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Clicking the Bean: The History of the Internet's Most Popular Lesbian Blog

Sep 11 2015 10:25 AM
Clicking the Bean: The History of the Internet's Most Popular Lesbian Blog

From left, Autostraddle's founding team in 2009: Carly Usdin, Robin Roemer, Riese Bernard, and Alex Vega. Photos by Robin Roemer

Since Riese Bernard started Autostraddle as an "L Word" fan blog, it has transformed into a full-fledged publication receiving a reported 4 million page views a month. So why aren't advertisers attracted to the site?

It's been 22 years since a New York magazine cover of a brooding k.d. lang challenged America to embrace "Lesbian Chic." Today we have lesbian mayors, TV stars, mothers, and CEOs. We have Ellen. But the everyday nuances of lesbian women's lives remain largely invisible in mainstream media. This is why we also have Autostraddle—an online publication exclusively written by and for queer women. Although the site receives around four million pageviews a month according to its founder, few outside the queer community—even heterosexual women with asymmetrical haircuts—know about the site.

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Like many new media publications, Autostraddle has its roots in the blogging world of the aughts. Riese Bernard founded the site in 2009 with her then-girlfriend Alex Vega and a group of friends Bernard met on blogs and fan forums dedicated to The L Word, an hour-long Showtime drama about a group of hot and (relatively) well-adjusted West Hollywood lesbians. Since then Autostraddle has grown into a sprawling mishmash of listicles ("The Top 15 Witches According to My Bruja Heart"), TV recaps, personal essays about gender, family, body image, sex, and think pieces on subjects like race and media.

Sometimes the site's queerness is subtle. Writers recap Glee and Pretty Little Liars because they have lesbian plotlines. In other cases, it's glaring. Music editor Stef Schwartz, for instance, always refers to Evan Rachel Wood as "Evan Rachel Wood Bisexual." During one week earlier this year, Autostraddle appeared determined to catalogue every "girl who likes girls" to have appeared in a movie or TV show in the 80s and 90s.

The site is popular enough in the queer community to cause controversy, yet it has failed to attract advertisers or investors.

More established lesbian publications like AfterEllen and SheWired also cover pop culture, but content on those sites usually begins with celesbians and ends with gay marriage gains. Bernard uses celebrity content as bait. "If I can get you here with these shiny things, then we can start talking about more complicated ideas," she says. Bernard's master plan has been to create a space for unconventional and deeply personal writing about queer women's lives—articles on what and who lesbians love and hate, stories of identities and relationships, and essays on lesbian history. Over the course of its history, Autostraddle has published stories about queer women in technology, violence against trans people, and how to have pretty much every imaginable kind of lesbian sex.

A robust community has developed in Autostraddle's comments section and IRL at the site's yearly A-Camp in the San Bernardino Mountains. Roughly 1,300 Autostraddle members pay $5 to $25 a month to access extra content on the site through the Autostraddle Plus program.

Like any niche publication with a strong point of view, though, the site has loud detractors. They take umbrage with its sometimes breezy or immature tone. One writer criticized the editors for publishing a "Hot 100" list of queer women, calling it "normative and anti-queer." Others have mocked the site for its overly earnest writing, like its "Interview with My Ex-Girlfriend" series.

The site is popular enough in the queer community to cause controversy, yet it has failed to attract advertisers or investors. Instead, the site ekes by on reader contributions, merch sales, and A-Camp fees. In a world that rewards virality (most publications need tens of millions of readers to turn a profit in the internet age), Autostraddle has faced an uphill battle. Your grandpa might post news about Alabama gay marriages on Facebook, but he's far less likely to share intimate stories about lesbians' lives.

If I can get you here with these shiny things, then we can start talking about more complicated ideas.

For years, though, there has been an audience for stories about lesbians. Look at The L Word, the show that inspired Autostraddle. Although the plot lines often made no sense and characters could be irrational or irritating, The L Word's early seasons were a revelation for many young women. For Autostraddle founder Riese Bernard, the show was even aspirational. At the time, she was a 23-year-old aspiring writer in New York City. Though she'd dated women before, Bernard says she never related to the mainstream lesbian world around her.

"My mom is gay, and growing up I had a very specific image of what it meant to be a lesbian," Bernard says. "Middle aged, frumpy, tapered jeans, big belt, shirt tucked in, bad haircut—of course there is nothing wrong with that."

To Bernard, The L Word resembled a Technicolor version of her life and friends. Obsessed with the show and its maddening characters, Bernard spent hours talking about the show with gay, closeted, and curious women in online forums and blogs' comments sections. Sensing that the community coalescing around The L Word could be an audience for her other personal writing, Bernard started recapping the show's fourth season in 2007 on the Road Best Straddled, a blog which she eventually renamed Autostraddle.

When she wasn't working or writing her blog, Bernard followed other L Word fan sites—including the forums of the Planet podcast, named after the café where the show's characters hang out. In the comments section, Bernard got to know a moderator and blogger named Laneia Jones. Like Bernard, Jones had never identified with lesbians before watching The L Word, but similarities between the two women's lives ended there.

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Jones was 24 when she first started watching the show. After seeing the character Shane, a wiry hairdresser and heartthrob, seduce an older woman, Jones says she "fell down an Internet rabbit hole and ended up in this community where girls were talking not just about being gay but about boring, random stuff. They were having a great time and I wanted to be part of it."

The only problem: Jones was living in Virginia with her husband and two kids. After watching The L Word and reading blogs for several months, she says she realized, Oh fuck, I'm a gay person. Jones doubted her online friends would accept her if they knew she was a closeted wife and mother, so she made up a persona: a single, out, childless lesbian. To her, the transgression seemed odd but innocent. Sometimes the persona felt more real than her everyday life. A few months later, she decided to come out to her husband as gay and to her online girlfriend as a wife and mom, but she refrained from telling all her online friends.

By the time The L Word's final season aired, both Jones and Bernard's lives had dramatically changed. Jones was living with her kids and girlfriend in Phoenix, and Bernard wrote for a community of readers online. As Showtime started airingThe L Word's final season, Bernard worried about losing her growing audience. She had always imagined herself running a publication. With her girlfriend at the time, Alex Vega, she began gathering together the close friends she'd made in forums and through blogging to turn her L Word fan site into Autostraddle.

Jones, who is now Autostraddle's executive editor, agreed to help Bernard, but before she told her she was making the commitment, she'd have to tell Bernard the truth about her life before The L Word. When she finally sent an email coming clean, the disclosure only made her more qualified to work on a queer women's website: "This opens up so many doors for you as an editor and as a writer," Jones recalled Bernard telling her. "Do you have any idea the shit you can say now?"

Autostraddle founders Riese Bernard and Alex Vega having fun during their off time. Photo by Robin Roemer

Jones's confession set the tone of many of Autostraddle's future essays. The site launched the same day Jenny Schecter, The L Word's most reviled character, died. In addition to publishing recaps of a show that even Bernard admits was "horrible" by its final season, the site began offering women appealing, recognizable alternatives to straight sex, relationships, and life. They published advice columns on how to support a partner who's been sexually assaulted and thinkpieces about economic injustice, radical queer politics, and breakups. The site aimed to provide readers with the same experience of recognition and enlightenment that The L Word had given them.

Autostraddle's mission fits within a tradition of lesbian publishing. During the 1950s the Daughters of Bilitis—the homophile group named after a book of erotic lesbian poetry—began mailing copies of a newsletter called The Ladder to every lesbian they'd ever met or heard about. At the time, homosexual sex was illegal, and most people viewed same-sex attraction as an illness or a sin. The newsletters' writers wanted to build a sense of community and identity outside the lesbian bar scene and teach the public about homosexuality. They aimed to "replace isolation with sturdy lines of communication over which would travel regular and reliable information about many facets of lesbian life," Martin Meeker writes in Contacts Desired, a history of gay and lesbian communication networks.

Women who received the Ladder passed along the names of other women they thought would want to read it. Some began correspondences with the organizers, seeking refuge from isolated lives in places like Minnesota and Salt Lake City.The Ladder was viral publishing before the internet. It helped women connect the way L Word blogs and websites brought Bernard and Jones together—and it served the same purpose as Autostraddle.

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Not all queer women need or want this recognition. Savannah, a 23-year-old lesbian who asked not to be identified by her last name because she teaches grade school, first learned about Autostraddle in college. She thinks the site appeals to people who "if asked to describe themselves, one of the first words they'd say would be gay, instead of identifying with a career or some other aspect of their life." She'd prefer to read news and reporting on LGBT issues, rather than "one article about one girl and her feelings about something."

Autostraddle managing editor Rachel Kincaid believes the site's deeply personal and specific advice columns and essays act as an exemplar for queer lives. "Only part of it is about, 'What do I do?' The other part is, 'Is it OK that I've made these decisions?' For LGBT people, we generally don't know," Kincaid says. In this way, the website is a "sexual communication network," according to Meeker's definition. It is wider and broader than a social clique and not dependent on a physical space.

Autostraddle readers, though, do take their "sexual communication network" into the real world. In April 2012, the site held its first A-Camp gathering in California's San Bernardino Mountains. Promising "the spirit of this website manifested in three entire dimensions mixed with a dash of old-fashioned Summer Camp goodness and an infusion of conference style," the camp's goal of community building was explicit. During last year's camp, attendees organized a "speakeasy" that was open only to queer people of color.

Last year, the cost was $595 per person for five nights. The site offered nine full and five partial "camperships." Some queer women likely balk at the idea of spending this much money to roast marshmallows and attend discussions on "menstruation feelings," but for the women who attend the event, camp is like a grown-up queer prom offering a chance to mark adolescent milestones as an out queer or lesbian woman rather than as a confused, anxious teenager.

This isn't any different than the meetings that the Daughters of Bilitis set up in the 1950s. For some mid-twentieth century lesbians receiving The Ladder served as an enticement to attend the Daughter of Bilitis' meetings and public forums on lesbianism. "I gnash my teeth whenever I think of my living so far from San Francisco," subscriber.

Autostraddle readers connect at the annual A-Camp. Photo by Robin Roemer

Today, Autostraddle is comprised of more than Bernard and her friends. The site employs six full- and three part-time paid staffers. (Three other part-timers work as camp staff.) Nine subject editors are on contract for a number of posts each month and can earn more money for additional work and traffic bonuses. According to the founders, the site earned nearly $400,000 in revenue last year. 78 percent of their gross income came from reader contributions: t-shirt sales, memberships, and A-Camp tuition. The last A-Camp had a 100-person waiting list.

According to Autostraddle, editors use the proceeds to pay contributors and section editors between $25 and $100 dollars a post. Nobody could live on these checks, but the publication fees are similar to those at places like The Awl and VC-funded sites like xoJane. (It's worth noting that Say Media, xoJane's owner, has been trying to sell the site, suggesting the site's finances may forbid it from paying writers as much as other online publications.)

Some contributors and section editors say they never started writing for Autostraddle for money. "I always thought it was going to be a blog we worked on. I never thought it was going to be a business," says Stef Schwartz, the site's music editor. She met Bernard online in 2007, and now makes between 200 and 300 bucks a month writing for the site.

For Bernard, it's frustrating to see the Autostraddle do so much with so little while other publications seem to float by on clouds of cash. Early on the editors assumed they'd get funding and be able to sell ads. Other than a few early individual contributions, investors have not stepped forward to help the company grow.

It's hard to say whether this is the editors' own fault, a classic case of queer lives being devalued or ignored, or inevitable when you start a publication geared towards a small percentage of the population during the worst recession since the Great Depression. Bernard thinks that the widely held stereotype that lesbians are broke "absolutely without a doubt" is part of the reason Autostraddle struggles to sell ads. Little data exists on lesbian incomes or advertisers' support for lesbian publications, but some researchers estimate that lesbians are more likely to live in poverty than gay men or heterosexual couples. In 2011, one marketing firm found that US advertisers spent more than $300 million advertising in gay print media, but didn't differentiate between lesbian publications and those targeting gay men.

Last year, an experienced freelance ad sales person approached Autostraddle about pitching smaller companies. Finally, someone who knows what they're talking about wants to sell for us, thought co-founder Alex Vega, a graphic designer who has fallen into the role of coordinating brand and advertising partnerships. The ad sales rep reached out to trendy companies targeting millennials like Warby Parker, but they declined.

Selling ads geared towards lesbians is difficult because few ad agencies have catered to the demographics before. "We have to pitch the market, not just the campaign," says Vega. Tiny as that market may be, there's growing competition for queer women's attention. When Autostraddle started, only a few sites covered queer issues. Now general interest sites like Fusion, BuzzFeed, and Vox are publishing progressive stories about LGBT people. Figuring out how to pay writers competitively weighs heavily on Bernard and the other editors.

Our readers do not flip a page and move on.

Because Autostraddle lacks the funds to support in-depth journalism, they often rely on personal essays and news round ups. Early on, Autostraddle did report on breaking news but switched to aggregation "because we cannot keep up with these bigger companies," says Bernard. "We're more personal than we used to be. We focus on the things that make us different and community is a huge part of that."

Relying on readers for money through donations and the gatherings means Autostraddle's audience plays a unique role in shaping the site's articles. In the past readers have pushed the founding editors—most of whom are white and cisgender—to include writing by transgender women and women of color and photos of women with diverse bodies.

For several years the site published photos of pin up models. It was a queer take on calendar girls, and many of the models would have looked at home on the pages of Maxim magazine. Readers had started to complain about how conventionally sexy these models were, so the editors were proud of 2010's "Miss April"—a rugby player named Sarah Croce, who had dreadlocks and bright blue eyes.Croce was "attractive in a queer way," Jones says. Some commenters disagreed. Croce was still an athletic, slim model. "As super cute as she is, can we start seeing some women that don't fit into conventional beauty standards?" asked a commenter named Jacqueline. The editorial team shot back in the comments section.

Looking back, Jones sees the editors' response as defensive. "I think we were at [lesbian party weekend] Dinah Shore at the time, so very possibly we were also day drinking, and not having it," Jones says. The criticism felt unfair considering readers rarely attack other sites for similar reasons, but Jones has since come to understand why they were being held to a higher standard than other publications: "Our readers do not flip a page and move on," she says.

There is a reason many writers and editors working in digital media vow to never read the comments on articles. Listening closely to complaints online can be a fruitless and exhausting. Many outraged readers just want to vent and take up space. Jones knows this but she sees comments as "a blessing and a curse," a sign that Autostraddle readers "really, really believed in the site." During a particularly intense flame war the staff stopped everything to write a comment policy on the fly. "Nothing else got done that day. Nothing got published, no emails were responded to," Jones says.

This deep well of feedback has made it possible for Autostraddle to continually evolve. When the site published an article by a transgender guy, "readers were like 'why don't you have anything by trans women? This is a women's website,'" says Bernard. She was caught off-guard. "I didn't know any trans women. Which is awful. It's embarrassing." A number of trans women now contribute articles on a wide range of subjects—not just tragedy. Trans Editor Mey Rude, for instance, covers hate crimes and media representations of trans women, but has also written about comics, music, and "Going to an Outdoor Semi-Formal Event in the Fucking Snow."


Autostraddle's homepage

Admitting mistakes and making improvements hasn't placated every critic—and not all grievances are aired in the comments section. Last year, in an essay for The Baffler, writer Diana Clarke accused Autostraddle of being "Cosmo for Queer Women." Though she acknowledged the "smart, challenging writing" on the site, she complained about "a tone of cloying niceness." It is confusing to see "vapid fluff pieces" exist alongside more serious content, she wrote. In selling merchandise she also felt as though the site was "promoting queer culture through consumption."

"By announcing itself as a place for 'Girl-on-Girl,' rather than the more grown-up Woman-on-Woman, or the more inclusive (but admittedly awkward) Human-on-Human Culture, Autostraddle diminishes and infantilizes its politics," Clarke wrote.

In a lengthy reply to Clarke's essay, the editors defended the fluffier content as a way to "transcend the often self-defeating reality of our daily existence" and attract a more diverse queer audience. They questioned Clarke's motives for calling out their language and tone, and argued that selling merchandise was necessary to keep the site afloat rather than a way to "commodify radicalism."

"We never turned away transgressive or politically radical writing in favor of publishing something more SEO-friendly or 'mainstream,'" they wrote. "Instead, we've done the exact opposite."

A year later Clarke seems to regret how her article hurt the editors. While she may have judged the site too harshly, she says she'd been a long-time reader and felt "somewhat personally affronted" when Autostraddle's voice and articles had stopped feeling relevant to her life. "As a queer woman without a lot of venues to explore that identity, I found myself really not recognizing myself [in the website's articles]," she says.

It is unfair to expect a website to represent all lesbians, but it's also impossible to not desire a site for lesbians. Everyone wants a site that tells you exactly how to your hair, end your relationship, navigates your city, and handle your parents over the holidays. A site where trusted, funny writers remind you of your friends—how your lives are and how you wish they were.

Autostraddle was created by a group of women who also wanted this and who found comparatively little out there that spoke to them. Few people bother to chase after queer and lesbian women's lives, ideas, or even money. (Why else would queer and lesbian women cling to The L Word, a show that went down in narrative flames more than five years ago?) Bernard and her friends were living without representation, so in a classic example of queer self-invention, they built a messy, ambitious community for themselves.

"We're not just writers who are hired to go into an office every day and write our stories," Bernard says. "We connect with readers on and off-site, and we have camp where we meet people and have cabins and build a family in real life. We—the writers, the team—need the readers as much as they need us."

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