Fairly few people had access to online communication in the last three decades of the 20th century, relative to today, and most of the lucky few used computers at prominent universities or government institutions. But starting in the late 1970s, “ordinary” people began using telephone infrastructure to create computer-connection hubs called bulletin board systems. In The Modem World, author Kevin Driscoll writes, “Within a few years, dial-up BBSs had become the dominant form of networking among personal computer owners, especially those who were excluded from other media systems.” People whose identities were shunned by mainstream society at the time were able to bond online with people like them and foster communities that provided acceptance in a usually intolerant world.
One such community was GLIB, the Gay and Lesbian Information Bureau, based in Arlington, Virginia. Founded in the mid-1980s, this bulletin board system initially served the Washington D.C. area, but its popularity grew quickly: a 1990 Washington Post article says “gay people from around the country call in” to GLIB. In a 1994 national poll conducted by Boardwatch Magazine, readers voted GLIB as the third best BBS in the United States, because it had “easy telephone access, good chat areas and features such as several hundred mug shots (so users can see photos of some of the folks they’re schmoozing with),” according to a different Post article. However, GLIB wasn’t solely about meeting and chatting with people, the BBS also dispersed information to its users and was a crucial resource during the AIDS epidemic.
GLIB was an identity-centric BBS, bringing its users together through the commonality of experiencing same-sex attraction, creating a community that could provide respite from the heteronormative society. However, the GLIB user base might also have recreated some societal inequity. Since money was a prerequisite to computer access, wealthy people, white people and men were most likely to have BBS access in general, and the demographic makeup of GLIB’s users likely skewed at least somewhat wealthy, white and male. Were people with intersectional identities welcome at GLIB? I’d hope so, but history shows cis white men in LGBTQIA+ movements and communities have often centered themselves and created exclusionary environments. And GLIB’s name only specifically welcomes gay and lesbian people, perhaps alienating people of other LGBTQIA+ identities (though the period ad displayed above includes bisexual people). For example, would a trans person be accepted by their true gender as opposed to their gender assigned at birth? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I think it’s possible that even within this marginalized community, persistent prejudice and inequity could’ve lead to a preponderance of members who were white and/or cisgender and/or male.
Though I don’t know exactly how far access to GLIB reached at its height, it’s safe to assume the first users lived in and around Arlington, and then the user base expanded outward with GLIB’s growing popularity. Users definitely used GLIB in part for sex, whether getting spicy online or trying to meet a nearby user in person, that wasn’t the platform’s primary purpose. According to the sysop Jon Larimore, “GLIB is geared more toward community issues and routine techno-type stuff, such as providing IBM and MAC shareware.” So interest in/knowledge of computers was another aspect of identity that likely bonded many GLIB users.
Driscoll, Kevin. The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media. New Haven , CT: Yale
University Press, 2022.
Harrow, Robert R, Sy Rovner, and K.K. Campbell. “ GLIB: Users Are Talking It Up.” The
Washington Post, September 15, 1994.
Masters, Brooke A. “Gay Organizations Displaying a Growing Influence in
Suburbs.” The Washington Post, June 17, 1990.
“Gay and Lesbian Information Bureau (GLIB).” Queer Digital History Project. Accessed
September 28, 2022. https://queerdigital.com/items/show/55.