The Talk of the Town


It’s the unspoken secret of the online world: Gay men and lesbians are among the most avid and plentiful commercial users of the Internet.

On any given evening, one-third of all member-created chat rooms on America Online are devoted to gay topics. CompuServe users were so eager that they created their own space. On the Microsoft Network, such spots notch up to 350,000 visits a month.

And yet, until recently, the gay market has been something no one’s really wanted to claim.

“When I first logged on to America Online, you couldn’t even create a ‘People Connection’ room with the word ‘gay’ in it,” said Quirk, the one-named entrepreneur who now manages AOL’s Gay and Lesbian Community Forum.


She was part of a group whose members first started a gay mailing list on AOL and then, in 1989, began meeting in an online room they created called Lambda Lounge. They lobbied and wrote letters and, finally, AOL allowed them to start a very small area, with no art and no chat room.

“Now we’re the most popular space on AOL. We do close to 1.8 million hits a month,” Quirk said.

AOL management is proud of its community-building--but perhaps a little cautious of being somehow pegged as a gay service.

“It’s a very popular area, but the mom’s area is also popular,” said President Ted Leonsis. “We just provide the tools to let these communities blossom.”

It’s community that gay men and lesbians are seeking when they go online, said Tom Rielly, founder and president of PlanetOut, a gay service currently available on the Microsoft Network and debuting on the World Wide Web in September.

“Gay people still fear every day losing their job, their home or their families if it were found out that they’re gay. So they’re afraid of visiting gay establishments or even subscribing to gay publications,” he said.

“Online is the first medium that addresses the unique needs of the community, because it offers a sense of anonymity and safety.”

It took some companies a long time to see the light--and the market.

On CompuServe, the nation’s second-largest computer service, a loyal group of gay men and lesbian users had been begging for an official gay space for 10 years.

Rielly himself first came out of the closet on CompuServe.

“I was a student at Yale in 1984,” he said. “Back then, there was only the human sexuality area. I sent out kind of clueless ‘I don’t know where to go’ e-mails and people wrote back with the names of books and organizations.”

Although CompuServe opened an official gay men and lesbian area this month, it’shad a rocky history with the community because of the unpopular ways it tried to deal with the issue over the past decade.

“They always pegged us in areas liked ‘Alternative Lifestyles’ or ‘Human Sexuality.’ . . . Being gay is about more than sexuality,” Rielly said.

Called “Pride,” the area on CompuServe is controlled so parents can block their children’s access if they chose to.

By the time the Microsoft Network went online in 1995, there was no question that a gay men and lesbian space was mandatory for any online community, just as most large American cities have their own gay neighborhood.

“It’s not like we sat around and agonized about it,” group product manager Larry Cohen said.

“The demographics were there. It was a no-brainer.”