” says Jon Huggett, PlanetOut’s chief executive officer. “AOL recognizes it as a big part of their business. That’s why they invested in PlanetOut.”

At the same time, by funding PlanetOut, AOL inadvertently created competition for GLCF, a fact that doesn’t escape Michelle Quirk, head of the company that owns GLCF (soon to be renamed onQ). Although the sections compete for advertisers, Quirk says her ability to bring in gay and lesbian users ensures she’ll thrive despite PlanetOut. In fact, she says, GLCF turns some advertisers away because too many want space. And Quirk insists she’s not irked by AOL’s funding of a rival. “PlanetOut isn’t really a competitor, because we’re extremely large,” she says. “We’re not very worried at all.”

Whether or not a more heated rivalry develops between these two gay-run services, AOL spokeswoman Anne Bentley believes PlanetOut and GLCF to be very different products. “They provide different kinds of destinations,” she says, noting that PlanetOut aims for an entertainment feel, while GLCF boasts a more grassroots activist flavor. “It’s not necessarily redundant to have more than one gay offering. AOL also has Moms Online and Parent Soup, and we have Book Report and Books Central.”

As AOL pushed ahead with its dual gay and lesbian offerings, CompuServe spent 1996 trying to catch up after years of ignoring its large homosexual clientele. With about 5 million subscribers, CompuServe is second in users to AOL’s more than 7 million subscribers, but until this year it offered no specific area for its gay citizens. Then CompuServe brass enlisted Pride Media to create a GLCF-like presence known as Pride! which offers similar functions of chat, forums, and links to Web sites. Pride! now claims 1 million visits per month.

Aside from these major national efforts, 1996 saw the debut of several local gay ventures, most notably NYC Net in New York and People Like Us Talking Online in Washington, D.C. Both operations cater to local gays and lesbians with similar chat, Internet, and forum offerings.

If there is a reason to explain the cause of this year’s gay breakout on the Internet, Moritz refers to a “confluence of events” that includes the fact that gays and lesbians are now out of the closet in greater numbers and logging on-line in droves. Huggett agrees: “Marketers can see that this trend is only going to continue. Gays and lesbians use interactive media in large numbers because it is a place to explore without being seen.”

But as competition among gay and lesbian on-line services begins to increase, it might seem that smaller enterprises such as NYC Net would be snuffed out by national services such as PlanetOut. Not so, according to Moritz. “Customers usually will decide who the winners are, but we’re not up to that stage yet,” he says. “This is not the consolidation of the business. It’s just the beginning.”

The beginning, hopefully, of what may be a boundless – and closetless – gay community, in which gays and lesbians can go on-line without fear of prejudice, bigotry, or recrimination.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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