Group shot from the first annual motss.con in 1988. Photo courtesy of Billy Green on Flickr. Back To All Blog Posts

Love, Acceptance, and Screeching Modems

The early internet provided a new way for LGBTQ people to connect and come out. Take a tour of the online communities that were, for many, a lifeline.

  • June 6, 2023
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  • Feature
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  • By Avery Dame-Griff

When folks think of the history of the internet, certain images, sounds, and feelings may spring to mind, like bins of free AOL trial CDs by the front door of Blockbuster, the eerie screech of a 56K modem dialing in, or the frustration at not being able to use their home’s one phone line because someone had an important call coming. Alternatively, they might think about representations of the Internet in popular culture, like the techno-thriller The Net (1995), starring Sandra Bullock, or the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail (1998), which updates the 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie for the digital era. 

All of these moments are most often associated with the mid- to late-1990s, when now-decommissioned NSFNET (a nationwide computer network funded by the National Science Foundation) became the infrastructural backbone a growing number of American consumers used to access the World Wide Web. However, many individuals were using computers to communicate, share resources, and build community long before Bryant Gumbel infamously asked, “What is the internet, anyway?” Many communities benefited from early digital communications, but for LGBTQ individuals—especially those who weren’t yet out or didn’t have access to a local community—it could be a lifeline. Though many different groups existed, the following were notable examples of internet forums’ possibilities. 

soc.motss (1983 – Today) 

Founded in 1983 by Boston-based programmer Steve Dyer, the Usenet newsgroup net.motss (renamed soc.motss in 1987) is the earliest documented LGB-specific online community. Launched in late 1979, Usenet is the first non-governmental platform-agnostic computer communication network. Initially distributed primarily via the federally funded ARPANET, Usenet access expanded through the 1980s and 1990s to include major commercial services like AOL and CompuServe, as well as access through web browsers like Netscape.

In the early 1980s, there’d been some discussions about creating a gay- and lesbian-specific newsgroup, but some administrators (who were responsible for distributing Usenet posts across the network) worried hosting and sharing a newsgroup with the name “” would be seen by their employers, which included governmental entities and state universities, as tacit approval of “inappropriate” content. As a result, Dyer named the group using the acronym motss (for “members of the same sex”), which had been used elsewhere on Usenet. 

By 1984, net.motss had developed into a thriving community of regular users. For some posters, net.motss was the first place where they felt comfortable coming out as gay. Linguist Arnold Zwicky, reflecting on the group, noted that it provided “an enormous array of people, amongst whom almost anyone could find some to relate to,” and even after being out for 15 years, “it would not be an exaggeration to say that this group changed my life; I found a gay community…and also found friends, and their friends, and so on, so that my social world has been transformed.”

A few years later, regular members began meeting up at in-person industry events like annual USENIX conferences. These meetups led to the first motss.con in San Francisco in 1988, a tradition that continues to this day. 

Still from a 1991 segment on Virginia-based public access show Gay Fairfax where Larimore did an interactive demonstration of GLIB’s capabilities.

Gay and Lesbian Information Bureau (GLIB) (1986 – 2001) 

Arlington, Virginia-based Gay and Lesbian Information Bureau (GLIB) was among the most prominent early gay and lesbian bulletin board systems (BBSes) in the United States. Though its name recalls physical corkboards in community centers and grocery stores, the BBS was actually a computer that was converted, using BBS software, to a server other users could dial into via modem. Founded in 1986, GLIB offered a variety of features common to BBSes, including messaging, chat, a file library, access to content from major US publications, and games. 

In 1993, GLIB ranked #5 in industry trade magazine Boardwatch’s “Top 100 Boards” poll—a rare feat given the prominence of non-community-specific boards within the field. In a 1994 profile of GLIB, regular users described the board as a safe space to find friends and connect with other gay and lesbian folks. At times, these online connections led to offline volunteering: In 1993, President Clinton sent a letter of thanks to GLIB’s users for their work helping process constituent letters sent to the new administration, which in 1992 had received more mail than the entire tenure of the previous administration.

While GLIB was one of the more prominent LGB BBSes within the United States, Washington State was also home to multiple active BBSes, like Duvall Pride Line, Waka Waka BBS, Emerald OnRamp, Rendezvous, the Cyber Queer Lounge, and 28 Barbary Lane, as well as an LGBT forum on the nonprofit Seattle Community Network. They weren’t just online, either: Rendezvous sponsored public computer terminals at the R Place bar in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and both Pride Line and 28 Barbary Lane had contingents that marched in Seattle’s Pride Parade. 

While most of these systems required some computer savvy to easily use, others aimed for wider accessibility. Emerald OnRamp, for example, was hosted and run using the proprietary FirstClass software, which bundled email, chatrooms, forums, and other services in one easy-to-use interface. 

Left: Logo for Emerald OnRamp, which first appeared when a user went to log in. | Right: Photograph of 28 Barbary Lane landing page, pulled up on a computer monitor, from the February 14, 1992 issue of Seattle Gay News. Courtesy of

28 Barbary Lane (1985 – 1997) 

Founded in 1985, 28 Barbary Lane (28BBL) was the earliest gay and lesbian BBS in Washington State. The board took its name from the San Francisco address for the boarding house in Armistead Maupin’s 1978 novel Tales of the City, which included a variety of LGBT characters. The board’s founder and first system operator (sysop) J.D. Brown was inspired to create a digital alternative to the local bar scene, and offered a variety of forums for discussion ranging from current political issues, local news, and humor, as well as email and chat rooms. Not only did members find lifelong friends online, but some also made romantic connections, meeting their future partners first on 28BBL. 28BBL was also notable for its active women’s forum, Wimminwood, bucking dominant trends within the BBS scene. In 1991, a “bar invasion” drawing attention to the limited social spaces for lesbians organized in Wimminwood drew 40 participants. By 1990, then-current sysop Jeffery Thomson proudly noted that the board had over 1,000 members in a 1990 Seattle Gay News piece on the BBS’s five-year-anniversary. That same year, 28BBL was voted the best BBS in Washington State by readers of Boardwatch. By 1997, the board had grown to over 4,100 active members. 

Seattle AIDS Info BBS (1990 – 1995) 

Beyond just social spaces, the BBS was also a key tool for spreading information during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Boards like HIV/AIDS Info BBS (later renamed AEGIS) in San Juan Capistrano, California, the AIDS Info BBS in San Francisco, California, and Critical Path in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania offered access to social support and the latest research on AIDS trials and treatments. In Seattle, the Seattle AIDS Information BBS (SAIBBS), founded in late 1989, gave callers free access to treatment news, lists of local resources, and an anonymous forum where PWAs (people with AIDS) could ask questions and offer support. SAIBBS also offered these users an online “support group” including representatives from local AIDS-related organizations who could help connect them to Seattle-based support services.  

According to founding sysop Steve Brown, himself a PWA, the BBS was “a perfect medium” for lonely and fearful PWAs “to first become comfortable with discussing their situation with others anonymously…to see the companionship and support they need without revealing their identity.” Unlike other Washington State BBSes, SAIBBS converted to a non-profit organization not long after its founding, which allowed it to accept donations from community members to offset the board’s expenses. These included local businesses, community groups, and even other BBSes: when SAIBBS had to go offline in 1994 due to limited funds, members of 28 Barbary Lane worked to raise enough to keep the board online for several months and later ran a fundraiser for SAIBBS at their annual board birthday party.

Beyond its local connections, SAIBBS was also a founding member of the international AEGIS (AIDS Education General Information System) network, created in 1992 to help AIDS BBSes across the United States quickly circulate essential medical information, and Brown was elected the network’s first vice-president. The BBS would continue to be active until 1995, when it would shut down due to a lack of incoming funding. 

The BBS was ‘a perfect medium’ for lonely and fearful [people with AIDS] ‘to first become comfortable with discussing their situation with others anonymously…to see the companionship and support they need without revealing their identity.’

The rise of the World Wide Web in the mid-90s drove the closure of many BBSes. Compared to using a web browser, the BBS simply didn’t have the same graphical appeal. Moreover, there were no limits to when and how long you could use the Web, as compared to the BBS’s limited simultaneous user cap. Most BBSes did not declare an “official” end, but slowly faded from public view—for example, all mentions of both 28BBL and Emerald OnRamp, who’d been regular advertisers in the Seattle Gay News throughout the mid-1990s, vanish by the end of 1997. It’s unclear if Emerald OnRamp ever formally notified subscribers of the board’s imminent closure: One member reported they’d heard about EOR’s demise secondhand at the end of April 1997, and only then noticed they’d last been billed in early February. 

In other cases, existing BBSes quietly rebranded and shifted to focus their services on a new, booming industry: local Internet Service Providers. Yet the friendships forged on these early forums continued long past their heyday, and longtime members now reconnect and reminisce in BBS-specific Facebook groups. 

Avery Dame Griff is a lecturer at Gonzaga University in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. He was a Public Humanities Fellow with Humanities Washington, through which he is developing a series of online exhibits about the history of LGBTQ communities in online spaces. He founded and serves as primary curator of the Queer Digital History Project, an independent community history project cataloging and archiving pre-2010 LGBTQ spaces online.

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