Eek, this summer has flown by! Before we get too deep into August, we wanted to share with you the awesome convo we had back in July, as part of our Nasty Woman planner focus on celebrating LGBTQ narratives and histories. We had the pleasure of speaking with Riese Bernard, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Autostraddle. Transforming the queer media landscape, Riese grew Autostraddle from a small and scrappy blog into an award-winning independent media company. Shrill Society co-founder, Cameron, sat down with her to talk about The L Word, starting the world’s most popular lesbian website, and building community IRL.
Cameron Shaw: At Shrill Society, we’re focused on celebrating women change makers and conversation starters. When you co-founded Autostraddle in 2009, what change were you hoping to make or what conversation were you hoping to start?
Riese Bernard: When we started, there were no general interest magazines for queer women―like there is Glamour or Marie Claire for straight women. There also wasn’t an explicitly feminist, queer women’s website that covered all the topics, where we could talk about politics, but we could also talk about bad television; we could look at hot girls, but we could also talk about social justice issues. My inspirations were Sassy magazine, Bitch, Jezebel, and publications like that―magazines that were doing a lot of progressive social commentary while also keeping it accessible.
We weren’t the only ones in the market at that time, but we were the only ones trying to cover the whole breadth of what a traditional “women’s magazine” might cover. We wanted to tell personal stories and have our real names out there. In a lot of gay websites and newspapers at the time, writers were using pseudonyms because there was more concern about job discrimination and repercussions than there is now. For us, from the very beginning, we wanted you to see our faces and know that we were real people who were out and thriving―well, on the surface thriving, I guess. [laughs]
I’d started my personal blog in 2006, and it had a pretty big following for a personal blog. This was during the “blog boom.” I was very surprised to learn that a lot of my readers enjoyed the content and the L Word recaps I was doing because of how I also brought my friends into the content. For people who didn’t have access to that kind of community in their own life, they could live vicariously through ours, I guess. I absolutely didn’t expect that. First of all, I don’t think terribly highly of myself or that we’re that interesting, but people would be like, “Oh my god, you’re like The L Word in real life.” Which it’s like, “Not really!” But we were accessible people that someone could relate to and feel less alone in the world, which is all I really wanted to do―help people who feel alone know that they aren’t.
Did you define as a writer when you started your blog? I’m curious what quality, skill, or experience made you know you were ready to do that but also ready to jump from that into starting a magazine?
I’m a writer. That’s my background and what I intended to do with my life. If you were a writer just getting started in New York in the mid-aughts, you basically had to have a blog, then you had to get linked by Gawker and all that stuff, and that was how you created your career. I was freelance writing and video editing. My whole life, I’ve always wanted to be the editor of a magazine. When I was younger, I’d say, “I’m going to create a teen version of Vogue and be the editor of it.” But by the time I grew up, Vogue had already created the teen version of Vogue. I knew I eventually wanted to run a magazine, and I don’t think I really had the patience to climb the ladder in order to do so at an already existing one. It was also hard to fit into the publishing world at the time because it was very much dominated by straight, white, cis men and the girls they were interested in talking to. It was hard to make space for myself and queer experiences in that universe. But yeah, I’ve always wanted to start a magazine. Did I think I was going to be in charge of the business aspect of it? I did not.
It sounds like there were a lot of things you knew about yourself going into it, but what’s something you discovered along the way that you didn’t know about yourself?
I learned that I do have some business acumen. That also wasn’t entirely out of nowhere either. When I was a kid, I would sell my art on the street or like I built a state fair in my driveway. I would write novels and sell them. I was always entrepreneurial. I just didn’t have any business background.
It’s so funny how often, when I talk to women entrepreneurs, that comes up. So many say something like, “I was the kid who had a car-wash business or a lemonade stand. I didn’t go the business school route, but this was something that was always a part of my identity even if I wasn’t naming it or articulating it.”
Yes exactly! I was always doing stuff like that. I would start like the neighborhood newspaper. I did one issue of so many niche-market papers, but it was always hard because I’m not really a good people person. It was hard to get my projects off the ground because it required putting myself out there in front of other human beings, which has always been difficult for me and still is very difficult. I’ll probably think about this all day and have an answer for what I’ve figured out about myself because everything I can think of so far that I’ve learned about myself is a bad thing I’ve learned about myself!
Your answer is really beautiful and honest. I think people don’t talk enough about how hard it is to start things, so it’s nice to hear somebody say, “I tried a bunch of shit and then….”
I think a big thing I’ve realized is that even though I think I have a good vision and good ideas, I’m not very good at managing people. I’ve realized I’m also, it turns out, uniquely good at seeing things from both sides, which can make it hard to make decisions and also make it easy to pick the wrong decision. I feel like a lot of the loudest voices on the Internet or in publishing are people who can definitively come down on one side or the other of something, and I didn’t realize how much that wasn’t actually me until recently. I wish I was more decisive! I tend to gather a lot of input before making a decision or having a strong opinion.
That’s something I’ve been navigating in my own life as a cultural critic for a long time. I feel more comfortable and frankly interested in thinking about the multitude of perspectives on most issues. I think that’s actually much more useful in the world. I agree with you on the value of being decisive or having a strong opinion sometimes, but I also think it’s detrimental to our critical and cultural conversations when only the loudest people, who are really willing to come down hard on one side or another, are being heard. That’s playing out in our lives in a million different ways, and that’s been exacerbated by social media.
Social media has no space.
Social media has no space for the in between―the grey area. No space for complications. No space for nuance. So I think it’s important to be building those spaces in the ways in which you are.