- Lesbians Online:Queer Identity and Community Formation on the French Minitel
More than thirty years after its appearance, few remember either the Minitel—a now defunct French prototype for the Internet based on a closed network videotex system that connected a computer to telephone lines via a modem—or the interest that it generated among the gay and lesbian communities in France. There is nevertheless no doubt that the Minitel and the Internet, which superseded it, revolutionized queer life both in France and around the globe. Militant political and social networking, commercial websites, listserves, blogs, streaming video, dating services, and Internet porn catering to gay and lesbian publics proliferate. Yet despite the rapid expansion of sites and practices, very little research on the early history of this important phenomenon has been published. The burgeoning field of cyberqueer studies primarily focuses on the United States, Britain, and Asia.1 The limited scholarship that addresses this topic with respect to [End Page 451] France risks distorting our understanding of the past since it glosses over marked differences between gay (mostly understood as male) and lesbian engagement with new technology.2
Since the 1970s, lesbian activists in France have used the tools of the modern mass media to forge identities, create communities, and fight for recognition from a republican nation that refuses to acknowledge the rights of groups. The Minitel—and later the Internet—became indispensable instruments in this work. This article examines the very first online website and email service for lesbians ever created. It is about the intersection in the 1980s between a group of self-avowed lesbian activists, Les Goudous Télématiques (the GTs) and an innovative networking technology, the Minitel, which promised a new way to form lesbian communities that stretched beyond Paris into provincial towns and villages.3 With its capacity for email, chat, press reviews, news forums, and online listings, the Minitel enabled instant communication, group dialogue, and information access. Lesbian activists sought to utilize the Minitel as a feminist technology that could advance their shared vision of collectivist, noncapitalist community based on solidarity and affective ties.
The Minitel made possible new forms of lesbian identity untethered to specific locations, organizations, embodiment, or proximity. It also made possible unique ways of being “out of the closet” in a virtual space that was at once private (experienced in the intimacy of home or office) and public (accessible to others and premised on representation and communication). The result was dialectical: the Minitel not only put a self-identified group of lesbian individuals into contact but also helped to construct a very specific incarnation of the social category—“lesbian”—that it was deployed to support. In so doing, it contributed to the emergence of an “imagined community” characterized not by geographic proximity but by a level of social cohesion born of personal intimacy, common understanding, shared political vision, and mutual experiences of social exclusion.4 Utopian in conceptualization, in this particular iteration it was ultimately unsuccessful in practice. Given the centrality of the Internet to queer life by the twenty-first century, however, both its goals and its failures constitute an important moment in the evolving history of the relationship between technology and lesbian identity, community formation, sexuality, and experience in modern France and beyond. [End Page 452]
Cyberqueer History and Lesbian Identity
My work builds on the presumption that feminist technologies must be studied as part of larger sociotechnical systems, for “material objects do not and cannot exist or have meaning or use independent of social endeavors, social processes, social practices and social meaning.”5 Thus, in order to better understand the import of the GTs as both lesbian online site and activist project, it is important both to situate their story within the larger historiography of lesbian and gay involvement with computer-mediated communication and to address some of the issues that scholarship on this topic raises.6
Queers, as Larry Gross has observed, were “among the first to realize the potential” of computer-mediated communication.7 The attractions were and are multiple. Cyberspace has been widely vaunted by queer audiences as a disembodied space of performative freedom, as...