The Queer Digital History Project

A Conversation with Avery Dame-Griff

A scan of the cover of the TG Forum Compilation CD. Background is sectioned into three sections that are black, red, and beige with text. On the left is a woman in black and white sits sitting on planet Earth.
A scan of the cover of the TG Forum Compilation CD, originally sold in 1997. This disc contains content originally published on from April 1995 to December 1996.

In this Ask an Archivist, Avery Dame-Griff, creator and curator of the Queer Digital History Project (QDHP), provides background on the genesis and development of the community-led collection. After compiling resources for his dissertation on trans digital communication, Avery decided to share his findings on an open website to increase their accessibility and use. Since its inception, Avery has grown the QDHP to encompass a unique breadth of early LGBTQ online spaces like chat forums and Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes). In this conversation, Avery discusses the challenges of managing an entirely digital archive, the richness of pre-2010 queer online communities, and how archives like these contribute to queer scholarship—and the safeguarding of LGBTQ+ rights, which continue to face political attack in the US and abroad.

How would you describe this collection to a perfect stranger?

The Queer Digital History Project (QDHP) is an independent community history project documenting and preserving information and content related to early LGBTQ spaces online, stopping around 2010. This stopping point isn’t related to any one event, but we wanted to focus our scope on the period where there’s less overall preservation. The QDHP’s content includes archives of primary source documents, a catalog of early communities, and web history-related educational resources.

Our online spaces constantly evolve with new applications, updates, or trends—what was typical on the Internet 10 years ago is drastically different to today. Can you provide some background on what queer online communities looked like pre-2010? What were the characteristics or popular formats, websites, mediums?

In many cases, queer spaces online weren’t all that different from other contemporaneous topic-specific communities, though they often functioned on a smaller or more private scale. These communities could be a lifeline for folks who didn’t have many social connections within the community, or couldn’t safely be “out” yet in other aspects of their life. However, these communities also had to account for the perceived “risk” of publicness in an environment where queer topics were considered by some to be ‘indecent’ or ‘taboo.’ 

Screenshot of the August 1992 edition of THE GAY & LESBIAN BBS LIST. White background with black text.
Screenshot of the August 1992 edition of THE GAY & LESBIAN BBS LIST, a monthly listing of active Gay & Lesbian BBSes. The list was maintained from 1985 to August 1999 (when the final edition was published).

So in the mid-1980s into the 1990s, this meant there were highly visible BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems) like the Gay and Lesbian Information Bureau (GLIB) outside Washington DC and Multicom-4 in Rochester, New York, as well as the soc.motss Usenet newsgroup, alongside smaller boards like the trans-specific BBS Feminet, which had a “false front” BBS landing page, Digicomputronica, that required a password before you could access the full BBS. For some communities, the online and offline were intertwined: Multicom-4 had a regular presence in and around LGBT spaces in Rochester through community fundraisers and a small set of free public terminals, and soc.motss had motss.con, an annual meetup that still goes on today. Though they’ve just started to be documented, BBSes also played a key role in the AIDS Crisis, offering remote access to research, resources, and support for PWAs, caretakers, and community members.

Notably, all of these examples were on non-corporate platforms. Communities on places like CompuServe and AOL, in contrast, were shaped by their corporate hosts’ attitudes toward queer content. On CompuServe, LGBTQ spaces were initially positioned as “medical” content for adults, while AOL has a long and fractious history with LGBTQ spaces. They initially resisted having any gay or lesbian forum, and actively didn’t allow discussion of any trans topics on the platform until 1995. By the late 1990s, though, LGBTQ folks were increasingly seen less as a “problem” and more of a targetable consumer demographic, so what they used and how they used it is very similar to their contemporaries.

Can you talk about the beginning of the QDHP? What inspired you to start it, and what was that early experience like of finding and cataloging items?

The project started out of my dissertation work, which looked at how trans folks had used digital communication both historically and in the contemporary moment (so, mid 2010s). As part of that work, I was creating a spreadsheet of information about trans-specific BBSes that I’d found in digitized community newsletters (many of them available in the Digital Transgender Archive) because there was so little information out there about these spaces.

At some point, I realized what a shame it would be to keep all the information locked up in a spreadsheet that no one else could easily use—especially given how often queer history has gone undocumented. The QDHP, then, was initially meant as a way to make all that information far more accessible to a wider audience. As I began collecting specifically for the project, I found myself doing a lot more of what I describe as “rabbit holing”: following single references in disparate documents until I have enough information for an entry. So that may mean running a BBS’s phone number—the equivalent of a modern URL—through a variety of different search engines and archives to see what comes up. For smaller or local BBSes, digitized copies of community newsletters can be invaluable resources.

In this process, I was also running across documents (like the Gay and Lesbian BBS list or the AIDS Info BBS collection) that were contained in existing archives, but had a specific relevancy to the site. Initially, I was wary of mirroring these files, as I didn’t really see archiving as falling under the project’s scope, especially given its independent status. However, once I’d mirrored a few (with the permission of their original host, where relevant), the overall increase in accessibility felt like it outweighed my concerns about what it meant for the project to act as an archive. As one example, the AIDS Info BBS collection was technically accessible via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. However, a user, first off, has to know the AIDS Info BBS old site address, if they even knew the site existed in the first place. Once they’re using it, they can only realistically read one file at a time, as well as accounting for the particularities of how the site was archived. By downloading all the files and collecting them into .ZIP archives, their accessibility increases exponentially.

Screenshot of the landing page of the Multicom-4 BBS. Black and magenta background with pride flag layered under blue and turquoise squares with text.
A screenshot of the landing page of the Multicom-4 BBS, based out of Rochester, NY, in June 1996. Donated to the QDHP by sysop Chaz Antonelli.

Who is the intended audience of the project? How do you envision these materials contributing to queer scholarship?

The project has two primary audiences: first, researchers interested in the topic for a specific project, and second, interested community members. While I try to make sure the site works for both, I admit to being particularly invested in the second one. My most frequent collaborators and contributors come not from established institutions but the community members, such as former admins, moderators, and sysops (System Operators), for whom maintaining these spaces was a labor of love—work I acknowledge and honor with the QDHP.

This addition to the historical record is also where I see the QDHP contributing to queer scholarship. Digital communication played an important role in not just queer folks’ lives, but queer politics writ large. One of the central arguments of my forthcoming book, The Two Revolutions: A History of the Transgender Internet, is that the transgender movement couldn’t be where it is now without digital communication drastically increasing its reach while also lowering barriers to entry—like a fear of being outed—that kept people from participating.

Many archives often start with a donation of physical materials before becoming digitized. Here, all materials are digital and most live online. How is the approach to archiving digital materials different from physical ones? Is there anything people might not realize about the development and conservation of an entirely digital collection?

The first and biggest issue is simply identifying if an archival copy exists. Early decentralized platforms like Usenet and FidoNet had, as Kevin Driscoll and Camille Paloque-Bergès describe it, an “anti-memory design,” so they survive in bits and pieces on things like shareware discs, which were themselves often just huge collections of files taken from an assortment of BBSes. Given how widely some of these files circulated, establishing original provenance can be quite difficult.

For those files that were preserved, format compatibility can then become the biggest barrier to accessing their content. As computing standards have evolved, file formats, particularly proprietary ones, become harder to read and may require special conditions to emulate. For hypertext documents (aka HTML files), it’s not just one file but a collection of elements such as images, code, links to other contemporaneous pages, and the wider Web as a whole. As a result, the QDHP has to balance making files accessible—which may require converting them to a more future-proof encoding and format (like a UTF-8 encoded plain text (.txt) file)—with maintaining as much of their original structure and organization as possible.

On the site, you can search for items based on tags or maps or even search within a collection. How did you determine the organization of the website? How has it developed as you gained new materials?

The site’s organization is both a function of the project’s evolving scope and focus and the practical realities of adapting Omeka—an open-source content management system for digital collections—with limited funds and time. Though it initially started as a catalog, over time I found I was using some of the site in my own teaching, and I adapted what I was doing in the classroom into resources for educators and researchers interested in the subject. Because these resources didn’t really fit the Omeka model well, I integrated them as standalone pages since that was a built-in function.

Advertisement for trans-specific BBS Cross Connection. White background with black text. A black keyboard is in the top right corner.
Advertisement for trans-specific BBS Cross Connection from Cross-Talk: The Gender Community’s News & Information Monthly, No. 47 (September 1993), held in the Digital Transgender Archive.

You follow a categorization process similar to the Digital Transgender Archive: “whenever possible, content is categorized using terminology derived from the document or contemporaneous descriptions.” Further, you employ this method “to avoid retroactively applying labels to individuals or spaces who might not have identified with them—a politically fraught act.” How does this project grapple with language that might be seen today as outdated or even harmful—a situation many modern archivists face?

Unlike a print document, a born-digital text file can seem so much more “present” because it doesn’t visibly age in the same way as a print document, either in terms of condition or aesthetics. Therefore, consistent contextualization through description plays a key role. This can be as simple as making sure the item page is clear about when the file was produced/published (if found on a shareware disc), or noting that messages have clear dates of publication. As part of my work as a Humanities Washington Public Humanities Fellow in 2022, I’ll also be developing a glossary that contextualizes these terms.

You started the Queer Digital History Project because you wanted to “[provide] necessary context for understanding the full scope of LGBTQ ‘net history.’” Independent queer archives are often formed out of necessity to preserve the community’s own history due to a lack of institutional support. What are the benefits and disadvantages of independent or community-based archiving projects—in scholarship and beyond?

Independence, from my view, allows the project to remain flexible and accountable to the many different individuals who contributed to the communities and documents we catalog and archive. Some of the QDHP’s collections contain the writing of hundreds of people, many of whom likely didn’t consider at the time that their messages would one day be formally archived. Being independent allows us to guarantee that the material will remain accessible to these communities.

And ideally, this community-focused approach keeps this project closer in spirit, if not design, to the kinds of forums and sites of the periods it covers—small, localized communities, where the sysop (in the BBS era, at least) may have only been a local phone call away. However, this means that we have very limited access to outside funding and resources. The site’s hosting costs are paid by me out of pocket, and any additional server space for things like the Transgender Usenet Archive are donated.

Though today we have a better understanding of the longevity of online posting (“the Internet is forever!”), I’d imagine that early perceptions of the online world felt closer to sharing into an abyss. What are the ethical considerations in archiving what might have been seen then as ephemeral, especially in relation to personal topics of gender and sexuality?

For many early users, I think they initially may have seen it as an abyss, but over time these spaces, especially smaller communities, could become quite intimate. Due to the community’s norms and/or stated rules at the time, users felt safe sharing more online than they might have with their family or local community. Metadata can also be particularly revealing, since it can effectively “out” someone. This is especially an issue for trans individuals, who might have posted using a “professional” email address that includes a prior name.

I often think of community online in terms of sedimentation. Each space and platform, once it goes offline or falls out of fashion, leaves behind its remains to settle and join collective memory.”

These issues require approaching archiving with a commitment to centering an ethics of care. For example, when we were archiving Queer Yahoo Groups, we publicized such archival efforts and reached out to possible community partners, such as moderators, for their feedback and support. For all collections, we offer folks who think their content might be in an archive retroactive right of refusal. We also make a point to use automated redaction for identifying information (email addresses, places, professional or legal names) that might appear, though what’s redacted varies depending on the community. When it’s clear that users participated in the community on the assumption that their posts would not be widely circulated, like the CDForum archive, we require individuals to apply to receive a copy of the archive and agree to delete it after a certain date.

Online discourse of today—whether within or outside the queer community—can often feel unproductive at best, and intentionally hurtful at worst. What can be learned from studying online queer discourse of the past? How do these materials inform present discussions that occur on Twitter, TikTok, Reddit, etc.?

I often think of community online in terms of sedimentation. Each space and platform, once it goes offline or falls out of fashion, leaves behind its remains to settle and join collective memory. Over time, this mass of images, text, and memory becomes the foundation for new communities that adapt earlier practices to fit their current environment. So queer and trans youth posting to Instagram are building on photo-sharing practices inherited from the earlier formats as far back as the BBS and its lo-fi .GIF library—users whose practices were shaped by the norms of print magazines. Ideally, being able to think about current discourse in terms of the longer historical context allows users to consider what alternative models these earlier formats might offer. For example, small scale, topic-specific forums fostered connection and intimacy in a way that hyper-public mega-platforms like Twitter and TikTok can actively disincentivize.

LGBTQ+ rights continue to face political attack in the US, most notably targeting trans youth and athletes. What is the value in preserving these early online queer spaces? How can they impact not only scholarship, but social and political issues of today?

While they’re still a relatively new phenomenon, born-digital archives are increasingly essential to understanding societal change over the past 40 years. For example, the term “cisgender” wouldn’t have seen wide adoption without Usenet, which was one of the only trans spaces it was used in for quite a few years. In a similar vein, I wrote a piece for The Conversation on the longer history of trans youth online last May that I think is a perfect example of preservation’s value and impact. Arguments against trans youth often emphasize the Internet’s role in “spreading” trans identity as a kind of “social contagion.” Yet these archives clearly show that trans youth have long pre-existed the Internet. Instead, digital communications simply provided a platform where they could collectively organize and advocate for themselves—and make their concerns visible to the wider public. Preserving these spaces, then, isn’t just about doing the important work of documenting queer history, but also about giving scholars and activists the tools they need to challenge political narratives that would write queer people out of public life altogether.

About the interviewee:

Avery Dame-Griff

Avery Dame-Griff is a Lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at Gonzaga University. 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. Some of these materials were also used in his forthcoming book The Two Revolutions: A History of the Transgender Internet (NYU Press), which tracks how the Internet transformed transgender political organizing from the 1980s to the contemporary moment. In 2022, he is serving as a Public Humanities Fellow for Humanities Washington, developing a series of interactive online exhibits and workshops about the history of LBGTQ+ communities in online spaces.

To learn more about the Queer Digital History Project, please visit:

This interview was conducted by Sabrina Cofer. She is the digital media producer at Choice.

Enjoy this post? Check out more Ask an Archivist interviews.