BY EMELINA MINERO
AfterEllen’s Managing Editor, Trish Bendix, first realized that she could get paid to write about queer culture when a journalist on an arts and entertainment reporting panel at her college shared how he got his start writing with gay magazines. It was that moment that sparked her journey into queer media with freelancing and starting her own endeavors.
In 2006, discontent with the national print media for queer women, Bendix co-founded now defunct Chill Magazine, a queer print publication focused on the female community in Chicago. In 2007, realizing that the majority of their audience was outside of Chicago and that managing a blog would make their content more accessible, she co-founded Girlfriendisahomo.com, a nationwide news and pop culture site for queer women. Frustrated with the lack of organization in a queer music festival she helped organize with her then girlfriend in 2007, they created their own, Queer Fest Midwest. In 2010, when Bendix realized that SXSW didn’t have an organized space for the queer community, she created their first queer panel. Bendix has an eye for seeing what’s missing in queer representation, and a passion for filling those voids.
Bendix infuses her passion into her work, and she has been outpouring her energy for the queer community into AfterEllen since 2008. We got to chat with Bendix about her take on queer media, its evolution in the past seven years and her upcoming novel.
In a 2007 “Feministing” interview, you talked about how you were looking for yourself reflected in the music you listen to, the films you watch, the art you view and the books you read because like everyone else, you deserve to have a presence in American culture. Seven years later, from the point of view of a consumer and creator of queer media, what changes have you noticed in queer representation?
When I started at AfterEllen, we didn’t have enough lesbian, bisexual or queer portrayals in media or pop culture to write about on the site, so we’d have one big weekly column called Best Lesbian Week Ever, and that’s where most of the tidbits would go. The rest of the site was more open to writing about women we liked or admired, many of whom have played a gay role or are fierce allies, so part of the greater community.
It’s incredible how much that has changed in seven years time. Now there is so much representation for us to comment on or cover that it’s almost impossible to do it all. AfterEllen used to post one big feature a day (an interview, a movie review, an “L Word” recap) and then a few blog posts. Now we are averaging around 12 stories a day with explicitly lesbian or bi themes.
I think what has changed is the amount of truth-telling that we as the LGBT community have done. We have demanded and pushed to be seen and heard, and we are becoming a big enough mouthpiece collectively that our stories are being told, and being told right. It used to be that lesbian characters were small roles and frequently villainous or punished in some way for their deviance — or used for titillation during sweeps week. I think the more queer women are out in the real world, the more we will see ourselves accurately represented as whole human beings in characters on the small and big screens. And with that kind of representation comes the responsibility of educating Americans who might not know a lesbian in real life. One thing I’ve learned during my time at AfterEllen is to never underestimate the power fictional characters can have on real people.
How do you believe the queer community is positioned by the media and pop culture, and how has that evolved over time?
The way we are positioned now is much better than it has been in the past. It’s constantly evolving, but I think the balance that exists now between how much positive news and information is shared about the community vs. negative is so much better. In fact, I would venture to say that the mainstream media and culture (American, specifically) has been much more pro-LGBT. (The “B” and “T” still need more improvement.)
I think a great way of comparing how much things have changed is looking at the number of out people on television daily: Rachel Maddow, Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, Robin Roberts, Sam Champion. It’s only a handful, but these people have power, the kind that we could only dream of back when Ellen first came out and had her show subsequently cancelled.
How does increased mainstream coverage of the LGBT community impact queer media, as well as your role as a queer journalist?
We’re at a really interesting time with queer media because we are no longer the only ones telling our stories. The fact that major internet outlets have their own separate LGBT sections or that “Orange is the New Black” is prominently featured on “EW” or “The Daily Beast” means that some might argue we are not as necessary in 2014 and beyond.
I think what really separates us, though (us being the LGBT media), is that we are speaking to a very specific kind of reader, one who comes to us with an understanding of queer culture and ideas. One who is hoping for an involved discussion on sexuality or facets of it as portrayed in the media or pop culture. Our recaps of a lesbian relationship on a TV show will surely be different from that on a major television site. Our recaps on AfterEllen are one of the biggest draws to readers for that very reason, and the powers that be behind television shows are aware of that.
Every year I go to the Television Critics Association conference in Los Angeles — once in the winter, once in the summer — and I feel half journalist, half lobbyist. While other reporters are there to find out scoops on castings or plot twists, I’m often asking producers, writers or network heads about LGBT visibility, pressing them on what they are doing to make it better. It’s a unique situation to be in there, but I like to think that part of my job is keeping people in tune with what we want, too, and that is fair representation.
Social media has made that kind of connection to writers, producers [and] networks so much easier, and now fans can rally and reach out on their own, but sometimes a face-to-face interaction with someone about their lack of queer characters can be fruitful.
You’re working on a book right now. What is it about and what inspired the story?
I’m working on a novel about two women that end up on a road trip across the country together based on their two different journeys back to where they came from. It’s set in 1993, which was a very scary time for women in the United States, as there were several tragic high profile murders, specifically in the Pacific Northwest where it is partly based.
Much of my inspiration came from my nostalgia for the time period, in which in real life I was a few years too young to participate in the riot grrrl/Lesbian Avengers era, and so I chose to live in it through fiction. Also there aren’t a lot of road trip stories about women, and that was exciting to me, too.
The largest theme I can call out from the book is rebuilding yourself after you feel like your life has been burned down, and how that can happen in the wake of devastation.
What has surprised you the most in the process of working on your book?
I started thinking I was going to write the book from only one woman’s perspective but ended up going back after an early draft and adding a second perspective, so the chapters alternate between the two main characters. And through that I actually found that my second character was much stronger and people that have read pieces of the book thus far actually like her better!
When can we expect your book to release?
I’m still at work on it but hoping to have it completed in the next few months. So I’d venture to say 2015.
What advice do you have for people who want to get involved in creating queer media?
Don’t read the comments. (Seriously though.) Okay but really, make yourself an expert. What I mean by that is, start writing, reporting, doing the things you want to do and prove that you are a valuable voice of the community. Make yourself knowledgeable — read, watch, learn all about our history and representation in the past — and be indispensable. But really, know that you will never, ever, ever please everyone.